The Price You Pay For Being A Freelancer In India

24 March 2014

I spend most of my adult life thinking about money. Not sex, not love, not food: money. What was charming and “artistic” in my twenties, being broke, hoarding pre-paid phone cards by giving people a missed call and making them call you back, asking richer friends to buy you drinks, is embarrassing in your thirties. I thought I had forgotten penury, being employed for the past two and half years, but poverty with all its implications was just lurking under the surface.

Image via Google/Urban Outfitters
Most of this is because a company I worked with until very recently has defaulted on most of their bills, and owes me about three months back pay. This was the money I was going to use for the next three months to write my book, this was the money I was going to use for rent.  The freelance writing I do every now and then were to serve as Cake Icing, money for the little luxuries I otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford. Now that there’s no word on this money—and not for lack of trying—I am stuck trying to make ends meet with freelance work, which, as everyone who has tried this knows, takes about two or three months until you can break even.

I am living in what they call “genteel poverty”, one of the things, an article speculates that made designer L’Wren Scott kill herself last week. Genteel Poverty is rich, middle class poverty, the kind of poverty where you live in an expensive neighbourhood but can’t eat out, the kind of poverty where you put the AC on in your car but your internet gets shut off because you can’t pay the bill. More? It’s when you hear of the new restaurants from your friends and peers and can’t try them, it’s when the bottle of wine you take to a random dinner party is such a carefully calculated decision (“if I buy this bottle of Sula, even though it tastes like piss, I can afford a taxi home”) that you almost feel like picking up the half drunk bottle and taking it home with you when it’s still sitting there at the end of the night. We forget, sometimes, our privileges, how money smoothens over everything, how money makes most discussions not worth having, how money is the great liberator. Organic food? Nope, too expensive. Independent woman taking taxi home instead of depending on someone else? Nope, too expensive. Money makes it possible to make well thought out informed decisions.

Luckily, as an Indian, I am never too far away from a hand out from my parents. But, as someone who has been rowing their own boat for close to 10 years now, it’s embarrassing; it’s stupid, I can’t keep asking them for money, even though they offer it freely out of love. Genteel Poverty is too much pride, even though the option is there, which is what sets it apart from regular poverty.

In a nutshell: I am not poor, dear reader, but I am broke.

In many ways, I am better off than friends who find themselves in a similar situation. And this is because of one off-the-cuff decision I made in my first flush of riches: I would never have a credit card. Luckily for me, over the years, credit card companies don’t take well to freelance writers with no fixed income, and so even though I answered yes to the cold calls, I never got a follow up. I live on my debit card, and so, I am never in debt. My car was paid for in another flush of richness, paid for in full.

What does this sort of poverty mean? Well, for one, it means the luxury of being able to stretch out creatively has sort of left me. From the moment I wake up, I’m thinking about money, specifically the money owed me. I get excited and then heartbroken each time my text message alert goes off and it’s not from my bank. I’ve sent enough emails to qualify as a stalker, ranging from friendly to stern to desperate. This is not the first time I’ve had to beg, like literally beg for my salary, and I suspect it won’t be the last. You get a job that lets you work from home, and enjoy a certain amount of freedom, and in all likelihood, you’ll get screwed with the money.

I am broke. I could’ve not been broke had I chosen an office life. I swapped financial security for being able to work in my pajamas, and I swapped the luxury of money for the luxury of being able to get up whenever I liked.

Take the job. Or live an exciting life.

24 confessing back:

  1. Banks don't know how to deal with VERY broke freelancers either. Have had to explain to HDFC in two languages that I cannot keep an average monthly balance in my account.

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  2. In such things I feel it's best to remember that it's often pride that comes before a fall... Hope you get paid soon and things start perking up.

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  3. I too have been a freelancer for a long time now and agree with what you say. Dealing with people who take work from you and postpone the payment eternally can be extremely frustrating( and they do not say 'NO' to you, they just cook up the excuses).

    I have been at the receiving end, but when I sense that they are cheating I act really tough and try to get as much out of them as possible.

    Try that, may be it could work for you as well

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  4. in same condition as you, on top of all these i m married

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  5. worrying about money sounds exciting!

    more seriously, you *can* have money and a job you like, it's not impossible you know...

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  6. why the picture of a cute white girl?

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  7. This is terrible. :-( I'm sorry to hear that your workplace didn't think it fit to commit to a broad timeframe within which to pay you, let alone give you an exact date. This is just the sort of unprofessionalism that knocks ambitious, audacious creative projects down- and take down also the people behind these projects- so what if they work in their pj's. Hope this resolves for you quickly. Push comes to shove, you always have the 'name and shame' option.

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  8. send one legal notice...or subtlely indicate that you have legal representation...so, if you have a lawyer friend, ask him or her to write to the company saying, in stern legalese, that money is owed and consequences are imminent. I have tried it. usually there is response. of course, try to get a pal to do it pro bono...

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  9. What do you think of how TV shows like SATC and Girls portray genteel/freelance property?

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  10. Sending this to a guy who is freelancing shamelessly in Europe, not because he lacks talent, but because capitalizing on his rich Indian dad's guilt is easier.

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  11. Maybe you're broke because of your narrow-minded, outdated outlook about an 'office job'. Most people who work in an 'office' work from home, in their pyjamas. They get to travel to new places on the company dime. They get to save up money, and have the company pay their health bills while hitting on that great new idea for a new book, or a new script, or a new play. It's called a 'day job'. But since you're so set in your ways, maybe that's why you're...broke? Or is it just because you spent your teens and twenties laughing at the types who studied hard and couldn't get laid, and had such 'boring' subjects as commerce, while you, you knew it all - you saw life with the artistic beauty that the dullards who only looked at stock options could never see?

    Or maybe those people were onto something?

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    Replies
    1. Although I wouldn't exactly put it like this, I feel the same. And I won't let anyone tell me my life is not exciting because I have a regular job and income.

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  12. Is that BPB that didn't pay you? You should take off the posts in which you plugged their coup card. It never seemed like a great idea anyway. Though sometimes startups tend to sink a little before they can start making some cash. Hope for the best for them!

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  13. Hah, no, not BPB, they don't owe me any money anymore. :)

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  14. Btw, anon 1, I HAD a "real" job, or so I thought. I signed a contract. I worked every day and put in a certain amount of stories a week. I'm still broke.

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  15. I know what you mean when you say "genteel poverty". I'm not earning am a stay-home mommy and I feel the pinch. Hubby's salary is stagnant, growth prospects dismal and cost of living on a genteel upswing. Not holidaying, not flying, not eating out as much as we used to...

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  16. Anon1 here. I don't get it, you worked for 2 and a half years, but don't have money now for three months? Either the pay must suck or you can't manage your money.

    Still, you worked for 2 and a half years, this is just temporary, no? I mean, for those years, you weren't asking parents for money, yes? So what is the shame in asking now? It's not like you had some multi million dollar deal and pissed it away in booze and sex and drugs.

    Also, you're a writer. Maybe - i don't know how to say this nicely - it might be worth using those skills in a more, umm, mundane fashion. You can use the rest of the time to work on your writing. It will be a lot of hard work, but, not impossible.

    If still the writing doesn't lead you to be the next Naipaul (or whoever your heroes are) then maybe take the hint, and figure out how to use your abilities. They are considerable, but for various reasons, you may not "make it", but they *are considerable*. Use it. Not everyone is destined for greatness through writing a great novel - there's many paths to being happy with your life.

    Sorry if I sound a bit harsh, but I think you're viewing things a little too pessimistically.

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  17. You can try 'crowd sourcing' for your new book. That is perhaps one way of going about your creative pursuits. People are supportive on twitter etc. Just work out how much you'd need ( in terms of time and money) - a reasonable amount and then ask people to support. Lot of us read your blog and your books, and am sure you will find adequate support till you get your payment from the defaulting company. In doing this, you might also attract a lot of freelance work too.

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  18. I'm sorry to hear of the trouble you are having getting paid. Have you considered trying to make money from this blog or other online ventures that you have more control over vs writing for other people? A lot of bloggers make a lot of money in the US and blogging doesn't seem to have taken off in India the same way yet (I could be wrong about this).

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  19. You have expressed this 'genteel poverty' so beautifully well!!

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