Being Happy With Your Paycheck Isn’t Just About How Big It Is

The findings suggest that while earning what you think you’re worth is important, so is having some power over when and how much you work for the money.
The findings suggest that while earning what you think you’re worth is important, so is having some power over when and how much you work for the money.


  • Independent contractors and freelancers are more likely to feel they are fairly paid than other workers

The key to pay satisfaction is a bigger salary, right? Not exactly.

A majority of workers feel they’re fairly paid, but at the top of the list are independent workers across all industries, according to a recent survey of 2,500 American workers. The findings suggest that while earning what you think you’re worth is important, so is having some power over when and how much you work for the money.

About three-quarters of independent workers, freelancers and consultants surveyed by payroll-services provider ADP earlier this year said they felt they were paid fairly, compared with 70% of part-time employees and 68% of full-time staffers. Whether freelancers are earning less or around the same amount, the time saved by being their own boss is a big part of why they’re happy, compensation and negotiating experts say.

There are trade-offs that come with being a worker-for-hire—especially for gig workers who earn low, hourly wages and lack a stable income and employer-paid health insurance. But for a lot of professional freelancers, having flexibility “means a more sustainable schedule and, for many people, a healthier lifestyle," says Alexandra Carter, director of the Mediation Clinic at Columbia Law School and author of a book on pay negotiation.

A wide range of factors have driven people into working for themselves in recent years, from pandemic-related layoffs and burnout to many workers’ desire to work remotely instead of returning to offices.In a 2022 McKinsey survey of more than 5,000 independent workers, a quarter said they’d opted to freelance for more flexibility and autonomy.

Brendan Little, a freelance consultant who helps foundations and groups train employees who work with people experiencing homelessness, poverty and other issues, used to work in full-time public policy roles for the city of Boston, earning between $90,000 and $94,000 a year.

After the pandemic, he said he wanted to spend more time with his family.

He now earns $100 to $150 an hour and works 20 to 30 hours a week between consulting and producing a documentary about people facing homelessness and addiction in Boston. His yearly income is about $40,000, less than half of what he used to make, and he has to spend time billing and networking to find new business. Still, he describes his work arrangement as “perfect."

“What’s most important to me right now is my family, doing something that I feel is useful in the world, and something that’s creative," Little said.

Many professional contractors in lucrative, in-demand fields, such as technology or marketing consulting, can have it both ways. They are able to set their own schedules, command their own fees or turn down work that doesn’t meet their pay expectations or interest them.

Bryce Chapman, a 41-year-old creative marketing consultant in the Washington, D.C., area, shifted into freelance work a few years ago. Before that, he often worked 60 to 80 hours a week as a marketing strategy executive at Communication Service for the Deaf, a consortium of companies that provide products and services to the deaf community, and later at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.

Now he earns six figures annually, yet works about 30 hours a week advising clients like his former employers on audience engagement and brand strategy, noted Chapman, who is deaf and communicated through sign language with an interpreter. Like other freelancers, he has to arrange his own health insurance and retirement savings. The benefits include working on his own schedule and with a wider range of clients.

“Time is a finite resource, and once it’s gone, it’s gone," he said.

Independent workers making low wages aren’t so happy with their pay. A 2020 survey of hundreds of gig workers analyzed by researchers at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank focused on policy around low- and middle-income workers, found those working for digital platform companies like Uber, Instacart or DoorDash often reported poor working conditions and low pay. One in five gig workers often couldn’t afford enough food to eat, the survey found.

Regardless of employment status, 83% of technology workers reported feeling fairly paid, more than people in any other field, according to the ADP survey. Workers in construction, real estate and finance also reported higher rates of pay satisfaction. Those in education and healthcare were the least happy with their pay, followed by workers in leisure, hospitality and food service.

Gabriella LaRussa, a former English teacher at a Catholic middle school in Birmingham, Ala., left education last month to become a freelance copywriter. Before she made the switch, she had to move back into her parent’s home to save on rent.

LaRussa, 29, is now finding copywritingwork by sending cold emails, marketing herself on social media and regularly updating her business’s website so that it shows up in online searches.

Though hustling for work can be stressful, she said that she is working 20 to 25 hours a week and moved this month into her own apartment.

“It’s not like I’m making millions of dollars," she said, “but I’m making a fair wage and I can support myself."

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