Saturday Sayings

Saturday Sayings: Thomas Paine and Charging What We’re Worth

That which we obtain too cheap we esteem too lightly.  — Thomas Paine

Ok, I know Thomas Paine was talking about freedom, not figure skating dresses. But bear with me here.

One of the hardest things I encountered when starting my business was evolving beyond the strange guilt I felt over charging a fair price for my outfits. For years I only charged for materials, but I gave up that practice when I had to pay for a hotel room, schlep my four tiny kids several hours to a meet I wasn’t originally planning to attend, and stay up 48 hours straight just to tailor and fit dresses for people who were “too busy” to come to me in the weeks leading up to the meet. In the beginning it was very difficult to justify charging people for my time and work (it sounds weird now, but it’s really not that uncommon), so I spent more time apologizing for my insane $45 bill than I ever should have. I figured out that even when I didn’t have to draft a new pattern, when everything worked perfectly, and nothing had to be redone or refitted, I was still working for about 1/6 minimum hourly wage. I don’t even want to think about the very lavish outfits that took more than twenty-five hours to design/cut/sew/fit/stone…and for which I also charged $45. That was completely unacceptable, and dare I say it, stupid.

The final straw came when I accidentally discovered one of my dresses in an eBay auction.  The seller’s reserve was, no joke, more than ten times what she’d paid for the dress when it was brand new.  I was so angry that I didn’t even check the final bid amount, but it didn’t matter — the fact that someone else not-so-happily paid my stupidly low price and then turned around and sold the item for its true value, of which she was obviously aware all along, was a huge wake up call.  For someone who can’t stand feeling stupid (me), nothing could have been more of a slap in the face.

I know I still don’t charge what I should, but I’m increasing my prices slowly.  I made a conscious and huge mental shift from “this didn’t require my college degrees, so why should I charge a lot for it?” to “if you don’t want to pay my prices, that’s ok — others do.”


The only one who gets free outfits these days...
The only one who gets free outfits these days…

And guess what?  I’ve sold more than ever.  Sure, some people still experience sticker shock…until they have a bad experience purchasing super cheap outfits on eBay and realize that you truly do get what you pay for, or until they try to explain what they want to an otherwise excellent though cheap seamstress who may be great with linen but who can’t begin to wrap his/her mind around the weirdness of Lycra and four yards of elastic (and the weirdness of skating people, I might add).

I also found that when I sold outfits for the price of the materials only, I ended up redoing them over and over because people were never satisfied and they expected an unending chain of extensive tailoring and design changes. Now that I charge (almost) what they’re worth, people don’t complain and most expect to pay for after-the-fact alterations and adjustments.

I used to resent it when, on rare occasions, people were not completely satisfied with their finished product.  Rather than focusing energy on trying to make them happy, my energy was instead funneled into a strange cycle of anger and frustration over the knowledge that every other industry professional in this state would have charged six or more times my price, and I daresay quite a few would have turned out something worth half the measly amount I was charging.

I  also realized that my work was beginning to mirror its pricetag, and that was just plain wrong.  Occasionally I’d stop sewing to discover I was getting sloppy, and my designs were tired re-runs of stuff I’d made years earlier that I knew was no longer in circulation.  Rather than increase prices to match my abilities, I had decreased the value of my products to match their pricetag.  So charging what items are worth (or at least attempting to do so) actually has a psychological effect on the manufacturer, too — willingness to increase the level of workmanship is much easier to come by when you’re actually making money rather than losing money in the process (i.e., the hotel story above).

But I think the best part about charging for my services is that I no longer feel so guilty about quitting my “regular” job so that I can sew during normal business hours rather than hours kept only by vampires and one of our house cats. I used to feel like a schmuck for wanting something for which I was earning less than $1/hour to actually turn out beautiful and perfect.  I may still be earning less than minimum wage for these creations, but at least there is now some degree of justifiability for my anal retentiveness.

This is still a work in progress, of course.  I still feel a little sheepish as each invoice prints, but it doesn’t last as long anymore.  I still want everything to be perfect, but I am willing to make outfits to fit the budget rather than my vision.  Sure, I still throw on too many extra stones and I still don’t charge enough.  But I’m getting better.

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