Photo: Natalie Brasington
Do you want to negotiate your salary? Here’s an excellent tip: actually negotiate your salary, even when people say they can’t.
Commencement speeches are usually full of tales of “Don’t Give Up” ambition and “Achieve Your Dreams” aspiration. But in her Friday address to University of Minnesota graduates, comedian Maria Bamford used her own life to talk about “the elephant in the room…money.”
As a “crass, money-grubbing comedian from Duluth,” Bamford said the best way to combine her passion for “full disclosure” and a love of money was to discuss how she negotiated her commencement fee from her alma mater.
The rarity of a public salary negotiation lesson can be seen from a university official’s expression when he heard what Bamford was about to discuss. This is a man who is bracing himself!
Know your worth
Although the school thought she would be the “perfect” speaker, the university initially said they could not make any payment to the comedian who is also behind the Netflix series, Lady Dynamite.
“Normally, the college does not pay for commencement speakers. As you can imagine being a state-funded institution, we have to be careful regarding the use of our resources,” officials told Bamford, according to her account.
Like any good negotiator, she did not accept this first offer lying down.
Using the university’s own reasoning, Bamford offered a counter point: “But I am a self-funded institution who needs to be careful regarding use of my resources.”
“Was my alma mater lowballing me? I’m not a sitting governor. The football coach isn’t living check to check,” Bamford said. “Was the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts suggesting that I couldn’t get paid for the exact job that I paid them to teach me how to get paid to do?” With these wry questions, Bamford is criticizing a higher education system that wants to empower students to know their worth without putting it into practice.
Never say ‘no’ without a number
Bamford said she consulted her business adviser, who told her the best advice Bamford said any liberal arts student needs to know: “never say no without a number.”
With that advice in mind, Bamford counter-offered the school’s offer of zero dollars with her own proposal: $20,000.
After a “waiting game,” the school said it could do $10,000.
After accounting for the difference between gross and net—”gross is a disgusting amount of money you will never receive, net is the little bag you get to take home,” Bamford notes—her speaking fee came out to $5,000.
This is actually a bargain compared to other celebrity speakers’ commencement fees. Actress Octavia Spencer cost Kent State $100,000 this year and the University of Houston paid Matthew McConaughey $166,000 to speak in 2015. These high speaking fees have sparked debates about whether the cost is worth it to colleges.
Do the work
After revealing the back-door deals and money that funds dreams, Bamford also discussed other career roadblocks: being fired and leaving jobs in tears. As a person diagnosed with Type-II Bipolar disorder, she also advised people who struggled with mental health as she did to “stay alive, even for spite.”
Bamford concluded her speech by returning to the topic of money. “To receive an invoice is to know that you’re alive,” Bamford said about student loan debt. Bamford decided to ease that burden for one theater major by calling a graduating student in debt on stage and giving her check of $5,000 to her.
For a comedian whose mantra is “do the work,” Bamford, like all good students of life, knows how to put theory into practice. By candidly discussing her life’s negotiations, she showed us all to never forget that we’re worth top dollar.