Financial literacy can be a tricky topic for working artists and creative professionals. Unlike a 9-5 gig, freelancers and independent workers can have diverse and episodic income streams and financial situations. In fact, many creative business owners and self-employed artists use the phrase “feast or famine” when describing the amount of work they have: there’s either not enough to get by or too much to handle. No matter what age you are, you need to start developing a savings strategy and manage your budget to lessen your student loan, artist debt, or credit card bills? Personal finance expert and artist Christina Empedocles explained in Alexis Fedor’s Artists in Business Podcast that “so much is unspoken about how an art practice works.” Artists, designers, and freelance creators, in particular, need advice and guidance on how to structure and manage their finances.
Eliminate High-Interest Artist Debt
When you have regular income and are starting or growing your creative practice, the time is ripe to begin eliminating artist debt you have weighing you down. Empedocles suggests, “Get out of high-interest artist debt first and start paying off your credit card bills. For some people, student loans could be so high [that they become] a priority, but for most [artists] it’s important to get rid of high-interest debt, which doesn’t allow you much room to tackle other things.” This key impact of eliminating high-interest artist debt – the ability to take the money you save through this maneuver and use this for other necessary payments (utilities, insurance, storage, etc) will eventually make a big impact on your ability to live a life free from worry about money. General advice on how to consolidate credit card debt constructively is tackled in this helpful article at the balance, which observes that even if complete credit consolidation is impossible that, “ moving just some of it will lighten the load.”
Don’t get caught in a cycle that will repeatedly impede your progress and further deplete your resources for a long period of time into the future. Once you get rid of high-interest artist debt, don’t fall back into it. It’s better to pay off what you can on high-interest debt while balancing the rest of your artist budget reasonably so that you are not trapped back into the same cycle.
Consistently Monitor Spending
Financial expert Miata Edoga points out the importance of respecting how your income can help resolve lingering artist debt. “For an artist who is just beginning to consistently make sales, [it’s crucial] to make sure you do NOT increase your expenses/lifestyle just because more money is coming in,” Edoga says.“Instead, this is the time to focus on building a robust planned/emergency savings, paying down debt, and starting to contribute regularly to your future wealth.” By focusing on what’s important and curbing spending, you’ll be more aware of how your spending habits affect your income and better understand your spending “pain points.”
Like brushing your teeth, it’s key to make weekly budgeting a part of your regular habits. Take an hour or two to review a list of your expenses, tracking them as they arise, to move forward with classifying them in the best possible way to claim expenses for your creative business. The most important factor in making an artist budget, Empedocles notes, is awareness.
“Become hyper-aware of where your money’s going,” she notes. This is the most painstaking yet rewarding factor in money management. By gauging how much you regularly spend in every category, you’ll have a stronger awareness of your spending habits and a better grasp of how much you can really afford to spend. Edoga remarks that “Financial planning is all about the creation and maintaining of systems… systems that allow you to track your expenses and earnings on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.”
“Instead of viewing the time spent working on your finances as time that is taking you away from the work you really want to be doing – consider that by committing to a strong financial relationship, you ARE building the foundation that supports your art,” she adds. By focusing on what’s important and curbing spending, you’ll be more aware of how your spending habits affect your income and overall artist budget, and better understand your spending weak points. This process also becomes a deterrent for further spending, as a greater awareness affords you the ability to remain cautious in your spending habits as you confront the items on your artist budget you don’t truly need.
Keep and Manage a Budget
Financial planner and author Mark DiGiovanni shares that artists, who are naturally creative, should take advantage of this ability. “You can find ways to be creative with their finances, too.” A crucial aspect of monitoring your finances is to make sure that what you’re spending on is improving your chances to earn more in the future. DiGiovanni, who works with artists on financial literacy, says it’s important to know where your money should go. “The big problem for artists is the inconsistency of income,” DiGiovanni acknowledges. “It may help to devise a percentage allocation system. For example, 70% might go to living expenses, 15% to tools of your craft, and 15% for training to get better at your craft. Using a percentage system instead of dollar amounts enables the working artist to keep improving their skills, which is necessary to generate long-term consistent income.”
When considering the 15% allocation toward “training”, this could be an opportunity to approach student loan or other artist debt. If you’re still stressing out about student loan debts, take this as a sign that you can take a few months to focus on paying down more toward these loans by spending around 15% until you are ready to pursue new professional development opportunities.
If you find that you’re beating up on yourself for making poor financial decisions or not paying attention to the money that’s coming in or going out, DiGiovanni’s advice is: Stop. Get informed. “Don’t allow the excuse that because you’re an artist, you can’t or don’t have to be responsible with or be successful when it comes to money,” DiGiovanni notes. There are several examples of artists and creative professionals who have worked out effective ways to capitalize on their creative talents. By following tips outlined here – paying off high-interest artist debt, allocating income effectively, and keeping ahead of spending habits – you can feel empowered and self-assured in your financial acumen.
DiGiovanni leaves a morsel of hope for those of us who are not financial management-inclined: “Realize what money is – a tool to build what’s important to you. Treat it like you would the tools of your craft,” he says. By taking a no-nonsense approach toward building a smart and savvy financial foundation, you can continue to empower yourself with mindful choices and be aware of how your money management is effectively building your career as a working artist.
Audra Lambert is a curator, arts marketing consultant, and editor.