If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen several tweets about an evil deadline I had last week. Long story short, as part of my day job, twice a year I put together a small magazine for a niche industry non-profit group. And by “put together”, I mean I write stories, edit stories from contributors, source photos for the articles, chase advertisers, oversee the design, and get the files ready to go to press. I have a wonderful small team that I work with, but most of the cat herding falls on my shoulders.
The nature of these kinds of magazine deadlines means everything tends to come in at the last minute. And since I have a little guy now, I can’t pull all-nighters like I used to. So when I heard a super-talented designer and production artist I used to work in corporate with had turned freelancer, I jumped at the chance to bring her on board.
Talking to her over the past couple of weeks reminded me of some of the struggles I had when I started freelancing. You have to go through an adjustment period if you’re used to getting a regular deposit in the bank every two weeks. I can’t speak for her, but I know lots of people (myself included) budgeted every last bit of that twice-monthly paycheque. Maybe some of it got put aside into savings, if things were going well. But generally, you paid your bills, and the rest got spent.
That kind of mindset doesn’t work very well when you’re freelancing, or running a business.
I haven’t had a full-time, regular paycheque job in over eight years, and I’m not going to say none of those years haven’t been bumpy. I did well enough in the beginning, mostly because I was able to keep my expenses to a minimum and live cheaply. But a couple of years ago, I ran into problems. I had to pick up a part-time job for a while (which, totally worth it as I gained new skills and contacts), and also managed to rack up a couple of credit cards worth of debt. Why? Basic life things. I had to replace a paid-for car, which meant adding a monthly car payment. Our rent was going up, to the point where it made more sense to buy a house than to continue renting. Husband changed jobs and was on training wages for several months. Just when things seemed to be under control again, hey, guess what! We had a baby!
All of that is kind of beside the point. The life things were contributing factors, but they weren’t the cause. The real cause was that I had to start treating my whole life like a business – ie, all of my finances, not just the freelance (“money in”) aspect. This is what I learned:
1. Financial independence is really important for artists. It’s hard to do the things you want to do without it. Ergo, getting financially sound is going to positively affect my art.
2. Attitude is everything.
3. Don’t be afraid to mix it up – diversity is the freelancer’s version of ‘safety in numbers.’
Number one may seem kind of self-explanatory, but I think it’s also easy for people to dismiss. And I can’t really discuss it without tying it in to number two.
I’m not dumb, but I’ll be the first to admit my brain doesn’t work with numbers all that easily. I understand concepts but I’ll screw up the basic addition. (I’ve always suspected I was mildly ‘numbers dyslexic’ and the internet has confirmed that this is a real thing. Yay internet diagnosis!) So one of the first things, the most important thing, was to get into the mindset that nobody else was going to manage my money for me. I needed to make a budget, track my expenses, get rid of the debt, and make the numbers work. ME.
It’s probably been the most empowering thing I’ve ever done in my life. Even if things went to shit again, I now have a plan. I have ways of making NEW plans as needed. I have numbers that back up my assumptions. The credit card debt is almost paid off. There’s money in the emergency fund account. I have an operating budget for the first time in my life!
In practical terms, yes, there were a few things we got rid of. We cut our cable in favor of Netflix. When the hubby hit a deer and wrote off my (again newly paid-off) car, I took the cash I had on hand plus insurance and bought a used car with no loan attached. We quit eating out in favor of cooking at home. I upped my hourly rate to cover the new babysitting & daycare expenses.
But really, a year and a half in, I can’t really tell you that I made any huge sacrifices or changes. The only thing I can look back for certain and say that changed, is that I started paying attention. I started tracking where the money went. I started deciding, ahead of time, if that was the best place for it to go. That one little shift meant every money decision I made from then onwards could be assessed to see if it was working toward my goals.
If you’re curious, here are a few of the sites that have really helped me wrap my head around this personal finance thing:
I started with Gail Vaz-Oxlade’s TV shows – Princess and Til Debt Do Us Part (you can watch them online, at least in Canada – not sure about the US). As simplistic as it might sound to the money experts out there, the part where they address a huge range of real family budgets (and how to fix them) was really fascinating. The attitude adjustments (or not) on Princess were telling as well – the ones who were able to adapt were the ones who were able to get their life back under control.
More than just getting out of debt, though, I started to realize that there are a lot of people for whom financial independence is a reality. Honestly, I don’t care if it’s a pie-in-the-sky goal – once I realized what it was, I knew it was something I wanted to work towards. I don’t know if I’ll ever reach that kind of financial independence, but being a freelancer, I already have the benefit of a lot of the FI lifestyle, so any further steps along the path are only going to help future me out. I get so damn excited about this stuff, I just love to share it:
Mr. Money Mustache – in case you enjoy a few f-bombs in your financial independence reading.
Anna Newell (And Then We Saved) – well written, friendly and approachable. Start here if you’re intimidated by numbers accompanied by dollar signs.
And as for number 3, part of the charm of being a freelancer is that you get to decide what kind of work you want to do. So while I just finished a big print project, I’ve got websites and video editing to start on next. I’m putting together a display for a local tradeshow so I can hopefully get some more photo shoots booked this summer. And I have this writing thing going as a side project. I love the variety, and diversity is a great help to the bottom line. It’s the same as being an indie author with multiple books out. The more income streams you have, the more chances you have to see what sticks, see what you love doing (maybe not what you expect it to be), and see where the two can meet.
Why am I sharing this? Honestly, this isn’t the post I set out to write. I was planning to blather on about how to find out what kind of work you want to do, why you should work with people who respect your contributions, being confident about charging enough for your work, that kind of stuff. (Eh… future post, maybe.) I guess mostly I’m sharing because I read a lot of other authors’ blogs – both self- and trad-pubbed – and all of them, especially the self-published authors, emphasize that if you’re going to succeed, you have to treat it like a business. It’s true, and this is my attempt at a small contribution toward that mindset.
On my upcoming schedule this week: press checks. Gotta love the smell of ink in the morning.
P.S. – In case you needed an earworm today, here’s an awesome Annie parody video made by a bunch of freelance actors in New York: