Budget like a writer.
At the beginning of this month I fully committed to something I have never fully committed to before: a budget. Despite an over decade-long relationship with money stress, I have shied away from dealing with my finances. Or at least, I’ve avoided adhering to any structured way of managing my money. I can trace this back to its roots but first I want to acknowledge what prompted this shift for me. Why now, a couple of months after turning 30, did I finally feel compelled to have an honest, heart-to-wallet with myself about the numbers in my bank account? Truthfully, entering a new decade had something to do with it. I had been telling myself the story that I’d be debt-free by then—by now—and, by the time I blew out the candles on my non-existent birthday cake, I had to acknowledge that I was actually in more debt than when I’d first set that goal for myself. The second thing that prompted me to address this issue was a podcast that I listen to. I realized on a morning walk that I was downloading information that, while about money, had very little to offer me as far as how to pay off my debt and budget on a variable income. The podcast threw around terms like “angel investor” and “investment portfolio,” neither of which are particularly relevant to my negative dollars. The last thing that tipped me into deciding that now was the time to deal with my money are the coaches I keep meeting in the small town where I live—and not for the reasons you might think.
The Cost of Living Your Best Life
I moved my life to Nosara, Costa Rica last October. We can pick apart my choice to live abroad despite having money issues later, but first I need to tell you why this move has made me confront my money issues. I picked Nosara because it offers consistent surfing and is touted as being a wellness community where people go to bed at 8 p.m. Despite having given up teaching yoga and doing Thai yoga massage the year before—thanks to this exercise by Warren Buffett—I was hoping to find a community of like-minded humans who were around my age, into taking care of themselves and who were doing interesting work while living remotely. It wouldn't be fair to say that I didn’t find any of this here; I have met some great people. At the same time, I quickly became overwhelmed by the disconnect between the humans I was meeting and how they were showing up online. It seems like so many coaches and wellness practitioners here are struggling with money and are desperate to find more work. Meanwhile, their social media accounts are full of sunset shots and platitudes about “radical truth” and why we all need to “just” live our best life. Maybe I don’t do enough ayahuasca—okay, any—to understand what’s going on here but I couldn’t help but judge them for it. Which of course, was really just me judging myself. Because, while I identify more as a writer and an artist than a coach, everyone in this situation including me is operating under the same belief: money is not as important as the work we feel called to do.
I’ll be the first one to admit that my rationalizations around money make no sense at all. I was ushered into adulthood in the art world and developed the all too common belief that making art for money was what sellouts did. At the same time, I also worked as a stripper when I was travelling and even had a sugar daddy at one point. So I wouldn’t take money for an article I’d spent a whole weekend writing but I’d happily accept a $160 an hour for a lap dance—which usually involved sitting and talking to a random guy while he occasionally touched my boobs. Without rhyme or reason, sometimes making money was acceptable, while other times I would all but pay other people to let me work for them. So, while I am judging my fellow coaches here in Nosara, I am absolutely judging myself as well. Where the heck did we lose the plot? I don’t know about them but I know that I am ready to do whatever it takes to find that plot again. The idea that money and doing meaningful work are mutually exclusive has become too tiring a narrative for me to keep wrestling with. Which is why, a few days before the beginning of this month, I decided that I would look my finances in the eye and beat my motherfucking debt into its grave once and for all.
The Patriarchy is the Root of All Evil
Before I dive into the nuts and bolts of what getting on top of my money reality looks like, I want to give you a peek into the “why” behind my money issues. I think it can be helpful to know the root of our hang-ups around money as a way to forgive ourselves for being where we are financially. Also as a way to normalize conversations around money. At the same time, I stopped going to therapy at one point because I realized that my healing process was becoming a bit too tangled up in my identity. For me—which might not be the case for you—I needed to say, “Well that was shitty, now what am I going to do about it?” so I could move on with my life. That being said, I wholeheartedly blame the patriarchy for my current and very stressful relationship with money. For starters, it’s the reason I developed an eating disorder when I was 10, why it took forever for me to understand my value as a writer and why I ended up shelling out $90,000 for art school as well as all sorts of other therapies. Ten years ago when I was able to acknowledge that I had an eating disorder, I consciously decided that I needed to take all the stress associated with food out of the picture. No more restricting calories was one rule as was not caring about how much I spent on food. Anything that whispered deprivation triggered me so I would rather rack up my credit card on fresh produce and free-range meat than try to budget out my groceries for the week. While I’m pretty sure that I would be out of debt by now had I been more careful with my money, at the time, this is what I needed to do. Art school was its own form of therapy that felt pretty life-or-death at the time as well. All that to say that when I’m feeling down about my dollars—or lack thereof—I remind myself that, at one point, going into debt was the difference between getting through my day and having a very real mental breakdown.
You Need A Budget
Ten years later, I can finally think about budgeting without having a panic attack. And, if you think I’m being dramatic, I’m not. When I was 25 years old my money anxiety lead me to work so much and sleep so little that I was hospitalized and required surgery as my body had ceased to function properly. So I’m calling bullshit on any arguments about “entitled millennials” and the wholly unhelpful idea that we’re bad with our money. I paid $76,000 of my student debt off before I’d even graduated university—and then lost all my income for months following my hospital-worthy episode of burnout. I work hard and, at times, have made okay money. With debt, however, I never see that money and, thus, feel like a perpetual financial failure. Which is how I came to eventually coerce myself into creating a budget. Even though it’s the least sexy thing to do on any day of the week, creating a budget feels like something that’ll be more liberating than restrictive now. So my first step was downloading a budgeting app. Years ago, while living and working in Australia, I had come across an app called You Need A Budget (YNAB). It had a pretty interface—don’t judge; I like nice things—and some cool philosophies about “giving every dollar a job.” Despite this, I’d go in and out of using it depending on if I had money to budget or not. Now, years later, I’ve come back to it because I finally understood what the creators of the app we're talking about. I’ve even dedicated a whole section of my website to budgeting—and why I like YNAB—because that’s how much I believe that a solid financial base is an essential element to any work that we do as writers, artists, coaches, whatever. We’re not too good for it and as long as we neglect our finances, we’re never going to be able to have the impact we’re longing to have.
Running With Money
I’m sure Brené Brown has something to say about finances and shame and I’m sure she’s—pardon my pun—right on the money. When I started adding categories to my budget and plugging in numbers it brought up a lot of shame for me. For one thing, I have some very strong ideas about what I “should” spend my money on and what is frivolous. While I’m not in favour of the often delusional Law of Attraction mindset that gets thrown around in the personal development space, I do know that it’s important to be honest about what we want when it comes to our finances. When I did a deep dive into the You Need A Budget book, I fell in love with YNAB’s second rule: embrace your true expenses. The idea here is that we need to accept that there are certain things that bring us joy and no matter how irrational they may seem, it’s okay to invest in these things so long as we budget for them. In a recent call with a friend, who is also a creative and an Integral Coach™, we talked about our love of nice things. We would sooner do without something we need than buy something we hated that was more affordable. The lesson here is that our money choices don’t have to make sense for them to be valid. The YNAB book also talks about “financial sprints” where people block out periods of time where they find ways to make more money while simultaneously cutting costs—which involves anything that isn’t essential like movies, books, eating out, clothes, etc. I like this idea too as it makes money feel more like a game and not a death sentence. As a freelancer, I’m fortunate that I can do this by bumping up deadlines and taking on more side projects. Whatever your financial situation, however, everything that YNAB lays out can meet you where you’re at. They even have a community of YNABers who share their stories about getting out of debt which makes this whole money thing feel far less isolating.
Budgeting Like A Writer
Every morning I do three-pages of freehand, stream-of-consciousness writing. This is a practice I picked up from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and is something I’ve done for the better part of a decade. Most days, I probably sound petty and self-involved, if not crazy, and that’s the point. It’s just a place to download and sort through the clutter in my head. On more than one occasion—sometimes for weeks at a time—I would obsessively write about money. These writings didn’t usually lead anywhere and still, they offered some temporary peace of mind that I was somehow being honest with myself about my finances. Or, more accurately, my debt. Recently, however, I’ve become a lot more intentional with my writing about wealth. I’ve started to examine my beliefs around it as well as my beliefs around my own value as a writer and coach. I’m currently reading Bari Tessler’s book The Art of Money and exploring her approach to dealing with the more emotional side of finance—something that’s often neglected in many financial planning resources. It’s all very new to me and, for the time being, exciting. On a call with my artist/coach friend whom I mentioned before we started to toss around the idea of creating a podcast and perhaps financial coaching course specifically for creatives. While working on other things, like launching our professional practices, we realized that we were both dealing with similar hangups around how to make our money stress a thing of the past. Nothing seemed to address the whole picture; resources were either about “busting through limiting beliefs” or just plugging in numbers in a way that’s a lot easier to do when you have a consistent income. Where was the middle ground? And where were the people who would understand that budgeting for creatives is its own art form? Answer: right here. So we’re mapping that out and will let you know when it goes live.
What Do You Want Money to Do For You?
In the YNAB book, Jesse, the creator, stipulates that budgeting really isn’t about money. It’s about choosing how we want to live our lives. At the beginning of the book he asks, “What do you want money to do for you?” and something clicked for me. Before that question was able to fully land, I just wanted to not be stressed about covering my basic costs as well as paying off my debt. That’s a goal, right? After that question entered my grey matter, however, I realized that I had been thinking about my relationship with my finances all wrong. I listen to a lot of podcasts and read a lot of books about business because it’s interesting to me. Somewhere in my obsessive consumption of that topic, I’d come to believe that success is something that can be scaled. The end goal is always to work less and make more. Upon further reflection, however, I could see that this was not what I wanted money to do for me. After a few days of writing about it, I started to uncover what I actually wanted from the numbers in my bank account. I want money to allow me to pay off my debt without costing me my health. I want it to allow me to do interesting work while being able to enjoy the places I lived abroad. I don’t need to scale what I’m doing nor do I want to outsource my work. I genuinely enjoy playing with words and would just like to have some more time and space to focus on personal projects. At some point, it would be sweet to be a philanthropist as well. Here’s my point: even as a self-righteous and judgemental artist, I had gotten sucked into the capitalist belief that when it comes to money, more is more. It’s not. We can access perfectly fulfilling, financially stable lives beginning with our present financial realities, an awareness of the work we feel called to do and a budget.
Ten Day Update On My New Budget Life
It’s been just over 10 days since I got on the budget train and the biggest difference I have noticed thus far is mental space. Like I said before, I am obsessive about consuming topics that I’m interested in. After I burned through the You Need A Budget book, I downloaded some other audiobooks related to money and investing. And then I quickly returned them. Now that I’ve addressed my financial situation head on, I don’t feel compelled to keep reading about the topic beyond what is actually applicable to me. I know what I have to do and am doing it. My next thing to focus on is mapping out my first financial sprint. For the first time in years, I feel like I have space to read for fun. Space to enjoy the process of figuring out how to pay off my debt and keep living my life as a queer feminist nomad. Space to actually relax. I thought I’d need to start smoking pot to feel this good about where I am right now. Turns out, I just needed a budget and a plan to liberate myself from the soup of self-loathing I was dishing out on the daily. So that’s where I’m at. I have a little under $30,000 in debt and am going to pay it off by the end of the year. Seriously. I budgeted it out and I don’t actually have to make six-figures to make that happen. Not that I’ll complain if I do.
Also, if you’re looking for a ghostwriter for books, articles and website content, I’m absolutely taking on new clients.
Here are some current resources that I would recommend if you’re looking to get on top of your money hangups and hopes:
The YNAB app. If you use one of the links in this post, you’ll get a free month after you’re done the free 34-day trial.
The You Need A Budget book. I recommend the audiobook because then you can go for a walk and kill two birds with one stone.
The Art of Money by Bari Tessler. No audiobook for this, unfortunately. Take her grab-a-glass-of-wine-and-some-dark-chocolate-because-that-makes-budgeting-more-appealing-to-women approach with a grain of salt too. Do remember to use your favourite Bic for Her pen though.
Bad With Money podcast by Gaby Dunn. I especially like the episode Real Artists Have Day Jobs where Gaby talks to Sara Benincasa about the realities of making—or not making—money as a professional writer. Also, the episode with Roxane Gay called Tokens for Your Tokens is really good.
Real Artists Have Day Jobs by Sara Benincasa. I just downloaded this only my Kindle and will let you know how it goes. In the podcast episode above she is super funny—while also being very clear about her financial realities as a writer—so I have a good feeling about this book. (Also, yes, this goes in my book budget.)
Do you have favourite financial resources? I want to know! Also, be sure to sign up for my newsletter—there's a from at the bottom of the page—because I’ll be using it to share more money-related things on a weekly basis in ways that are short and digestible. Okay? Okay.