Some Thoughts on Finance Advice and Writing

Spare ChangeThis post is inspired by two separate things.

The first is an article about kicking your year off right that a friend of mine linked to on Facebook, which advocated a handful of things to do in the early days of 2016 that would level-up your coming year. It was a solid article – I could see why my friend linked to it – but then I hit this section where they talked about email practices and broke out a very specific example: If you open a bill, the writer advocated, then pay the bill then and there. Only touch your email once.

The second thing is a year-long subscription to Money magazine, which was a gift from my sister not long after I acquired a mortgage. I’ve now been reading the magazine for twelve straight months, and its been a very interesting experience.

Writing advice and money advice have a lot in common, in that you need to make all kinds of assumptions about the reader to be in a position to deliver either. Often, those assumptions aren’t terribly well articulated, which gives this gloss of one-size-fits-all-ism to what appears on the page.

One of the things no-one tells you, when you first start out as a writer: conventional advice about finances is utterly fucking useless to you. Primarily, because they start with a default assumption: you have a regular and predictable pay check. It may not be enough to cover your lifestyle, and you may be living from pay day to pay day, but it comes in regular as clockwork and gives you something to plan around.

It gives you a baseline to work from.

Fortunately, I have one of those at the moment. It’s still a strange experience for me, because I was thirty before my income was predictable enough to assume anything. My finances where a mishmash of thirteen-week contracts and freelancing gigs, which usually paid somewhere pretty-well and sweet fuck-all.

And I’ll be honest – I had no concept of how to deal with that.

And because I disliked that feeling, I would frequently go looking for advice, which frequently started with put together a budget and see where you can cut. The first cut was invariably stop buying your morning coffee at the cafe and save hundreds of dollars a year.

My response was always the same: first, I have to find those hundreds of dollars. The idea of actually having the cash on hand to pay a bill when it arrives still strikes me as incredibly laughable, even if I tend to pay them in advance these days.

The problem with financial advice, for writers, is this: writing income isn’t a consistent line. It’s a jagged series of hills and troughs, chunks of money coming in at unpredictable times. It’s income with no guarantee, either – you can have a couple of good months followed by nine bad ones. You can have a great year and a terrible one.

You have to work with that.

In theory, the way you get a consistent pay check as a writer or freelancer is easy – you do a bunch of work, put the income into a savings account, and dole out the baseline rate you need to survive every week just like a regular pay day.

In practice, it’s exceptionally difficult. The idea of getting ahead seems laughable, because you basically start off behind. Your income may be intermittent, but the cost of living your life is not – rent will be paid every week, your bills will come every month, and you still need to eat. You never really have an income, you have a list of upcoming debts and a list of outstanding payments you hope will arrive in time to meet them.

The biggest problem is one of psychology. Because most people are used to thinking in terms of having that baseline income, writing income feels like a windfall. A big chunk of money that arrived unexpectedly, allowing you to pay off a big debt or look down your list of expensive wants and go on a shopping spree.

When you’ve got a baseline, unexpected money is special. It’s a bonus, not a pay check.

And for many writers who are working dayjobs, that kind of thinking is fine. But when you’re freelancing, or temping, or working day jobs in intermittent bursts…

Well.

You learn very quickly that credit cards are an evil temptation that should be avoided. If you don’t learn that quickly – and I did not – that lesson comes a lot more painfully than you’d like. And, if you’re like me, you go looking for finance advice for getting out of debt, and you discover, once again, that it’s not at all applicable to the way you’re living your life.

Because personal finance advice has nothing to do with the way you are earning an income.

They’re talking about people with a pay check. You’re running a business.

The advice you need isn’t in places where people talk about personal money management – they’re in the books where people are talking about managing the finances of small businesses and start-ups. It lies in thinking long and hard about cash-flow and viability and what your time is worth. Especially the cash-flow.

Oh, gods, understanding cash-flow is vital.

I didn’t learn it willingly. It only came about ’cause one of my contract gigs dried up and I couldn’t make enough to cover the short-fall, which meant I ended up unemployed. The folks processing my job-search forms every fortnight noticed that I would occasionally end up with small-to-large chunks of money in my account that weren’t coming from them, and it was suggested that I register what I was doing as a business.

The government, strangely, seems to think that you should operate your business as a business once you do that. And so I had to do all the stuff I never new existed – balance sheets and cash-flow forecasts and lists of business assets.

It changed the way I looked at writing income.

And convinced me it was time to go find a regular job. Something part-time, so I could still write, but regular enough that the pay check would be consistent and predictable. I even hit the point where cut back on your daily coffee at the local cafe was reasonable advice for saving money, and took it.

There’s a reason writers get told not to quit their day jobs.

There’s an increasing number of writers talking about the business and finances of what we do these days, for which I say gods praise the internet, but an awful lot of it involves talking about what’s earned rather than how to manage it. For that reason, I tend to keep a file of the really useful stuff that’s out there regarding writing and finances, from both the traditional and indie side of things.

If you’re curious, I’ve included some of the stuff I’d regard as baseline reading below. If you’re aware of something useful that I might have missed, let me know in the comments.

Recommended Reading About Writing and Finances

Tobias Buckell – The Finances of Freelancing: Some Gritty System Details for the Geeky (2009)

Kristine Kathryn Rusch – Business Musings: The Freelance Scramble Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five (2015)

Theodora Goss – Writers and Money (2015)

John Scalzi – Unasked-For Advice to New Writers About Money (2008)

 

 

 

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