Saving Money And Still Being A Successful Creative – An Artist’s Perspective

Thursday, January 22, 2015

In popular psychology, art and money don’t mix.

In addition to my work for Insight, I also have a not-unsuccessful career as an interdisciplinary artist. Most recently, I wrote and directed a one-woman play for Brisbane’s 2015 2High Festival. In my experience, it’s genuinely difficult for anyone to simultaneously discuss finance and arts without falling into unhelpful wallowing, clichéd empowerment or silly mythology.

Depending on your participants, a conversation will inevitably shift to ‘our society doesn’t value creatives’, ‘if you try hard, you’ll be successful’ or ‘poverty/suffering makes you a better artist’ – all of which, while intermittently true, aren’t really productive attitudes. Even ‘try harder’ is too vague and universal to really be of any genuine assistance. What does ‘trying harder’ even look like?

So, generally, I steer clear. But, that intersection of arts and finances is still something that concerns a lot of people (myself included). More than ever, in fact. According to Professor Richard Florida of New York University and the University of Toronto, creatives currently account for a full third of America’s workforce – and two thirds of that country’s annual wages.

We live in an era where there are more creatives and artists running around than ever before – and more audiences engaging with their work than any time in human history. The advent of social media, greater access to specialist information, increased fluidity of communication and powerful, readily available technologies has created a world where everyone is engaging in creativity daily.

Sounds utopian? Think of the figures. In 2011, Australians purchased roughly one hundred million recordings – at a rate of roughly three recordings a minute. As of June 2014, online handmade store Etsy could boast nearly forty million active members. Nearly 100 hours of video are added to YouTube every minute – and iTunes currently has a library of over twenty-six million songs.

As such, it’s no longer practical or realistic to rely on comments like ‘our society doesn’t value creatives’ or ‘if you try hard, you’ll be successful’ (if indeed it ever was). In regards to the former, it should be obvious that our society does value creatives (albeit in a problematic way). Concerning the latter; trying hard is no guarantee whatsoever you’ll triumph in an age defined by creativity.

But, there can be no denying that working as a creative in Australia (or most other countries) is financially difficult. An Australian musician, for example, only makes an average of $7K per annum. Even including non-arts employment and working an average of forty-two hours a week, an Australian visual artist only makes $35K per annum.

(Getting anecdotal; I worked as a music journalist and freelance creative for six years – and averaged little more than $10K per annum.)

So, what’s to be done? How does one save money while still being a successful creative?

There are a couple of factors. Firstly, there are financial habits that will help anyone save money – creative or otherwise. Secondly, there are a number of money-saving tips and strategies that specifically apply to and assist anyone living the life of a creative. Finally, it’s important to have a deeper look at what constitutes being a ‘successful creative’ and how to achieve that outcome.


General Money Saving Advice

Regardless of whether you’re a creative or not, there are strategies that will always help you to save money. For example, making a budget. A budget is instrumental to any genuine attempt at saving money. It will help you identify how much money you earn, how much you need to spend and how much you can save. You might be surprised by how much money you spend in a week.

(If you’ve never had a budget before, we’ve previously put together a how-to guide to help you out.)

If you’re a freelancing creative, you may be reluctant to commit to a concrete budget – how can you stick to a budget when you’re not sure if tomorrow’s pay will have to last three weeks or three months? – but freelancing doesn’t really represent such an obstacle. You simply need to figure out what your average income has been over the past 6-12 months and use that as your base.

Remember, a budget is simply a formal way of managing your money. If you don’t have one written out, you’s still have a budget of sorts – even if you’re a freelancer. It’s just an informal budget. It’s in your head. But, if you’re regularly affording rent, food, electricity and phone costs, your income is predictable enough to make a formal budget. And, remember, a formal budget saves you money.

Once you have a budget, you can look at saving money in other ways. For example, opening a high-interest savings account and creating an automatic savings plan. Personally, I have two. I have an account that I use for short-term savings/emergencies and an account I use for long-term savings that I do not touch. Each week, my bank automatically transfers money into both.

You can also look at saving money in specific areas. Exercise, for example. We’ve previously covered how physical and psychological health can have a significant impact on your tendency to spend money. An app like Freeletics will allow you to save money on costs like gym membership and take care of your physical health to make you less likely to spend money unnecessarily.

Really, there are an overwhelming number of areas where you could explore standard money-saving strategies. Trouble with your grocery bill? You may want to try buying in bulk. Is your water bill giving you grief? Fixing a dripping tap could save you up to 200 litres a day. If in doubt, refer back to your budget. If something’s costing you a lot of money, there’s probably a way to cut back.


Money Saving Advice For Creatives

There are, however, several idiosyncratic aspects of life as a creative that allow for unique opportunities to save money. Often, it’s simply a matter of applying that idea of referring back to the budget and cutting where appropriate to some of those unique realities faced by working creatives. What does that mean?

Well, a lot of freelancing creatives won’t have tax automatically deducted from their wages – because we function as our own business rather than an employee of any specific business. So, one of the smartest strategies for saving money as a successful creative is putting a third of all of your income into a high-interest bank account.

This is purely for tax purposes. It allows you to be prepared for any payments you may be required to make when doing your tax at the end of each financial year – and, in the meanwhile, your money is earning additional interest. This is one of the peculiar advantages of living life as a creative. It’s rare to make interest on your taxes.

On the topic of tax; there are also a number of expenses that can be claimed as deductible work expenses on your income tax statement. You should always keep track of your travel expenses, for example. If you drive a lot for work, you should keep a record of your fuel expenses. If you take a lot of taxis, you should similarly keep a record of your trips. If you fly, do the same.

Always keep a receipt, and if possible, make a note of why each trip was work-related. As long as it’s a justifiable expense, it’s perfectly reasonable to claim it as a work expense. A musician friend of mine previously successfully claimed attending Big Day Out as research into his practice. It sounds like a con – but he could justify each artist he saw and what he learned from them.

You can also claim equipment as a work expense. My laptop, software and studio set-up have all been claimed as deductions on my tax statements – because they’ve all been vital to my business as an artist. When I was working as a journalist, I claimed my phone bill as a deduction – because I used it to conduct my business. Again, if you can justify it, you can likely claim it.

(At this point, it’s important to highlight a couple of things. Firstly, you should always make sure you have an arts-friendly accountant when tackling tax or any other financial realities. Secondly, never fall into the trap of thinking your creative work is not a valid business. That Big Day Out story only seems like a joke if you don’t think of a musician as a legitimate crafts/businessperson.)

A working creative can also save money by being a bit clever with their skills. A friend of mine couldn’t afford to attend his friend’s wedding in Tasmania – so he booked himself two gigs in Hobart on either side of the wedding and those gigs paid for his flights. And, he could later claim his flights as tax deductions. A journalist friend always pitches a story about wherever he travels.

(You can even use my work as an example. In 2014, I wrote an article on Buying Art On A Budget. A lot of it was based on things I’d discovered while working on marketing for a theatre work of mine and while developing an audiovisual installation for 2013’s 2High Festival. There are always ways to make money from a project in a clever way.)

In the end, it’s simply about being as creative in our finances as we are in our professions.

[Editor's note: As Matt mentioned, we'd definitely suggest consulting with an arts-friendly tax accountant if you are unsure about what is claimable or not. They may also be able to offer other ways in which you can save money or options you may not have previously considered to maximise your budget.] 


Advice On Being A Successful Creative

But, we’re not just talking about saving money as a creative, are we? We’re talking about saving money as a successful creative. And, while we’ve outlined how it is possible to save money as a creative, we’ve yet to really discuss how one goes about becoming a successful one. This is largely because it’s a very difficult and subjective topic to discuss.

To my mind, there are many different types of success as a creative – financial, artistic, personal, and so on and so forth. It is my belief that there is very little that can definitively guarantee success in any of those areas. In my time as a journalist, I interviewed approximately 1,100 different artists. Whatever you think is necessary to creative success, I’m confident I can name an exception.

For this reason, I define being a successful creative a little differently. In practical terms, I define it as being financially independent without being significantly inhibited in pursuing and practicing your craft as a creative. In lifestyle terms, I define it as living a happy and satisfying life as a creative individual. Which can be incredibly difficult to do.

(Especially if you’re trying to save money at the same time…!)

But, I believe it’s achievable. I certainly lead a happy life as a creative and am far from financially destitute (albeit not as far as I might like). If you’re looking for advice, my immediate suggestion would be to seek out Lawrence English’s (free) self-published compilation of advice A Young Person’s Guide to Hustling in Music and the Arts14.

Lawrence English is an internationally-respected sound artist and creative professional. He has sat on the Australia Council for the Arts and performed on every continent in the world (including Antarctica). His guide is an invaluable resource for anyone looking to build a long and sustainable career within the arts. It includes practical suggestions for business – and personal wisdom.

If you’re looking for my advice as a not-unsuccessful creative, my suggestion would be – forget about whatever limitations you think you have and work to find what satisfies and amuses you within what skills, equipment and opportunities currently exist for you. If you can find satisfaction within what you already have, your creative career will always be rewarding.

And, if you’re leading a successful life of happiness as a creative, you’ll have no trouble saving money as you go, I assure you. That is really how you go about saving money and still being a successful creative.