9 Steps to Finding out When You Can Retire From Work and be a Free Creative
As you work through this exercise, remember: much will depend upon the practices you put into place and the habits you form along the way. And how creative you are in defining what freedom means to you and what you are able to do without to have it.
You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket’ before. And that’s essentially what diversification is all about.
‘Diversification‘ is a risk management strategy, usually applied to investment portfolios. But it’s important for us to consider as individuals as well, in relation to our income.
Consider two couples. Abby and Bobby run a business, from which they bring home $132,000 a year ($50k in salaries each, plus $32k in profits).
Carrie on the other hand earns a $45k salary (working for Abby and Bobby), and $1k selling handprinted t-shirts. Carrie’s partner Derrie earns $25k at a part-time job, and together they earn $2k an year in dividends. Their total income is $66,000.
You don’t need to be a maths whizz to know that Abby and Bobby earn a lot more than Carrie and Derrie. (Twice as much, in fact).
But Carrie and Derrie have four sources of income. Abby and Bobby have only one.
If Abby and Bobby’s store closes, Carrie and Derrie will suffer, too. Their income will be reduced from $66k to $21k.
If you’ve been looking at your Financial Foundations and discovered that all or most of your income comes from a single source, then there are a range of actions you can take to make your situation more robust. Here are some ideas:
Make a list of your assets, and identify those you could easily turn into cash. Make a reasonable estimate of what you could sell these assets for quickly, if you had to, in an emergency. I’m not suggestion you actually sell these items (unless you discover some you aren’t using and would be better of transformed into cash!). It is simply good to know what safety nets you have in case you ever need them. The Net Worth Calculator on Enrichmentality may help you in preparing your list.
Consider whether you might need income protection insurance. This is especially important if you have any outstanding debts like a home or car loan, which you may be unable to make payments on if your income disappeared. Ensure that you obtain trustworthy, unbiased advice (i.e. not from someone selling insurance or who will receive a commission), and that you read the fine print carefully. Some kinds of insurance are of limited use to certain individuals, for example, they won’t pay out if you are already ahead in your mortgage payments. It is also possible that you’re already covered. You may find the post ‘Do I need insurance?‘ on Enrichmentality useful.
Think about other income options. Could you get a part-time job? Work online? Make and sell things? Start your own business?
Applying diversification elsewhere
The concept of diversification is important in other contexts as well. Consider the following questions
Do you have all of your money in the one account? If so, would it be a good idea to invest some elsewhere?
Are you considering any big purchases or upgrades? If so, would buying a smaller apartment to live in, and one as an investment, be more sensible than ‘upgrading’ your home?
And it’s not just financial situations that diversification is applicable to.
You can apply it to your creative work, as well.
For example, I wanted to pick up a musical instrument after almost two decades of not playing. My first choice was to go straight back to the violin. And I did. But then, as soon as my husband and I decided to start traveling, violin was no longer an option for me, and I lost all ability to play music.
At least, until I diversified – I picked up a fife made of lightweight, strong plastic, in the same key as a violin – perfect for traveling, and for keeping up my music-reading practice.
In engineering, this is referred to as a redundancy. The goal is to look for critical components of your life, and build in a backup or fail-safe which performs the same functions, but is distinct from the original component.
Your boss giving you a pay raise is great, but unless you’re investing the extra cash in something that will provide an additional income stream, it won’t make you any less fragile. Backing up your novel on an external drive… that you keep in next to your computer… won’t save your work if there’s a fire in your office. And buying a second drum kit won’t give you any more opportunity to practice – especially if your neighbors complain. You would have been better off getting an electronic set.
Jot down now three ways that you can improve the diversification in your life, to strengthen your economic and creative foundations.
In the first article about financial independence, we talked about your expenses, including the little things like coffee and bread, right up to utility bills. There are three reasons I decided to start with outgoing expenses:
Firstly, most of us don’t recognize how important monitoring our expenses is. We imagine our spending problems would be solved if only our income was higher. But this is rarely the case. Studies show that most people, when they receive a raise, simply start spending more money.
Secondly, our expenses are usually more immediately possible for us to change. Consider how easy it is to switch to $2 instead of $20 shampoo. Even the most die-hard hair product fan will surely agree, it’s far easier than convincing your boss to give you a raise of 10x your current salary, or to sell 10x the number of tickets for your play.
The third reason cutting expenses is important? It’s mind-blowing. I’ll save that till last.
In the second article, we considered your income. Both how much income you have, and how many streams of income you have.
Here, we’re counting anything that makes you money. Working at the school tuck shop. Selling a painting once in a while. Doing some out-of-hours consulting. Rent from your spare room. Whatever it might be.
Because when it comes to building financial independence, there are three magic numbers to start with:
Is it in the black? (Are you earning more than you’re spending?) If so, you’re in a great position to go on with the next step.
Is it in balance? (Are you spending all that you’re earning?) If so, you’ll be ready to go on with the next step once you free up a bit more cash. Look over your spending plan and consider what changes you can make.
When it comes to income, both how much income you have, and how many streams of income you have are important. But when it comes to debt, how much debt you have is far more important than how many creditors you owe money to. Here’s why – and how you can figure out which debt to pay off first. It’s a long video, but it will provide you with a comprehensive plan for kicking your debt to the ground – and potentially save you tens of thousands of dollars and years of your valuable time.
Once you’ve got a handle on how you’re going to eliminate your debt and supercharge your savings, head on over to the next step. Even if you’re not ready to take it yet, it’s good – and exciting – to know where you’re headed.
And speaking of exciting, remember that third reason for looking at expenses I hinted about? Here it is:
If you know what your annual expenses are, and you get them down as small as possible, all you have to do is save and invest 25x that amount and you can achieve financial independence. Here’s how.
‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
When it comes to building financial independence so that you can live the creative life you crave, there are three main resources I found crucial along the journey: Your Money or Your Life, Mr. Money Mustache, and Early Retirement Extreme. Of the three, the book Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin is the most accessible, and the best place to start. MMM is a kick-ass guide to financial independence with a big community, and ERE is a more academic take on the early retirement movement.
Your Money or Your Life outlines the three pillars of financial freedom:
Cache. The skill set you have which saves you money. This may include the ability to cook. To grow your own food. Perform maintenance on your car or computer. Cut your own hair. Or even, skills you can swap with others. Some of your artistic skills may fall into this category.
Cushion. Saved money to act as a safety net or an emergency fund. This may be a few months’, or even a few years’ worth of expenditure. You can rely on your cushion if you lose your job or if your investments suffer.
Capital. The money you have invested to provide an income. This may be in assets like real estate or shares.
Begin with your cache.
Make a list of the skills you have now – skills you might often
overlook even. Think of how you might swap them with people you know
for things you might need, and save money that way. Next, make a
list of the skills you’d like to have. Now brainstorm ways to pick
up these skills for free. Check your local library, YouTube
tutorials, or even free courses.
Once you’ve built up your cache,
you should find that you’ve freed up some cash. Begin by devoting
this to a cushion. Open a savings account (one that
pays a high interest rate so it also starts to give you a bit of
investment income!), and save as much as you can. Pay yourself. You
are buying your freedom, a dollar at a time. Every time you save
money by not buying something, or by doing it yourself, put the
equivalent in your account. Decided to make a 10c coffee at home
instead of spending $4.95 on one at a cafe? Transfer $4.85 to your
account. You’ll be surprised at how fast it will grow. Look for an
account with an app attached that will let you do this easily.
Once you’ve built up a cushion with a least 3 months’
expenses in it, you can start looking to invest for your future by
building some capital. How you should invest will
depend a lot on how much you have to spend, what your life stage is,
your ultimate freedom goals, and the markets and laws in your
country. Do some research and get some advice.
“Money is something an artist must master”
Jeff Goins, Real Artists Don’t Starve
Want to super-charge your savings? Your Money or Your Life is essential reading – and contains essential activities.
How much of your life are you spending?
One key activity involves questioning all your expenses. Work out how much they cost – in terms of your life. Every dollar you spend cost a certain amount of time (that is, life) to earn. That’s time you could have spent relaxing, with your family, or on your art.
What do you really earn?
Work out how much you really make per hour. That is, once you’ve taken into account all your work-related expenses and time use. Start by looking at how many hours you REALLY work. You might ‘only’ work 40 hours a week. But you might spend 10 or 20 hours commuting, getting ready for work, stressing about work-related matters, taking phone calls or emails, doing overtime, and so on.
How much are you paying to work?
Then work out how much it costs you to work. That is, how much you spend on transport. Special clothes or makeup. Childcare. Eating out more than you would if you weren’t working. Now, take that figure away from your paycheck, and divide what remains by the number of hours worked. You may find that you earn a lot less per hour than you thought.
For example, you might earn $20 an hour after tax, 40 hours a week = $800. Sounds great. A $10 coffee and cake or magazine is thus ‘only’ 30 mins work. But you might spend $15 on transport each day. $15 extra a week on personal appearance. $60 extra on work lunches.
Even these ‘modest’ amounts add up to $150 in costs per week – meaning you ‘only’ earn $650 – or $16.25 an hour. This means, that coffee cost you not 30 mins of your life, but almost 40.
Worse, if you spend 30 mins a day getting to work (and 30 back), an extra 15 mins getting ready for work above your weekend routine, and an extra 30 mins of your day worrying about work-related matters or dealing with extra work stuff like phone calls and emails (including on weekends) plus one hour of overtime per week, you’re not really spending 40 hours a week on work. It’s more like 50 hours a week. That means you’re only earning around $13 per hour.
So that coffee break costs you almost an hour of your life. You’ll have drained the cup and finished the cake before you’ve paid it off. Does it still seem as worthwhile? What could you achieve if you had an hour of uninterrupted time to write? To paint? To think?
For many of us, the situation is even more extreme. Working 60 or
70 or 80 hours a week is not uncommon. Nor is it unheard of for
well-paid professionals to actually be trading every hour of their
life for as little as $5 once all the demands on their time and money
are accounted for.
Once you know your ‘true’ hourly wage, you can consider how
much (in time) everything is costing you. Write down your
expenditure, then how many hours you had to work for it at your real
Was it worth it? Finally, consider whether it’s aligned with your purpose in life. Is this expense furthering your goals – or holding you back?
Vicki Robin’s website has an amazing tool, the Life Energy Calculator, to help you work all this out. I highly recommend playing around with it for at least a few minutes – the results may surprise (or even horrify!) you!
How much is enough?
Your Money or Your Life also has a chapter titled ‘How Much is Enough’, in which the reader is encouraged to track every cent flowing in and out. My husband and I did this solidly for a year, and at the end of every month, we added up all the categories (bills, charity, events, eating out, entertainment, groceries, health/hygiene, household items, non-work clothes, non-work transport and work expenses, were ours) and asked the following questions which Dominguez and Robin recommend:
Did I receive fulfillment, satisfaction and value in proportion to life energy spent? After subtracting all of our work-related expenses, and after dividing pay received by the actual number of hours worked, we realised that, on average, we earned $7.82 per hour. So everything we spent was converted to life energy, and then evaluated purely on that basis.
Is this expenditure of life energy in alignment with my values and life purpose? Thinking about how we spent not our money but our life energy at month’s end really helped us to evaluate which expenses we might trim. Some things, when you see how much of your time they took to earn, really aren’t worth it.
How might this expenditure change if I didn’t have to work for a living? Finally, we considered whether we might not need to fork out for certain things (like daily train tickets or suits for work) in our free life of the future, and adjusted our planned future expenditure accordingly. Taking a $15 daily train ticket out of the equation, for example, and replacing it with an occasional $8 weekend ticket, meant lowering our planned post-freedom budget by around $3,500 – which meant huge savings in terms of how much we needed to invest. Which brings me to the next step…
The rule of 25
In the previous post, I hinted at a very exciting formula: the rule of 25, otherwise known as the ‘4% rule’.
The 4% referred to is considered the ‘safe withdrawal rate’ – that is, how much money, after taxes and inflation, you should be able to withdraw each year without touching the principal invested.
Simply stated, this means that if you multiply any annual expense you have by 25, you can work out how much you would need to invest in order to cover that expense from interest alone, in perpetuity (that is, FOREVER). Just like the free coffee example.
Check it out: Say you pay $9 a month for your cell phone plan, or $108 per year.
Multiply that $108 by 25, and we get $2,700.
If you save and invest $2,700, at a 7% rate of return (the average stock market return), you’d receive $189 – which, depending on what other income you have and where you live, should be enough to pay your phone bill for the year, with enough left over to pay your tax and a safety margin for inflation.
Why is this a big deal? After all, $2,700 is a lot of money. If you’ve got it, why not just keep it in a jar or under your mattress. You could pay a $108 bill many times with that. In fact, you could pay exactly 25 years’ worth of phone bills with that.
First of all, after 25 years, your supply would be exhausted. That might not be so much of a concern if you’re currently 98 years old. But if you’re sixty-ish and nearing retirement, knowing that you’ve got your bills paid for life, not just for the next 25 years, is important. Chances are, you’ll still be around in another 25 years, and wanting to use whatever amazing new phones we have at that point in time. This point is even more important if you’re looking to retire early. If you’re 50, or 40, or 30, or even 20, I’m sure you’ll be hoping to live a lot longer than another 25 years – and I’m guessing that you don’t feel like picking up a new job at 75.
Secondly, while the stock market, and even bank accounts, are far from fail-proof (stocks or shares being significantly less safe than bank accounts), if your money is earning no interest in an inflationary environment, you are also losing money.
In short, with inflation, things get more expensive every year. If your money isn’t earning more money to combat that, you’re actually going backward.
You can find more in my series on Enrichmentality:
Especially when it comes to money and creative work.
But paint and ink and canvases cost money. And themes of money often feature in art. Many folk tales tell stories of wealth, and ‘rags to riches’ is one of the ‘seven basic plots’.
Artists themselves often dream of this story line. The starving artist gets discovered, and becomes fabulously wealthy.
What is financial independence?
“I promised that I would never ask writing to take care of me financially, but that I would always take care of it…I would always support us both, by any means necessary.”
Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
Most of us consider ourselves independent when we no longer rely on our parents. But getting a job and moving out of home doesn’t mean we’re entirely independent. At various points in our lives, we may be dependent upon our spouses or the government for income. As employees, we depend on our employers. And even if we become entrepreneurs, we’re reliant on our customers.
The same is true of an artist who relies on their creative work to live.
If the market changes and no one wants to buy your work any more, you may wind up as a ‘starving artist’. Even worse, if you become unable to write, paint, sculpt, act, or sing any longer, you may wind up not only having no creative outlet, but having no income.
Financial independence is a continuum.
At one end, is full dependence on others – your parents, the government, your credit card company.
At the other, all expenses are covered by diverse income streams. These sources of income keep bringing in money regardless of your ability to work or create.
You may inhabit different places on this continuum at different points in your life. Or, you may find a certain range more suitable for you.
Some people may always have to rely wholly or partially on others for financial income. Don’t let this discourage you. The truth is, all economic activity involves some reliance on other people.
Recognizing who we’re dependent upon, and where we are on this continuum, helps us identify where there may be weaknesses. We can then protect against them, to ensure we can continue to live, while continuing to create.
What kind of financial independence is right for me?
“You just have to figure out two points, where you are and where you want to go… Anybody can become financially independent, if you have the ability to earn, a little discipline to save, sufficient time, and reasonable intelligence”
Venita Van Caspel-Harris, in Your Money Personality.
Take a moment to position yourself on the continuum, and then, think about where you’d like to be.
You don’t have to aim for the end of the scale. Your life stage, current income, or other circumstances may make such a dream unrealistic. But there are still lessons to learn.
For example, maybe you will never be able to invest enough money to fully support your needs. But perhaps you can invest some so that at least some of your expenses melt away. Or, you could save an ‘emergency fund’. This would give you a safety net in case your primary source of income comes under threat.
In the early days of the internet, before Kickstarter and Patreon, creatives used virtual ‘tip jars’ to earn money online.
‘Buy me a coffee’ many of these buttons encouraged.
But there’s another way to keep yourself supplied with coffee – or any beverage of your choice. One which doesn’t rely on donations.
Fair warning: this module involves some maths. But it’s the fun kind of maths – the kind that shows you how you can be free of the need to work for money as much (or even, at all), and how you can have the freedom to devote more time and energy to your creative work.
To make it even easier, we’re going to use really simple numbers, but you’ll find more detail at the end.
So grab a coffee (or your choice of beverage!) and settle in!
Got your coffee?
Although you might have opted for something else here (Green tea? Apple juice? Glass of wine?) let’s use coffee as an example.
Coffee is a pretty important beverage in most cultures. It can help you feel more energised. It’s a social lubricant. Many a relationship – personal and professional – has stated with someone suggesting coffee. Coffee can even be used as a form of currency.
But today, in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee, you’ll learn how you can get free coffee for life – without setting up a tip jar of your own.
How did you get your coffee?
Depending on where you are and the circumstances you’re in, you might have had a few choices.
Maybe you spent $4 or $5 on getting a coffee made for you at Starbucks or the like.
Or, maybe you made a cup of coffee yourself. While much cheaper, it still costs money to make your own.
we’re talking about a free
The secret of free coffee for life
If you want free coffee for life, there are three steps you need to undertake.
Step 1: Reduce the cost
If you bought your coffee ready-made, obviously the first step is to start making your own.
And, if you added sugar or milk or creamer, you can save even more by reducing or eliminating these additives (as well as potentially improving your health!)
So let’s assume that you’re drinking black coffee, or if you don’t already, that you’re going to move this way, weaning yourself off the milk and sugar etc. (Naturally, you can pick whatever level of coffee frugality you’re comfortable with, but we’ll use this as an example).
Perhaps you could buy a jar of coffee for $20, $10, $4, or even $2 each of which gives you around 50 coffees. That’s a cost of 40c, 20c, 8c, or just 4c compared to $4 for the store-bought drink.
Any of these represents a massive saving, but let’s go for the second-cheapest in our example. We want to maximise our savings, while still enjoying life!
You buy a $4 jar of coffee, and make yourself a coffee.
far, you haven’t actually saved any money.
were going to spend $4 on Starbucks or whatever, but now you’ve
spent $4 on a jar of coffee.
the next time – later that day, or the next day –
of buying another $4 coffee, you have a FREE COFFEE. And this happens
over and over again.
That jar of coffee that cost you $4 will give you 49 “free” coffees and save you $196.
While these coffees aren’t truly free yet (if you divide the total cost of the jar, they work out to about 8c each) the next two steps will get us there. Stick with me!
Step 2: Invest the difference
that $196 you saved? Imagine
if you invested it.
If you buy one or two $4 coffees a day (50 per month), that’s $200 a month. Or $2,400 a year.
you start making your own instead, in a year, you
will have saved $2,352.
you invested that money in an account that pays 3%, you
would earn $32.61 on your balance by the end of the year. That’s
$32 of completely free money.
Step 3: Use your earnings to offset your costs
the following year, you could use
that $32 to buy 8 jars of coffee. For NOTHING.
in the second year, rather than purchasing 12 jars of coffee out of
your own pocket, you only have to spend $10 on two.
By the end of this second year, if you keep saving that $196 per month, you will have $4,704 in the bank ($2352 from the first year, + $2352 from the second).
this is where the magic happens.
of getting $32.61 in interest, you now get $104.15.
means that in the third year, you
will be able to get ALL of your coffees for free
– $48 = $56.15). And you will STILL have money left over. That is
The remaining $56, you can spend on anything. Like some biscuits to go with your coffee. One of my favorites, cream filled wafers, cost only 66c a packet. You could buy a pack per week and STILL have $22 of profit left over. Or splash out and have a more luxurious pack of chocolate biscuits every so often. For FREE.
perhaps you’d like to go to Starbucks FOR FREE. You could afford to
once a month just on the interest earned and not pay a dime out of
your own pocket, whilst still enjoying the same number of home made
From coffee to freedom
The best bit is, you can apply this method to anything. Want free bread for life? Swap out your $7 loaf for an 99c one, or start baking your own. Want free toothpaste? Ditch your $9 tube for a $1 one. Save the difference, invest it, and use the profits to pay your costs. Want to get there faster? Don’t just save the difference – save all the money you possibly can, and invest it wisely.
In essence, this is how you buy your financial freedom. Little by little. Start with coffee. Then move on to something like a phone bill.
For the record, the average cost of a coffee in Melbourne at time of writing was between $3.50 and $4.50, averaging around $3.98. A black coffee from Starbucks is slightly cheaper, at $3.20 AUD, but a latte or a cappuccino will cost you more. The worldwide average for a grande cup of black coffee I calculated using figures for the 18 ‘Starbucked’ countries surveyed by Hopes&Fears, is around $3.80 USD. Using their exchange rate, this comes out to around $4.88 AUD. So to make it simple, I’m calling it $4.
As for jars of coffee, I used prices from one of Australia’s biggest supermarkets, where the cheapest jar came in at $3.70 for 200g ($1.85 per 100g). But because I imagine few people will want to jump straight from bought coffee to the cheapest jar, I’ve allowed for a more expensive jar – $4 per 100g. There were two choices available at this price point. Seeing as I used the online store, which is often more expensive, it’s quite possible that you could find a better deal in person, especially if you look out for catalogue specials, or if you buy in bulk. The recommended number of servings is based on the jar label.
“Great artists know that it isn’t just about what you add, sometimes the most important work is knowing what to take away. Removing clutter, excess, all the superfluous elements – and finding out in the process what’s been in there the whole time.”
Rob Bell, Drops Like Stars
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘budget’? Or ‘frugal’? Take a moment to jot down your reaction.
Most of us cringe when we hear words like these. Like the word ‘diet’, ‘budget’ calls to mind images of Spartan deprivation. Meager portions. Drabness and boredom.
But living frugally – or living a curated life – can be freeing.
There’s a paradoxical tension between freedom and constraint when it comes to creativity. We often imagine the ideal creative process as unstructured. Open-ended. Free of limitations. But research has found creative individuals actually benefit from constraints.
In this article, we’ll explore how living frugally can give you greater financial independence as a creative. And, how it can get your creative juices flowing!
“If it’s possible to cut a word out, cut it out.”
All artists need to consider negative space. To know when to stop applying paint to the canvas. How to frame an image. How long to pause for. Which words to cut.
Successful creatives know the value of simplicity. They exemplify it in their art, and in their lives.
They have sustainable creative practices instead of working jobs they don’t enjoy, or dying of unhealthy lifestyles.
Steve Jobs, for example, not only applied his creative skills to overseeing the design of elegant products at Apple. He also reduced his wardrobe to a single basic choice for each day so he could devote his time to more important matters.
Wannabes waste time trying to emulate the perceived lifestyle of ‘success’. They spend $2,000 on an ‘instagrammable’ typewriter converted into a wireless keyboard, or $6,000 on an artistic retreat, but produce nothing. They invest more time dressing in a ‘writerly’ or ‘painterly’ way, than in honing their craft.
Constraints and inspiration
“a true creator is necessity, which is the mother of our invention”
of the most
creative works are born of constraints.
with its 5-7-5 pattern of syllables. Or other constrained writing
(the novel Ella
a great example, as is the classic
Or consider religious art, with its endless variations on the same
The art of arranging flowers according to a scalene triangle
symbolising heaven, earth, and humanity.
We need boundaries
we’re often more creative within boundaries. Where people have no
constraints, they tend to focus on what has worked well in the past.
This leads to coming up with derivative works. According to
such unrestrained freedom hinders creativity.
Consider cooking. If you live in a developed country with a moderate income, chances are, you have few constraints when it comes to deciding what to cook for dinner. Overwhelmed by choice, many of us fall back on the same tried and tested recipes, night after night.
But imagine how creative you’d have to be if you had to deal with local availability and seasonality. If you didn’t have access to a freezer, or the imports that allow us to eat seasonal fruits/vegetables year-round.
Treat your life as an experiment
Saving money allows us to work less and devote more time to our art. But sticking to a budget has the added advantage of encouraging experimentation. Cooking with new ingredients. Discovering new places by walking instead of driving. Even finding more creative hobbies, instead of passive activities like watching Netflix.
Complex prose may be a symptom of muddled or not yet fully-formed thought.
When something isn’t clear in our own minds, we struggle to communicate it to someone else.
Writers with a clear purpose can express the most complex concepts through short words and phrases. This doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, often these simple words and phrases pack the most punch. Hemingway was a master of this. Much of his work was comprehensible to a fourth grader, but few people would consider it juvenile or unsophisticated.
Clutter – of space and time – in our lives is similar. It results from us not having totally worked out what we want.
The poverty mindset
Sometimes, we’re reluctant to let go of things. Words in a novel. Characters in a screenplay. Or a broken chair or clothes that no longer fit. I blame a poverty mindset.
Those who lived through the depression were great examples of this thinking. They could be frugal, but they also hoarded useless things “just in case”. Having had so little, they clung to everything they could get.
Trying to live frugally, it’s tempting to accept almost any offer, without fully assessing whether you want or need it. You might buy anything on sale, simply because you have a coupon, or there’s a big discount. But that’s being ‘cheap’, not being ‘frugal’. If you know where you’re going in life, you can make better decisions about what you need, rather than burdening yourself with clutter.
Why less is more
Having more things costs us more to look after them. Consider, how many rooms are you paying to heat or cool, to keep clean and to maintain, that you rarely use?
And having more things does not make us enjoy them more. In fact, things can distract us from our creative goals. The second TV needs fixing. I have to clean the spare room. The lawn needs mowing. I have to take the car in for a service. The dog needs to go to the vet. We have to up our insurance. We need to find someone to look after the cat before we go away. Did I remember to cover up the barbecue?
Frugal and cheap aren’t the same
Being frugal is not about being cheap. It’s about valuing what we have.
A frugal person doesn’t buy a pair of shoes because they’re the cheapest. They buy the best pair for the best price, then take care of them. Because they value their feet, their time, the person who made them, and the earth.
We often enjoy and value what we have more when there is less of it.
Imagine living a life in which the only art on your walls is that which sparks joy. The only books on your shelf are those that reflect who you are, and that you’re excited to re-read and to lend to others. The only food in your cupboards is that which will nourish your body. The only clothes in your wardrobe are those that fit you well, are comfortable, and look good on you.
A frugal life is a well-curated life. And a well-curated life is a life of true luxury.
What about investing in our craft?
Spending on equipment, courses, outfits and meetings has a low or even zero return for most creative pursuits.
Investing more time in our craft is the only thing proven to improve our skills. This is something a curated life helps us achieve.
Curate your life
Often, the effort to hold on to everything results in us seeing and appreciating nothing.
Art galleries collect and organise the best pieces of an artist to showcase them. They don’t cram every single piece, half-finished attempt, and juvenile scribble, into a cramped space.
Look around your home through the eyes of a curator. Start with a single category. Your wardrobe, or bookshelf. Whatever you identify as a problem area. Are your clothes in alignment with your purpose in life? Or are you harbouring clothes you could sell or donate? Doing so might help you get on top of your laundry, and devote more time to your passions.
Is your bookshelf in alignment with your purpose in life? Or are you giving shelter to books that don’t match your interests and ambitions? You could cut down on the clutter in your home and reduce your cleaning, making space for library loans that will further your ambitions.
After you’ve moved through each room in this manner, consider: Is your home aligned with your purpose in life? Do you have enough space to do your creative work? Or are you paying for space you don’t need? Could you downsize your belongings – and along with them, your home, and the size of your housing debt?
If you’re stuck in a rut, why not curated your life with a financially-inspired creative challenge?
Food: Complete a $21 Challenge. Pick a new ingredient next time you shop and find some recipes.
Fashion: ‘Shop’ from your own racks at home, or put together a capsule wardrobe.
Travel: Check out what quirky free attractions are available in your hometown on TripAdvisor.
Home: Redecorate using items you already have in your home or find DIY ideas on Pinterest.
Monetary – either how much an individual work costs (e.g. a book that retails for $5 is worth less than one that costs $50). Or how much the work makes in total (e.g. a book that makes $500 vs. $5 million)
Popularity – ‘bestselling’ books or most downloaded music (free or paid) are most valuable
Critique – the most favourably reviewed works, either by the general audience, or professional critics, are most valuable
In this article, we’ll explore why none of these will tell you the value of your art – and what better measures you can use instead.
To some, money means ‘freedom’. To others, it means ‘security’.
To some people, $100 million is a lot of money. To others, $100 is.
Germans, for example, earn twice the income of Portugese citizens. This is why, even though geoblocking and region-based pricing can be unfair (such as Australians being charged more for videogames than Americans, despite earning less), as Smashwords points out, these measures can also be used to promote fairer access.
In Your Money Or Your Life, authors Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez suggest readers work out their true hourly wage and convert costs into ‘life hours’.
Let’s say Ana earns $50/hour (after all taxes and expenses). For her to consider a creative work costing $100 ‘good value’, it needs to be worth at least 2 hours of her life.
Bob earns $5/hour, for him to consider a creative work costing $100
‘good value’, it needs to be worth at least 20 hours of his life.
Or half a work week.
Either way, the artist gets $100.
from the artist’s perspective, it appears Ana and Bob valued the
work the same. We think of them as having allotted ‘100 points’
to this work. But from the
‘life hours’), the difference is enormous.
In The Courage To Be Disliked, Koga and Kishimi talk about the objective and subjective nature of measurements such as height.
say a person is 160cm tall is an objective measure. Whether we view
that as ‘short’ or ‘tall’ is dependent on the time they are
born. Where they live. How old they are. What sex, etc. But to say
whether being 160cm tall is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is subjective.
Some people tease me for being short, and it used to bother me. Now, I’m quite happy. I realize being short has many advantages. I can buy kids’ clothes when I want. And I have more leg room when traveling.
My height hasn’t changed. Nor have other people’s perceptions, the size of children’s clothes, or the width of seating rows. But I have ascribed a different value to my height.
The same is true of ascribing different values to your art.
Pricing your work at $1,000 doesn’t make it any better than if you priced it at $1, or free. It’s still the same work.
But it will make a difference to how people perceive the value of your work.
In Influence, Robert Cialdini recounts the story of an Indian jewellery store owner who had some slow-moving stock. She left a note for her staff to reduce the price by half (x1/2). But the staff member misread the note, and doubled the price (x2). To the owner’s surprise, when she returned a few days later, all the stock had sold.
Even though it was exactly the same jewellery, customers saw more value in it when it cost more.
Jewellery and painting and sculpture etc. may be more susceptible to this type of phenomenon than, say, books or films. You can see what you are getting.
books or films, customers may have their expectations raised by a
high price. Then, if
disappointed, they react angrily.
this way, the
cost of a work makes us feel certain ways about its value. Even when
it is the exact same work. Thus, price is an unreliable indicator of
Popularity is a bad measure of a work’s value
Expectations also play into a work’s popularity. When a film’s released, its results at the box office don’t indicate whether the film is good or not. It tells us whether people were excited enough by the trailer and early marketing to hand over money to see it. The same is true of book releases etc.
How a book/film does the following week may give a better indication of whether it was good enough to generate word-of-mouth. But even a lousy book or film can have continued success on the basis of early marketing. People see it is doing well at the box office or at the cash register and try it out. Even if none of their friends have recommended it.
As we have seen, the price of a work influences its popularity.
An app that is free will attract many more downloads than one that does the exact same things but costs $1.99.
Both apps have the same value in entertaining or assisting the user. But their popularity will differ, based on price alone.
Meanwhile, attaching a price to something can also make customers value it more. There is a difference between acquiring users and actually converting them.
Company A may release a free app that attracts 10,000 downloads. But only 8,000 downloaders ever actually run the app. Just 6,000 make an account. And only 3,000 ever use it even one time (to buy something, share something, whatever its purpose is). Only 500 become active, committed users.
Company B may release an app that costs $1.99. It attracts only 1,000 downloads and is far less ‘popular’ by this measure. But 990 downloaders run the app. 700 of them make an account, 600 actually use it at least one, and again, 500 become active, committed users.
The apps are equally popular in terms of active users. But one app might appear on the charts, and the other not.
is more important? The ability to attract a lot of attention, or the
ability to convert a higher percentage of users? Both have the same
end result in this example.
Because popularity is so influenced by price (an already flawed measure of value) it, too, is an unreliable indicator of value.
is a bad measure of a work’s value
Sites like Rotten Tomatoes demonstrate how widely the views of an audience and professional critics can diverge. Who is to say which is more important? The critics’ or the audiences’ opinion? Amazon reviews or literary awards?
There’s an interesting phenomenon when it comes to book and movie sequels.
Most people agree that sequels are never as good as the originals in a series.
While this seems paradoxical at first, it actually makes a lot of sense. If you didn’t enjoy the first Harry Potter book, you won’t waste money and time on the second. So the people reviewing the second book are only those who already enjoyed the first.
one’s reviews will include those who picked up the series for the
first time and didn’t like it. (It wasn’t their genre, they thought
it was over-hyped, didn’t like the style. Whatever.)
Book two’s reviews will pretty much only include those who like the
genre, are fans of the series, and like J.K. Rowling’s writing.
In other words, in a series, the first book or movie is always consumed and rated by a broader audience. Then, subsequent installations are only consumed and rated by a smaller subset who are already predisposed to enjoy the work.
The first two books in the Twilight series are rated 3.5 on Goodreads. Book three is rated 3.6, and book four, 3.7 – even though most fans agree the earlier books were better. Those who disliked book three enough to give up on reading the series simply didn’t stick around to review book four. So, the further along you get in a series, the more enthusiastic the average reviewer is, simply because the less enthused ones opt out.
Likewise, Harry Potter #1 has 4.4 stars on Goodreads, but book #7 has the highest score of the series, at 4.6. Yet while the first book has close to 6 million reviews, the final one has just 2 million at time of writing.
Are we meant to believe that sequels are better because they generally get high ratings? Or are the earlier books better because they get more engagement and a larger audience?
Another measure: the artist’s judgement
Courage to be Disliked gives
the example of a stone rolling down a mountain. If we react too much
to other people’s opinions, our work ends up like a stone
which has had
all of its unique points smoothed away. All that remains is a tiny
fraction of what we originally created. A little round ball
indistinguishable from every other smoothed away rock.
can bow too much to what will sell well. Or what we can charge a lot
for. Or what a lot of people want. Or what will get good reviews and
not upset anyone. And when we do this, we make
state, is the
freedom to be disliked.
If you’re relying on your art to feed you, you cannot be free. And
that goes for both feeding your ego through popularity and favorable
reviews, and more literally; feeding
your stomach by providing you with an income. Either way, you cannot
doesn’t mean that riches
might not be enjoyable bonuses. But a free creative does not rely on
their art to provide them with personal or monetary value.
Finding the right audience
None of the usual measures (price, popularity, or prestige) are a good indication of a work’s value. But the seeming paradox of the reception of sequels is instructive.
are rated better because they have found the right
The people with whom the work resonates.
This can be achieved in various ways. Consider the apps that do the same thing, and end up with the same number of active users.
found its right
casting the net wide. It attracted lots of people with a freebie,
then waited to see who liked it enough to stick around.
other found its right
among other tactics, choosing a price that indicates “value”
to its audience. The right
this particular app might consider 99c too “cheap” but
$2.99 too expensive.
The first of these models is the funnel or “Ascending Transaction Model” described in Daniel Preistley’s Entrepreneur Revolution.
The second is the sort of scalpel-like precision involved in Ryan Holiday’s “Growth Hacking” model.
These methods can be combined to great effect.
For example, you might give away the first book in a series (casting the net wide). Then, charge a price that communicates value for the second book. Those who have already enjoyed book one will be happy to pay for book two. And they’ll go on and recommend your work to others. Because book one is free, others will be more likely to give your work a shot. Those who find it’s not for them won’t be as angry since they haven’t wasted money on it. Those who enjoy it will buy book two, and recommend your work to others… And so, the cycle begins again.
short, putting a monetary value on our work (or choosing not to) is
just one of the tools we have as artists to help us find our right
The point of being a free creative unconstrained by the need to make money off our art to survive is to have the complete freedom to do this in accordance with our artistic goals.
We should not primarily judge our work by what others think of it. Whether that be how much they’re willing to pay for it, how many people are willing to engage with it, or what they say about it.
Nor can we expect to be able to make a living off of our creative work.
We need to feed our artistic work – not expect it feed us.
Even if we end up in a utopic future where everyone has ample leisure time, we can only fairly expect to sell as many books (or paintings or films) as we ourselves consume.
Ryan Holiday says in Growth
it is more important to have happy customers than many customers.
artists, we need to find the right audience for our work. Pricing is
one way we can communicate something about the value of our work. But
there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Nor is there a single
permanent answer. A book, for instance, might have a free promotion
to gain reviews and generate buzz, then be priced at $8.99.
It might then go on sale for $4.99
to boost sales when they’ve dropped off after the initial lift. And
when an author has a second book coming out, the first book might be
made free again to attract new readers to the new offering.
“The most important distinction between price and value is the fact that price is arbitrary and value is fundamental”
Putting a price on our work is nothing more than a tool, like a word processor or a paint brush. The price is not the value. The price you put on a work of art may affect how people see it, but it does not change its inherent value.
Your work has intrinsic value, regardless of whether it sells a million copies or one, regardless of whether the price tag is a million dollars or free, regardless of whether its average rating is five stars or one, or whether it never attracts a review at all.
The only measure that really matters is how you value your work in respect to fulfilling your goals.
Write down now what success means to you. Display it somewhere prominent. This might be scrawled on a pretty card taped to your mirror, framed next to your computer, or painted inside your guitar case.
“Real writers don’t write for recognition. They don’t do it for fame, accolades, or notoriety. They do it because they cannot not write.”
Jeff Goins, The Writer’s Manifesto
Success can mean many things. For you, it might mean achieving the validation of having your work published or broadcast or exhibited. Selling your work. Moving or affecting or influencing people in a particular way. Winning a prize. Receiving positive reviews. Making a full-time living from your creative work. Creating a body of work you are proud of.
Yet, many of these goals can be in conflict.
A photographer might win a prestigious prize. But they probably won’t also sell thousands of prints of their work at IKEA and end up on the wall of every living room on the planet.
A musician might make a very popular album. But they’ll probably also be accused of selling out from music critics.
An author might gain a sense of validation from a publishing contract. But they probably won’t earn anywhere near as high a percentage of royalties as those who decide to go it alone.
So it’s important to define your priorities.
Ask yourself these questions about success (adapted from Joanna Penn):
What is your definition of success? For the project you’re working on right now (or are about to start), and for your creative life?
How will you track and measure your success?
What do you want to do with your success? What is the point of your creative work?
Are any of your goals in conflict?
If so, which goals are healthier – for you and your work?
What freedom do you need to let go of those less healthy goals and pursue the ones that matter to you?
“This need to be heard, for validation and ultimately, love, will never go away. It’s part of what drives us… We have to learn to harness that need in a way that sustains us rather than destroys us.”
isn’t all it’s cracked up to be
“I was feeling the pressure to write my fiction faster and leaner, to publish more often, to write genre series. To make money, money, money—even though I didn’t really need more.”
There are many reasons we create that don’t make us happy. Greed. Because success is like a drug, and once you’ve found some, we’re not satisfied. For validation. Out of competition with others.
But according to K.M. Weiland, there are many happy reasons for us to create:
Because you feel compelled to explore yourself and the world around you.
Because you’re willing to be honest with whatever answers your questions may find.
Because in the act of creation, you are adding something to the world rather than just taking.
Because this is who you and what you were meant to bring to this life.
None of this is to suggest that you shouldn’t aim high. Rather, you should aim high, but in the right direction. Choose the definition(s) of success that best suit your true goals, and shoot for the stars.
“That is an artist’s mission: to go beyond one’s limits. An artist who desires very little and achieves it has failed in life.”
“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life as well.”
Many creatives harbor a secret (or not-so-secret!) fantasy of making it big. Selling a painting for six figures. Or signing that big publishing contract.
Have you ever thought
‘I need to write a bestseller, then I’ll be rich!’? Or,
‘If I reach X followers on [insert social media here], then I’ll be rolling in it!’?
We often think of money as a result of success or fame. But could it be a prerequisite? That is, might you need money to obtain success?
To answer this question, we need to consider the meaning of ‘success’.
Everyone wants to be rich and famous
‘success’ is ‘the
favourable outcome of something attempted’.
the second definition in many dictionaries relates to money. ‘The
attainment of wealth, fame etc.’
Buying your way onto the bestseller list
Consider what it takes to be a successful author. A well-written book might be at the top of most people’s lists.
Yet according to Shane Snow’s analysis, some best sellers aren’t very well written.
Theoretically, if you bought 3,000 of your own books, at say $10 each, that’s an ‘investment’ of $30,000. And boom – you’re on the WSJ bestseller list.
If you’re lucky.
that week, you could have wasted thirty grand and still not get on
That’s a lot of money. Much more than most authors have to drop on their own books. But by comparison, it would cost a minimum of $45,000 to take out an advertisement in the WSJ.
The hope is that appearing on the list results in so many sales the author can recoup their losses, and then have a real bestseller on their hands.
Snow points out though, even
if you can buy your way onto the bestseller list, it doesn’t buy
you a good book.
your writing’s convoluted, messy, and inelegant before you’re on
the list, it will still be after. And you’ll probably have
your way into the rankings might work for a first book. But it isn’t
a recipe for lasting success.
(Anti)Social media as self-promotion
same is true of social media, which is often used in anti-social ways
for self-promotion. On
many platforms, we collect
rather than making
we expect to gain not only self esteem from
“My friends don’t actually want to eat with me anymore at cafes because the time it takes for me to set up the photo I want to take, it’s probably a good 15-20 minutes… Some people will order the same thing and I’ll be like, can you order something different because it’s going to clash in the photo.’”
If you use Instagram, Twitter, or the likes, chances are, you’ve been approached by an account offering to sell you followers. But purchasing followers will not change the quality of the content you post. Very few people make money from social media, as the article Famous and Broke relates. And it’s generally not great for your self esteem either.
Focus on the primary definition of success
“we produce better work when our goals are rooted in self-fulfillment… and not in things like awards and money”
Free Creatives focus more on the primary, and less on the secondary
definition of success.
Finishing a book, and editing it until you are happy with it. That’s a favorable outcome of something attempted. A success.
Posting a photo that shares with your friends something that made you happy. That’s a favorable outcome. A success.
so obsessed with numbers – dollars or likes – that you’ll pay
money to artificially inflate your popularity in order to make more
not how truly Free Creatives define success.
Truly Free Creatives have the Financial Freedom to enjoy but not be obsessed by money. And they have developed the Strategic Practices to define their own success.