16 Nov 2015
In his novel David Copperfield, Charles Dickens defined happiness as having an annual income of twenty pounds and annual expenses of nineteen pounds, nineteen shillings, and six pence.
That goes doubly so for anyone trying to make a living from their pen, where you risk not getting paid, not getting paid enough, uneven sales, and plain bad luck. In the back of your head can be a voice asking if you’re maximizing your sales and minimizing your income. Do you have your books in every possible format? Are your marketing materials up to date? Do you want to take the time to coordinate a bookbomb for your next novel? What about that new indie publishing platform; is it worth the time to investigate it?
Thinking about pennies and dimes can interfere with your story, characters, and prose. If you make it a habit to check your sales rank daily, you risk losing track of your creative gift that makes it all possible in the first place, and that you need to sustain your career.
This is what we’re doing, as described in the book my wife is writing.
Thrift is an important weapon in the writer’s arsenal. It’s also the weapon everyone wants to take away, including yourself. Once upon a time, starting roughly with the Depression, society valued thrift. Banks wanted you to save your money in their vaults. Credit was difficult to get; one reason why department stores offered lay-away plans for big ticket items.
Those days are long gone. We live in a credit and debt society that encourages you to spend, spend, spend. Banks offer low rates on deposits and some will even charge you fees for using their services. One especially brilliant tactic was to drop the second mortgage—in which you borrowed money that you used to pay down your mortgage—and rename it a “line of credit.” It sounds less threatening and encourages you to go into debt.
The credit mania has now grown so big that many parents, until recently, thought nothing of borrowing thousands of dollars to send their kids to college. College graduates end up clutching their degrees and five- and six-figure debt loads. Money that could have gone toward buying houses and cars have instead gone toward university educations, some in fields that do not earn enough to pay off the debt.
Three Steps to Solvency
First, recognize the murky green water you swim in, and prepare to deny yourself. If you want to live off your writing income, or keep your day job as you transition to freedom, you have to do these things:
1. Live below your income. That means undertaking no debt that you can’t pay off within a month.2. Save your money. Your writing income will go up and down, depending on the time of year, the number of books you have out, and whether you have no new product coming out. There are other events that will affect your income as well that will be beyond your knowledge. Since you can’t do anything about that, forget worrying about it and focus instead on your savings.
3. Pay off your debt. When you feel odd about doing this, remember that you’re fighting every so-called expert telling you that that’s the worst thing you can do.
Their advice runs like this: If you pay off your mortgage that charges you 6%, you’re locking in money that you could invest elsewhere at 8% and reap the different. It’s neat advice and looks good on paper, but it doesn’t take into account human nature. Unless you’re really, really disciplined, you’re not going to invest that money into a high-yield return. Instead, you’ll convince yourself that you really, really, need that 60-inch television set, or that new computer (it’ll help me with my writing!), or that cruise. (It’s also doubtful that in this decade, you’re going to find any investment with a high-return as well.)
But if you do pay off your home mortgage, you not only lower your monthly nut—defined as the monthly bills that you have to pay, plus food costs—but you have the security of knowing that the bank cannot foreclose on your house. So long as you pay the taxes and insurance, you’re fine. You can’t appreciate how much of a good feeling that is unless you experience it for yourself.
There are other ways to save money as well:
* Buy books second-hand or get them for free from your library.
* Cut down on processed food and eat at home.
* Grocery shop using coupons, but use only the ones for products that you would have bought anyway.
* Buy your clothes at thrift shops. This will also teach you what a rich culture we live in. For example, this is what I’ve found at thrift stores: an authentic Dallas Cowboy’s jacket, three new Geoffrey Beene shirts, and Land’s End flannel shirts. We buy new sneakers, underwear, and socks, but that’s it.
* If a rebate exists for office supplies, take advantage of it. My local office supply store chain will give you a rebate once or twice a year for paper. It’s a pain to submit the form and wait months for your money back, but it’s a substantial discount.
Don’t Think That You’re Poor
By this time, you’re probably shaking your head and saying something like, “Yeah, this is good advice, but—”
Stop right there. Let me add one more suggestion and see what you think.
I’m not saying you should say no to every purchase you want to make, just like I wouldn’t suggest denying yourself all that rich, good, sweet food and desserts if you want to lose weight. That won’t work.
First, because you’ll resent the restrictions, which will make you more likely to give in to the temptation. Second, because unless you’re so poor that you truly don’t have any money—when you’re wallet is so empty that little cartoon flies drift out every time you open it—you’re going to have money to spend. So spend it.
But with one caveat: Spend it only on things you truly want and appreciate.
If we don’t consider every expenditure, we tend to shop blindly. Buy a book, maybe go over to the bargain table and pick up something else that looked interesting. Stop off at the coffee shop for a sweet drink every working day. Open the newspaper, see an ad for collectible cars, and even though you never considered buying that before, decide to pick up the phone.
No, what I’m saying is to consider what you’re really into, a hobby, a pleasure, something that you want to investigate and explore, and spend the money on getting that instead.
If you like to relax in your workshop, building bookcases, consider buying a cool tool that you will use, or high-quality wood to make something really nice. I did that years ago, buying oak boards and stain and making a DVD case that sits on top of the entertainment center. I’ve built things that are more functional than beautiful, but I can still look at that today and feel good about making that.
The thing you shouldn’t do is get something that you bought on the spur of the moment that will end up gathering dust. That could be anything: exercise equipment, specialized kitchen tools, books that you plan on saving for later (which never comes), junk gifts, online “subscriptions” that automatically dip into your credit card every year.
If you occasionally spend your savings on things that are really useful, that provide you pleasure, that help you improve your skills, you not only feel good about not wasting your money, but your quality of life will improve as well.
If you can change the way you look at money, you’ll have built a support system that will have your back through the down times until your next book comes out.