Author FAQ: Money matters for writers

A few months ago, I did a blog post/ranty-thing tackling the notion that you have to be a starving artist in order to truly be creative. (Spoiler: That’s a load of crap.) Nobody likes starving. If you have the means to avoid it, and most readers here presumably do, I think you have the obligation to, you know, not starve.

As something of a corollary to that, I’m often asked when I’m going to “make the leap” or “cash out” or whatever euphemism is used for leaving my day-job to write fiction full time. While many writers dream of such a thing, this is not a realistic goal for me. I work in the financial services industry, in marketing and communications, and frankly…they pay me quite well. Barring a sudden ascension in sales to the George R.R. Martin level, it ain’t happening.

And it really wasn’t my goal, anyway. In addition to the pay, I get benefits: really good medical/dental/vision insurance for my whole family, retirement savings, and the ability to save for my daughter’s college education. And here’s the kicker…I actually really like my job. I work with great people on projects that are interesting and challenging.

But I get it, that urge to walk away and just write full time. There are days, man, let me tell you, when I’m right there with you. And given that my wife is a freelance writer and aspiring novelist, I have some experience with balancing the desire to leave the office with the realities of cold, hard cash. So I’m expanding the Author FAQ here on the site to incorporate some money matters.

(Note that these opinions are solely my own, and I am not a financial advisor or planner. I’m just a guy who’s seen some stuff and throwing out ideas. If you have questions, talk to someone, you know, qualified.) 

How much should I have in the bank before I go full-time? How much income should I be making each month?

Here’s a handy list of what my household pays for each month: Mortgage (which includes property taxes and homeowners insurance), electric/gas, water, cable/Internet, cell phones (for 3), car loan, car insurance, gasoline, credit cards and groceries. Those are just the things we can reasonably expect, and they don’t include things like clothes or maintenance or health care. You probably have a similar list, maybe with rent instead of mortgage, maybe with some student loan payments, whatever.

You gotta pay for all that. Every month. Like clockwork.

Now, if you have a (really wonderful and understanding) spouse/partner with a steady job, then you can likely weather the vagaries of a writer’s intermittent and unpredictable income. If you don’t, then you really need to seriously save your money before you make the leap — I’m talking at least six months of payments for all of the above, preferably a year. Ideally, of course, you’re making the full-time leap with a book deal (or two) already in hand, so you can at least count on advance payments.

(Do NOT count on royalties. You don’t know how well you’re going to sell, so don’t count on a royalty check to save your bacon when times are lean. Put the check in the bank, THEN plan on how to use the money going forward.)

Most of the really successful writers I know have multiple streams of income going on, only some of which have to do with fiction. They’re teaching writing classes, or doing script work, or video game development, or comics…you get the idea. Some are still doing corporate work or journalism on a freelance basis. They’re hustling, and that’s a really good thing. The muse isn’t gonna play ball all the time, so finding other ways to capitalize on your talents is important.

And yes, some folks take on some hourly part-time work, too. I can think of a half-dozen writerly folk doing shift work in bookstores, for example. Even if the gig is only tangentially related to writing, it’s better than having the electric turned off for lack of payment.

Finally, if you’re a novelist, your money tends to come in (hopefully) large chunks a handful of times each year. Advance payments on signing, on submitting the draft, on publication. Royalties every three to six months for each book. That’s about it. So you need to sit on that money and plan ahead. Especially if you’re on a budget, you really gotta avoid the urge to splurge once a check comes in. Buy yourself a nice beer and leave it at that.

Oh, and remember you gotta pay taxes on all that.

If you have other questions, on money or other authorly matters, feel free to throw them in the comments here and I’ll tackle them in future posts. Coming up next: Money management tips. Exciting!

#SFWApro

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