In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf famously wrote, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” She described the bequest of an annual income of £500 that she received from an aunt as more liberating than even the right to vote, which was won in the same year.

Woolf understood that freedom to think and to create is a function of security. She compared the years when she was stuck in her own early-20th-Century Cyclical Burnout to the period after she had gained economic stability:

“It is remarkable, remembering the bitterness of those days, what a change of temper a fixed income will bring about. No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds. Food, house and clothing are mine forever. Therefore not merely do effort and labour cease, but also hatred and bitterness.”

Inheriting money is awesome if you happen to have rich aunts. Not everyone is so lucky.

Fortunately, that’s not the only way to secure a reliable income.

There are a lot more options open to us than there were in Woolf’s day.

The problem is, most people don’t give much thought to what their personal “£500 a year” would be.

What would be enough for you to feel secure that, “Food, house and clothing are mine forever”?

The upside-down pyramid

Creatives grow up marinating in destructive societal myths:

  • The heroic ideal of the pure, capital-A Artist who shuns commerce. 
  • The pressure from all sides to pursue your passions (no matter the consequences for the rest of your life).
  • The corrosive faith that somehow the best really do rise to the top (and if you don’t rise? That’s an indictment of your worthiness).

These myths are what lead to that demoralizing sense of inevitability about our failure to thrive as creatives that we talked about on the previous page. 

The result is that we end up focusing on gaining creative engagement from a creative career, and often completely forget to address the other two pillars of sustainable business: time and money.

The outcome of that misalignment is that we fail to meet our physical and emotional needs.

And when we’re melting down because we’re broke, and working all hours to scrape by, that means we fail to meet our creative needs, too.

Lose-lose.

It’s as if we’ve flipped Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs on its head. But a pyramid has a wide, stable base for a reason.

Pyramid Flipped

If you don’t start with the bottom
of the pyramid
, you can’t
build to the top

The base of Maslow’s Hierarchy represents physical needs, safety needs. Food, clothing, shelter. Those needs absolutely must be taken care of before you’ve got any hope of reaching the peak of “self-actualization.”

Starting with your needs for time and money is how you build a strong foundation for a sustainable creative business.

Please take a minute to think about that. The stakes are so high.

Because money is not just money. We grow up learning that financial success is a signifier of worth at a fundamental level.

And we believe it.

Here's what the creatives we heard from on the previous page felt about those toxic money myths:

My work matters to me and to some of the few people I've managed to get it in front of. But income is society's biggest marker of whether you and your work matter at all. I think it’s difficult to get any respect for what you do unless it brings in—at minimum—a living wage. Otherwise, you're of no consequence, and your work is of no consequence either.

I'm not contributing to my family. I feel like it reflects on my value in the home, even though nobody else in the household feels that way.”

I have allowed my income to have a direct correlation to my confidence. And so when I'm not bringing in money, I feel like I don't know what my value is, and that affects me on many levels.

THAT is why it’s so important to take action that’s within our Circle of Control to address our needs directly.

The good news is, starting with your needs doesn’t mean giving up on your creative dreams.

Quite the contrary, in fact. When you create a stable business that provides for you, that’s when you’ll have freedom to pursue work that really does feed your passion.

How do you build that foundation?

Step one is getting concrete about your own life. What do you need to take care of yourself and your family?

Know your needs so you can design your business to provide for them

I’m going to lead you through a series of steps that will clear the fog from the Mysterious Mechanisms that connect your actions to your results, and set you on a clearly-lit path to sustainable success.

Here’s what the process looks like:

  1. Start with your needs: what’s “enough”? (Warning: It’s probably not what you think.)
  2. Establish your parameters: Time and money.
  3. Decide on your approach to solving your income gap.
  4. Use your creative toolkit to design a solution.
  5. Take action on your plan!

We’re starting with your financial needs because money is a stand-in for so many other things, as Virginia Woolf articulated for us.

Money buys you time. It buys you help, health insurance, freedom from anxiety.

You probably have many needs that are less concrete, and it’s valuable to take note of those as well, so you can use them to make other decisions down the line.

But for now, let’s focus on the money.

Step 1: What is “enough” for you?

Your “enough” number is a real number, and you need to know what it is. (I've put together a worksheet to help you through this process, which you can get a bit later on.)

This is a general ballpark number, not a detailed financial plan.

When I say "enough", I mean the amount of monthly income that will satisfy your needs fully as well as provide a cushion so you're not constantly worrying about the next bill or emergency expenses.

How much money do you need to earn in a month to feel stable and secure?

Let’s go over some guidelines. Take your time over this, and be as honest as possible. Literally no one benefits when you underplay your needs and aim low.

  • Of course, include all the ordinary expenses for your life: food, rent or mortgage, utilities, insurance, transit or gas, school fees, clothing, and so on.
  • Include expenses related to your business and craft: Studio rent, software subscriptions, equipment.
  • If you work for yourself, include taxes. Add 25-35% on top of your normal expenses.
  • Include debt payments, and paying down debt: student loans, credit card debt, personal loans or car payments…
  • Include saving for retirement.
  • Include saving for emergencies.
  • Include fun money—yes, that’s an order. If you don’t, you’ll either resent your life or you’ll spend that money anyway, and screw up your planning.

A few tips to help you determine your number:

  • If you are not solely responsible for your household’s finances, then “enough” is the portion you want or need to contribute.
  • If you’re thinking, wait, does she mean enough right now when I have a day job and I’m doing this on the side? Enough for when I quit my job? Enough for retirement? The answer is yes. Run the numbers in several scenarios.
  • As a baseline, you could look at what you normally spend in a month, and add 30%. But getting specific will be a lot more useful.
  • If you have no idea what this number is, consider this a call to action to engage with your money and bills. If you take nothing else from this article, getting a handle on your cash flow will be life-changing.

Your Enough number will change throughout your life

When you’re 25, you live with roommates, and a great meal out looks like a takeout burrito, your number might be $3500.

When you’re 45, you have a mortgage and kids, and you're passionate about the opera, your number might be $12,500. (If that sounds like a bananas number, just keep in mind it comes to just $150,000 a year—modestly middle class for a family of 4 in many metro areas.)

Whatever your number is now is perfectly OK! Low or high, there is no shame in it. Just remember to redo this exercise at least annually, so you keep track of when your number changes.

You can aim higher than Enough, but do not use your “scraping by” number

That is just Cyclical Burnout-on-a-Stick.

Enough does not mean hand to mouth or check to check.

When you undercount your needs, and then aim for that lower number, you have no margin for error. If you are hit by an unexpected medical bill—or an unexpected wedding invitation!—you’re going to be in trouble, and instantly go into “pile it on” mode, scrambling to fill the gap.

I repeat: It’s essential that you are completely honest with yourself about what you need to achieve safety and stability, which by definition includes MARGIN.

Feeling constant deprivation is a recipe for bitterness and burnout. You deserve to be able to afford basic, everyday luxuries like a date night with your partner, a cute pair of earrings for your daughter, or the fancy “salon” shampoo rather than the generic.

How does it make you feel to look at your Enough number?

Awesome? Empowered?

If that’s you, I’m thrilled for you…but you’re definitely in the minority.

Most people I talk to feel daunted and afraid.

And even guilty.

I can help with the first two feelings, daunted and afraid. I know big goals can be scary, but our next steps will move a whole bunch of new options into your Circle of Control. Stay tuned.

But the third? If you feel guilt over wanting to earn a reasonable living, it’s triggered by the starving artist myths we grow up with. That makes it very hard to eradicate.

I want you to know that you’re not alone in feeling this way. Most creatives feel this to one extent or another: The fear of being seen as a sellout, shallow, mercenary.

If you need reasons to help you fight back against that guilt and shame, hold onto this: You can’t help anyone else if you’re scrambling for survival. When you’re burnt to a crisp, you can’t be there for family, friends, colleagues.

If you want to be a better parent, partner, friend, colleague, artist…

You not only can, but you MUST, put your own oxygen mask on first.

One last thought that may bolster your resolve: Money is key to having a say in  how the world works.

For better or worse, in the real world, money amplifies your voice and allows you to have a greater impact on your community and the world. Look at who gets a hearing in national media and the halls of power. Wouldn’t we live in a much more equitable (and interesting) world if you and your fellow creatives were up there on the world stage, holding equal sway?

We desperately need artists and people who belong to marginalized groups to be heard. (Further reading on this particular topic: Rachel RogersRegina AnaejionuTara McMullinKelly Diels)

Hit the pause button.

Take a deep breath.

Phew.

OK, now that you’ve got your Enough number, you’re ready to move on to Step 2: Establish your parameters: Time and money.

But before we do that, we need to do a quick check-in.

Many years ago, an art prof of mine was teaching us about how paint pigments age differently, and warned us that he was about to ruin one of the greatest paintings in history for us, forever. He offered us a chance to leave the room.

Of course I had to know, and now I can never look at this painting the same way again. (I won’t tell you what he pointed out in case I can save you from my fate.)

I still love the painting, though, in some ways more than before. It remains sublime, and I also now see it as something painted with physical materials by a real human with flaws, and that makes it somehow more poignant to me.

The point is, there are things that you can never unsee. (And sometimes that’s OK…and sometimes not.)

I’ve already asked you to do something very difficult: look directly at your real numbers and be brutally honest.

I’m not going to lie, this is likely to get rougher before it gets smoother. And once you see what I’m going to show you next, you can’t unsee it. You won’t be able to slide back into your comfortable (if painful) Cyclical Burnout groove in the same way again.

So if you’re not ready to take this new information on and actually do something about it, I recommend that you peace out right here.

No judgment! You’re the only one who can know if you’re prepared for change.

We serve reality here.

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Still with me?

All right. Let’s do this thing.

Click Continue to read Part 3