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How to sort out your personal finances in 5 stupidly simple steps

Keeping track of your personal finances can be confusing and painful, so let’s try to layout a path that’s easy to follow

The problem with money is that it’s everywhere. It is in your fridge. Your shoes. Your education. The very screen you are reading this on. It is zapping from your smartphone in myriad micro transactions. Amid this endless swirl of decimal points, it’s really easy to lose yourself in the details and miss the bigger picture.

You know the drill: we think nothing of buying lunch at work or university, but don’t start a pension. We stress daily about our fluctuating incomes, but do not set aside cash when it does come in.

We might even spend some time beating ourselves up about this. But none of this is your fault. You are not bad with money. Rather, as a quirk of evolution, the human brain is just not wired to deal with this stuff.

“Everyone has their own priorities in life, but there are some principles that apply no matter who we are”

Our brains are capable of a lot, but at our deepest level of mental programming, we think we are still hunter gatherers. As creative freelancers in 2020, that means we mostly hunt for work and gather sandwiches. We are trained to acquire and quickly consume the things we need because, historically, the things we need have been perishable.

However, the perishable items we need are now easy to acquire. We do not need to down a mammoth before we can make dinner. Money is not something we can directly physically consume and it is usually intangible, meaning our brain’s default position is to file these things away in our bulging ‘stuff to deal with later’ folder.

Map it out

In order to tread a better path for the longer term, it helps to use a map. Everyone has their own priorities in life, of course, so these maps will vary for us all, particularly as creative workers, but some principles apply no matter who we are. These are what I call (in annoying-but-catchy blog parlance) the five stupidly simple steps to financial freedom.

These steps are…

  1. Spend less than you earn
  2. Save the difference
  3. Pay-off debt
  4. Build an emergency fund
  5. Invest to support your goals in life

They are simple ideas, but they have huge pay-offs. Making ourselves conscious of these steps, periodically checking the map and taking some action to progress along the route, stops us from getting lost, or worse, into debt cycles or nasty financial outcomes.

Below, I’ve broken down each step and listed some of the resources you can work through that might help you with each stage.

Take it a step at a time. Bookmark this page and return to as and when you can. I don’t expect anyone to digest it all and fix their problems overnight, so don’t expect that of yourself, either!

Nor is this an exhaustive list (yet!), this page will act as a bit of a hub and I will update it as I get more relevant material on the site.

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What if I don’t do this stuff?

If you’ve got this far in life without thinking about these steps, again, I get it. We’re all here because we want to make our living from creative work, not sweating over spreadsheets.

The issue is that money problems absolutely will raise their head at some point in your life and if you’re not prepared for them, the outcomes are not good.

The upside to following these steps is huge. The potential downside that comes from ignoring them is far, far greater

At the milder end, you could wind-up forced-out of your industry, missing out on personal and professional opportunities, or ruining your parents’ retirement.

However, it’s also not uncommon to face spiralling mental health problems (the link between money and mental health is well-established, while depression is three times more likely among creative workers), relationship issues (money worries are the biggest cause of divorce) or even homelessness.

Even if you’re confident that someone will bail you out, how long will that be the case? And how long will you feel comfortable taking that support?

The upside to following these steps is huge. The potential downside that comes from ignoring them is far, far greater.

Most of us would agree that the hour or so a month it will take you to avoid these outcomes feels entirely worth it when you consider it in this context. What’s more, that time will help you to not just avoid that pain, but very likely give you a disproportionate return in terms of improving your longterm happiness.

Here we go, then, the five steps…

How to spend money
Photo by Igal Ness on Unsplash

1. Spend less than you earn

If you take away one principle from this post, or indeed this entire site, make it this one.

Cracking this is key to the whole thing. Consistently spend less than you earn and you can make horrible investments, blow your life’s savings at the roulette table and still likely come out ahead of over half the population of the US.

How do I do this?

You have two methods at your disposal: it’s all about reducing your spending and increasing your income.

Reduce your spending
Boost your income
Photo by Fabian Blank on Unsplash

2. Save the difference

We often tell ourselves that building savings is a process of rigorous, joyless discipline. However, thinking in those terms is really unhelpful.

Instead, think about how you can make it easy for yourself to do the right thing. For me, I’ve associated a savings habit with some fairly motivating, positive ideas: mainly the freedom to turn down work I don’t like and the desire to comfortably sustain myself in the down times associated with freelance/creative work.

How do I do this?

  • Just make a start – remember any savings are better than no savings. The main thing is to get used to getting that money out of your current account (where it might easily be spent) and putting it to better use elsewhere. You might find this piece How to start saving (when you don’t think you can) helpful here.
  • Know why you’re saving – a deep, personal motivation can make a huge difference to your ability to start saving some cash. Some people want an emergency fund (see below), but sometimes reframing it as ‘the freedom fund’, or ‘the f***-off fund’ can really help. This piece from The Billfold lays out a compelling case for having a f***-off fund.
Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

3. Pay-off debt

If you’re in high interest debt, redirect the money you’ve started saving towards repayments. Treat this as a priority – and I mean a genuine priority.

Think about your wealth as water in a bucket. Most of us in creative work have little desire for infinite wealth, but we do want to raise the water level in that bucket to a point where we have a sense of freedom and security.

The bucket - a metaphor for your personal finances

In this instance, our income is like the tap, sometimes flowing fast, sometimes slowly. However, each debt is a hole in that bucket and if you’re paying interest on those debts, then not only are you losing water, but each of those holes is growing bigger every day. The sooner you act the easier it is plug the holes.

Ignore them, though, and they will grow to the point where the bottom drops out. That looks like bankruptcy, homelessness, relationship breakdown and other things that we very much do not want in our lives.

The excellent US blogger, Mr Money Mustache says you should treat high interest debt as an emergency – as if “your hair is on fire”, so hurl everything you’ve got at it.

How do I do this?

  • Move high interest debts to lower interest accounts (e.g. a 17.9% interest credit card to a 0% balance transfer card) – this will slow the growth of the debt and mean you can direct more to the actual repayment.
  • Focus on paying off the highest interest debt – Make minimum payments on the others, when that’s paid off, roll the same payment amount over to the next highest interest debt and so on. This is the time to tighten the belt, maximise that gap between your earnings and spending and funnel everything you can to the debt.
  • Struggle with motivation? Try Dave Ramsey’s ‘debt snowball’ technique – This approach asks you to order your debts by total owed and pay off the smallest one first, then roll all the payments over to the next smallest and so on. Some people find that clearing those first few small debts is really motivating. One caveat is that it is usually not the best option mathematically, because it can leave you paying more in interest.
  • Learn to differentiate between good debt and bad debt – not all debts are equal. Taking on a mortgage for the right property might represent a great investment, while racking-up high costs debts on a Buy Now, Pay Later service (Klarna etc.), or putting pints on a credit card, are signs you’re taking on bad debt. These are the ones to jump on ASAP and avoid in the future.
How to start saving money - build in steps
Photo by Damir Spanic on Unsplash

4. Build an emergency fund

Everyone should have an emergency fund, but if you’re a freelancer or on a variable income (like the majority of creative workers) you absolutely need one.

There is a reason that all good financial advisors and personal finance experts recommend this: you can’t predict what an emergency will look like or when it will come, but it will happen.

Vehicles breakdown. Technology turns on you hours before a show starts. Things get lost or stolen on tour. A work or personal relationship sours suddenly. Houses flood or go on fire. There’s a bloody great pandemic and all work dries up. You get the picture.

How do I do this?

  • Pick an achievable target – the common advice, and I think it’s solid, is to save £1,000 or a month’s expenses. If things go well with that goal, you can then build that up to three to six months expenses over time.
  • Keep it somewhere accessiblenot in a shoe box, but in a savings account that you can reach with a few hours or at most a few days notice. You will earn horrible interest on it. Accept this.
  • Do not skip this step – some people think they can do without the emergency fund and move on to the fun ‘make me money’ investment stuff. I have totally tried this approach and am here to tell you it totally does not work out. If the investment drops at the same time as an emergency expense* you are forced to withdraw your money at a point when it’s worth less than you paid-in.

*Finances seem to operate on a ‘Sod’s law’ basis, so if you gamble that it won’t happen, it probably will…

Sort out your personal finances so you and enjoy doing the work that you love
Photo by Alice Dietrich on Unsplash

5. Invest to support your goals in life

Most people who have built their own wealth have done so via investing or creating businesses. It’s very, very difficult for most of us to simply save our way there.

Investing is the process of buying assets – things that hold some value and can be expected to produce an income (for instance, stocks and shares, which pay a share of a company’s profits, or a property which pays you rental income). In other words: putting the money you save to work making more money.

If you’re not in love with the idea of investing, the trick is to pick something you understand and keep it simple. I have not covered investments on this site yet as I’ve been focussing on some of the previous steps in this list. This will change in the future, but for now here are some key pointers…

How do I do this?

  • Get going ASAP – the hackneyed phrase in financial circles is that “the best time to invest was 10 years ago, the second best time is today”. This is annoying but also true. As soon as you’ve got debts in hand and some emergency savings, direct that cash to investments.
  • Start a pension – there is a pensions crisis looming in the creative industries and it’s going to hurt a lot of people. Only 24% of the self-employed save into a pension. The current UK state pension is just £134 a week and likely to fall in real terms over the coming decades. If you don’t have a workplace pension with a company, consider opening a SIPP (Self-Invested Personal Pension). Any amount on top of that state pension is better than no amount. What’s more, even if you’re self-employed, the government will automatically top up your payments by 20% in the form of tax relief, meaning that if you pay in £100 it becomes £120 – and that’s before any return from the investments you put it in. Don’t miss out on that.
  • Diversify your investments – it’s a very good idea to spread the risk of your investments, so that if things don’t work out then you’re not at the mercy of one market or firm. For this reason, it might be wise to invest in whole markets via low cost index funds (in which you buy a single fund which automatically invests your cash into a small share of every company in the index or stock exchange of your choice). Have a look at Alan Donegan’s guide to index funds. It’s really not hard to get set-up.
  • Invest for the long-term – if you invest in stocks and shares, think long-term – like 10 years plus. You’re not locking that money away forever and (if you use something like a Stocks & Shares ISA) you can often access it within a few days if need be, but leaving it in there for the long term gives you a far better chance of a decent return. The stock market fluctuates wildly day-to-day, which is why picking individual stocks and so called ‘day trading’ is tantamount to gambling for most. However, it almost always goes up over the long term.
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Acknowledgements

The thinking in this piece has been heavily influenced by a number of financial gurus.

Dave Ramsey we owe for the debt snowball and his renowned concept of the seven ‘Baby steps’, some of which has filtered through here (I don’t agree with it all). Mr Money Mustache continues to influence a lot of my thinking about saving, dealing with debt and investing. Alan and Katie Donegan’s Take Control Of Your Finances course was also really helpful to me in terms of simplifying this overall journey. They were both very generous with their time and humour. They deserve much praise and Mars bars.

Disclaimer

The information does not constitute financial advice or recommendation and should not be considered as such. Creative Money is not regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), its authors are not financial advisors and are therefore not authorised to offer financial advice.

Investing carries risks – the value of investments and any income derived from them can fall as well as rise and you may not get back the original amount you invested. Always do your own research and seek independent financial advice where required.

Categories
How I Make It Work

How I Make It Work: Lily Canter (freelance journalist)

From monetising hobbies, to podcasting and pensions – we discuss managing your money as a freelancer

Lily Canter is a freelance personal finance journalist and lecturer (among other things) who writes for this likes of the Metro, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Times and South China Morning Post.

I first heard of Lily via her excellent Freelancing For Journalists podcasts, which she launched earlier this year with fellow freelancer Emma Wilkinson. As someone who spends much of their days pitching and writing about personal finances, I figured she would have some great insights on the trickier issues facing freelance creatives (hello again irregular cashflow and lack of pension/holiday infrastructure!) I was not disappointed.

We spoke about Lily’s portfolio career, the challenges and merits of her Freelancing For Journalists side hustle and the methods she’s using to funnel a significant slice of her earnings into savings.

Lily Canter on how she manages money as a freelance journalist
Lily Canter… Freelance journalist, lecturer, author, trainer and so on!
How would you describe your role? It’s definitely in the multi-hyphenate territory, right?

“I say I have a ‘portfolio career’! Fundamentally, I’m a journalist, but I’m also a lecturer, a podcaster, trainer, I’m also a running coach and I’m starting to write books as well, but I suppose it comes under the journalism. Then Freelancing For Journalists is part of what I do. I think it’s probably about 10% but that changes depending on what is happening, like when we’re running a training course. Then my teaching is about 30% and my journalism work is about 60%.

“I’m very old fashioned, so I keep track with a diary and when I’m doing something with a person, I highlight it and I tend to work about a month in advance. “

“How do I split my personal and professional finances? I don’t really!”

The Freelancing For Journalists podcast has found a loyal audience pretty quickly. What was the impetus for that?

“We wrote the book first and then got some funding from the university to do the podcast series. It was initially meant to be a learning tool for students and it spun off from that. We had an initial budget for six episodes and we based them on chapters of our book. We had a good three months of planning, we did it in the radio studio, with students helping us to record it and the idea was that it was also work experience for students.

“Then lockdown happened and we still had a few episodes to record, so we ended up shifting to Zoom and doing nine episodes. People liked that first series, so we convinced the university to give us money to buy mics and then we did a second series.”

I like that you found a way to fund it without sinking your own time and money into it. How is it going to in terms of sponsorship or monetising it?

“OK. We’ve had a lot of people who have been positive and we’ve got one sponsor lined-up [for the next series] and we need to decide if we wait for more, or go ahead and see if we pick them up on the way. I’d been warned that would be the case, though, and I’m always thinking of other ways of monetising it. We’ve not gone down the Patreon route as a lot of our listeners are new or starting out and I’m not sure if they can afford it. We have Ko-Fi but it’s just the occasional cup of tea, really! It’s fiddly to use though, you have to go on the site, but we thought we’d try it out. But at the moment it’s more about building the audience and then the training work we’re doing is a by-product of the podcast.”

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These projects often lead to things, don’t they? Even if the pay-off isn’t immediately obvious.

“Yeah. We’ve certainly got commissions to write stuff for other platforms about freelancing off the back of it, we can promote the book and it’s certainly a good marketing tool for the Freelancing For Journalists brand. I think it’s what we’re most known for. We’ve been doing guest lectures on freelancing as well. We’ve also run some of our own webinars and that’s been the nice thing about lockdown, people have found their own ways of making money. We did a couple in the summer and they both did well. It was a good way to test the market.”

How do you split your personal and professional finances as a freelancer?

“I don’t really! I still have my personal account. My salary from the university goes into there and my freelance stuff goes into there and then I have a savings account attached. So I have a target of what I want to earn every month and then anything over that is a bonus, then a proportion of that – nearly 50% – I save and that’s in there for tax and pension and anything else. We do have a joint account, too, and my husband and I put money in there as a holiday pot.”

“Previously, I had a full-time job as an academic with a massive pension, so I’m trying to match that and save like eight grand a year.”

That’s interesting – I think a lot of freelancers and self-employed don’t think about regularly setting money aside for holidays and time off like that.

“It was sort of an accident. It was originally a pot to pay off a car, so we were each putting a certain amount away ready to pay it off, then once we did, we didn’t cancel the standing orders. We just carried on on and that became our holiday fund. I used to be really rigid with that stuff when I had a salary. I’m much more flexible now, because my income is much more flexible, but I do check my balance pretty much every day. It’s a bit like my diary, in that I keep track of it all the time. I’m also trying to save quite a lot into my pension. I had a full-time job as an academic with a massive pension [a perk that I lost access to going freelance], so I’m trying to match that and save like eight grand a year.”

That’s a decent savings rate! A lot of freelancers don’t like locking money into a pension because they feel they may need it before pension age. How do you handle that?

“I tend to let it build up over time and then move it over once or twice a year in lump sums. So, for instance, I didn’t get any [SEISS] grants, because last year I earned more from employed work than self-employed. Fortunately, I had some money saved which was [intended to be paid into] my pension pot – so I did need it and I’ve got to build that up again now.

“I have a LISA, which I put four grand a year into [as retirement savings], so I build it up and stick it in there, then I’m still sorting my personal pension with my financial advisor. We’ve got a rainy day fund elsewhere, for the joint account, and I always make sure we have at least £1,000 there as a float, so we overpay into that essentially. Then we’ve got other stuff, like we’ve never touched our child benefit, it just goes straight into savings. The idea is it’s there for when the kids turn 18, but if we suddenly need money to buy a new car, we’ve got it!”

Freelancing For Journalists
The Freelancing For Journalists podcast covers everything from finances to lifestyle and imposter syndrome.
What else helps you stay on track with savings?

“I look at my bank balance and try to keep a minimum amount in there and then anything over that goes into savings. But I’ve always saved. I’ve barely used credit cards. I’ve never got a car on finance. I just don’t believe in spending if you haven’t got it. Every six months I’ll do a kind of audit just to track if I’m on target with my savings, or earning enough and, if I need to, I look at my spending, or if I can pitch and deliver more work. Even the high street banking apps now tell you what you spend your money on and basically I spend all my money on running: gear, races and a personal trainer. That’s like 90% of my money and the last 10% is probably wine!”

If you’re trying to keep your spending low to build savings, then it’s important to direct the money you do have left in the way that makes you happiest. This seems like a good example of that.

“Well, I also coach a group of runners and I charge them now. I did it for nine months for free and it took up more and more of my time and I’d built up this relationship with them. My view was that I’ll be out running anyway, so why not make an income from it? So I started charging a small amount and I make an income from it. I’ve signed up for some coaching training and warned them all that as soon as I’m qualified, my rates will be going up. There’s tax benefits, too, so quite a lot of the gear that I buy is now tax deductible.”

“My view was that I’ll be out running anyway, so why not make an income from it?”

Have you made any significant mistakes with money?

“I do splash out every now and then. We bought a painting right before lockdown, which we never do and that might not have been the best time to do it! We felt bad about it, which is daft because it’s been years since we’ve done something like that. Then once when I left a job and got a load of holiday money and I went and bought an £800 chair, which no-one ever sits in! So every now and then I do that kind of thing, but only if the money is there.

“There are a couple of things I’ve signed up for this year that I regret. There have been a lot of membership communities and one I signed up for after doing an interview with somebody who really enjoyed it and it was just a total waste of money. It was not what I thought it was going to be. But there are other things that have felt worthwhile.

What has given you good value, do you feel?

“I do subscribe to Journo Resources. We work a lot with Jem and I just really want to support what they’re doing. It’s useful and it’s good for keeping tabs on what’s happening on the freelance journalism world, but it’s more about just supporting what she’s doing. I also know that I can call on her for advice and I don’t feel guilty about it, if I’m subscribing! But I just think everything they do is really good and she’s nailed it, really.”

We do a lot of moaning as freelancers about payments (and, quite rightly, because the system is broken, really). But how would you fix it?

“There’s various things. Transparency about rates is one and that is happening. The #FreelancePayGap list that Anna Codrea-Rado started is really useful. It puts you in a better position to negotiate and allows you to push back when an editor is offering you a certain rate. I guess it’s also educating companies and editors that it’s not just an admin thing. It’s not just ‘Sorry I forgot to pay your invoice’, it’s people’s livelihoods. I’ve never enforced late payments fees, but I do send stroppy emails. I think we just need to be more transparent and not be afraid to talk about money or ask for more money and to be paid. But also, just don’t work for people who don’t pay you properly or pay you on time, in the long run it’s just not worth it, so don’t do it!”

Hear more from Lily Canter via the Freelancing For Journalists podcast and website.

The FFJ team are also running a four-week long training course ‘How to become a successful freelance journalist’ via Journalism.co.uk (costing £150), beginning on 2 November, 2020.

How I Make It Work is a series of interviews with a variety of creative professionals, where we discuss personal experiences and lessons learned about money in the creative industries.

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How I Make It Work

How I Make It Work: Chris Frantz (Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club) – “Small is beautiful”

Post-punk icon Chris Frantz discusses the principles that have helped him to survive and thrive across his storied career

Chris Frantz is best known for his role as drummer, co-writer and founder of Talking Heads. Frantz formed the group in 1975 with fellow art school-type David Byrne, later recruiting his partner (now wife) Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison into the band.

While their punk touring buddies were on a mission of cultural ‘slash and burn’, Talking Heads built something new and enthralling in its place, melding funk rhythms and jarring melodies into a new form of art-pop.

The rest is rock history: seven gold albums, critical acclaim, bust-ups, world tours and an influential legacy that can still be found some 45 years on, resonating in the work of innovators like St Vincent.

Later, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth would pull off a similar trick with their band Tom Tom Club, channeling an experimental blend of lilting tropical beats and electronica that would prove fertile ground for early hip-hop samples.

“When you’re paying fifteen people to travel around the world and hotels and airplane tickets and everything, it just gets out of control”

Now Frantz has published an autobiography, Remain In Love, in which he documents his experiences in both groups and beyond. Like all the best bios, it’s packed with star-studded anecdotes, poignant reflection and a little score-settling, for good measure.

I spoke to Frantz, initially on behalf of the excellent Electronic Sound. However, I also took the chance to ask him some questions about some of the money mistakes, close calls and savvier moves Frantz and co made across their career for Creative Money. He was kind enough to share some really helpful insights…

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Creative Money is all about helping people in the creative industries – whether that’s art, music or writing – to figure out how to sustain what they do. What principles or decisions have helped you to sustain yourself as an artist?

“Well, Brian Eno, very early on, in 1978, when we were making More Songs About Buildings And Food – he didn’t tour behind his albums to promote them or anything. But he told us ‘You know, you can make a very good living if you keep your expenses down.’ It sounds like a no-brainer but a lot of people seem to forget that. If you keep your expenses down, you can actually survive. And you can also – he explained this to us – licence songs to the BBC. In his case, he was licencing instrumental tracks to the BBC for their various shows, and he was making not tonnes of money but he was making a good amount, a fair enough amount that he could survive.”

“We just paid the money and it wasn’t a terrible amount for just looking at a contract – and it saved our ass”

So how did you practically apply Eno’s advice? And did you ever make any major mistakes on the financial side?

“Well, we did very well for a long time because we were just a four-piece band. Then we threw that all out the window and had nine people on stage, and then the expenses got so high that, at the end of a very very successful world tour, Tina and I combined had $2,000 in the bank! That was right before we made the Tom Tom Club album and our accountant said ‘Chris and Tina, you gotta do something, you only got $2,000 in the bank…’ When you’re paying fifteen people to travel around the world and hotels and airplane tickets and everything, it just gets out of control. So, small is beautiful.”

That’s great advice. The other thing that stuck out to me from the book was your description of the close encounter with a contract that came via Lou Reed.

“Oh yes, that was a shocker too because, you know – you can imagine Lou Reed wants to produce your first album and you’re a band from Lower Manhattan and how perfect would that be? And then you go to see the lawyer about it and the lawyer says ‘Oh no, I would never allow one of my clients to sign one of these standard production agreements because, when all is said and done, you could have a hit album and you would never see a penny’. So yeah, that was a shock.”

“It sounds like a no-brainer but a lot of people seem to forget… If you keep your expenses down, you can actually survive”

You were a young band living on nothing in Bowery lofts at that time. I don’t imagine you had a lot of money to spare for legal advice. What made you decide to pay that money and get it looked at?

“Well, we felt like we didn’t have a lot of experience in this business, but we didn’t want to be stupid. I got a recommendation for a lawyer that we thought might be good, and my father [who was also a lawyer] said ‘Oh yes, he’s very good, go ahead…’ We made an appointment and the lawyer’s name was Peter Parcher – and he had been in the newspapers because he got Keith Richards off of a big heroine bust in Canada. He was able to swap jailtime for a concert to raise money for the blind and, well, that’s my kinda guy.

“We had a meeting with him and he said ‘I wanna introduce you to my partner here who this is his specialty’, and you know we just paid the money and it wasn’t a terrible amount for just looking at a contract – and it saved our ass.”

That was probably a $100-200 at the time. Who knows how much that saved you in the long run. It’s likely the best investment you ever made.

“Yeah, money well spent!”

Chris Frantz autobiography Remain In Love

Chris Frantz’s autobiography Remain In Love is published by White Rabbit and available now.


How I Make It Work is a series of interviews with a variety of creative professionals, where we discuss personal experiences and lessons learned about money in the creative industries.

Chris Frantz autobiography Remain In Love
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Guides Principles Resources

Can you buy happiness? 5 principles for happier spending

Trying to buy happiness itself is unlikely to work, but changing the way you spend and consume can help you to get more of it

No one gets into creative work for the money. However, as I started to discuss last week in my How to spend money piece, the resulting limitations on our funds mean we need to be smarter-than-average when it comes to our spending. This means it needs to make us as happy as possible for as long as possible. So how can you buy happiness?

Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton are two US academics who spent years researching the impact of different spending approaches on people’s happiness levels. Dunn, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and Norton a marketing professor at Harvard Business School, eventually recorded their ideas in a helpful book entitled ‘Happy Money’.

Happy Money: The New Science Of Smarter Spending book cover

I stumbled across ‘Happy Money’ when I was working in my local library and I’ve since found it really useful in helping me to reframe spending decisions.

‘Happy Money’ resists the temptation to get preachy, which means it does not trigger my internal ‘f***-off!’ sensor

It’s an impressive book because, although there’s a substantial amount of research behind their recommendations, it reads in a very straight forward, useful fashion. It also resists the temptation to get preachy or dogmatic, which means it does not trigger my internal ‘f***-off!’ sensor.

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Inside, they identify five key principles of happy money. You can learn more about them below, but the book goes into much more detail and has loads of compelling evidence and useful examples to back it all up. As such, I really recommend you consider reading ‘Happy Money’. You can buy it over on Amazon or, even better, drop by your local library (when possible).

  1. Buy experiences
  2. Make it a treat
  3. Buy time
  4. Pay now, consume later
  5. Invest in others

1) Buy experiences

photo of assorted-color air balloon lot in mid air during daytime
Photo by Mar Cerdeira on Unsplash

Buying experiences instead of stuff usually makes us happier and in a more lasting way.

Cleverly-marketed shiny things are designed to persuade you to buy a lifestyle by purchasing a product. We want that positive change – it’s part of process called ‘self-actualisation’ (an awful term for the process of trying to become the person we want to be) – and advertisers are very good at telling us that buying their stuff will get us there.

Look to buy experiences that match Dunn and Norton’s criteria. You’ll be happier for it

The problem is that it usually does not. Just look at the scores of high-earners who find the big house and the statement car to be somewhat hollow victories, once acquired.

A sense of self

Instead, Dunn and Norton cite a Cornell study that shows how things like travel, theatre trips, gallery visits and dinner with friends come to define their subject’s sense of self much more than their purchases.

Interestingly, when given the option to go back in time and change one of these purchases for an alternative, those who had bought an experience were much more likely to stick with their initial decision.

This makes sense to me. In my role as a music journalist, I’ve often heard musicians say as much: “There’s nothing I’d change, it all made me who I am…” etc. Indeed, it happens so often that I’ve written it off as a crap question.

Notably, Dunn and Norton say experience-based spending proves even more satisfying when it…

  • brings you into contact with other people
  • results in good stories
  • is linked to the ideas you have about who you want to be
  • is in some way unique

Resist the urge to buy the shiny thing whenever you can and instead look to buy experiences that match Dunn and Norton’s criteria. You’ll be happier for it.

2) Make it a treat

white teacup near bread
Photo by Linda Söndergaard on Unsplash

Being conscious of what you consume and spacing-out (or varying) the good stuff allows you to gain more enjoyment from it.

Have you ever been round the likes of Borough Market in London (or any farmers market/purveyor of posh produce) where they divvy out free samples?

You try a sliver of cheese and, suddenly conscious of the flavour, it tastes phenomenal. Four hours later, on the sofa, you can be ladling fat wedges of barrel-aged cheddar into your gob in front of Netflix and feel only a fraction of the joy. The more you consume, the less benefit you experience.

Diminishing returns

This is the psychological effect to look out for and that Dunn and Norton say justifies their ‘make it a treat’ approach. That aforementioned owner of the big house and statement car will find it stops making them happy because they soon get used to it. It’s the same with most things in our lives – and even our lives themselves.

Identify the good things and savour them by limiting consumption and being more conscious of them

A bit of mindfulness helps here, the authors say we should identify the good things and savour them by limiting our consumption and being more conscious about enjoying them.

So, if fancy cars really matter to our hypothetical ‘high-earner’, they might be happier buying something dependable and efficient, then using the savings for regular track days, or just renting a posh car once in a while.

At the other end of the expense scale, there’s a lot of happiness to be gained in your daily life, whether it’s being a tourist in our your own city, savouring your food (away from the TV) or making the most of those first few drinks.

3) Buy time

person holding yellow round analog clock
Photo by Morgan Housel on Unsplash

I think this is probably the most important lesson for creative workers to absorb. If one thing from this list is going to make the most difference to our ability to develop the work and lifestyles we enjoy, it is buying time.

For most of us, the sense is either that money is scarce and you need to work more to earn more, or that your time is very valuable and therefore also scarce. Either way, we all feel time poor. So what can we do?

Astonishingly, they report an hour long commute has a similar sized impact on your happiness as having no job at all

Well, they say if you want something give it away, and it is apparently the same with time. For instance, in a study cited by Dunn and Norton, those volunteering for just 15 minutes a week felt like they had more free time as a result of giving some up.

So how do you buy time? It’s usually a trade-off. Maybe you take a lower paying job closer to home, or you leave the overtime on the table, or (as the authors suggest) resist the urge to invest in time-sinks like cinematic TVs.

The three big ‘time wins’

Dunn and Norton say the big three areas to focus on are commuting, watching television (and I think we can safely extend this to screen time in 2020) and socialising.

Astonishingly, they report an hour long commute has a similar scale impact on your happiness as having no job at all. While another survey found that one of the greatest sources of happiness was simply playing with your kids.

Even if you feel you’re stuck with the commute, making a conscious effort to directly trade screen time in favour of social interaction could have huge benefits on your happiness.

Time and money don’t have to be rivals, but we can probably spend both more wisely.

4) Pay now, consume later

white yacht on dock

Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash

Reverse the debt process – take the purchase pain on the chin now and you’ll enjoy it more later.

We live in a culture where it’s possible to fulfil small desires very quickly, without paying for them upfront. This phenomenon is only speeding up – look at the rapid rise of store credit firm Klarna, as a recent example.

The products often don’t make us happy in a lasting way, while the debts definitely make us unhappy. They also limit our future spending power and, by extension, future opportunities to use that money in beneficial ways.

Our natural instinct is to seize a benefit and delay the pain (payment). Reversing this process makes us happier

Dunn and Norton say that reversing this process, conversely, has great benefits in terms of happiness. Paying upfront for something – whether it’s a city break or an Xbox – and spending some time anticipating it can actually increase our enjoyment of the product or experience.

What’s more, they say that regularly using this anticipation process, even just thinking about tomorrow’s dinner, makes you a more optimistic, happier person.

What purchases can you make now and anticipate?

The process works best when delaying the experience allows you to research aspects of it that will increase your expectations of a positive experience (e.g. looking up menus, looking at hotel pics).

They say it’s also particularly effective when the experience itself is likely to be brief, as it allows you to maximise your happiness from the consumption. Of course, this doesn’t work for everything: don’t delay your MOT, for example.

The authors also point out that our natural instinct is to seize a benefit and delay the pain (payment). This is the sneaky power of debt – the reason we find it easy to use credit cards, but hard to save for pensions – but it’s also the thing least likely to make us happy.

Dunn and Norton’s research tells us that if you can do the reverse of that instinct, pay upfront and ideally consume later, you’ll be a lot happier as a result of your spending.

5) Invest in others

woman holding white and black coffee cup
Photo by Javier Molina on Unsplash

Spending money on others makes us even happier than spending money on ourselves.

Dunn and Norton recount an experiment in Vancouver in which a student handed people $5-20 to spend on either themselves or someone else. Those who did the latter reported a much higher degree of happiness than those who spent the cash on themselves – no matter how much they’d been given.

The link between happiness and what they call ‘prosocial spending’ is remarkably universal

A much broader study of US citizens found a similar correlation, as did one that compared similar experiments between a rich country (Canada) and a poor one (Uganda). Dunn and Norton describe this link between happiness and what they call ‘prosocial spending’ as “remarkably universal”.

Make it a choice, make a connection, make an impact

Again, Dunn and Norton say that there are things you can do to increase the happiness return. 

First, make it a choice (mandatory charity is less satisfying). Second, make a connection (perhaps by giving in person or to someone that’s close in some way or even just to a charity of your choosing). Third, pick something that has a notable impact, even if it’s a small donation (they cite examples like malaria nets, or spontaneously buying meals for strangers).

Interestingly, even if you don’t have a philanthropic bone in your body, Dunn and Norton note studies that found those who routinely gave money away also wound-up wealthier over the longrun.

Those are the five principles behind ‘Happy Money’. They’ve certainly come to shape the way I think about my spending. How can you adapt them in your life?

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The best budgeting apps for UK creative workers

Untangle your personal finances with our guide to the best budgeting apps for UK creative-types

Working in the creative industries has its ups and downs – and not least when it comes to our cashflow. This can make it really hard to budget effectively. The best budgeting apps make this process much less painful, taking full advantage of the ‘open banking’ revolution to quickly and clearly calculate our cashflow and spending. What’s more, most of them are free, too

Often in creative careers our finances will vary greatly from month-to-month. One month you can be sat at home wondering where the next gig will come from, the next you could be earning and paying a second rent in a new city.

The budgeting process usually relies on predictability – and that is something that is in short supply in our field

This makes budgeting exceptionally difficult for creative workers. It’s a process that normally relies on predictability – and that is in short supply in our industries.


Does your work situation make it difficult to save money? Check out our guide:How to start saving (when you don’t think you can)


Budgeting apps can be particularly useful to creative workers because the data will usually be much more up-to-date and easier to interpret. This is helpful when your income and expenses somewhat wildly fluctuate!

A good budgeting app can

  • Make it easy to track and sort your income and spending into categories
  • Give you a clear picture (via fancy graphs and charts) of your income, spending and cashflow
  • Help you compare the above across the months/years
  • Allow you to set budgets for defined projects/categories
  • Keep you up-to-date on how much you have left
  • Help you to identify potential savings on your bills
  • Help you to save or invest by siphoning off cash on a daily basis (for instance, by rounding up transactions)
  • ‘Gameify’ the process of money management

Most do this by connecting to your bank (with your explicit permission) and regularly importing your transactions for analysis. Some have the power to make transfers between accounts, but most just look at the data.

If this sounds a little suspect, rest assured that all of those featured on the best budgeting apps list are regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, which is there to ensure they behave themselves. Do not use any service which is not FCA registered.

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Things to consider when picking budgeting apps…

What do you need?

Each of these apps has different strengths and weaknesses. Some are great at budgeting, some can help you save more, others have better spending analysis or clearer interfaces.

I have my preference (below) but you might need to try a few. Ultimately, the ‘best budgeting app’ is the one you will actually use consistently. Just keeping half-an-eye on these things will help you to improve your finances (lowering expenses, increasing savings), so know thyself! Which one will most encourage you to keep track?

Cost

Most of the apps below are free, but some have a small subscription fee or premium tier that gives you more options.

How many accounts and types of accounts do you want to manage?

Do you want a budgeting app that’s a one-stop shop to plan and keep track of your assets (including pensions and the value of your home)? Or simply an app that makes it easy to monitor a basic set of current and savings accounts?

How will you use the app?

It’s good to consider how you will use a budgeting app as part of a wider system.

You might be keen to set goals and boost your savings or pension. Or you might want to use the app to easily calculate your monthly income, spending and savings and track those total figures in a separate spreadsheet.

Alternatively, you may want separate apps for work expenses and personal finances (perhaps you have an accountancy platform with whizzy apps for your work stuff and just want something simple for personal finances).

Most give you various export options for data so you have even greater flexibility if you require it.

1. MoneyHub

Best UK budgeting apps for UK users: MoneyHub

Best for making a complex picture clear

This is Creative Money’s preferred choice of budgeting app. It helps you to keep track of income, expenses and savings (like Money Dashboard et al), but you also can pull in an impressive range of investment accounts, pensions and even home equity.

For
  • Makes a complex web of account types easy to understand
  • Easy transaction tagging process (compared to other apps)
  • Great as a simple way to keep track of net worth
  • Spending and income analysis tools are really clear
  • Big range of accounts supported (including Vanguard)
Against
  • Some users say it’s not so hot on the predictive/forecasting side
  • Has a sideline in trying to direct you to financial advisors, too (but doesn’t rub it in your face)
  • It also comes with a small monthly fee of £1.49

2. Money Dashboard

Best budgeting apps for UK users: Money Dashboard

Best for those who want an established name

Probably the biggest name among UK budgeting apps. It set the template in many ways: you connect your accounts, tag your transactions and it will start to automatically group them into categories for tracking/comparing month to month.

For
  • Money Dashboard has won multiple awards
  • You can also set multiple budgets (telling it which categories to track) and add recurring bills etc. to predict cashflow
  • Was the first UK app to really crack the blend of an intuitive interface and mainstream connectivity
  • New features are rolling out all the time and a ‘predicted balance after bills’ feature is useful for those with a regular income
Against
  • The recent redesign, Money Dashboard Neon, has not gone down well with everyone
  • Some say it’s a little glitchy and lacks some of the utility of the classic version

3. Emma

Best budgeting apps for UK users: Emma

Best for finding those sneaky fees and expenses

The makers of Emma describe their app as ‘a financial advocate’. Their USP is that it analyses your transactions and tries to find ways to keep you in good shape, financially.

For
  • Keeps track of the sneaky stuff you often don’t notice
  • Seeks out subscriptions you don’t need
  • Uses notifications to help you avoid overdraft
  • Compatible with cryptocurrencies [this is NOT an endorsement of crypto – but that’s another post]
  • Clear interface.
Against
  • Can’t split transactions across categories on the free version
  • Some people don’t get on with the interface’s super-bold colour scheme
  • Pro plan is quite expensive (min. £4.90/month).

4. Yolt

Best budgeting apps for UK users: Yolt

Best for keeping it simple

Yolt likes to keep it simple. It offers you a place to connect and view multiple accounts and doesn’t get hung up on fancy tech to make predictions or do things for you.

For
  • Easy to use, with intuitive auto-categorisation
  • Simple to set and review budgets
  • Stealth mode allows you to show off app without personal info
  • Payday tracker
  • Free for life with no premium mode
Against
  • Pay tracker only works for monthly/four-weekly
  • Not as clever or customisable as rival apps
  • Unlike the others here, there are no options for savings goals/projects
An artist AND an app-user
Photo by bruce mars on Unsplash

How did we pick?

Through a blend of personal usage/testing, user reviews and considering research conducted by other independent platforms. Creative Money is 100% independent and has no affiliation, commercial or otherwise, with any of the brands mentioned above.


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Join the mailing list and never miss a post!

How can we help you?

What issues are you facing? What questions do you have about managing your money in the creative industries? What would be most helpful to you?

We don’t have all the answers, but maybe we can find someone that does.

Send your questions and suggestions to creativemoneycontact@gmail.com.
We want to hear from you.