Can we please stop pretending that budgeting is easy? Especially budgeting for artists!
Can we stop pretending it’s simple and anyone who isn’t a lazy sack of shit should be able to make one in an evening?
Because that’s not how it is at all.
Sure it can feel easy… once you’re already doing it.
Sure it can feel easy … if you’ve always been good with your money and you just need to sketch out something that your brain already understands.
But if I stood up in front of you and sang an opera aria in your face, and then talked about how ‘easy’ it was… you might want to punch me in the ear (maybe you’d want to do that 4 notes into the aria…)
And that’s how I feel when people talk about ‘just starting a budget’.
Starting a budget is hard.
Why? Because what a budget asks of a lot of people is to completely change the way they think.
It’s not just two columns of numbers: expenses and income.
It’s a whole different way to relate to money.
That’s one of the reasons it’s so powerful when you actually get it, but let’s not pretend changing how you THINK is easy.
LESS vs FEWER
I have, in my life, picked up a large number of ‘charming’ language habits.
One of them, that was brought to my attention about a year ago, was that I was using ‘less’ when I should be using ‘fewer’.
I never said ‘fewer’.
I knew it was a word, but I just used ‘less’ for everything.
For those of you who are similarly confused about the difference… ‘less’ is used when the item is uncountable… ‘fewer’ when it’s countable.
“Every day I have less time in my life.” vs “I have fewer blocks of cheese than you”.
Anyways… this is a tiny thing.
After I knew the difference, all I had to do was to start using ‘fewer’ in the correct situations.
Except… it wasn’t that simple. What I actually had to do was to reprogram my brain. I had to teach it to recognize the situation, and instinctually use ‘fewer’ instead of ‘less’. This was a considerably more daunting task.
But I did it.
IT TOOK ME A WHOLE YEAR … and I still get the damn thing wrong half the time. But I have started to use ‘fewer’ as an instinctual part of my speech.
Budgeting means reshaping your money instincts
Anyone can put numbers into two columns.
But that’s not budgeting.
That won’t provide any of the transformative benefits that we personal finance wonks keep blabbering about.
Budgeting is one part self-awareness, one part intention, and one part follow-through.
It’s about taking your money and saying:
- How do I spend now?
- How do I want to spend?
- How am I going to make sure that happens?
And it can look like a spreadsheet or it can be scribbled on a cocktail napkin if it has those three questions at its heart.
Part one: Self-awareness (How do I spend now?)
In finance speak this is the ‘track-your-spending’ step.
But in reality, it’s reprogramming your brain to really think about the money that you spend.
That’s why one of the best base level budgeting ideas I’ve ever heard came from New York Times writer Carl Richards. He encouraged people to try to build the habit of saying the following every time they bought something…
“I just spend $48 on groceries. That’s interesting”.
No spreadsheet. No writing down anything.
And if you did this for a month, I bet you would change the way you spend (or at least feel better about it).
Because you’re reprogramming your brain to pay attention.
Why it’s super hard:
It’s hard because we’re already paying attention to a bunch of other stuff, and because spending money is really really easy.
We don’t even have to take out cash these days. We can just use our phones or credit cards.
So it’s easy to do without thinking.
Making your brain pay attention is tiring. It’s annoying. Your brain doesn’t want to spend more energy on this.
But if you don’t teach it to pay attention, there’s absolutely no point in doing anything else.
How you can do it:
Carl Richard’s technique is a great place to start, but it won’t be for everyone.
What I get my clients to do is to get in the habit of taking 5 minutes every day to write down what they spent, and what they made.
And that’s it.
I tell them not to put it in columns, or try to look at yesterday’s list. They can even throw it away if they want.
But they have to sit and write it down.
Sounds easy, right? But even that small thing isn’t easy… because stuff comes up. It always comes up. And your schedule is crazy, and you’ll do it tomorrow… probably… and then you don’t…
It’s hard to get your brain to pay attention.
So, the exercise that we do is to really consciously plan what that ‘5 minutes’ is going to look like.
Where is it going to be? When? Is there something you do every day that you can attach this new habit to? What will you do if you can’t do it one day…. when will you catch up?
Then I make them write it down. Every detail.
It’s amazing how powerful the act of thinking through every part of something can be.
It still doesn’t make it easy… but it recognizes what’s actually hard about the first step to budget success… and it gives you a plan.
Here’s a video I made talking about those first few steps and demonstrating exactly what writing down your money ins and outs looks like:
Part 2: Intention (How do I want to spend?)
This is where most people start, but unless you know how you’re currently spending, unless you’ve started to pay attention… it’s not going to matter.
But if you’ve got the building blocks of that awareness, you’re ready for the next step.
How to ‘verb’ your money:
In my life as an opera singer ‘intention’ plays a huge role.
It’s not enough to sing well (or even perfectly), but it has to mean something, and so we work really hard to fill every note with intention.
I guarantee that no matter who you are, you can tell the difference when a singer is singing with intention and when they’re not.
One of the exercises I used to do was ‘verbing’ my text, I used it for spoken monologues, too.
I’d go through it line by line and write what ‘the action’ was behind the text.
For example, the words “I love you” can be said with a lot of different actions. I could be trying to romance someone – to romance – or I could be spitting in the face of an enemy – to offend. It all depends on the context, but as a performer it gives you a great and clear roadmap for how you’re using your text and music.
That’s basically how budgeting works.
Money doesn’t mean anything on its own. It’s like me singing loudly in your face.. at first it might seem impressive (or abrasive), but after a little bit it’s just a thing. There’s no purpose to it.
And you want your money to have purpose. That’s the whole point of a budget.
So when money comes in – you give it an action.
$100 gig – to pay the rent
$400 sale – to pay the rent
$2000 paycheque – $400 to finish paying rent, $400 to buy groceries, $300 to buy supplies, $500 to pay back Visa, $100 to buy beer, $50 to relax, $50 to give away, $50 to see awesome shows, $150 to make something incredible.
That’s a budget.
Why it’s super hard:
Because a lot of us have a bunch of jobs, and a bunch of income sources, and it changes and it’s hard to figure out how much is enough.
Because you’ll run out of money before you run out of ‘actions’ you want to do.
And do you know what the really hard question is…. WHAT DO YOU WANT?
That’s the question at the heart of every great aria or monologue… and it’s the question that’s at the heart of every great budget.
Not only ‘what do I want’, but ‘what do I want most’….
That’s just about the hardest question there is.
How you can do it:
First of all, you need to know what you need.]
Before ‘want’ comes ‘need’. ALWAYS.
When I’m helping a client make their priorities I constantly remind them that the most important part of your art … of your business… is you. You need to be happy and healthy, and that means taking care of your needs.
It’s not ‘just the rent’ or ‘just groceries’.
It’s your HOME, and the food that you fill it with. It’s the essence of your life.
Send money into those needs with joy. Every month. Every week. WITH JOY.
After your needs, you have to rank your wants.
Start by brainstorming all of the possible things you’d love to spend money on, and then put them in a list – the most important at the top.
That list can change every week, or every month… it’s totally up to you.
And lastly…you’re not going to try and figure out your ‘average monthly income’. You’re just going to take it as it comes…
When money comes in… give it an action… work your way down your list. Once your needs are full, start on the wants.
It’s going to take work to set up, and not ‘figuring out how to use excel’ work… real ‘on the couch figuring out what’s important to you in life’ kind of work.
Part 3: Follow Through (How am I going to make this happen?)
If you do the last few things, you’ll have the habit and the actual structure that makes up a budget.
Now you have to actually do what you thought through and said you wanted.
Writing down – $200 to spend on groceries – doesn’t actually make those groceries appear. Neither do written obligations towards your debt or future happiness.
A budget is a living document, it has to change and adapt and grow.
It’s like live art.
You can rehearse for weeks and plan out every single moment… but when the curtain comes up… you’ve got to make it work.
If I ran offstage every time something went wrong I would never make it through a show.
Why it’s hard:
Because life happens.
You don’t make enough money and go into debt, or you make way too much money and start spending a ton more than normal on bejewelled sweatpants.
Maybe you get sick and miss a bunch of work or maybe you fall in love and have 4 little kids.
Your budget ‘breaks’. It gets all messed up. It isn’t providing direction. It becomes just another thing to try and ‘make work’.
How you can do it:
You need to completely change your expectation on what ‘a budget’ is.
A budget is not a Picasso that hangs unchanged behind glass.
A budget is like a kid’s chocolate pudding finger-painting… it’s a freaking mess. But it connects the things that you love (in this metaphor – your child and chocolate pudding) and that makes it precious.
A budget is a tool of self-awareness and intention. There is no circumstance that can break those two things.
It helps you know where you are right now, and where you want to move towards.
Self-awareness and intention are both things that are 100% in your control, so don’t go crying that your budget is broken.
Your expectations are broken.
If it doesn’t work, change it.
If it isn’t helping maybe you need to reconnect with the basic questions you’re asking of your money:
- how am I spending you?
- how do I want to spend you?
Do you know how you can succeed with the kind of budget that will actually change your life?… the same way that you’ve succeeded as an artist.
Fail. Learn. Try something new. Get messy. Get creative. Ask the tough questions. Challenge your habits. Be unique.
That’s how you’re going to do it.
Need help getting started?
Is it really worth it?
It’s not worth it to download a template and write down some numbers and then follow it just long enough to feel like a failure. That’s just something that you’re doing to feel more adult.
But it’s worth it to spend the massive amount of time and energy that it takes to become more aware of the role of money in your life.
It’s insanely worth it to take a more active role yourself. To give every dollar that comes into your hands a really clear intention that’s based on what you really want.
I promise you, from someone who used to feel like a complete sack of shit whenever I saw someone make it look so easy…
I promise you that it’s not easy. It’s hard, but not for the reasons you think it is.
And it’s so worth the work.
It will make you richer.
Yes… with money… but also in so many more ways than that.
Want to start getting control of your money? How can I help?
Financial Planner/Opera Singer
Money never came naturally to me. In fact… I was a bit of a disaster. I remember (very clearly) what it feels like to be ‘financially out of control’.
And honestly, I still get stressed about money… that doesn’t stop… the difference is that now I have the tools to deal with that stress.
And those tools are what’s made it possible for me to build a life full of the things I want: art, creativity, travel, family and more.