Thursday, February 20, 2014

How to write for a living? Be frugal.

This is an adapted version of a long comment I made on a blog post by Robin LaFevers at Writer Unboxed. It was long enough that I thought, I should just make a blog post out of this.

So often I see writers hoping for an advance that will allow them to quit their job. But for most of us, big $ aren’t the reality. My goal has always been to make the life fit the writing. To depend on money as little as possible, even before I was published. 
So I’ve pretty much structured my life the opposite of the usual American way.
I avoided debt like the plague. Didn’t go to college. Didn’t even have a credit card until I had to build credit to buy a house. I learned to cook as soon as I moved out, I buy all my clothes (and a lot of other things, too) at thrift stores or auctions, I rarely take a vacation that doesn’t involve crashing on someone’s couch (though I also rock at Priceline’s Name Your Own Price hotel rooms), and I make heavy use of libraries instead of buying many books. When I was lucky enough to get a good advance, I put 20% down on a house of my own in a cheap county. Now my next dream goals are to pay off the mortgage and put solar panels on the roof. And plant fruit trees!
This means, of course, that I don’t go out a lot. I do love to travel and yes, it is hard sometimes to see other writers going to tons of book fairs and festivals and tours and research trips to England and France and Japan and wherever. I rarely shop for fun. I don't live in a hip place.
What I can tell you is that I'm 32 years old and I've never worked more than 30 hours a week in my life at anything besides writing. I own a home. I can live comfortably on a household income of $30,000 a year. (My partner's dad did help us financially when we were younger, so I do note, although I personally have never gotten money from my family, it is hard to do this without some support from someone.)
It’s not a lifestyle everyone would want, certainly it favors the introverted unless you have equally cheap friends, and it works better if you don’t have kids (although I pretty much learned how to live on the cheap from my mom, and I’ve picked up tips from self-sufficient/cheap mom blogs, so…I know cheap parenthood is possible, but not as cheap as, you know, having less people around). But I do think structuring your life around living cheap instead of around making as much money as possible would be a wise outlook for more young people, especially those of a creative bent. You only can be sure of living once, so what’s most important? If you want the creative life, keep that in mind from your first job onward.
This is actually always slightly scary advice to give, because often, if I just start to TELL someone about how I executed my life plan (usually it begins with some stranger asking where I went to college) they start to seem uncomfortable. "Well...that's great for you, but..." I've seen this look in people's eyes like, "PLEASE DO NOT SPEAK TO MY CHILD. SHE WANTS TO BE A WRITER AND I WANT HER TO GET A DEGREE IN BUSINESS." It is the American way to try to make as much money as possible and spend it on FLASHY THINGS and this attitude--this dream, even--is hard to avoid entirely even if you grew up a homeschooled hippie child as I did. (If I can't avoid it, no one can...) But I think it's worth considering looking at things the opposite way--not "How can I make money?" but "How can I not need money?" (Or similarly, "How can I make time?")


  1. This is a great post, thank you. I'm slightly in awe... I'm glad it's worked out like this for you. I couldn't imagine going full-time, partly because I like my 'real' full-time job, and partly because I would find the uncertainty too stressful.

  2. This is exactly how our household works. Husband is a film maker, I'm a writer and artist/crafter. I managed to get my college education debt free, through grants and a small amount my parents saved over 18 years. We do have one kid, and a mortgage - in a very low cost of living rural area - so for the last few years, we've both worked outside the house at least part time, but over the last 6 months, it's been just me supporting us, while hubs works on some freelance film related work. We live cheap, and don't need much, because most of our time is spent writing, painting, making and creating. Living in the county means access to local farms seasonally, and lower food costs. We're not too fancy either - I never shopped just for fun even when we had a bit more money coming in. And yes, we do have parents who are contributing to our child's college fund, so there is much less pressure on us, and more breathing room to take care of necessities. We have much less "stuff" and "space" than the average, I think, but we enjoy every minute of our days.

  3. Great post! I think you'd love the Mr. Money Mustache blog, if you haven't seen it already. He has a philosophy similar to yours, and great frugal tips.
    Best wishes to you!