I don’t even know how to write an intro to this recap because the AMA (ask me anything) with Elaine was so jam-packed full of critical advice and information that I think I’ll just let her do the talking.
There’s no quick links at the top of this blog, because I really want you to read everything.
Because it’s all so good.
Oh! But here’s the shortcut to resources. (sorry for lying to you earlier xoxo)
Important note: I use “I” for Elaine, but please know this is NOT her words verbatim. Don’t hold her accountable to ‘em.
Meet Financial Counselor Elaine Grogan-Luttrull
Elaine is a CPA, financial counselor, and financial therapist (gods knows we all need that!). She believes that money issues are never really about money - it’s about your story, your needs, and your dreams.
She owns Minerva Financial Arts, a financial advising company that specializes in helping creatives figure out their sh**. She is extremely talented at coaching, workshops, and speaking.
Which was evidently clear at her AMA with us this March!
Let’s get to it, shall we?
Q: As a creative, what is the first thing you would suggest to become more financially stable?
Start with your art, then break it down.
What does it cost for you to exist as a human, in the way you want to exist? Be really honest with yourself here. There’s probably a number you think is the answer, but don’t forget those ‘every once in awhile’ expenses.
What does it cost for you to run your business in the way you want to run it? Don’t forget about going to conferences and all of those tools and apps and software you have to use!
Set money aside for taxes.
What are you saving as an emergency reserve fund for life and your business and long term (like retirement or a sabbatical).
Put all of this into a pyramid to figure out how much you have to make a month. It will show you where you need to go.
Then you can start thinking about expanding your revenue streams or raising rates.
Budgeting isn’t about identifying things to cut, it’s figuring out what you need to make.
Q: Taxes – I’ve heard that you should put 30% of whatever you take home to go into tax savings. Is that something you advise? And should we be doing quarterly payments?
30% is not a bad rough estimate, and you should be putting 10-15% into savings.
The key here is doing the math when you’re quoting a project.
If you’re quoting $1,000 on a project, $300 goes to taxes, $150 to savings, leaving you only $550 to live on. That’s not a lot.
You have to get comfortable reframing your metrics and expectations.
As for quarterly payments, the IRS requires you to pay taxes throughout the year. You can have your accountant (or your accounting software) to predict the quarterly taxes for you and then at the end of the year figure out how right or wrong you are.
For a W2 job your employer is doing all the tax stuff for you.
Here’s a good tip – if you have a W2 job, ask your employer to withhold more so it can cover your freelance taxes. Then you don’t have to pay quarterly.
That’s actually one of the reasons why I’m an adjunct professor – that position pays my taxes!
Q: What happens if you sell other things, like used gear, when it comes to taxes?
The big question is if you can expense that for your business. You have to pay taxes if it’s income-related. So if you start a side business reselling stuff, yes to taxes. If you do it regularly to acquire money – yes!
If you’re selling something you expensed earlier on in your business, yes you have to claim it.
If you’re just reselling an old bed or something, don’t worry about it.
Q: For some clients I handle production. People keep pushing me to get a vendors license. Do I need one?
If you are selling goods, or producing something for a client then selling it to them, technically you have to have a vendors license in order to collect sales tax.
But! If you are conduit for passing on physical assets to a client, that vendor pays sales tax. So if you’re designing a poster but then have someone else print it for the client, the printer pays sales tax, not you. If you design it and print it, that’s different.
Remember – you only have to pay sales tax once.
Q: I sell products online – what about sales tax there?
If you sell work in various states at trade shows and the like, you can get a transient sales tax license that sets the sales tax rates based on where you’re physically located.
But every state is different! Some require that you have to have a vendors license for their particular state. Just be mindful of that particular state’s rules about sales tax.
Q: When is it a good point to get a vendors license?
As soon as you sell an item.
Q: Can you tell that one story about the famous playwright you worked with?
Yes! I love this story. He grew up fielding debt collector calls for his mom which really influenced his money mindset.
He had a ton of student debt after college and so after his early success, he paid all of that debt off immediately. At the time he thought he was doing the right thing – he had debt, now he had none. He wasn’t going to get those debt collector calls!
But then his credit score was so low he couldn’t get a credit card. Credit scores look at your ability to make payments on time and reliably – he just paid his whole debt off at once.
Then he went on to write more successful plays and even won a Tony, but he manages his money differently now.
The lesson is that sometimes we get these messages about money and think we are doing the right things, but later on we get screwed in unexpected ways.
We have to holistically move towards where we want to be.
Q: So earlier you said save 10-15% for your savings - is that for everything, including retirement? Where do you prioritize?
That 10-15% does cover savings and retirement. Most people say to have at least 3 months of savings that you could live off of if business slows down or you want to take a vacation.
I prefer having a little higher amount. I call it my “I quit” fund. When I was working for a big financial firm I needed to have 6-12 months of living expenses on hand so I could look at my accounts and say “well if I wanted to quit I totally could.”
Eventually I did just that and started my company, but having that extra cushion gave me that needed flexibility to try something radically different.
Going back to the 3 month living expenses – make sure it makes sense for you. If you have a mortgage, kids, and are taking care of aging parents or something you probably need more.
My suggestion when it comes to thinking about retirement savings – I always say to prioritize your emergency fund first.
That is your protection from debt and honestly a load of stress. Once you get that 3-12 months in your emergency savings fund then start splitting the 10-15% between retirement and savings.
Q: When you are in the black and things are going well and you are able to add to your savings and your retirement, what are the common mistakes people do when they start trying to invest?
Starting too early. Do you have that emergency fund? Do you really need to invest your money?
Overcomplicating investments. Work with a financial planner who is a fiduciary and fee only – they have their own skin in the game to make sure your investments pay off. And I think it’s the most ethical way to go. But you don’t have to hire someone. Park your money in some diversified index mutual fund and just let it hang out. Don’t pull it out, don’t freak out when the stock market dips (because it will). Just let it hang out.
Q: Once you get to that higher number on your pyramid – what are the steps to diversifying revenue streams and raising prices?
A lot of people try to cut things out of their budget in order to make more. No! Most people don’t really have any room to cut.
Instead, make more money.
You can charge more.
Are you charging enough?
Really make sure what you are charging is capturing the value of what you offer. If you’re charging hourly rates think about if that price is also covering your non-billable hours of admin tasks and client management.
Q: Is there a pricing formula?
Not really. But if you had to have one
hours ÷ billable hours = hourly rate
However, there are many problems using a formula. If you want a quick takeaway, do the formula and then add a zero to the final number.
Or do the formula then look at your competition.
Let’s talk about competition for a minute.
Creative people tend to think they don’t really have competition.
That is never true. Because if I’m a customer I don’t see that different. Take a step back.
Here’s a great example!
I worked with a really incredible modern dance company in NYC. When I asked them about their competitors they said they didn’t have any because what they do is so special.
Which is true!
But not quite.
You have to step back into the customer’s shoes. Not every customer will be sophisticated enough to know that their particular style of modern dance is unique. So they are just interested in dance. Why not the ballet?
If the ballet, why not just a live concert?
If just a live concert, why not a movie or a community event?
If just a community event, why not stay home in their pjs with their family watching Netflix?
Competition is how your customers perceive the other options around you, not how you understand them.
So here are 4 things to consider when redefining your value.
Cost – what are you charging now and can it cover your cost of living?
Competition – who else is in your space?
Customers – what do your customers value?
Competencies – What do you bring to the table that is unique?
Q: How do you take all of that information and make more money?
It’s all about your pricing strategy.
Brainstorm what your strengths are to find opportunities where you can diversity.
And bonus if it’s free marketing like speaking on panels or creating online courses.
But please be careful about those new opportunities – you don’t want them taking too much time away from your core business. Be intentional!
Q: TurboTax? Do you recommend it?
Yes! Most accountant charge by the form, so if you are a freelancer with a giant stack of 1099s, your tax bill is going to be pretty high.
Put aside a block of 4-5 hours to just get your taxes done. You need to really get lost in them to give yourself time to figure it out.
As a sidenote – an accountant is extremely helpful if you can afford it. They will free up time for you to spend on your creative work.
Q: What tools do you recommend for budgeting and tracking expenses?
I would suggest downloading MileIQ to track your business miles, or create an excel sheet if you’re nervous about apps tracking your movement.
You can download Mint to track your expenses and budget. It’s free, but please be aware that they sell your information and it isn’t really designed for business.
Most banks offer separate budgeting tools – ask your local branch.
I really love YNAB (You Need a Budget) app!
QuickBooks Self-Employed is really great too. It’s really affordable (~$10/mo) and tracks miles, invoices, expenses, and even figures out your quarterly tax estimates.
FreshBooks is really good for invoicing as it’s designed for the user, not for the accountant like QuickBooks. It’s much easier to pick up and understand.
Q: What are common pitfalls of creatives when it comes to pricing and budgeting?
Not charging enough because they are too beaten down by critiques.
Not saving enough to give themselves breathing room.
Not setting aside enough for taxes.
And honestly – not having business insurance.