Feast or Famine: A Writer’s Guide to Managing an Erratic Income

BY HANNAH GUY • October 22, 2021

Feast or Famine: A Writer’s Guide to Managing an Erratic Income

When I first started my writing career, I got a lot of advice. Some good, some hopelessly flawed. The one lesson I did not receive was how to manage and keep my head above the sometimes painfully erratic workflow. Some months had more work than I could complete, and I would emerge hollow eyed, pale, shaking, but triumphant, only to face an equally long dearth of work or income. Some months I was scrounging for groceries. Other months I was drinking champagne, eating expensive pâté, and debating travel.

So how do you manage the ups and downs of an inconsistent income? Here’s how to stay afloat.

Assess your financial situation before you take the plunge.

Loaded down with debt? Have a massive mortgage to pay or children you’re supporting? Before you venture into the great writing unknown, take a serious, critical look at your finances. How much do you have in savings? Make some financial plans and ensure you have enough money to cover your expenses until money starts coming in. Most experts recommend a six-month safety net.

Depending on how important this plunge is to you, think about getting a roommate or finding other ways to cut down your monthly budget. Don’t be afraid to compromise with a part-time or temp job—a change of scenery can actually be refreshing and give you a good excuse to get out of the house.

If you can, ensure your credit cards and line of credit are clear since debt payments on a small income can drastically reduce your quality of life. For bonus points, monitor your budget with an app that will keep track of your expenses.

Start freelancing and writing before you go full-time.

Reduce that initial slowdown of income by freelancing or selling your books before you commit full-time. This way, you’ll have a better idea of how much regular income you have and a more realistic view of whether or not this is sustainable. When you’re searching for clients, don’t restrict yourself to books. Look for regular blogging gigs, editing jobs, and other writing gigs. Not only will you increase your scope and reach, but you’ll still be working on your writing craft.

Tuck money away for taxes.

Because money can ebb and flow over the course of the year, sometimes it’s easy to lose track of how much you’re making—or spending. Aim to set aside at least 25 to 30 percent of your monthly income, depending on your income bracket and the tax rates where you live. You may also be required to make quarterly tax payments.

Explore your write-off options.

Working for yourself has serious advantages, and one of the best financial ones is the ability to write off some of your expenses. This can vary from state to state and country to country, so do your research. Consider hiring a tax expert for a year or or two so you can see how it works and what options you have. Checking in with your writing groups and author pals can also give you some ideas.

Avoid consumer debt.

Starting your writing career with little consumer debt is desirable, if it’s an option for you. However, keeping it that way—especially in the early months or years when you are still sorting out your money rhythms—can be challenging. For one, you may need access to a credit card when money is tight. There can also be surprise expenses (your phone or computer needs a repair), unexpected events (getting sick might mean missing a week or two of work), or some other unforeseen financial blip.

When money is tight, it can be challenging to live a leaner lifestyle. By keeping a close eye on your budget, you should be able to manage a few surprise expenses. But pay them off as quickly as you can, and be wary. Those expenses can add up quickly, and without the means to pay them off immediately, your monthly bills will increase to cover high interest rates.

Come up with a worst-case emergency plan.

Even if you work hard and do everything right, some things are out of your control. Whether you lose out on a book contract, your sales suddenly taper off, or your most important freelance client falls through, you might find yourself panicking. Plan for the worst-case scenario, whether that means having backup employment, family or friends who are willing to support you, or even moving in with a friend or family member temporarily. You probably won’t need it, but it’s good to have the emergency plan.

Splurge smarter, not harder.

Even when money is tight, try to find some small way to make yourself feel like a million bucks, whether it’s splurging on self-care, a great bottle of wine, a meal, or a small item that will improve your life on a daily basis. Start with the stuff you need and a few small indulgences, then start shoveling money into your bank account.

Tuck away a nice buffer for yourself for the next four to six months, and spend cautiously until you see some consistent trends over the course of a year or two. Too often, writers have received a hefty sum of money—whether for a special project, a new client, a book advance, or increased sales—and blown it on expenses they can’t afford long-term. A good rule of thumb? Ask yourself what you’d do with the money if you knew you’d be flat broke in six months.

Avoid comparing yourself to others.

If things are hard, or you’re in a lean time, avoid comparing yourself to your more financially comfortable friends and family. Even though we are dedicating ourselves to a career that brings us joy, even the most well-meaning folks can—when things are a bit harder—make us doubt our careers, our choices, and even ourselves. Take a break from anyone who (intentionally or not) makes you feel bad about yourself. This journey is about following your own path—not theirs.

Seek out other writers and freelancers.

Working from home means it’s easy to forget that there are others experiencing the exact same ups and downs. Reach out to your writing colleagues or plan weekly get-togethers. Even writing groups can be a great way to surround yourself with like-minded folks who are experiencing the same roller-coaster ride of triumph and dismay. Sometimes it’s nice to just be understood for a little while.

Plus, you never know what great money-management tips you might find—and after you’ve learned from your own experiences, you’ll be able to give someone else some good advice on navigating the feast and famine cycles.

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