Monday, April 9, 2018

What a budget can (and can’t) do, and why you should (really) have one

It’s that time of year when people panic to finish their taxes and stress out over money they inevitably owe. It’s also that time of year where I say to myself, “I should get better at managing my money. Maybe I’ll make a budget.” I might google “budgeting for artists” and then that tab stays open in my browser for 3 months on what I call “tab hospice” (until I accidentally restart my computer).

I’ve had a complex (i.e., bad) relationship with money. I’ve been lucky to get by, through occasionally maxing out credit cards, paying the $25 minimum on my student loans, living in my studio at one point, not having health insurance/going to planned parenthood for all of my medical needs, and getting part-time gigs through friends. I didn’t make my best work at this time; my financial insecurity resulted in constant low-level anxiety. Perhaps my insecurity is easier to manage because I don’t have anyone (parents, loved ones, or kids) relying on me for money. But regardless I’m lucky to continue to survive, draw, and write.

All through my financially leanest times I felt that making a budget would be the responsible thing to do. But the idea of doing a budget terrified me because 1) I didn’t know how and it felt like budgets were complex, and 2) I was scared of finding out how little I actually had, because then I’d know I was truly screwed. Instead, I approached money the way I approached standardized tests: closed my eyes and hoped for the best.

I met Jericha Senyak, who offers budgeting and planning workshops for artists and nonprofits through a workshop organized by Independent Arts & Media in San Francisco. Jericha introduced me to using a budget, and talked me through ways to approach budgeting. Know and expect this: budgeting can be a painful and humiliating process, especially when you have very little money. It can feel like a punishment. Jericha urged me to think of it more as a way of gaining control over what you do have. A budget is a tool for your survival.

You can use this template that Jericha helped me to make. All of the numbers are made-up, FYI. They are also a reflection of me as a single person, living in a city with no financial dependents. Jerchia recommended that I update the numbers every couple of months based on what I actually spend. I do it about once every 6 months TBH. A budget is actually very simple. You want to track all of the money you have coming in, and the money you have going out. I found another resource recently on the New York Times Smarter Living blog that mentions another free spreadsheet called Pear Budget. You make 2-3 potential budgets:
  • a “things are going really well for me financially” budget, where you could put some money away, go on a vacation, save money in case you get sick or injured, or need to get expensive dental work done; 
  • a “what I actually expect to happen” budget where you’d feel like you’re financially comfortable; and
  • a worst-case scenario budget where you figure out the absolute minimum that you’d need to make rent and eat. 
Another resource related to budgeting is to know how much you should be making in order to meet these budgets, and how much to charge clients for your work and your time. For example, if you decide you need to make $35,000 yearly to not live in panic, that breaks down to:
  • 35,000 ÷ 1,500 = $23/hour 
  • 23 x 8 = $184/day 
  • 184 x 5 = $920/week 
It’s also good to remember that a budget is useful, but it won’t solve deeper, more pervasive structural problems. I wrote an article a few months ago where I asked over 100 picture book creators how they make money. Many of them said that they had some kind of existing financial stability or support. In the article, I proposed that simply being able to hang in there financially while you try to make it as an illustrator or a writer is a privilege, and that perhaps this privilege is contributing to the low rate of success in publishing and participation amongst people who aren’t part of the dominant paradigm in the US. If you grow up wealthy, you’ll probably be more likely to have access to financial planning, knowledge, and tools about growing wealth.

Growing and keeping wealth is also deeply tied to race in the United States. According to a recent Stanford longitudinal study: “when we compare the outcomes of black and white men who grow up in two-parent families with similar levels of income, wealth, and education, we continue to find that the black men still have substantially lower incomes in adulthood.” That’s not a problem of being black and not working hard enough; that’s a systematic problem: “white boys who grow up rich are likely to remain that way. Black boys raised at the top, however, are more likely to become poor than to stay wealthy in their own adult households.”

Thanks to the efforts of We Need Diverse Books, People of Color in Publishing, and so many more, the needle is slowly moving within our industry. I spent this Saturday at The Color of Children’s Literature Conference, hosted by Kweli Journal in New York, a children’s book conference that convened over 150 people of color and indigenous people who are writers and illustrators. It was a powerful, affirming, wholly supportive experience, without competition, where creators shared resources, tools, and approaches to craft and the business of publishing. It was an antidote to the frustrating experiences and conversations I’ve had with primarily white cisgender female authors and illustrators claim that they don’t get book deals or awards because their books don’t have diversity, or they’re not themselves diverse. To clarify: it might seem like all of the black and brown people are getting all of the awards and the book deals right now, but look at the statistics of the people who are publishing books in the US. Don’t believe the data? Here’s a good litmus test: name 5 Native American or First Nations picture book illustrators. Name 5 Latinx illustrators. Now name 5 white illustrators. One category is much easier than the others, right? They’re also the people who end up winning the awards.

Sometimes at conferences the speakers get asked what they wish they could go back and tell the younger versions of themselves. I would go back and teach myself how to build a budget. I would also tell myself to value my work, my time, and myself more. The systems we work in are challenging and have imbalanced power structures; publishing is no exception. At the end of the day, regardless of your race, gender, or other sum of parts and experiences that make you “you”, you’re probably reading this blog because we’re all united by the same impulse: to make art and books, and to live in a world with great art and books. This budget does not and will not solve systemic problems, but perhaps it offers a tool for people to use to get one obstacle out of the way.


K-Fai Steele is a writer and drawer who lives in San Francisco. You can find her work on Instagram. Her debut picture book, A Normal Pig, comes out in Summer 2019 with Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins Childrens.

She is also illustrating Jacob Kramer's Noodlephant (Enchanted Lion, January 2019) and Emily Snape's Old MacDonald Had a Baby with Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan (Fall 2019).

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