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Lusty Lady

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Tuesday, July 04, 2017

What financial independence looks like in my forties

I think a lot about money and independence these days, because for me, they go hand in hand. I think about how for seven and a half years, I was so amazed that I'd somehow seemingly magically been plucked from a hellish typist job in one of the most dysfunctional and boring offices I'd never worked into a print magazine editor job that I never fought for a better job title, a pay increase or a vacation increase. I learned a lot at that job that I use every single day (copyediting skills never go out of style) but at the same time, I did a lot of very stupid things during those seven and a half years, aside from accepting such measly terms and not looking for a new job...like cashing out my 401k and maximizing my deductions and racking up credit card debt. Even though there were years where I was also bringing in a lot of outside income via freelancing, especially when I had my Village Voice column, which I needed to afford my Williamsburg apartment and social life, I still had trouble keeping up. I never felt financially secure. I could never truly think about moving because there was no way I could afford movers or even contemplate escaping my hoarding.

So basically from law school through very recently, I wasn't in any way financially independent. My gross income (and now my company's gross income) may have been what's considered good by many, including me, but it never felt like I could relax or step back and assess things. This year, I've started to do things differently. I decided that if my company is grossing six figures, I should be accountable for those dollars. I shouldn't feel like I have to accept every small job I'm offered just because I "need the money." I should very carefully weigh my time vs. each opportunity, which is much easier to do now that I have a part-time job where I'm paid hourly, both because I have a steady income every week and a baseline to know how valuable my time is in dollars.

All of this has been a learning process. I'm doing bookkeeping for the first time in my life so for my business, I know exactly how much I've made, how much I've spent and what my profit is. The next step, probably in 2018, will be tracking my personal spending, but first I need to get a handle on business. Doing that has allowed me to decide when it's appropriate to invest in my business and when it's not. I listen to podcasts like Being Boss and Hey Brandcrush and soak it all in. I invested $495 in a ticket to Alt Summit, though there are other costs involved: missing several days of income from my part-time job, which I'll have to miss to attend, flight, hotel, meals. But it felt incredible to whip out my business credit card, a goal I achieved this year, and make an active, considered choice to spend money that I ultimately hope I will recoup via the knowledge I learn and connections I make at Alt.

There are still an infinite number of things about business I have to learn. It all feels a bit ironic that in my forties I'm taking a real life, trial and error, my rent hangs in the balance crash course in how to run a business when back in my younger days I thought people who went to business school were, well, greedy mercenary types. Now I'm wondering every time I see a successful business, especially a creative business, How did they do that? What examples of theirs can I follow to grow my own career/business/achieve my dreams? I'm both laughing at myself and diving right in.

For me, a lot of what works is what I learned in Amanda Palmer's memoir The Art of Asking. Asking is how I've gotten interviewed on podcasts, how I've booked readings at incredible bookstores, gotten profiles written about me, gotten my publisher to print galleys of my books, to name just a few examples.

This summer and year are, for me, all about exploring and expanding on how to be financially independent. I live in fear of being reliant on my partner for money or beholden to him in any way. That would feel very scary and disturbing and off balance to me, even though I know the time may come when that will happen, temporarily or permanently. We're living in a time when few people have job security, but as a freelancer in every aspect of what I do, I certainly have none. My book sales could drop to zero at any moment, my copywriting job could end, my writing gigs could dry up. While logically I'm aware those are unlikely to happen all at once, I'm an anxious person who catastrophizes in my head quite often, so that worst case scenario haunts me, but also drives me to push myself to diversify my skill sets so that I have as much chance of economic stability as possible. I'm well aware of that doomsday outcome, although I try not to fixate on it, and instead I keep upping my game, learning as much as I can, trying to prove myself, to readers, who I hope will continue reading/borrowing/buying my books, my publisher, who I hope will continue to give me book contracts, and my boss, who I hope will continue to need my copywriting services. I can never forget that my financial independence is deeply tied to my dependence on the opinions of these people.

That's challenging because while I may not be relying on my partner, I am, clearly, always relying on so many others to keep me financially afloat. I'm relying on readers who, considered en masse, are a large, anonymous group. I maintain my newsletter and do monthly giveaways in part to keep that group a little more known. It's one thing to think about "readers" and another to be sending snail mail to people around the world, to hear from them via email, to organize events and meet them in person. I've already got two tentative dates planned for events next year because, whether it's the best business decision or not, I as a human being need that person to person connection. I have never been able to simply do all my work inside my own home. I crave that connection that can only come from being in the same room as other humans interested in the same subjects I am.

While I've had to cut back on in-person writing classes because they're just not feasible in most cases, when I am traveling, I try to incorporate them for the very selfish reasons stated above, first and foremost. I miss that interaction when I don't have it, so I work that in. I am scheduling readings for many reasons, such as providing my authors with a platform to hear their words out loud and to bring my books into prominence on bookstore shelves, but primarily, I'm booking those readings because without them I don't feel like my books are complete. They feel too empty, the words trapped on the page, but when I do a reading, I feel like I give them a new life because I get to hear them in a whole new way. That's something I'm willing to invest in (as long as I have the funds to invest).

I'm learning that "financial independence" doesn't mean "not spending money," but rather, spending it judiciously in ways that align with my values and will bolster my career in some way. I'm preparing to invest in those events (one of which will also earn me money, the other is a reading so may earn me a very small amount in royalties if books are purchased at it), for the same reason I invested in Alt. I consider every penny I spend on my business by asking myself whether ultimately, it will lead to my financial independence. If not, I don't do it. I'm scheduling my readings around the rest of my life, and planning them over six months in advance (something I've never done before) so I can properly plan promotions for them.

I also try to use the money I do earn to support other artists and creative businesspeople, whether that's buying jewelry on Etsy or, this weekend while in New York, from Yumi Jewelry, or shopping at independent bookstores when I travel or mail ordering from Powell's, or buying books like my friend Rob Hart's latest Ash McKenna mystery, The Woman from Prague, and indulging myself by buying it in hardcover because that's my preference. I'm proud that I can help other woman in their creative careers by hiring them to copyedit my books and to help with my book social media accounts, something I'll be expanding on in another post. I'm proud that I've increased payment to my Best Women's Erotica of the Year authors with each volume, going from $100 with Volume 1 to $150 with Volume 2 to $200 for Volumes 3 and 4. Those actions were only made possible because of my financial independence (and, in the latter case, book sales).

This weekend, while I've made many to do lists, I've tried to actively be off, something that clashes deeply with my workaholic streak and ever-present need to be working toward that financial independence. People sometimes say to me, "It must be great to make your own schedule," or "You have a four day weekend every week." What they don't see is all the hours that go into my various tasks, which could be research for an article pitch (that may or may not ever get picked up), planning for a book marketing social media post, correspondence with authors, going over a book's copyedits, etc. Next month I'll get a royalty check. It could be three figures or four figures or five figures. When those checks are good, which I don't know until I receive my quarterly royalty statements, I often feel like I've won some sort of lottery. I find myself thinking, Passive income really is incredible. But here's the thing: For me (and I can't speak for anyone else), this long, circuitous route from law school dropout with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to six figure freelancer has been and continues to be anything but passive. It involves constant vigilance, constant brainstorming, constant motion. There's plotting and planning and trial and error and sometimes, after the fact, I realize a project wasn't worth the time I had to invest. I'm constantly assessing which of my income streams I should keep and which it's time to retire.

It's also is a constant balancing act between being a good businesswoman and being a good girlfriend. Over the past five and a half years, I've had to learn over and over again that financial independence might come at the cost of not being able to prioritize my partner, especially when our schedules differ. I've had to readjust my expectations of what my work hours are. I've had to know that sometimes I've cut into time with my boyfriend because as a freelancer, I was pretty much "on call" to an editor.

This July 4th, while I'm the only one awake, before I've had my coffee, as the sun is making its appearance outside my home, that's what I'm thinking about, before I select a few work tasks to do and then go back to indulging in a four day weekend. I'm slowly figuring out how to value my time, how to let go and recognize that it's okay if I take a little break from that vigilance, to relax, cook, do jigsaw puzzles, watch movies, be silly. That even though my financial independence often feels precarious and surreal, a few hours or days off aren't going to hinder it, as long as I keep on tending it carefully, measuring every decision wisely, and innovating and growing. This summer I'm launching two projects in the name of financial independence and trying new things. I'll be reissuing an out-of-print anthology with an infinitely better cover than it was given the first time and a set of online classes about erotica writing and building a career in this field. I'm excited to learn all about how self-pubishing and creating a course work, so stay tuned.

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