I Don’t Want to Understand Taxes. I Don’t Expect Tax Clerks to Understand About Art”

Tokyo-based designer Luis Mendo on how to have “mental independence from money.” (First lesson: Have money.)

Interview by Kati Krause
Photographs by Gui Martinez

Money remains one of our biggest taboos — bigger than sex — and yet we spend more time earning it, spending it, and thinking about it than almost anything else. We’re bored with people presenting us with their seemingly effortless lives instead of the messy reality of their finances. So, here’s our attempt to turn it inside out: People talking honestly, and realistically, about their relationship to money.

How much money is currently in your bank accounts?
I have five bank accounts: Three checking accounts with two savings accounts attached. In my Japanese account, I currently have ¥1,000,000 ($8,400). Since it’s the beginning of the month, my personal Dutch bank account will have €2,000 ($2,350). That’s the one I use to pay my mortgage, insurance and so on. There’s €30,000 ($35,400) in my Dutch business account, but I have to pay my taxes for 2014 still, so it might end up in $0 after that. I’d prefer not to tell how much I have in my savings account.

Do you own any other assets or investments?
I don’t own any stock or investments because I don’t know how to do that. We have an apartment in Amsterdam but half of that is my wife’s. I don’t remember how much that cost… I think it was €240,000 ($280,000). But now it’s worth probably almost double that.

What’s your current income?
I make on average €3,000 ($3,500) a month, before tax. But that varies. Some months it’s €6,000 ($7,000), others it’s €1,000 or €2,000 ($1,200 or $2,400). I moved to Japan only a year ago, and I’m still building a name for myself, step by step. In the meantime, I live partly off my savings.

What are your current sources of income?
I do mainly illustration work for clients in Japan and the Netherlands, sometimes also in the U.S. and Spain. I also do design work, both in the Netherlands and Japan. Everything I make, I make working.

How much does each of those sources bring in?
That’s difficult to say because as a freelancer you depend on what comes in. There are great months and less great ones. The most profitable work is design in the Netherlands. That’s the best bet. But I get less and less of that work. So I end up doing more illustration.

Sometimes I work on the barter system: I got my son’s first bed by trading a logo with the carpenter. I like that way of working. I get more value out of it than money, and I can give more value back.

How much do you pay in rent?
I pay two rents: The mortgage in Amsterdam and my rent in Japan. My Tokyo rent is ¥120,000 ($1,000) per month. And I pay another €900 ($1,000) a month for the mortgage in Amsterdam. I bought the apartment eight or nine years ago, and I don’t know how much longer I have to pay it off.

I have an accountant in Amsterdam who speaks to me in normal Dutch, not in finance speak. I don’t understand any money things, like taxes. I think everyone in the finance and bank world steals from you anyway. I don’t want to understand taxes. I don’t expect tax clerks to understand about art, either.

What are your other costs, and how much do you spend on them?
I really don’t know. I just spend money, whatever I need. I have no weird wishes. I eat whatever I feel like eating, without ever checking the price. I just buy whatever I want. But my wishes are never extravagant. The other day I bought new ink I wanted to test, and I bought five colors. Other people would maybe buy just one to test, but for ¥400 ($3.40) a bottle, I take the risk. Not precisely a very big expense.

When I started my business I decided I didn’t want to live thinking about money — which is what I did when I was working for a boss. That was one of the biggest changes in my life: the feeling of having mental independence from money. When I stopped drawing a salary, I was free to not think about it so much. If I wanted to buy Ferraris, it would be different. But I don’t buy expensive shoes or make big trips. Luxury for me is to buy five bottles of ink, or nice sketchbooks for $20. I take taxis and eat out a lot because I hate to cook, and in Tokyo you eat out so well. If you put it all together, my biggest expense is probably eating out.

Do you break even at the end of the month or manage to save?
No idea. Money comes into my business account, and I pay myself a salary. I only spend my salary, maybe a little more. Sometimes I dip into my savings, sometimes I live off one month’s income for three months.

Do you have any debt?
No, except my house. I hate debt. I will do my best never to have any debt. I always pay all my bills immediately.

What’s the most expensive thing you own?
Probably my computer, a MacBook. And my apartment, but I don’t own that — that’s still the bank’s.

Do you indulge in any occasional luxuries?
I am able to sponsor friends who don’t have much money, because their businesses aren’t very successful or whatever. I give them handouts or buy them dinner. When I was starting out and had nothing, I had a couple of people who helped me. And I’ll never forget that, how good that is, having someone buy your drawings when you need it. That’s the ultimate luxury. But I don’t do that too often, once a month maybe.

The whole money thing is so important to some people, but I think at the end of the day it’s so unimportant. It’s like taking sugar in your coffee or not. Of course having money in the bank puts you at ease and gives you space to think about other things. I feel bad for people who think about money all day, because everything above the line of survival doesn’t make your life any better. You don’t need money to learn things or go somewhere. You can always try other ways. If you want to go on a cruise, you can just get a job on a cruise ship. People always think they need money first, but dude, you’re missing the point! There’s always a way to get things. Money is just one way, the easier way. But other ways are more interesting and rewarding.

You have to cover the basics, yes. But I think everybody is able to provide these basics if they look inwards. Many friends and family of mine in Spain say they can’t get a job. Then I ask them, what do you have to offer? Everybody has something. The problem is when people try to achieve something that’s not in them. Many people don’t look inwards and they keep changing.

How did you get to where you are today, financially?
My parents paid for most of art school except the last year, which I paid for myself. But I never took a student loan. I would teach Spanish lessons, babysit kids and dogs, paint some walls… that’s how I paid my last year of studies. I would never take a loan. I think it’s very weird. I understand you need to finance it somehow, but I don’t get it… nowadays it’s so insecure, I don’t know how they do it.

My way to get here has always been to work hard and make sure I get paid decently for it.

Were you ever poor?
Yes. When I was a child, we were poor. My father was working three jobs. When I wanted to study abroad during my last year of art school, I had to pay for it myself. My parents only paid for my ticket back home because I was dead broke then.

I’ve been working independently for nine or 10 years now. Before I always had a salary. That was OK, I had normal salaries, not huge ones, even when I was creative director of a design studio. The moment I became self-employed, I started earning a lot more money, because there was no boss taking a cut. I’ve never taken a cut from anyone: Not from printers, not from employees, not from freelancers. I’ve never had employees and I don’t want them either. I think it’s immoral to take cuts. All the money I earn is from my own work.

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