How a Freelance Illustrator Who Makes $16,000 a Year Does Money

Elizabeth (not her real name) is a 28-year-old freelancer living in Somerville, Massachusetts.

So, Elizabeth, tell us a bit about your finances.

I’m a freelance illustrator and part-time art educator, living in Somerville. I teach at a progressive independent school during the academic year and at an Oxford, U.K.-based program during the summer. After taxes, I made $16,000 in 2014. Where the bulk of my income comes from changes annually, but last year it was mostly teaching. I’m debt-free.

You make about $16,000 a year. That’s above the poverty line for a single person, but not by much. Are you satisfied with your earnings? Do you want to earn more, and are you planning your career so that you can earn more in the future?

I’d certainly enjoy more money, but I have a high quality of life already. I work enough to maintain a balance of freedom and comfort. If I earned more, most of that would go to savings, since that and retirement is where all of my extra money goes now anyway. I maxed out my Roth IRA for 2014 and 2015 recently. It was a wrench, but my rate of return was at 9.1 percent! I had to!

Sometimes if I look at the actual earning/spending numbers I feel baffled and distressed, but if I look at my practical day-to-day living I feel content. It helps that most of my friends are also either low-earning, or have a lot more financial commitments than me (student and medical debts particularly). Ideally I’d be doing more prestigious, better-paying projects, but I really love the combination of changing freelance work and a consistent part-time job. If something meaningful changes — if I get a crazy baby-craving or break my wrist, or something — I’ll probably have to revisit this plan, though.

Let’s get right down to it: How do you do it? How do you live on $16K? Tell us everything you can: what percentage of your money goes towards rent/overhead, how much you spend on food, how much you spend on entertainment, whether you have a retirement account, whether you have emergency savings, etc.

Okay, hold onto your butts.

My living expenses for the last three months averaged about $1,250 a month. $800 of that is my half of the rent for the one-bedroom apartment I share with my boyfriend, about $200 of that is food and drink, and the rest is bills, clothes, entertainment, gifts, and getting around. It’s higher in the winter; I usually spend less than $1,200 in warmer months.

Taken in order:

Food and drink — that $200 covers groceries, restaurants, cafés, everything. I typically eat or drink something not prepared in my house or the house of a friend once or twice a month. (A quick note about latté economy: avoiding them won’t make you rich, but one a week comes to something like $200/year and that’s a new pair of good winter boots, so it’s worth it in my book. Ugh, sorry, I know that stinks, drink as many as you want!)

Bills — Internet is $30/month, phone is $40 (I very much do not have a smartphone), gas and electricity vary. Our apartment is spacious, with big windows and high ceilings, and that means always being a little chilly. In winter, we keep the heat at 58 during the day and 50 at night, except for our weekly holiday, Warm Sunday, when it’s at 61. I’d like to be warmer, but it would cost a fortune, so we wear sweaters and drink tea. I also bought a hot water bottle. It’s the best for being cozy under a quilt and obviously it’s named Hot Walter Bottle.

Clothes — I don’t really buy clothes. I love to sew and I’m getting pretty good, so most of my new clothes for the last few years are self-made, and I disingenuously tuck that expense under “entertainment” instead. Exceptions are shoes, socks, undies, and jeans. I try to buy shoes Sam-Vimes-style: expensively, but at infrequent intervals.

I consigned some old clothes recently, including some homemade stuff I don’t wear anymore, and immediately transformed that credit into a sunhat that is thrillingly vast.

My neighborhood is flush with friends who are roughly my size, and we have clothing swaps regularly, so things circulate and you get the fun of new clothes for free!

Entertainment — I love to sew. I like to meal plan, cook, and bake. I love to paint, for fun as well as for work. I walk to the library on nice days and read a lot and then review what I read on Goodreads. I like TV and board games and getting real shouty about feminism with good friends (we’re for it!). I like hosting parties and going to parties once in a while. I do not garden, despite my new hat. I don’t drink, take any drugs, wear makeup, belong to a gym, or particularly want to see any movies right now. I’m not denying myself anything, I’m just absolutely no fun.

This Friday I’m going to bake macarons and go to a friend’s apartment for the first episode of Wolf Hall. It will cost me $0. The weekend following that is Independent Bookstore Day and Somerville Open Studios, though I might catch a ride in a friend’s car to the RISD Art Sale instead. That’ll cost me whatever they accept for gas plus probably $1.75 for a Del’s. There’s two possible Derby parties too. I would never show up empty-handed to a party, but I’m going to bake something, not buy something. Since I have a well-stocked pantry already, I might need to pick up a couple ingredients, but not a billion.

Gifts — I like shopping for gifts! Gifts and books are my spending valve, though I don’t need it frequently. I buy things in stores instead of online whenever possible, and don’t use Amazon.

Getting around — Public transport and rides with friends only. No Uber. My lovely part-time job pays for my T Pass, so this number is the occasional train ticket and kicking in money for gas. It’s usually low.

Travel — this seems like it should be a big one because I summer in England, I just used summer as a verb so you can tell how fancy I am, but actually it’s not a huge deal. There’s a summer program I work for, and the amount I get paid covers the round-trip flight, rent on the American apartment, and living expenses for the month. If we find a subletter for July, I come out ahead. Even if I just break even, it’s worth it — I get to live in a beautiful old city for a month, where, when not punting and going to free museums, I teach Studio Art and have a fabulous budget for art supplies.

But if you know anyone who wants a good deal on a sublet in a great location in Somerville, heeey.

Emergencies — I have six months covered in savings.

Birth control — I have a Nexplanon implant, which I got for free in England last year. It’s the most reliable form of birth control available at the moment! There was that New York Times article about it! Now I’m just bragging.

Do you have to be very careful about planning your spending, so that you don’t accidentally overspend?

No, it’s habit at this point. It turns out there’s nothing I want more than time. I could be working more hours at a full-time job or working harder and faster at freelance, but you know that dumb thing about nothing tasting as good as skinny feels? It’s that, but with money and time, and hopefully less dumb but who knows. Would you be willing to give up restaurants in return for getting up without setting an alarm every day? Or would you give up cab rides if it meant getting to read everything on your list? Because I would, as it turns out, kind of to my own surprise. I wasn’t a hardened capitalist as a child or anything, but I do like money.

And if someone handed me $5,000 and said “lavish this on yourself or LOSE IT FOREVER” I would not even have to try very hard. I’d be up to my butt in boots and Pad Thai and Welsh tapestry blankets.

Oddly enough, Pinterest helps. It’s all the pleasure of acquiring stuff without the clutter. Plus, if I hold up something and think, “Would I pin this?” and the answer is no, I don’t buy it.

How do you not have debt?! What’s your secret? What did you do earlier in your life so that you ended up debt-free now?

I have the simplest not-so-secret of all: parents with money. Thank you, parents. I am both privileged and lucky. I’m privileged because my parents generously paid for my college education with no expectation of return, and because I have that support system I could always fall back on. The only thing I’m risking is my pride and I am so grateful for that.

I’m lucky to be privileged and also to be healthy (“healthy but unfit” is how I would describe it), so I’ve avoided the worst financial burdens right out of the gate through absolutely no merit of my own. I’m also lucky to have a boyfriend who is able to share expenses (we do halves).

As I mentioned in my email, I just always try not to buy things. It’s easy to stay debt-free if your income exceeds your spending, I’m a genius, give me a book deal!

I also get to enjoy a lot of the benefits of affluence — my part-time job has amazing perks (like a chef, she’s so good, I could have a free lunch prepared by an amazing chef every day if I left for work early, which I don’t because I’m a lazy dum-dum), and I can splash out getting supplies for the summer program. So I don’t feel stressed about living frugally because I get to have these high-flying experiences.

How do you feel about debt? Could you imagine a situation in the future where you might choose to go into debt?

I’d like to own a house someday, but not alone. I had minor student debt and it freaked me right the hell out, so I’d have to LOVE that house and it would have to have a hot-water-boiler and roof of SOLID STEEL, or whatever they should be made out of.

How do you manage your freelance business? How do you know how much to set aside for taxes? How much of your income goes back into the cost of running your business?

I set aside a firm 30 percent of my freelance earnings, though because my other jobs are taxed, I don’t usually have to fork over the whole amount. I might spend a few hundred dollars a year on paper, ink, website costs, and promotional printing. “Running my business” is an awfully grand description for what I do. I work in watercolor and mostly deliver digital files, so it’s not expensive like carving in marble or something.

What financial lessons have you learned since you started your business? What surprised you?

Taxes are worse than you could possibly imagine!!! Also, always always always have a contract. If they don’t want to sign a contract, they are not worth it! Respect yourself, baby! Also, I’m barely above the poverty line, I’m not sure I should be giving financial lessons.

What advice do you have for Billfold readers?

I’ve had times in my life where I’ve worked and worked and barely scraped by, and I felt so hopeless. If anyone reading this is doing that right now, I’m so sorry. That sucks. It sucks a lot and I hope it gets easier! This is not meant to be a criticism of anyone who wants more, or wants different things, and I’m aware that I can’t see the scope of my privilege from inside of it.

I got lucky breaks, from birth onwards. I would say I have a regulated life, but not a restricted one. I guess I’m giving up earning opportunities and spending opportunities, but I feel content! There’s a line in an Agatha Christie novel that really resonates with me — I don’t know who said it first, but I saw it there:

“Take what you want and pay for it, says God.”

And I want to sit around in a home-sewn dress and a giant sunhat, reading Agatha Christie novels.

Photo credit: Peter & Joyce Grace