Getting Paid Partially in Time

09 Jul 2010

This post originally appeared on Make & Meaning, and, as it turns out, is related to this week's video blog.


Image by Catherine, via Flickr

So many of our discussions around Free have gravitated toward money - after all, many, many creative people wish they could make their living making their art.

So often, though, we get caught up in the idea that we need to make lots of money, and if our art can't pay that, then it's not worth leaving the lucrative safety of the corporate world.

It's true that many self-employed artists will earn smaller incomes than people at many corporate jobs. But contrast these two realities for a moment:

Reality #1
The alarm drags you out of sleep, and into the realization that you've got to hurry up and get to the job you hate. Groggy, you drag yourself through the morning routine of washing and dressing and gulping coffee. Then you get in the car and sit in traffic - or, you pack yourself onto a crowded bus - and crawl to work. The closer you get, the deeper the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. You'd so much rather be crocheting. Only eight more months until your vacation trip to Hawaii.

Reality #2
You wake up naturally, refreshed and excited to begin your day. It might be early in the morning or maybe you made art until the wee hours and are getting started at midday. It's entirely your choice. You wash up, dress simply, and head to your studio space. You might work on some art, or doodle in your sketchbook, or catch up on email - whichever one is calling to you most. Your day is spent mostly in flow like this - you spend your energies where your mind and body want to go. You may not have the money for a vacation this year, but then again, you may not really need one.

Here's a secret: the first scenario actually requires a lot more money than the second one.

Image by zoutedrop, via Flickr

Those large corporate salaries have so many costs built in. You have to buy and maintain a work wardrobe. You have to pay to get yourself to and from the job each day. You might have to pay for day care for your children. You have to pay to feed yourself while you're at work. And more than likely, you'll end up treating yourself to occasional (or frequent) coffee drinks, to help keep you fueled. If it's a job you don't like, then you'll also spend money on decompressing, whether that's with a cold beer or dinner out or a new scarf you buy yourself as a reward for working so hard.

With a comfortable salary, of course, these little expenditures feel justified - even necessary. But I think they can also be insulating in dangerous ways. All of this money-spending consumes time as well. And before you know it, another five years have gone by and you haven't taken any steps toward your dream of creating for a living. Time is always leaving us.

I think so many people deprive themselves of a fulfilling creative career because they fear losing the cushion of that corporate gig. Well, I'll let you in on a secret: when you work for yourself, part of your paycheck is in the form of time.

Image by Robbert van der Steeg, via Flickr

Time spent focused on your own goals, time spent doing things pretty much when and how you want to, time to exercise more, time to be a night-owl or early-riser - these are meaningful forms of "salary" indeed. And you don't need a large fortune to enjoy them.

I don't want to over-simplify things here. Making a living from your creative work takes a lot of time and effort - far more, in fact, than your average corporate job. It's also true that there are financial uncertainties to making your own living, and sometimes, these aren't for the faint of heart.

Self-employment is exhilarating some days, and terrifying other days. But every day, every hour, you have a choice of how to respond, a creative mission to propel you, and the available hours to make it happen. I may live frugally now, but in many ways, I feel orders of magnitude richer and more alive than I ever felt doing any corporate job. I'll take that in trade for the financial muffler any day.

Image by Brenda Anderson, via Flickr

Am I implying that you don't need any money to be self-employed as an artist? Oh, not at all. But I am saying this: If you have a desire to make your living through your art, one of the most powerful first steps you can take is to look at where you can afford to stop spending money. Cultivate a habit of liberating the time from the cash.

What things do you buy that consume time? Can you jettison, say, the giant cable package that keeps you glued to the tube and re-invest those hours in your art? Can you give up the daily trips to the coffee house in favor of drinking home-brew with your sketchbook on your lap?

It's surprising how, once you start simplifying your lifestyle, you begin gaining more and more resources of time. Paradoxically enough, when you need less money, and have more time, you can generally create more options for yourself.

What do you think? How does your time relate to your money?


I also think that soul-sucking jobs cost more in health care costs, even if you have the best insurance. Stress, lack of sleep, unhealthy eating habits, lack of time for exercise, and even a long commute are a few of the potential causes of health problems in a soul-sucking job. Some of us are made to work corporate, but it can be difficult to strike a balance.

Great point, Cami - I tend to think corporate environments are sometimes profoundly unhealthy. Not only physically, but mentally. (Or at least, some of the ones I've worked in have been.)

After six years of teaching, I am leaving a tenured teaching job to become self-employed this August. This article was especially timely for me. There are times where I am completely terrified of taking that leap. However the only thing that terrifies me more is looking back twenty years from now and wondering "What if...?"

There are some days at my full-time day job that I'd pay someone $50 to help me escape from my desk, so I would have no problem at all making less money in exchange for sanity and happiness!

I also like the idea of the flexible schedule: getting groceries when the store isn't crazy-crowded, mailing things at the post office when there isn't a line, etc. I'd trade my corporate salary for these perks any day.

I saw this post on Make & Meaning, and it almost makes me teary eyed. I've been in college from the time I got out of highschool (I'm 28 now and still have a couple years for my BA) but I've always had to work part-time at the same time. It used to seem that a degree would answer all my problems, I could get a good job as a Graphic Designer and set my life up. But now I'm not so sure, it's really scary out there in the "real world" I'm not so sure I want to work for some company that treats me like a number, or have to constantly worry about being layed off. It's really hard right now to find people who are happy with their lives, and how sad is that?

This article has me seriously thinking about my priorities and why I'm so worried. I'm realizing that you just have to step back and decide what is the most important aspects of your life and do what you love, no matter how hard you have to struggle to get there. I don't know what my future will hold but I really hope that I can follow my dreams while still keeping my feet on the ground.

Anyway, thanks for posting this article again, it was really inspiring to read.

Yay! Congratulations! This reminds me so much of the film "Lemonade," which is about what happens after you get laid off:

Ok, this is really uncanny so I have to share it. A few months ago my coworkers/mentors were layed off (working for the city government), both Graphic Designers. I was a sort of intern assistant helping them out although I was technically under a different department. Anyway, not an hour after I left my posting from earlier I had lunch with one of them who has teamed up with other displaced city workers and now have an already thriving consultation business and they want me to freelance for them. It's only a few small projects to start but not only are they living their dreams but they are pulling me into it as well. It's just really crazy and I'm really excited to get the opportunity.

Oh, absolutely, Ashley - the hours I save doing my errands at non-peak times, rarely having to sit in rush-hour traffic, etc. It's a huge time-savings.

Tina, what a beautifully-expressed encapsulation of self-employment!

I just read a fantastic piece on Productive Flourishing about the Business Lifecycle. It talks about the stages of a small business' growth - really speaks to our unique situations:

All the best with your business! Your determination will take you places.

I think "Reality #1" could easily explain how many children feel about going to school...."only eight more months to summer". School, in fact is training for such a lifestyle. I think that is part of what makes people fearful of trying to live a life that is so different. It is not what we've been raised to believe about how to live a "good life". I totally agree with you that living with less materially really does give you more in so many other ways.

Wowee, what a great point, Deanne! You're right, it took me years to overcome my indoctrination into that mythical "work hard/have a career" lifestyle. Things really do get simpler the more you cut away those money drains.

Great article, thank you! I know exactly where I am on that little graph. :)

Amen! And, I'll bet this rhythm is very helpful in recharging you to face the rigors of teaching. Incidentally, do you know of Taylor Mali? I love his poem "What Teachers Make" so much:

Awesome, Greenbee! I wish you all the best with your self-employment adventure!

Heh - Oh, I hear that, Thea! Thank goodness for awesome thrift-store finds, though.

Also, how the heck did I not know about Spoonful yet?! Just ordered an issue! Woo!

I left my full-time job last year to become a full time crafter but found it really hard to get into a routine each day as I had no pressure of when to craft. I have now taken on a part-time job
( in a craft supply store - heaven !) and I find that I put my time away from work to better use as I no longer have " all day" to do stuff. The time that I do have is very precious and I use it much more wisely now. More crafting done = a satisfied crafter and the part-time job helps to fill the income gaps when sales are slow.

Good for you, Anniebee - some of us need a little more structure in our time. Sounds like you've found a great way to create that structure in a way that supports your own business.

Great post, very inspiring. I've gone down to working 3 days a week (i think some people think I've gone mad!), and my days away from employment are bliss. Now, if only I could take the plunge... :)

Awesome, Tracey! And don't worry too much - I think it can be a process, stepping out of the job-based life. It took me a good twenty years to do it. :-) Sounds like you've made a great first step there!

Oh YES!! I must do more thrift store finding!!!
Glad you found spoonful too :)

Thank you so much for sharing your story here, Fae Dreamer! I think that, once you're on the whole corporate track, it's so challenging to step off. For one thing, the perception of more, and more steady, money is powerful. (Even though, in reality, that's all pretty illusory - especially with our economy where it is.)

I've learned that struggling over work you love is vastly superior to struggling over work that drains you. I mean, although we all love the idea of Easy Street, we'd probably bored if we weren't being challenged, right?

Wow, yah that's exactly what we went through in January and May, only I was the one left behind with the guilt and lothing for the company I'm working for. The one that every says "well at least you still have a job" to, even though your heart is screaming and you almost wish you didn't. It was horrible, really really horrible.

I don't mean to burst the bubble of happy illusion surrounding this post, but I think I need to shed a little bit of light on the potential reality that most self employed creative people face.

I was a self employed artist for almost 16 years. And although it is true that your time is more flexible and a great deal of the time you spend is doing something you truly enjoy, the reality is that you most likely will not make as much money as you do at a salaried position, you will need to pay for your own healthcare costs at easily 3 and 4 times the price of what it costs to be insured through an employer, you will have to pay 15% self employment tax to cover your social security, a cost that is shared when employed with a company, and you will need to pay estimated quarterly taxes to not be hit with a large tax bill at year end.

Yes, you will most likely spend more hours of the day doing something you love (creating art), but to be able to survive, you will have to spend just as many, if not more hours, marketing, promoting, and selling your art, not to mention being your own accountant ( or pay someone else to be your marketing , PR, sales and financial help).

If you ever want to buy a house, or a car, or any other large purchase that requires credit, the hoops you have to jump through to qualify in terms of showing income or going the route of "stated income" never results in as smooth or beneficial financial transaction as it would with a regular paycheck.

There are no perks like the "401K matching" fund, so if you want to save for retirement you have to do this entirely on your own, a luxury that I never felt I could afford when I was self employed.

And this illusion that you will have more time and money is purely an illusion. To make it work, you will most likely spend many many more hours a day at work, and dont kid yourself that the lack of stress will make it possible to forego those extra lattes and things you spend money on at a "regular" job.

Dont get me wrong. In many ways I loved being a self employed creative person. I ran my own small business througn my twenties and thirties and loved the creativity and freedom of it in many ways. But eventually, the economy made it impossible for me to continue, and when I looked at how I had spent the last 15 years I realized that although I had loved many things about my life, I had also spent more time working than anything else, including time with family and friends or really taking care of myself. plus, I had very little to show for it in terns of savings as I entered my forties.

I am not trying to talk anyone out of following their dreams, I just think it is important to approach your dreams with a good sense of what the reality is. I was very naive when I began, and although i am glad I did it, I wished I had known more from the beginning about what it really would take.

I also dont think that you should ever assume that if you get a regular 9-5 job, or corporate job that you will hate it! When I gave up my business a few years ago, due to financial constraints, I went into the corporate world and found there was much I liked about it. It still has its share of good and bad situations and people, but no more than I encountered selling my own work out in the world.

My suggestion to any creative person would be to follow your dreams, but with a healthy dose of reality thrown in...think about ways you can incorporate your creativity into everything that you do whether it is your corporate job or your time spent with your children. Your true creativity and the ability to make your art comes from inside you and you can always tap int that no matter what you are doing.

Thank you for sharing your story, Becca. I hope I didn't give the impression of trying to create an illusory "bubble" that precludes the many challenges of self-employment. Believe me, everything you've described is running in my background right now, too.

My purpose with this post was to point out that, despite the difficulties, the baseline control I have over my time is ultimately far more rewarding for me than the financial trappings of corporate employment. And my choice to focus on this daily benefit of time makes the various pitfalls much simpler to navigate.

I've written and podcasted a great deal about the ways self-employment can be challenging - so maybe, taken in the context of my other work, this post would present a more balanced picture to you. And certainly, just because the corporate life hasn't proven to agree with me doesn't mean it won't agree with everyone.

Perhaps we can just agree to disagree, and respect each other's takes on this idea.

We had to relocate across the country in January and my husband has been VERY supportive of me trying to make a go at self-employment. One of his main reasons is that he knows I'm not grumpy every day... which makes it easier on him, too. Reality #1 was totally me. Yes, the financial situation is much more frightening than it was when I was in Corporateville, but I can't put a price on scheduling my day around the flow, and being able to shift days off to match my husband's non-traditional days off. I work more than I ever have, am currently fighting to get through The Dip (a la Seth Godin), stress about money every day... and couldn't be happier. Knowing that the alternative is a return to that previous reality is all the motivation I need to keep going.

As a public school teacher, I get to experience a faux self-employment feeling every summer. I work almost every day, but if I feel overworked, I take a day off. Having every hour of every day to be filled with my choices is a luxurious feeling, indeed.

fabulous post!! I so agree with so many of the things you have said@! I am 100% happy with my time and working from home creatively and it all goes swwell until... like this winter in oz, I'd really like to buy a new pair of boots and I can't afford to... lots of time to spend thinking about it though - hehe