by Rachel Sanders
Variable income is one of the biggest challenges many freelancers have to contend with. And Chris Enns understands it all too well. As an opera singer, he struggled himself with the best way to handle his money. Those struggles led him to learn more about finances and eventually get certified as a financial planner.
Now he splits his time between opera and finances — the latter through his very creative website From Rags To Reasonable.
Lately he’s also been running free financial planning office hours on Friday afternoons on Twitter. He took the time to speak with Story Board recently about getting control of your finances, following your curiosities, and how to be your best creative self.
Q: What led you to personal finance?
A: Making all the mistakes. I’m not somebody who grew up being good with money. It didn’t come naturally to me. I was doing the very classic artist thing of just ignoring it completely. The arts scene doesn’t really prioritize financial skills. It was fine when I was making nothing but when I started to make money I started to get into trouble. And eventually the situation got bad enough that I just had to face it.
The surprise ending for me was that I found it really interesting and really empowering. I just got hooked on what getting control of that part of my life did for me as a creative person, and how freeing it was and how helpful it was for all of the other things I wanted to do.
Q: How did you decide to make it part of your working life?
A: If I just do one thing, it kind of drives me crazy. So when I was 100 percent involved in singing it just was too much. I needed something else to think about. So I was looking at the other things I was curious about. And I did want to start writing about this. That’s where it started, as another personal finance blog among many on the internet.
And I started to talk to more people. Because once you put yourself out there as someone who’s willing to talk about money it’s amazing how, at every party, people start to approach you and be like “hey, so you talk about money!” People are looking for a safe space to have those conversations because they’re not happening out in the open all that often. I decided to take some courses in financial planning because I liked the idea of trying to guide people through to get a complete picture of their finances. And I started to work with more people one-on-one and really just fell in love with the work.
Q: What advice would you give other self-employed creative people about how to diversify their income the way you have?
A: I think in the creative arts we hear a lot about following your passion. Something we always heard in singing was that if you’re not spending 100 percent of your time doing this, you’ll never make it. And so I just like to kick out the opposite idea that you can do several things and that can really serve you practically and financially. Part of building stability in a whole bunch of things that are unstable can be having multiple income streams and multiple things that you’re working on.
But the one thing I would say is that you don’t have to worry about finding another passion. I just followed something that I was curious about. Just try some things. I really connected to the idea of following my curiosities to find some other things that I could maybe layer into my life.
Q: How do you balance your creative work with your personal finance work in your daily schedule?
A: The hard thing about diversification is that when you’re doing more than one thing, there’s just not as much time. You can’t put 100 percent of your effort into both things. You have to figure out what’s needed towards both of them and set your expectations so that you don’t feel at the end of the week that you’ve failed by somehow not being a superhero.
That is the cost of diversification. You have a split of time and a split of energy. For me, it starts with the acceptance that your resources are finite. It’s about trying to be really realistic about the resources that you have and then allocating them to the things that you want to do. This is one of the big things that I talk about with money, too: it’s about self-awareness. And this is why creative people have a leg up. So much of our work is about this constant questioning of ourselves and what we want. Whether you’re balancing time or you’re balancing money, it starts with knowing what you have to spend.
Q: What’s your top piece of financial planning advice for freelancers?
A: It’s less about all the complexities, it’s less about what to invest in, or what little tax trick you should be using. And it’s all about the fundamentals. And those are: what do you want, and what do you have, and then what are you doing with it? And on the other side, knowing yourself, knowing what your good habits are, knowing what your bad habits are and working within that.
I was so overwhelmed by it. I wasn’t a math person, I wasn’t a numbers person. That language didn’t appeal to me. Spreadsheets might not speak to you. But when I talk to musicians, they understand practice. They understand creativity and discipline. And if you’ve got creativity and discipline you just need to make it relevant in this financial world. You don’t need to be a math expert or an investment expert to be good at your money. You can use the skills that you already have and put those into the financial sphere.
Q: What difference have you seen good financial planning make in the lives of creative people?
A: There are so many people who struggle with variable income and multiple income streams and feel financially unstable. And so many of us don’t think it’s possible to feel any kind of stability. We think we chose something that was unstable so that’s just a consequence.
What I believe is that even if you’ve got multiple income streams and variable income and crazy expenses, you can still work to create some kind of stability.
And my big belief is that’s what allows people to be their best creative selves. Desperation and starving doesn’t create great art. Stability creates great art. Knowing that you’re okay for the next couple of months or for the year or that you’ve got contingencies laid out creates more space for you to make the art that you want to make instead of just making what pays your rent.
Chris Enns holds free financial planning office hours most Friday afternoons on Twitter. You can take part by checking out his Twitter feed at @rags2reasonable. And you can find more information about his financial planning tools and services on his website.
*This interview has been edited for clarity and length