A Conversation With an Artist/Nonprofit Worker About Her Money

Mike: Margaret, who are you?

Margaret: I’m 29, I work in the communications department at a nonprofit, and I live in Brooklyn/work in Manhattan.

Mike: What is your current salary?

Margaret: Currently my salary is $39,750, and there are benefits. There’s health insurance, life insurance which is free via the health insurance, dental and vision are optional, 401(k), and public transit, parking, and childcare can be put on a prepaid card pre-tax. But my office doesn’t participate in any federally available tax breaks for reimbursing bike expenses. Which irks me, since I mostly bike there. There’s also an FSA card for health care costs not covered by insurance like copays and glasses.

Mike: What does your living situation look like right now?

Margaret: Right now I share a two-bedroom apartment with one roommate. I’ve lived in the same apartment for three years, my rent is pretty cheap. It’s $625 per person, and we split utilities. There’s a funny clause in my lease that says that as long as I occupy the apartment the rent won’t go up. So I guess if I ever wanted to move out and I had a roommate who wanted to stay, my landlord might raise my rent.

Mike: Amazing.

Margaret: I’m super lucky. It’s in a neighborhood that’s gentrifying really quickly. And my landlord lives in the building, so I feel pretty secure.

Mike: So, you’re pretty happy with it so far?

Margaret: It could be nicer, he’s the kind of landlord who would patch the roof with duct tape if he could. The building is very old, and the apartments are a little run down, but we are fine with that if it means less rent ultimately. Also my landlord lets me do things like pull up the carpet and refinish the wood floor thats underneath. I think other landlords would be like, ‘wtf did you do.’ A unit in the building opened up recently and my landlord asked me to refer someone to him. So now a friend of mine lives downstairs, which is nice. We joke that our life is like Friends a lot.

Mike: Who is Joey? Who is the Monica?

Margaret: I’m not sure, we both have really good hair, but I’m the one with the career-type job so I might be Monica. She’s probably Lisa Kudrow.

Mike: What are your living expenses like? And how do you work that out with your roommate?

Margaret: We split it 50/50. The bills are in my name so I put everything in Google Calendar on the due dates and send her invites to the event, she gives me cash or sometimes a check. Utilities (electric, gas, internet) are about $70–100 a person.

Mike: What about groceries?

Margaret: I spend about $30-$40 a week on groceries, half of my stuff comes from Trader Joe’s, and then I try to get fruits and veggies from Chinatown or from the fruit market near my house. Cat food comes from Trader Joe’s, it costs the same as the junk cat food in my local grocery store. I also live biking distance from a Western Beef which is basically the Taj Mahal of food. So if it’s nice out I can bike there — generally produce are a few cents cheaper per pound.

Mike: Did you always want to work in communications?

Margaret: No actually. I went to college for art, I have my B.F.A. and growing up never really considered any possible career. I wound up working for a P.R. agency when I moved to New York based on some skills I picked up in art school, and from the job I had through college. I had a lot of administrative and phone skills, which they liked, and also knew a few graphic design applications pretty well. I get positive feedback when I’m looking for jobs usually related to my art degree, people see that and go, “YES, a think outside the box type!” and I’m happy to let them feel that way about how I fit into a workplace. It also helps that I went to a well-known school with a good general reputation and a very well-known, well-respected fine art program.

Mike: What kind of art do you do?

Margaret: I majored in sculpture, which I chose purely because it was the highest ranked program at my school. I am also a working artist now. I do a combination of painting, ceramics, and sculpture.

Mike: That’s awesome. When do you find time to do it?

Margaret: On the weekends, or if I don’t have to work late I am usually working on a project. I also go to a lot of art openings; if my friends are in a show I try to go to the opening to say hello. It’s like a second full time job. 🙂

Mike: Are you making money off of it?

Margaret: I do make a little money, but not quit-your-day-job money. I sell art out of my studio usually, since I’m not represented by a gallery. If someone is interested in purchasing a piece, they’ll usually email me and set up a time to come do a studio visit.

Mike: Is your studio in your apartment, or do you pay for space?

Margaret: I used to work out of my apartment, but I started to get really annoyed with myself, and the distractions, and my roommate for always being around when I thought she would be out so I could work alone. So recently I moved that work into a studio, and it’s $400 a month.

So all my “fun money” goes to that now. But my work has benefited in huge ways, and it’s weirdly legitimizing, I’ve had so many more people express interest in my work. I think people see that you have a studio and infer that you’re more serious about it. Commercial space is usually less per square foot than residential space, and artists who work in a committed spare bedroom or living room are paying a premium ultimately for that setup.

Mike: Do you consider your communications job sort of a like a day job that allows you to do your art?

Margaret: I do definitely, it’s like a “rich uncle” of sorts.

Mike: What was it like for you growing up?

Margaret: My parents didn’t do much to educate me or my siblings about managing finances. We seemed more or less to be about on equal financial footing as my peers. My mom and dad came from different financial backgrounds, but they both had parents who were divorced, and my picture of what their experiences were like is pieced together. They don’t enjoy talking about their childhoods much. I’ve gotten the sense from my mother that her upbringing was very much feast or famine. My grandmother moved the family around a lot — she was a little bit of a world traveler, seeking opportunities where the grass is greener, with my mom and siblings in tow. I think that experience colored my mom’s adult attitudes towards money. She likes to get groceries and other necessities the cheapest way possible — everything from clothes to cars to books were bought used when I was a kid. She’s not American, and is from a country with a really well established social safety net, so her concept of hitting rock bottom has always been slightly different than mine. Growing up and as a young adult, she never had to experience prioritizing food or housing over a prescription or a doctor visit.

My dad came from a bit more well off background. He got sent away for school pretty young and also, at one point, had a trust fund. When I was younger, my parents were explaining to my sister and I how they bought the house we grew up in. The first home my parents bought was purchased with cash using the trust fund. When they sold that one, they used the money from the sale for a downpayment on the place we moved in to. My sister asked my parents if she could “have a trust fund too,” and my mom responded, “Trust funds aren’t the kind of thing you get to ask for.” My dad owns his own business and my parents have a really funny way of doing really smart things with their money but also being really naive about other things like planning for college, and employer-funded benefits.

My sister asked my parents if she could “have a trust fund too,” and my mom responded, “Trust funds aren’t the kind of thing you get to ask for.”

Growing up, my closest friend came from a family that did clearly have more money than us. They traveled internationally a lot and had a really beautiful house with a lot of art. I have two siblings and my dad earned enough that they could afford for my mom to stay home and homeschool us through elementary and middle school. My mom was very adamant that we were lucky to be able to afford to only have one parent working. My dad owns his own business, and has always been a business owner since grad school.

I started public school in 9th grade, and whenever things came up with my mom about how so and so had better shoes or a nicer car or got to go to on the France trip my mom would be like, “Well, her parents both work, so you’re lucky really that I’m home all the time for you.”

Mike: Did you pick up any money tips from either of your parents that you implement in your own life now?

Margaret: Not really. I was trying to think of things leading up to this interview that I could talk about. My mom raised me to believe that I was pretty irresponsible with my own money. My mom was very strict with me, and my allowance could be rescinded at any time for disciplinary purposes. I lost my allowance for a really long time at one point but then got a part time job just because, and after awhile my mom was like, “hm you’ve been behaving so if you want your allowance back…” and I was like, “Thanks, but I have this job now!” It was great because my mom had to figure out another way to discipline me.

When I was a kid, if I wound up at a cash register with more stuff than I could pay for I would get harangued the whole drive home about how it’s not useful to be buying these things and I should not always want so many things and I can’t expect to always be able to spend spend spend. I was supposed to be using my allowance to “budget” and I was also supposed to be “good” all the time or it would get taken away. If I wanted a toy, I had to convince my mom I wanted it, find out how much it cost, comparison shop, maybe decide not to get the original toy, and get Skipper instead of Barbie because Barbie cost more and then get the money together on my own — out of birthday money and my allowance — and then go BACK to the store to get the thing. It SUCKED. I learned how to balance a checkbook really early too. This was all under the guise of learning, since I was home-schooled. The “Get Skipper” process was a really tangential version of what would have been an hour in a classroom of “Which costs more per pound, apples or oranges?” and I’d also spend a lot of time as a kid dwelling over how if I had just been “better with money” then I could have had Barbie on the first go round like I wanted.

I remember an argument with my mom once in high school about how I had spent my paycheck from my part-time job on probably gas or food or a movie ticket. She would constantly admonish me about how I needed to “be more careful” otherwise I’d be “living from paycheck to paycheck forever.” And stuff like that went right over my head. Jow would a 15-year-old in an upper middle class suburb with a part-time job for fun money know what that means? My dad stayed out of it.

Mike: Do you consider yourself responsible with money now?

Margaret: I do, but there’s an extent to which I think I’m that way out of necessity. My salary and expenses being what they are, I don’t have a lot to manage beyond making sure I don’t run out of money, and can put away a little and not have to dip in to it at the end of the month. I cook a lot and ride my bike everywhere, I like to go to thrift stores so thats where most of my clothes come from. I pack my lunch too. There’s a difference between having enough money to live and having enough money to save for sure.

Mike: What does your debt situation look like?

Margaret: I have loans from college, and it used to bother me a lot. But I’ve gotten to a point where I figure, “Who’s going to loan me that much money for that little interest ever again?”

Mike: How much in student loans?

Margaret: It’s about $50K. I don’t know what it off the top of my head, but I do look at the balance every month when I pay. I used to spend a lot more time dwelling on my student loans, when I was earning less and having a really tough time covering them and my living expenses.

When I filled out my FAFSA, I had to sit down with my dad and walk him through the section parents are supposed to fill out. Up to that point I had never been told my dad’s income or assets. He was making a decent amount of money, but not a lot of money to raise three kids on. This is kind of a long story. I guess the best part about being 17 and filling out the FAFSA with my dad was going, “Dad, how much is in your retirement fund?” And my dad going, “Oh, hmm good question, I don’t have one.”

My parents knew that the college I wanted to attend cost a lot, but they were not well informed about the tuition/aid process and expected me to do most of the footwork. There were seminars at my school for parents probably to learn about financial aid but I don’t think my parents attended one. My mom was very, “You’re going, so this is your responsibility. Don’t screw yourself over.”

This is funny too, my dad for whatever reason kept being like, “College tuition is negotiable! Never pay the sticker price! Call the financial aid office and tell them you need more grants!” Students only get that kind of bargaining power with a school that wants them there really badly. But, I’d call the office anyway and they’d shuffle some numbers around for me and mail us a new aid package. I even registered for classes and then the financial aid office called and said they needed my parents taxes, which is standard — every financial aid office needs those. My dad couldn’t produce them.

So my parents were like, “We can’t afford to send you here with no scholarships or grants. You can’t go.”

Mike: Wait, your parents couldn’t produce tax forms for the FAFSA?

Margaret: Nope.

Mike: Why is that?

Margaret: I’m not entirely sure. My dad said something like he lost a few years worth of records at the office and was still working on taxes from a few years back and he didn’t have a 1099. Also my college fund was down to basically nil because a few years before, my parents had put it all in to mutual funds and then the market crashed. I got in a giant fight with my parents a few years into college where I repeated that back to them, and my mom told me that never happened and I was entirely making things up.

Mike: This all sounds … very messy!

Margaret: Messy, and also my mom mostly was one of those types who liked to be cagey about money out of etiquette. So we never had a talk about how much college they could afford to pay for, or anything up to that point. My sister is a few years younger than me. I remember being home one year for a break and overhearing a conversation my mom was having on the phone about how she was “worried since they just paid off the house that now financial aid offices would expect them to be able to contribute more.” I don’t know if they figured out the tax mess before she went to school or what, but they paid for four years of school for her.

Mike: Do you find the amount of loans you have a burden? Or are you just sort of making payments and trying not to think about them?

Margaret: I used to think they were a burden. But I think I am lucky to have graduated from the university I wound up transferring to. I could have gone to a private art college and it would have been about three times as much debt. I did a year and a half at a state school, which my parents paid for and then I transferred to a state university with a better art program. And I had to take out student loans at that point, because I couldn’t get financial aid, because they still needed my parents taxes.

The sister I mentioned earlier attended an in-state school which my parents covered, but after four years she still had a semester or two before she could get her diploma. My parents told her that she had to figure that out, so she opted to drop out of school, rather than take out a loan for a fifth year of college. This caused a few fights between me and her and my parents. I felt really angry that she would waste my parents’ money and time like that, and told her I thought it was disrespectful. She told me that she thought about it and would be “happier without any student debt.” I think she came to that decision based on seeing how it affected my relationship with our mom and dad, but it would have been maybe $5,000 of student loans for her. Rather than what I had taken on financing most of my degree.

It’s taken a long time to feel less angry and betrayed by my mom and dad. But they seem to think that I pulled these feelings out of thin air, and that I’m angry at them for no reason, so there’s no point in perpetuating that kind of attitude around them.

Also my alumni connections have proved to be a huge resource. I think it’s something people get dismissive of in arts programs, but it’s really important. It’s probably easier to convince someone that alumni connections from Law or Business school are valuable, rather than an art program.

Mike: Do you have any credit card debt?

Margaret: I have one card from college that I am one payment away from wiping out entirely. I used it to buy textbooks mostly. And then a few months ago I opened a card for “emergencies/vet bills.”

Mike: Send me a email when you pay off that card.

Margaret: The balance on that is pretty low — it gets paid off month to month unless something really huge comes up. It will be paid off tomorrow when I get paid 🙂

Mike: YES. You have a card for emergencies — do you also have emergency savings?

Margaret: It’s about $1,000, I also have a few CDs. But usually if something comes up, I put it on the card if I can, so I don’t deplete my cash savings too quickly. Any time I sell art or get windfall cash or have a freelance check come in, it goes there since I have my salary job too. If the balance gets to $1,500, I usually put the extra $500 in to a CD.

Mike: Do you put away money for retirement?

Margaret: I have a Roth IRA but right now I earn better interest on my CDs than I do on the Roth so I don’t contribute to it. I also have a 401(k) at work that I contribute 8% to. My work contributes 3.5 %. So I’m putting away 11.5% of my salary pre-tax.

Mike: You seem fairly responsible! If not from your parents — how did you figure this stuff out?

Margaret: I do get really worried about living paycheck to paycheck actually. But I feel like with the art career and the full-time job, eventually I’m going to run out of enough energy for both. I think I learned by doing mostly. It’s not like I have a huge paycheck to work with. Sometimes I feel like I’m micromanaging it. A lot of my money management is focused on not running out of money ever.

I’m also looking for a higher paying job right now. I had a conversation with my boss about my workload and pay situation. A raise wouldn’t happen until the 2014 budget is approved — nonprofit budgets I guess.

Mike: What did your salaries look like when you were first starting out?

Margaret: This is my first salary job actually. I’ve been at my job for two years. Before that I was making $12 an hour.

I’ve never had a job where I could afford health insurance before. It’s been weird. Last summer I got really sick, and it took a week or so of being super sick and trying to take vitamin C and sleeping a lot and stuff before I was like, “oh right doctor, free with cost of insurance.” I let the situation get almost emergency room bad and that was unnecessary.

Mike: So you were going without it for a while.

Margaret: A very long time. All through college I simply went to student health for anything, my parents didn’t even have insurance. I’m not sure how. I’m the friend my friends turn to for help finding x sliding scale clinic for z thing.

Mike: Do you talk about money with friends?

Margaret: A little, I have one friend who is so spendy, she makes the same amount as I do, waitressing under the table. But she has no benefits. And I’ve been at dinner parties with her where she’ll just lay down $60 and be like, “here this will cover some of the bill.” And I’m there going, “ok, I didn’t order any wine, I got the cheapest thing on the menu, here’s my $9.” It’s weird how some of my friends will be like, “oh you’ve always been so concerned with money.” I kind of need to be.

It’s weird how some of my friends will be like, “oh you’ve always been so concerned with money.” I kind of need to be.

Mike: It’s not some unimportant thing!

Margaret: It’s framed in this way that is like, “Oh you and your money, aka materialism.” A lot of my friends and I are still very much “young artists” and there’s this stereotype of an artist as perhaps being the type of person that isn’t inclined to prioritize managing their budget well. This is detrimental to artists and “creative types” in a lot of ways, some of my friends seem to justify allowing their spending to be emotionally driven, they perceive whatever they might be acquiring to be something necessary to help their art, but they’re not at a level where they can do that with their money. It’s a trap, because then all resources go to maintaining that “lifestyle” of not “needing to think about money,” rather than towards getting shit together and focusing on getting work seen.

Also some artists do very well financially, but most artist that I know who are able to be
“full-time artists” make enough to support themselves modestly and fund their studio operations. There’s very little actual “profit” come tax time. “Making it big someday” is not a retirement plan, but I hear that thrown out in ways that sound serious from young artists who invest more time in whining about how they just want to be art stars than they do in connecting with people who will want to help them get a little closer to that goal. It’s tantamount to hearing someone say that winning the lottery is their 10-year plan, except they’re not joking, and they’re not buying lottery tickets either.

There are class, cultural, and generation gap ideas involved too, I could unpack these ideas forever. It does take being from a certain type of family background financially to feel secure with attending a university for art rather than accounting or dentistry. It doesn’t mean that there is financial support that continues through school or after graduating though. I graduated into a recession, and went for whatever job would hire me, but I felt like my parents thought I was a less desirable hire because of my degree. My job all through school was mostly administrative/clerical, I graduated with a B.F.A. and 3 solid years of administrative assistant work. There are so many factors that go in to who gets hired to do what beyond the degree itself. Career “paths” don’t really exist any more. My dad hasn’t been a full time student since the seventies, the landscape of education and job functions has changed a lot. He “chose” what he wanted to do, went to school to learn to do that thing, and then set himself up doing that thing after he graduated.

I think as an artist it’s especially important that I have a really decent savings. It’s going to get to a point where I might not make enough money from only art to live off it, but I won’t have the energy to work and art concurrently.

Mike: Are you buying things? Do you have vices?

Margaret: I like to collect records, and I go thrifting for clothes a lot, thrifting is probably where most of my money goes. It’s way more emotionally driven than normal shopping, because whatever I find that I want to buy might be mass produced, but it’s not as readily apparent as picking it up retail. The experience of finding this one thing and it is IN MY SIZE and it’s FROM J. CREW and it’s CUTE and it’s $5 and I can’t go back for it tomorrow it won’t be there. It taps into that. OMGTHISTHINGITSAMAZINGIWANTITNOWICANHAZICANHAZYAY feeling but it can add up. If it is made out of low quality material, dry clean only, doesn’t fit perfectly, if it has to be tailored, or modified in some way I absolutely don’t buy it. I’m an artist but I’m not the ‘crafty’ type. I don’t like crafty looking clothes I could alter hems and things like that myself but time is also money I could just as easily be doing nothing. If I wind up buying something and not wearing it I usually list it on Ebay so that it’s not wasting space in my closet.

Mike: You appear to want reasonable things.

Margaret: I can’t really call art supplies a ‘vice.’

Mike: It’s making you some money, so I’d say it’s more “business expenses” than anything.

Margaret: It is. I have enough income from that this year that I have to fill out the complicated Schedule C. Yay.

Mike: You mentioned before that your father didn’t have anything for retirement. Is that still true?

Margaret: He must have one by now, but I think his retirement plan is to work until he can’t anymore. He does really like what he does, and the office is doing better than it used to. Once me and my sister were in school full-time my mom started working in the office handling billing, and that’s helped the revenue a lot.

Mike: And if something were to happen, if he were to get sick, for example, would your parents ask you for help?

Margaret: They’re at a point where I think they’re trying to figure out how to downsize a little, they might need to make some investments in the house so it can sell at a price they can be comfortable with. My parents joke about counting on me to support them in their old age, but I don’t find it funny, and I can’t tell if they’re serious or seriously joking. I don’t have any resources to help my family right now, but if my income changes for the better, who knows? My mom also likes to joke about how if we (the kids) decide to put her in a nursing home ever, she’ll make sure to live a long time and leave us with nothing, I’d like to have a conversation with my parents about that. Because I’ve always had a gut feeling that they have an estate plan too, but it feels stupid to have concluded that on my own. My mom has told me before that if I needed help she would support me, but I don’t think they could support me here for that long, it would have to be a dire emergency. They’re aware that my life would be a lot easier if I didn’t have to make student loan payments, but it would probably only be slightly easier. My dad can’t believe how much my studio rent is.

Mike: Besides getting a better job, what kinds of other goals have you set for yourself?

Margaret: I would like to be more professionally established as an artist. I would also like to be saving to buy an apartment. My housing situation right now is pretty good. I figure I should stay in my current place as long as I can, but if/when I must move it should be in to a place I’m buying — more because it offers security against getting priced out of a neighborhood than anything else. I would also like to travel more, I’ve never been overseas.

Mike: Where would you like to go?

Margaret: Everywhere! But especially Denmark, France, or Finland. Cuba would be cool too. If I had the opportunity to go I would.

See More: Conversations with people about their money.

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