How a Cheese Professional Does Money

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture, CC BY 2.0.

Jeanine is a 32-year-old cheese professional in suburban New Jersey.

So, Jeanine, how much are you making?

Right now I’m making $55,000 per year and I’m also doing cheese classes on the side, probably 1–3 times a month. It’s a big raise from my old job. I was only making $42,000 as the Head Cheesemaker at a farmstead creamery.

Is this on par for what a cheese professional generally earns? I have no idea what the going rate is in the cheese industry.

Haha, I don’t either! I do know that it’s not exactly the most lucrative profession to be in.

So how did you get involved, then?

Well I actually wrote a whole essay for you guys way back in 2013 I believe!

How I Changed My Life and Became a Cheesemaker in Three Difficult Years

Basically, I started out WWOOFing, which isn’t paid, while a friend and I traveled. I came back to the States and got a paid internship in Hawaii as a cheesemaking apprentice, spent four months there, got another apprenticeship in Maine and spent about eight months there, and then got a full-time head cheesemaker job in NJ in 2011. I was there for four years, and I left in March of this year.

I left to run a cheese shop in a larger wine shop, and I was hired to manage their department, so now I’m in a totally new job. I’m dealing with distributors, I’m talking to customers, I’m managing a staff of five and working in a much larger company than I’ve ever worked at.

This is great. (And yes, Billfolders, if you missed Jeanine’s essay the first time around, you should TOTALLY READ IT.)

You should!!! I still give it to people when I don’t feel like telling my Life Story.

It’s like your elevator pitch in link form!

Okay, so you’re making $55K in suburban New Jersey. How does that compare to your expenses? Are you earning “enough,” whatever that means to you?

For now, yes! In January I moved in with my boyfriend. I had been living in Western NJ closer to my old job, and actually was flown out to Madison, Wisconsin in, I believe, September of last year for a job interview there. I didn’t get the job but the BF was willing to move there with me, so we were basically like, let’s move in together anyway!

So I was paying $875/month in rent, and our new apartment is $1,400 so I’m saving a pretty significant amount per month.

I was still working at my old job, though, after I moved in January and it was sooooo far away. Like 45 miles each way. I put sooo many miles on my car from January to March!

I got this job kind of suddenly. My BF and I were contemplating opening up a cheese shop, and then the job listing for my now-current job popped up some time in early March, and it worked out perfectly! Because I get this on-the-job training for something I ultimately want to do for myself some day.

Which is ideal.

It really is. I was about to throw in my life savings, get a loan, ask my parents and other family members for money… etc. etc. Now I can have a more long-term plan where I’m saving money, looking for loans and getting small business counseling while getting paid.

Let me ask what’s going to sound like a foolish question: the majority of the expense in starting a cheese shop would be STARTING THE CHEESE SHOP, right?

Hahaha yes! Security deposit and buildout costs, refrigeration, etc.

If you were to take over an existing cheese shop in the future, then you might not need loans? Or is it that you always need to be prepared to outlay cash in terms of inventory, marketing/promotion, etc.?

Yeah, I do think you need to have a stash of available $$ at all times so you can buy inventory, pay bills, fix any broken refrigerators, etc.

BUT of course that would mean that there is an already existing cheese shop that would probably need to be “bought,” since I’d like to own it.

Hahahahaha, of course, you’d need to pay for the purchase of the shop too. This isn’t a Julian Fellowes miniseries where someone’s just going to give it to you.

“I need you to update my will, Doctor Thorne. Give my cheese shop to that nice young woman so she’ll never have to take out a business loan to purchase her own.”

Haha I wish!!

Okay, that was a foolish question on my part. 😀

That’s the dream, though, right? It was big news (in the cheese world, LOL) a few weeks ago when Cowgirl Creamery got bought by Emmi USA.

I wonder how much $$ they got, I was like, get that money ladies!

So you’re working and you’re preparing for the eventual building or purchase of your own cheese shop. How does that affect your current cash flow? You’re looking for loans, but are you also creating multiple savings buckets? Investing? What are you doing to manage your finances for both yourself and your potential business?

Well, that’s something I’m working on right now! My BF is actually more into this idea than I am, as I am a creature of habit and just like doing the same things I’ve always done, money-wise. I get paid, I put some in a savings account (I have a Vanguard account with about $17,000 in an IRA and about $1,500 in accessible savings right now) but he is trying to get me to create a business savings account where I put my cheesemaking class proceeds and is the Business Account, whatever that means right now!

Because I’m also giving cheesemaking classes right now, and I have a website at www.cheeseteacher.com where I try to keep everything updated.

Cheese Classes In North Jersey And New York City by Jeanine

I love that you got “cheeseteacher.com.”

Haha I know right? It wasn’t taken. I even got it on Facebook!

Also I just sent out my newsletter with new class dates and I realized I haven’t updated the actual website yet. 😕

That’s next on my to-do list, haha.

Do you have outstanding debts to pay off as well? Or is everything beyond your basic expenses available for saving?

Yep! I paid off my student loans a few years ago and now I just have a car loan ($350/month).

So how much were those student loans, and how many years were you making payments on them?

I was really lucky with student loans. I only had about $12,000 to pay off and was able to pay them off in about eight years. It was only a $100/month minimum, but I pretty much always paid more every month when I could.

I’m doing the same with my $350/month car loan. Now that I have that raise I’m paying $450/month on that loan.

On the subject of your making more money: I’m looking at your website and checking out your class prices. Are you comfortable sharing how you price your classes, and how you make sure you make a profit after expenses?

Yep! Right now, I’m not making much money at all, since I’m doing most of my classes though cooking schools.

So they do the marketing through their website, collect the per-person fees and buy most of the supplies (I usually supply milk and curd), and I only get a $75–200 fee for the whole class, depending on the venue. I usually get reimbursed for expenses if I have to buy my own supplies.

Got it. You’re essentially a freelance teacher for the cooking school.

Soooo what I’m trying to do is do classes on my own. I have a place in my town that will let me “rent” their space for a fee (I don’t know the fee yet, haha) and I will do the PR and marketing and handle all the expenses for the class myself, and also make all the money from the per-person fee.

Until then, I’ll do classes mostly through the cooking schools. I do have one class that I’m marketing myself coming up in July. I just put the listing up today! I’ve never worked with EventBrite until now, but I like the fact that events show up in Google searches.

Mozzarella and Ricotta 101

Okay, so let’s shift subjects slightly. What do you think you do really well, financially, and what do you wish you could do better?

Hmmm, well I consider myself really good with money. So I’ve always been really, really stingy. I’ve always been a really big saver, because I can’t deal with the idea of not having money accessible to me.

Now I’m a little bit more lenient with myself, though now the BF and I make a monthly budget for house expenses. But I am really bad at spending on myself, always have been. I hardly ever buy clothes, I probably spend the most money on food and alcohol.

Sooo I’ve been able to accrue a pretty good amount of savings (though I’ve seen people do better in these Doing Money articles!) even though I was making relatively little money. Or NO money. At my internship in Maine I was only making $100/week!

How were you making ends meet on $100/week?

Well, my bills were really small and everything (housing, food, transportation) was taken care of. I only had to pay student loans, health insurance, and car insurance.

I also have this regular website-type job compiling the Daily Digest for a website that I’ve had for the past seven years. I basically compile news articles and post it daily, it takes about 20 minutes a day and I get paid about $100/week.

In Maine that doubled my income! So I was able to save a bit.

I am thoroughly impressed. You seem to have a knack for making things work out!

Hahahahahahha I guess you could say I do.

Or “going after your dreams,” really. Knowing what you want and figuring out how to make it work.

I am also very good at working in weird situations for kind of a long time.

Ooooh do you have a good story to share?

Well, I have had some crazy bosses, but we’ve all worked for crazy people, right?

Let’s just say I’ve had bosses that reminded me of Donald Trump, what with the delusions of grandeur and thinking they were a total genius and were actually just crazy. I mean those kinds of people get stuff DONE, but not in a way that makes the people who work for them feel valued, so there’s often a lot of turnover.

Anyway, I knew I wanted to move on from my last job at about this time last year, but it’s hard to find a good cheese job! It took about eight months total to find a new gig. So I was working there for at least eight more months, getting progressively more exhausted with it all because it’s such a physically demanding job.

I feel kind of free now! Because the busy season in cheesemaking is April-November, and I left right before the busy season started… and in my new job, apparently the busy season is Christmas!

So what advice do you have for someone who wants to get into the cheese industry?

Hmm, good question! I would say that stick-to-itiveness is a real boon, since it’s really hard to find good people. If you’re a person who can deal with sometimes low-paying and uncomfortable situations, a better job/position is often soon in coming!

Do you need specific education to get started? Or is it better to find a cheese shop willing to hire you (as a clerk?) and learn as you go?

Yeah, the second one. At least in the Northeast. When I went to Wisconsin it seemed like a lot more people were Dairy Science majors, but here it seems like most people in the cheese industry had a completely different major! Ann Saxelby, for instance, who owns Saxelby Cheesemongers in NYC, was an art major.

What advice would you give people who are interested in starting their own business, cheese-related or otherwise? What are you learning as you dig into the process?

Read! The book I’m reading right now is called The E Myth Revisited and it’s suuuuper helpful.

The book talks about how you need to set up your business like it’s going to be a franchise, i.e. the business can run without you, with minimally skilled people. Which totally makes sense! I’ve worked in so many businesses where they’ve depended heavily on extremely dedicated and self-sacrificing people, only to be totally screwed when those people quit, or leave, or are injured or can’t work for any reason.

That really resonated with me. A lot of small business owners kind of count on having labor that will go above and beyond what they have to do, and also get paid less than they would at a larger company.

So it’s really important to not leave anything to chance; to come up with a company structure with detailed descriptions of jobs and departments, even if you’re going to be the one handling all those jobs! Because when you do end up hiring someone then you can give them a job description that is clear.

Which is a relief to all of us new hires, I tell you what. (It’s also excellent during the job search process, to see a clear job description posted somewhere.)

Hahah right? I know SO many people and have heard of more people whose job wasn’t what they signed up for, or they ended up going above and beyond once and now it’s part of their job description. 😕

FOR SURE.

That was a HUGE issue at my last job, so much so that I was doing what felt like the absolute minimum and found myself saying THAT’S NOT MY JOB alllll the time, just to avoid having my job description balloon beyond what I could really do.

Again: IMPRESSED. Because a lot of us would just do it. (I often just did it.)

Haha, well for me it was just too much, physically! Cheesemaking is a very time-sensitive, physically taxing job where everything takes a certain amount of time and it’s really impossible to leave the cheese room during the make process, cause you’re on the clock.

So for me it was like, do you want me to do this other thing, or make cheese correctly? ‘Cause I LITERALLY can’t do both, I am not two people.

Whereas office work you can just stay late or open a new tab or answer emails in bed or uuuughhhhhh.

Haha right, that’s where I am now! Or you can keep rearranging the cheese case, LOL.

You haven’t found the optimum cheese arrangement yet! One arrangement could result in slightly more sales!

Haha right! IT WILL NEVER BE RIGHT.

Last question: now that I’ve asked your advice on everything else, what financial advice do you have for Billfold readers?

Hmmm, advice… I’d say do lots of research before diving into a huge project like starting a business. Imagine what could go wrong!

For the non-business-starting Billfolders, I’d say create an automatic transfer to a savings account. I really like Vanguard because the rates of return are really good. Also with those kind of funds, do your research! You can buy a variety of packages with varying levels of risk. Less risk is best, since it’s your savings.

And don’t forget to ask your cheesemonger what they recommend! They want to sell you the very best.

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