How to Thrive as an Artist with Unpredictable Income
As an artist, the concept of financial feast and famine simply means there will be times in your career when you have an abundance of art income flowing in, possibly even a surplus, but there will also be times when your income reduces to a trickle or even stops entirely. I made peace with the feast and famine cycle years ago.
I have been selling my art since 2010 and to this day I still think “that may be the last piece of art I’ll ever sell” when I make a sale. This thought motivates me to keep securing my future. My income has rarely been stable, even outside of the art world, but I’ve always managed to have enough. I was very lucky to learn financial literacy at a young age while growing up in conditions that made me familiar with the unpredictability of self-employment.
This upbringing instilled in me an instinctual need to save money. When times are good, I save. When times are bad, I cut down so I can still save. When times are really bad, I cut down so I can preserve what I saved. And when times are incredibly bad, I have my savings to pull from. Rinse and repeat.
This is how I not only survive times of financial famine, but often thrive.
Create Internal Stability in Your Art Income
Having the ability to recognize patterns and plan for change in your art career is a must. Well–a must if you want to reduce anxiety and save your sanity. Even though my art income can fluctuate through the year, I try to create stability once it reaches me. Knowing that there will be ups and downs, I look at my year as a whole and know that I need to spread my art income around as it comes in so it’s still there for me when my sales slow down.
Art Income Tips During the “Feast” Phase:
The feast phase is obviously my favorite phase. Art sales everywhere, bank account overflowing, credit cards paid off. My wish is to have this all the time, but I’m only a one-dysfunctional-woman-show and art commerce is finicky! Knowing that famine may be right around the corner of a great month, I follow these very practical steps to secure my financial future:
1. Save Everything
Save your taxes:
Set aside your income taxes and sales tax right after an influx of sales/income. Open a savings account that you do not touch that just holds your tax liabilities until it’s time to pay the bill. This money is not for you to touch. Ever. Transfer the money in and then transfer the money to the state or federal agencies when the bill comes due. DO NOT DIP INTO THIS MONEY DURING HARD TIMES. It’s not yours. You’ll thank me later.
Create an emergency savings account:
Have another savings account to serve as your emergency fund. This is the account you can touch, but try not to. Having 3 to 6 months of expenses saved in this account is a good practice. Extra points if it’s a high yield savings account or money market that earns 2-5% on your savings each month.
Create your retirement account:
If you are a full-time artist without any sort of employer retirement plan, I implore you to contribute to a retirement account now. I don’t care if it’s just $10 a month at the start. You can get an IRA yourself (Roth or Traditional) through a company like Vanguard or Fidelity and start an automatic transfer from your emergency savings once that account gets to the 3-6 month expenses threshold. Keep in mind you can’t touch this money without a penalty.
Create your long or short term investment account:
Get familiar with general investment accounts and start funneling any additional overflow from your emergency account into an investment portfolio that can earn 7-10% returns on average. This account can be treated as your “bigger things” account–maybe a house downpayment or large project fund. If you never touch it, it can serve your retirement.
When I have really great months for art income, I dump a good chunk of that money into this account and then pretend it doesn’t exist. My goal is to never touch it during emergencies, but knowing it is there if I really needed it gives me peace of mind.
This money is accessible without penalties, but it takes a few days to get it. The money is not just sitting in an account, but is held up in stocks/bonds. To pull money out, you have to initiate a sell and then wait for those funds to settle before transferring to your regular bank.
2. Replenish your Inventory.
I know the savings part can be stressful, but here’s a fun part: when you’re flush with art income, stock up on the materials you need to make your art and run your business during the famine phase. When I find myself without a certain size box to ship 1 order during a slow month, I shake my fist and past me for splurging on take-out dinner instead of stocking up on shipping supplies.
The feast phase is your time to order canvases, printer ink, paper, hardboard mailers, shipping labels, packing tape, paint, varnish, etcetera. Time your restocking with your feast and famine cycles. I almost always have a slow time at the beginning of the year, so I usually restock all my supplies in the fall after holiday sales so I can operate with a lean budget but still get work done.
3. Be strategic with planning future events.
Do you always attend the same art fairs in the summer? Do you have guaranteed money-maker events you look forward to? Set aside the fees and money needed to participate in these events well ahead of time. Many art fair applications are due in the spring, and if you’re like me and have slow starts to the year, having funds already set aside to cover your booth fee will make your life much easier.
4. Make a plan with a partner/roommate and be realistic.
It’s a great practice to plan for tight financial times when times are good. If you have a partner and share finances, or a roommate that you split bills with, talk about income expectations and how inevitable slow times in your career will be handled. A big mistake I’ve seen a lot of creators make is dreaming big and only focusing on the best case scenario with those who depend on or expect a financial contribution.
Creative income is rarely a guarantee. We don’t know how much we are going to make until we make it. You may get a commission and the client refuses to pay once complete. You may sign up for an outdoor art fair, spending $1000 just to be there, and it gets rained out. Or you may complete a job with a reputable company and it files bankruptcy before paying you. There is a lot of risk involved in this field and being a creative entrepreneur can put stress on a relationship if your partner only hears “but I plan to make this much money” and it doesn’t happen.
Explore best and worst case scenarios and make sure everyone is on the same page.
Art Income Tips During the “Famine” Phase:
I used to hate the famine phase. It caused a lot of anxiety in the past, but now I am learning to work with the slow times. I’ve weathered enough of these cycles to know that nothing lasts forever. As long as I am doing the work, the feast will return eventually. When you are in the famine phase of your art income, consider the following tips:
1. Get work done.
Slow times can allow us to dedicate time to making our art. Business activities take a lot of time and energy to complete. If you know it’s hard to get sales during the first quarter of the year, maybe this is your time to shift your energy.
Maybe you can even synchronize your creative cycle perfectly with your feast and famine cycle. When you have no art fairs lined up, commissions, or events to prepare for, you can focus your energy on building your inventory for the future. Maybe this is the time to experiment with a new body of work or learn a new skill. Maybe you sign up for art classes that feed your creative soul until the busy times return.
Just put your head down and do the work.
2. Find part-time work for supplemental income.
If you’re not able to sacrifice income during very slow times, find work that doesn’t sap all your energy. Maybe it’s a seasonal job or random contractor gigs. Maybe you see a job posting for something that can teach you a new skill. New environments and tasks can be creative fuel for us.
There is no shame in working a traditional W2 job when you’re trying to be a successful artist. In fact, working for a company that withholds taxes during the year can help you manage your art business better. When you are a full-time creator, you need to pay estimated self-employment taxes, but if you have employer withholding, your tax contributions through work may offset your taxes owed through art sales.
2.5. Cultivate additional streams of art related income.
I sell art, but I also teach, do consulting work, blog writing, social media management, and as of this week, portrait modeling at a local art school. Honestly, I get bored when I’m making art for too long. I need to step away and clear my head with other tasks that excite me. Everything I do in life feeds my art. If something sounds fun, I pursue it. I’ve been learning to put more energy into these side projects during the famine phase to better budget my energy through the year.
My financial strategy during feast phases has mostly been driven by my need to rest. You may remember that I disappeared for a solid chunk of 2022 and 2023 while struggling with chronic migraines. I’ve known for over 15 years that my body has a way of telling me when it’s time to stop, and I’ve worked hard at making sure my savings allows me to do that when I need it.
We need rest. Especially creators. We need to release stress, find a sense of safety, and recharge our batteries. When times are slow, maybe it’s your time to creatively hibernate. Life is too short to be miserable and exhausted all the time. Prioritize rest.
(Also, sign up for my email list because I am working on a special project with a dear friend that centers around rest. I have no idea when it will be released or what form it will take, but my email list will be the first to get details.)
What happens if the feast and famine cycle is too stressful for you?
The stress of unpredictable art income can be a lot handle. This is why I caution many against quitting their day jobs to pursue art. If you need short-term predictability for your wellbeing, starting or maintaining an art business is going to take you on an unpleasant ride. It is possible to pay your bills with art and to eventually find stability, but it’s not easy (and it’s not as simple as paying for a class that teaches you how to make 6-figures your first year of selling art).
I want you to believe in your dreams and believe in your art, but it’s okay if the high-highs and low-lows of running an art business don’t sound appealing to you. At times it has been too much for me. Failing to make income with your art does not mean you are failing as an artist.
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