Debt: The Artist’s Worst Enemy

Debt is a sensitive subject, but it is probably the most important to tackle on the way to financial stability.

According to debt.org, the total U.S. consumer debt is at $14.9 trillion. That includes mortgages, auto loans, credit cards and student loans. The average household credit card debt is $5,315.

In Canada, Canadian households owed an average of $1.71 for every dollar of disposable income in the third quarter of 2020 (BNN Bloomberg).

Student loans are especially a big issue in the US. The average student debt in 2020 was $38,792, according to debt.org. And this average keeps rising every year. Actually, with the Federal Reserve lowering interest rates in the last few years, non-housing debt has risen faster, increasing 51% since 2013 (Debt.org).

In Canada, according to Statistics Canada, 55% of Visual & performing arts graduate students finish their degree with a student debt, with a median debt amount at graduation of $17,773.

In the US, it is normal to see that amount times 10 for art school graduates.

We get the picture – Debt impacts lots of people, including artists. But why is debt terrible for creatives?

Debt is the perfect illusion that you can spend more than you can afford, yet it only makes you more liable and a prisoner of precarious financial life. It is bad because debt will cost you more money on the long term and its only advantage is the short-term, immediate gratification it gives you. Debt essentially borrows from your future income, money that does not even exist yet is already being taken away by paying interest and paying back a debt. Debt can also be extremely unreasonable, especially with high-interest debt, when the amount paid on interest only ends up costing more than the object you’re buying. For example, you buy a $2000 sofa using your credit card at 11% and decide to only make the minimum payment. You end up paying more than $3600 – which is $1600 more than the actual furniture cost.

Debt keeps you from saving money and reaching your financial goals. Since you are liable and have to pay your debt otherwise you have to declare bankruptcy, you become a slave to that debt having to send all of your savings towards paying back the debt. Meanwhile, interests accumulate the more time you wait to pay off that debt completely.

Also, having a large or too many debts impacts your credit score and it will hinder your chances of buying a home.

Finally, debt will have emotional and relational impact on your life. Feeling financially trapped causes enormous stress on a person and sometimes, this stress will overboard on your relationship with your spouse or partner. As an artist, you are already dealing with an income that’s not necessarily regular or constant so it makes it more challenging to be financially stable. But if you add debt onto this, it will only cripple you emotionally and have a negative impact on your creative practice. Very often, this is enough for graduates to quit art altogether and choose a different profession that might not be fulfilling, but will pay their bills. This is very disheartening to me as I lived it a few years ago and I don’t wish this to happen to someone else.

What can you do if you have a non-housing debt?

This is a simple, step-by-step guide to get rid of all of your debt. If you stay organized and disciplined, but most importantly, as long as you stop taking on more debt you can make it to the end of the tunnel of debt.

Step 1 : Gather & list all of your data

“Thus the expert in battle moves the enemy, and is not moved by him.” ― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

You got to know where you stand and the best way is to confront the beast by knowing exactly how much money you owe in total. This will be extremely helpful for you as it’ll act as a motivator as you tackle the task of paying off your debt and seeing that amount decrease month by month. Example of data to gather:

  • All recent bill statement from your credit cards and/or loans
  • Your credit reports
  • Your credit score
  • Creditor’s name and balances
  • Minimum monthly payments and interest rates

Step 2 : Pay off the high-interest debt (s) first

You want to lose the less money as possible to interest payment, so you have to start paying off your credit card debt first. It is usually credit cards that have higher interest and keeping a credit card debt for too long will only make it difficult to get out of debt completely because of how costly they are. Do not just make the minimum payment only – Actually send as much money as possible towards your credit card to pay it off as soon as you can. Please, do not pay your credit card with another credit card as you’ll only find yourself in a hamster wheel of infinite debt. If money is tight and your income can barely cover the rent and food, you can cut off any frivolous expenses, stop the daily Starbucks, sell items you don’t need on Craigslist, get a part-time gig, etc.

You may also considerate consolidating your credit debts into a single payment. But this is only good if you’re dealing with a manageable amount of debt, where you just have too many bills with different interest rates and due dates and that you’re just looking to pay this faster. Please note debt consolidation might negatively impact your credit score a little bit.

Step 3 : Give yourself a deadline to pay off your lower interest debts

If you have a student, it might be tempting to just make the minimum monthly payment but this is money that you can actually put towards a home, or an art studio. Why not pay off that debt as soon as possible and move on with your adult life without the useless remnants of academic debt? I paid off my entire student debt 2 years after I finished university. Mind you, it was in Canada where university is a bit cheaper but it was still a substantial 5-figure debt. How did I do it?

I gave myself a deadline to become 100% student-debt free: March 1st, 2018.

Then I looked at the total amount I owed to the bank and how much money I’d have to send every month to get this amount to $0, taking in consideration interest. That amount would be sent automatically from my bank account to my debt evert month. It was a substantial amount so I needed a stable income to make that possible. I took a corporate job and limited my expenses to only necessities for 2 years. I actually got married during that period. Did I take on another debt for my wedding? Nope. We got married in the backyard of my in-laws’ house. I also travelled to Costa Rica, Las Vegas and Los Angeles during that period. I saved up extra money to do these things, but not even once I changed the amount that went to my student debt every month.

On December 15, 2017 I got a bonus at my job. I sent all of the bonus money towards my student debt turning it to a sharp $0. Two months before my initial deadline, I was already 100% debt-free.

The recipe to becoming debt-free was quite simple for me: Deadline – Maximize payments – Save more – Limit expenses.

Step 4: Learn from the past and improve

Now you’ve paid off all of your debts, it is important to reflect on the past and see where you can avoid being in debt in the future and actually build a strong financial system in your life. These mantras & tips are good guides and you should always keep these in mind remain debt-free:

  • “Don’t thrive for having more – Thrive for needing less”
  • “Don’t buy anything unless you’ve thought about buying it at least on 5 separate occasions.” (This is a trick I use on myself to avoid impulsive shopping)
  • “The best things in life are free”: Going outside for a walk, inviting your friend home to watch a movie, reading a book, learning about investing or how to run an art business, have a picnic in a park, exploring your city’s different neighborhoods, writing a fiction.
  • “Your monthly income should always be higher than your expenses.”

Final Thoughts

Getting out of debt is one of the most grueling challenges in one’s financial journey. But it is probably the most rewarding. Once you know you do not owe anything to anyone, that’s the first time you experience true freedom. Once you know that feeling, you will never, ever want to go back. It becomes the first step to something even greater: Your financial success.

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