Things to do if you are a hustling class artist or other person with no trust fund or much of an economic safety net
notes- this is a work in progress, but after I wrote it on the MegaBus from Philly to Toronto on day 6 of the Revolution Starts At Home kickoff tour and it got 76 comments on Facebook, I thought I might be on to something. I'm posting it here- if you like it and care to kick down a couple bucks for the pleasure and utility of reading it, feel free to paypal me at brownstargirl at gmail. this may well go into a little zine or booklet- watch this space.
more notes: this piece is written from the perspective of a chronically ill girl who grew up working/lower middle class, has been to college and MFA school on a lot of financial aid, and has in her adult life been poor, working class and somewhat more stable, whose income is precarious due to illness, familial estrangement and other things- like, you know, the economy. i recognize that I'm writing from this position, and if you grew up poor and/or have always been poor, some things in this list may work, some skills and strategies and resources and realities are likely to be very different. I feel like most of this will apply to folks who have some mix of economic brokeness and access, who are trying to make it work. I'm open to hearing folks' feedback and ideas.
if you share this, please credit me and this website and include this headnote.
- Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, brownstargirl.org
1. Floss. Floss costs $1.99. A root canal costs $2-3,000. If you floss- every day, at least once a day but preferably twice, or as often as you eat- you will cut your chances of biting down one day and having your face lit up with the most nuclear hot nerve pain you have ever experienced- followed by the terror
you face when you realize you don't have $3,000 but you actually could die if your jaw gets infected if you don't take care of the root canal, and anyways you are in so much level 10 pain you can't think or type or do anything. Chewing cloves is not enough, pulling the tooth means your other teeth may start falling in, and you can end up with big, scary, systemic bone infections if you just try and wait it out. Buy a whole bunch of floss. Keep it in your purse, by your bed, in your car, at the dining table, in the bathroom. Floss all the time. Don't fall asleep without flossing. It is very stressful to have a temporary filling in your root canal hole for three years when it was supposed to be in for a month.
2. Find a dental clinic, dental school, Delta Dental or another affordable dental solution- or tuck away $100, (that's $20 a month for 5 months, or $10 for 10, or $7- something for 12) and get your teeth cleaned at least once a year. Feel free to decline the X Rays (at least mostly) which will bump up the out of pocket costs to $200 at least, but make sure you get 'em scraped. Getting your teeth scraped once a year cuts down on major dental terror that is a clusterfuck and just gets worse if you can't deal with it immediately.
2a. If you have a dental emergency, see if your dentist offers financing or this thing called a Care Credit - it's a weird, GE Money health care credit card, but it's 0% interest for the first year, and it's how I was able to finance part one of my multi-year root canal sitch. They also seem to hand them out to folks with less than awesome credit.
3. Have a minimal, chill and big budgets. Know the minimal amount you can live on-don't try to be there all the time, but know the absolute bare minimum of cash you can survive on and what makes that cheap life feel good (tea? stealing? library books, hot tub/pool at the Y on a low income membership, walks, free adventure dates with friends, happy hour once a week?) Also know the middle ground- where you can buy a coffee or beer without thinking about it, or buy a book on a whim. Also know how to budget your bigger checks if and when they come in. Know how to do that, because if you don't, and you are used to scarcity, it is likely you are going to blow all your money on cabs and Sephora purchases you have not thought out, but just want to make because you don't want to have to think about everything for once, and picking up the check to make up for all the times friends got it- or on taking care of every neglected need for shoes and clothing and things at once without making a plan- and feel horrible after when the cash is gone.
Think about the things that cost money that are important to you, if you have them, and the things you can switch up. My friend cuts my hair for free now instead of me going to the fancy curly girl salon (which used to be a luxury I saved for), but I still will pay $20 to get glitter liquid eyeliner from Sephora once or twice a year. If you spend cash on things sometimes, don't try and swear that you'll never spend a dollar on anything but the bare minimum again, because it's unlikely you'll stick to it.
If you are actually rolling in it for a minute, save at least 15% and buy shit whose value lasts, like cars and housing and adaptive equipment and computer equipment and new eyeglasses and health care.
4. Plan ahead. Make an Excel spreadsheet for your money for six months, or the whole year. Or write it in a notebook. Do you usually get a tax return? Great, put that down for April. Does your two books give you Public Lending Right cash once a year in February? Ditto. Work the film festival in May? Go to Vegas to teach the pelvic exam in January? Awesome, write it down. How much are you getting? Are there expenses you have to pay up front (ie, flying to Vegas?) Likewise, if you have regular big things to budget for (Allied Media Conference travel money in June, whatever) put that in.
5. If you have debts and feel overwhelmed by them a) remember that, as Ariel Gore said, "Many people live perfectly good lives with terrible credit."
However, if bills and nasty phone calls and IMPORTANT MESSAGE READ IMMEDIATELY letters and robots calling you at 8 AM to tell you you didn't pay Visa this month are stressing you out, you also might want to think about :
1) Making an Excel spreadsheet, listing all your debts, how much the interest rate is (try to pay off the higher rated one first), and the amount you owe on each. Prioritize them if there are a lot and you feel overwhelmed. For example, when I did this, I prioritized paying off shit that was immediately fucking with my life first (the $323 I owed the DMV that was making it impossible for me to register my car, leading to parking tickets of doom and constant scanning for cops and getting pulled over on the highway, the overdue credit card), then once I knocked those out, I paid off a couple small, $100- $200 loans friends who also didn't have a lot had given me when I needed them. I worked my way down to the people who said they could wait. If you do step 6, (below) you can plan more, and have more of a chance of paying the loans off instead of feeling like you don't know where your money went, and at the end of the month you still haven't paid anyone off- this often happens when you have lots of little checks and never feel like you have enough to pay anyone anything.
Just having a plan, even if you have to adjust it multiple times, will likely make you feel less freaked out and more On It.
2) If you're seriously in the hole- like thousands in debt to credit cards and banks, people who you have less bargaining power with- first, thank and honor your "freeze" or "deny" responses as great survival mechanisms hardwired into your lizard brain that have done a badass job at keeping you alive. Once you've done that, consider:
a) reaching out to a nonprofit credit counseling agency that helps people consolidate their debt and get on a payment plan- they will freeze your interest and roll everything into one payment that you usually do over 5 years. your credit won't be great, but it will stop getting worse. Note: these are not places that have sleazy infomercials or promise miracles, or charge you money; they are nonprofits. A good one in Toronto is Credit Canada, they really helped me.
b) bankruptcy or a "civil proposition", which will ruin your credit for 7 years, but which will write off your debts and make them leave you alone.
c) if you have any desire and the legal and financial ability to move to another country, know that your credit rating does not hop borders. I know folks who owe TD Canada Trust $20,000 that they are never going to get, and their credit rating in the US is awesome
The NoLo How to Survive Financial Disaster book (it's actually called Solving Your Money Problems) is a great resource if you are dealing with stuff like this- it's probably in your library. (NoLo is a badass collective of radical lawyers who write DIY law books. Their website is nolo.com and their personal finance, will and bankruptcy sections are great)
6. Track your income and expenses. Especially if you live off of freelance/ independent contractor/ university gig money and are often waiting for checks and following up and following up with checks, you need to plan in advance, have a reserve (even if it's a small one- I can't do that "3 months living expenses in the bank" thing Suze Orman talks about- are you kidding?- but my goal is to have $1,000 in the bank when I can, and $500 when that is impossible, and to have a small amount transferred to savings automatically every month. This is not always possible, but by making it a goal, I am shooting to get myself away from having $47 in the bank to the degree that I can control it). Really think about what you value, and make room for the unexpected factor- when your tire blows or all of a sudden you need to get a skin biopsy or whatnot.
7. Cultivate a community where asking for help and being interdependent is not seen as "weak" "being an energy vulture" or otherwise shameful. Develop a care web. Give your friends money when they need it for food or rent - $5 or whatever you have. Develop a community ethic where it is okay to ask for help, and where your folks come through with groceries, small loans and other needed things when needed. I share a car with a friend who bikes to work and doesn't need her car all the time (which means I pay $80 plus about $70 in gas a month to have a fully insured car where we put stuff away for maintenance and annual fees) live in a house where there is almost always a car or a bike to borrow, and share tools, money, veggies and bulk food. I give money to friends who live with chronic illness and poverty, and in turn have been able to get loans when emergencies occur (like my car being booted, or when the giant check I was counting on was late and I had to go on a big work trip and I had $40 to my name). Doing this means doing a lot of work on your own internalized stuff around 'independence' class and ableism.
8. De-monoculture your hustles. Have multiple income streams. Think about all the shit you can do for money, what the physical, emotional, energy and spiritual costs are to you, what you like about them, what trade offs you're ok with when. For example, maybe there's a year where working for a low hourly rate at the bookstore is worth it to you, to have a steady, small check every two weeks and health insurance. Maybe then you'll be tired from the grind and be willing to take a risk hustling different freelance sums of money. Or you'll take out some student loans (if you have a lot of high interest credit card debt, think about paying them off with this), go back to school and just live off of that for a while.
Have emergency backup plans. I can always read tarot, ask the internet for help or hustle some extra shifts at the store. Maybe you can nanny, do landscaping, have one trick who's easy and a regular, or strip weed or sell things at the flea market.
9. Value yourself. Take yourself seriously. Value your time, your health, your energy, your boundaries, your emotional well being. Say no. Turn your phone off. Forgive yourself when you don't do this. Try again. Feel free not to drop everything to take care of other people's shit right away. Don't let yourself be guilt tripped by people who are pissy you won't go to lunch with them in the middle of your writing day. Your writing day is not an endless slacker vacation; it's work time. Just because you're not leading your mom's life doesn't mean you aren't working hard. Prioritize your art and play time. Take care of yourself. Don't hang out with people who treat your work as anything other than work, or who make fun of your "little hobby." If you need to be alone to work, it's ok to say that. You have 168 hours in a week. Make the most of them.
10. Don't work all the time. Your work is joy, right? You're so much luckier than your mom, right? It's really easy to be always kinda working- promoting your tour on Facebook, or just checking emails for a quick second (that turns into two hours) or whatever. You got nothing to complain about, right? If you drive around on big adventures or get flown somewhere to perform, it's awesome and something not everyone gets to do. However, you need some non work time. Time to just go to the beach and turn the computer off and read your science fiction book in bed or have sexy times or whatever. Remember that.
11. Save your cash. Even $20 a month into a savings account. Your slightly older queer of color artist friends will tell you to do this. They are right.
12. Make plans. What's your dream? You want a MacArthur Genius Grant? Great, how come, and what do you need to do to make that happen?
13. Dreams take work, and also dreamtime.
14. It's nice to make a simple will and medical power of attorney, and you can do this at home for free with a NoLo kit.
15. Finally, everyone's solution to the issue of how to survive capitalism is going to look different. Right now, I live collectively because it's cheap and I get to live in a beautiful house with shared resources and support when I'm sick- but there were many years when I needed to live alone because of mental and spiritual health stuff, where a lot of my money went to rent, and that was a choice I was making. I value eating at home, community acupuncture, having access to a crip car, and having some flexibility, as well as the ability to buy a dress at Ross once in a while and cheap plane or bus tickets. Your needs and preferences may well look very different.
as of september 2010, I'm committing to post one new piece a week (disability and travel may remix this intention.) all this work is shared under a Creative Commons license- credit if you share, no commercial use allowed.
This work by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.