Possibly the worst thing you can say to a working artist is: “At least you do what you love.”
We have A LOT of complicated feelings about this phrase.
It’s the phrase we heard growing up, a phrase that lured us into an art career in the first place. Later, it’s used a consolation, for having an art career instead of, you know, a living wage.
Artists on average are underpaid and may take longer than other career paths to really unlock their earning potential. Artists have the ability to out-earn their age-group, but typically, earning is not a linear path. Those legendary big breaks don’t happen very often. So artists spend a lot of time freelancing, working underpaid corporate or studio jobs, trying to monetize their hobbies or working for free on personal projects. Contracts are short, deadline-heavy and have no benefits.
Our lived experience of ‘doing what we love’ is fraught with bad clients, bad pay, bad online behavior, free work, and occasionally having our art and time straight-up stolen.
We’re feeling that pain in our shoulders, the repetitive stress injury in our wrist. The toll on our mental health and well-being. We look at our lack of retirement savings, lack of house, the kids we’ve put off having – at all the opportunity costs of our career decisions.
We’re really sick of hearing: “But you do what you love, right?”
Artists might look at other lifestyles and wish they’d made the money-maker’s choice instead of doing what they love. They look at their enforced frugality and lower-income lifestyles and wonder if it was worthwhile. If they were naive and over-idealistic to ‘do what they love’.
I would argue that no. You were not naive.
It’s not fun and romantic to be poor. But making a choice to be authentic and happy over being immediately wealthy is a valid choice. Wealth takes time. Good money management takes maturity and self-control. Twenty-year-old lawyers, bankers, accountants and doctors are no better at managing money at that age than anyone else is.
Higher incomes don’t automatically come with better financial management. In fact, our highly-paid corporate counterparts can be vulnerable to financial pitfalls that we may not experience.
Banks aren’t giving freelance artists giant home-loans or a million rand line of credit. No predatory insurance salespeople are stalking the halls of art schools. No graphic-design graduates are racing their fellow interns to the BMW dealership.
If we’re lucky, we all get to a point in our adult lives where we’ve had our fun and want to manage our financial house better. But the more “fun” you have, the more you have to pay back later on.
As the average broke-ass, debt-light or debt-free artist, used to living a frugal lifestyle and taking care of only ourselves and a cat, we might actually be in a way better position to turn our finances around. The average investment exec, on the other hand, might have to dig their way out of an an expensive coke habit and a million rands worth of house and car debt first, just to reach zero.
Lifestyle-wise, we’re worlds apart. On a net-worth balance sheet, we’re all at the starting line…