Money Management for Artists

As you move forward on your path as an artist, it is sometimes a challenge to manage the money that comes from the sales of your artwork. If your goal is to make your living from your art, it is crucial to get a handle on the wise allocation of that cash flow.

Since 1986, our family (which consists of John & I and our nine children) has lived entirely from the sales of John’s paintings. At times, that income was sporadic as it often is with any small business or commission-based career.

Along the way, we discovered and adopted strategies and tactics that took into account those ups and downs. Here are some tips we learned along the way.

Make a Plan

When we were in Phase I of our career (just starting out, net sales were less than $5,000 per year), John worked full time as an interior designer in our small town in Southern Idaho. He set up a studio in our home where he developed his artistic talent, painting nights and weekends in the hours after his regular job.

The long-term objective was to transition to full-time artist. We made our decisions with that end in mind.

Because we had a plan, we viewed the interior design job as a stepping stone to becoming a professional, full-time artist. The design business helped us create relationships with the most affluent people in our community, and many of them became collectors of John’s paintings as his art matured.

Cover Art Expenses

Our first business goal was forJohn’s art to be self-sustaining, expense-wise.

As his oil paintings started selling in local outdoor art festivals and off the walls of the hospital in our town, we reinvested most of the proceeds into art supplies, workshops, and art-related travel. The income from his full-time job took care of our growing family’s needs.

Once art business expenses were covered by painting sales, the next step was to create a special savings account to build up a reserve fund to pay for art-related expenses during the inevitable sales slump periods.

Become Debt-free

During Phase II of John’s career (when net sales went from $5,000 to $25,000 per year) we focused on becoming completely debt-free. It just made sense to keep our expenses low and eliminate interest costs in order to make the most of our cash flow and reach our ultimate goal more quickly.

Transition to Full-time Artist

In order to become a full-time artist, we focused on both sides of the money management equation: income and outgo.

Income. As John’s painting sales increased through our own marketing efforts in local venues, festivals and eventually through our own little art gallery, we determined that when the net income from sales of his art surpassed the income from his job, we would quit everything else and John would paint full time. That magic day arrived in the spring of 1986.

Outgo. We lived as inexpensively as possible in our personal life, stayed out of debt, and kept the focus on our goal to be free to create art full-time.

One of our biggest business expenses is oil paints. We found a source where we could buy excellent quality paints at bulk sizes and prices: caulking tubes, quart cans, and gallon buckets. John also devised a presentation for his oil paintings that eliminated the need for framing and that was extremely cost effective. That presentation evolved to become part of his brand that distinguishes his art.

As we expanded John’s art representation, we looked for galleries in areas where we had friends and family whom we visited on a regular basis. That maximized our travel time, and minimized travel expenses because often there were no lodging costs involved in those trips.

Spend Every Dollar on Paper First

BudgetingA written budget is a crucial key to the management of both household and business-related funds. Using a budget and organizing our finances made it possible to make the jump to full-time artist.

Before the beginning of the month, John and I sit down together to prioritize and allocate where our money will be spent that month.

Since I’m the left-brain partner in our marriage and John is allergic to numbers and to paying bills, I make two different lists of expenses that we discuss at our monthly budget meeting: funds needed for the business, and funds needed to take care of our family’s needs and household bills. At the top of the pages, I list the money currently on hand as well as the amount of painting sales for which we are expecting payment during the coming month.

Then in our meeting, we rearrange those expenses starting with the items that have highest priority, to make sure the most important expenses are paid first.

For example, for the business budget we look at upcoming show expenses, needed art supplies, and travel commitments such as attending exhibits, gathering subject matter and taking new inventory to our galleries. We estimate what those business needs will cost, then prioritize.

We then prioritize and total our household and family bills. Household bills include tithing to our church and donations to other charities; housing costs; utilities; food; car expenses; clothing; education; insurance; retirement savings; large purchase savings; allowances; personal needs and wants; and emergency savings.

We don’t have debt, so there are no credit card or loan payments.

The household amount is then added to the business budget, and those funds are transferred to our household account for disbursement.

In those months when sales are great, amounts that exceed business expenses and household bills go into either our personal emergency fund of three to six months living expenses or into the business “cash flow” savings account. When those accounts are comfortable, larger cash purchases happen during those times of plenty.

When sales are slower, we transfer funds from our “cash flow” savings to cover our monthly costs. When unexpected expenses come up, we use our personal emergency fund to take care of them and replace the used amounts as soon as possible.

Although we are far from perfect when it comes to money management, we have been blessed to live a wonderful life, spend time with our large family, and to reach exciting career goals as an artist. We have been able to have homes and studios in both Idaho and Arizona since the early 1990’s, which enable us to maximize sales during the different art seasons.(It also allows us to escape harsh Idaho winters and ridiculously hot Arizona summers!)

What are Your Largest Money Management Challenges?

What are your biggest challenges when it comes to managing money? What money tips have worked well for you? What ideas from this article make sense to you, and how do you plan to implement them? Please share your insights in the comments section below.

 

About the Author: Elaine Horejs

Elaine has been business manager and head cheerleader for her husband, John Horejs, since he began painting in 1973. In 2008, she came on board as gallery director at Xanadu Gallery in the heart of the Old Town Scottsdale Arts District. Through the years she has encouraged her husband in his art career, and has also coached other artists to maximize their art businesses. Hundreds of artists have attended Elaine’s workshop “Insider Secrets of a Successful Art Career.” Her new book by the same title is due to be released in the fall of 2014.

28 Comments

  1. This is a great plan and close to the one my husband (the retired lawyer) and I (the artist) are using. After retiring at the beginning of this year from my full-time job as a designer for an international gift company, I met with a CPA and formed a LLC to protect our personal properties. You didn’t mention this in your article, and maybe this couple decided not to go that route, but I was warned by attouneys and CPA’s that it is a safe, reliable way to keep our home and other personal property safe, should anything happen to our business that would be costly.
    With an LLC, the incomes (Social Security benefits and my husband’s occational legal fees income, in our case) and my art work sales are totally separate. We keep separate records and accounts for each – separate checking accounts, savings accounts and credit cards. After paying back the “business loan” that I gave to my new business, using our personal savings account, I use the income from my business to buy supplies, attend classes and seminars and occational travel to out-of-town galleries, which are often close to family that we want to visit. I file quarterly taxes and things are working out great so far!
    Thanks for the article – glad to see we are doing it right too!

    1. Cynthia, great info about forming an LLC. Serious artists should definitely look into setting up their art business in one. Thanks for the kinds words!

  2. First of all, Elaine, from looking at your beautiful picture, it bends my mind to think you having 9 children and accomplishing so much! It inspires me to hear of your success.
    This is very helpful. We try to follow a similar strategy. I’m going to emulate your 2 column method. And I pinned this article to my “Helpful Information for Artists” board. Thanks for getting the word out.

  3. Elaine, I throughly enjoyed reading this blog. I’m so happy that you are left-brained! Every artist needs a left-brained financial partner.

    We have no debt, so we’ve got that taken care of. I do need to curb my spending on supplies and other art-related expenses so that I can net more income. I just plain spent too much last year on business expenses, and although I sold a lot of paintings (for too low a price), my net income was pitiful!

    Thanks again for all these reminders. I’m hoping to increase sales in 2014, and I raised my prices so that I’m not “giving them away”. Looks like all your hard work has paid off. I’m happy for you and John. Sounds as though it hasn’t been easy, but you’re proof that an artist can make a living.

    1. Hi, Lori, Glad you enjoyed the article. Thank you for your kind comments. Congratulations on all your sales last year. It is such a balancing act keeping expenses down without sacrificing the quality of your materials and hence your art. Being aware of the numbers is the first step in becoming more & more profitable!

  4. You are absolutely beautiful Elaine, and thank-you for sharing your life story and inspired approach for Artist’s Money Management!

    Ann Beam

  5. Elaine; what a great share you gave to us with this blog post. I thoroughly enjoyed learning a bit about your journey to get to this point and feel reassured that through hard work, excellent planning, and perseverance success can be achieved.

    Last year was my first year of covering all my studio/art making expenses and I was thrilled! I currently use Quicken for my accounting which allows me to print reports whenever I need them. I have also created an Excel spreadsheet that contains all expenses (even future ones like monthly rent throughout the year) so I can always see what my bottom line is any day I need it. It really helps!

    Thank you for reminding us that there are so many parts to being an artist. Your husband was so very lucky to have you! Looking forward to the book!

    Cheers,
    Catie

    1. Congrats on reaching that first milestone, Catie! And thanks for sharing your accounting tools. In any kind of business, knowing your numbers helps you know what is working, and what changes you need to make. It’s discouraging to burn through money and not know where it went or feel like you don’t have much to show for your hard work. Planning ahead, following your plan, and then giving an accounting will help overcome those challenges.

  6. So pleased you found me on Twitter. Admire your story. I have no partner support so my work only seen friends and family. In next few weeks putting up website for my ebook on color for artists. Learning marketing online. So admire how you two work together and envy your level of energy? Is three an energy secret? Is there a website I can see John’s work? With respect, Margo

  7. Extremely important and amazingly informative post. Thank you so much for sharing this. It’s reassuring that there are a few key points that match my own plan. I must be on the right track!

    The biggest one for me is becoming debt free as soon as possible. I’ve got about $4000 left that I’m planning on paying out just before I jump into full-time towards the end of this year. Getting a monthly budget together is a big one too and one that I’ve ignored. Time to implement it!

    This on top of approaching galleries for representation, a goal of painting at least 52 originals this year and hitting the art festival circuit, I think I’ve got my work cut out for me for the rest of 2014!

    1. Hi, Will,
      Thanks for the kind note, and congratulations on your progress toward exciting art goals!

      As far as your goal to get out of debt, are you familiar with Dave Ramsey?

      His best-selling book “Total Money Makeover” is great for helping you focus with “gazelle intensity” to knock out debt so you can move forward to living a great life & reaching your financial goals. Please be sure to check out his website at http://www.daveramsey.com/home/ for printable budget forms and all kinds of great info and encouragement. He also does a radio show weekdays that is terrific.

    1. Thanks, Alice. That is such a key–having a vision of where you want to go and then taking common sense steps to get there.

  8. Elaine, it is an inspiration to hear that there is success to be had, even with a large family. We have four young children and sometimes it seems that combining family life with studio life is a losing battle. I suspect it will get easier as the children get older! For now, they plaster their noses against the glass-pane doors to the space I use as a studio and I say “I’m busy, go ask Dad” a thousand times a day. You should see the handprint smudges! But the time is right for me to pursue this, and my family is thankfully very supportive.

    My main question in all of this is how do I list my painting income on my taxes? I do the bills/taxes in our house; maybe it’s time to hire an accountant.

    1. Hi, Katharine,
      That is awesome that you are able to create your art while raising your children. Your example will be an inspiration to them to pursue their own dreams as they grow older!

      I’m not qualified to give financial or tax advice, so you will definitely want to consult with an accountant. There are advantages to having a home-based business (which is what you may have as an artist.) Small businesses can account for income and business expenses on Schedule C. It will be well worth your while to talk to a CPA to find out if your art activities qualify, and how to handle the particulars and record keeping.

  9. People learn and remember so much from storytelling mode, including encouragement – if they can do it, maybe I can, too. Thank you for sharing your journey. When I met my husband, he was a commercial photographer, I was a painter. I had great respect for him that he made his living entirely from his love of photography.
    In recent years, we had the same seasonal feast and famine, but it’s been more difficult to recover.
    We’re finding more alternatives for business income and my husband has his work in a gallery now, also.
    We’ll be spending 2 weeks next month on a tiny island in Maine to recharge, get some focused work done and teach a workshop.
    Your story is a good example and you are fortunate to have a right brain, left brain partnership.

    1. Hi, J.R.
      Thanks so much for your comments, and congrats on being so proactive! Sometimes it’s easy to have a pity party when things aren’t going quite the way we’d like (the economy is terrible, no one is buying art, etc., etc.) I love a quote we read early in our married life–“Within every adversity is the seed to an equal or greater opportunity.” Looks like you’re planting and harvesting lots of new seeds!

      The thought “If you can do it, maybe I can too” played a HUGE role in our success. When John was taking basic art & design classes, his professors told the students repeatedly that they needed to learn to teach, because “you can’t make a living as an artist.” But in the art magazines, we read articles every month about living artists who WERE making it– and some of them were making it BIG. We figured (in our naivete) that if SOMEBODY out there was doing it, maybe we could too.

      Please keep us posted on your successes this summer!

  10. Well, you are already married, as am I, and we are both happy that way so I guess another proposal is out of the question..but boy would I like to have your twin doing for me what you do for your lucky husband. Looking forward to your book and know that your words are true and like gold…just as the time to “do it all” is. You did it…I will try. Thanks again.

    1. Hahaha, Joyce! Thanks so much for your kind comment.

      Maybe those around you aren’t supporting you in exactly the same way John & I work together, but I hope as you examine your circumstances you celebrate any encouragement and assistance, from whatever source and in whatever form it takes! What we focus on tends to expand. 🙂

  11. Thank you Elaine for a wonderful, informative blog, and yes I would have to agree with the others who said your husband is lucky to have you, and Lori who said “every artist needs a left-brained financial partner”….do we ever..! Those artists who have someone crunching the numbers have more time to spend creating art..! Lots of things to keep in mind from this, and I try to do at least one thing each day that helps to get me closer to my goal of being a full-time artist–even if it is something such as reading this blog…

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