It almost seems like they don’t belong in the same sentence: “finance” and “art“.


In fact, many who create for a living prefer to just make pretty stuff and let others do the “dirty work” of number crunching.

But to completely abstain from all personal financial matters is a recipe for disaster.

I was struck by the documentary I recently watched about Drew Struzan. For those of us who grew up in the 80’s, and to anybody interested in illustration, Drew is a legend. I fit into both categories, and so I was excited to see the movie.

Drew is responsible for a lot of the striking movie posters throughout that time especially. Remember the poster from Back to the Future, with Marty standing there by the DeLorean looking at his watch? That’s by Drew. He is also known for the poster art for many of George Lucas’s movies, and countless others.

I was halfway expecting this paragon of the poster to be at least a bit cocky, considering his success. Nothing is farther from the truth – Drew is as nice, soft spoken, and gracious as you could possibly imagine. He is still happily married to his wife after several decades. I was completely drawn in by his personality and the gentle genius of this man.

That’s why I became so angry when I heard the part about him being swindled by a former agent who took a vast amount of his original renderings without asking, and then attempted to sell them at an auction nearly twenty years later.

I won’t reveal the rest of the story, you can see it here: Drew: The Man Behind the Poster [HD]
… Suffice it to say, the resolution is fascinating and ends well for Drew. But it does beg the question… Can we artists truly afford to abdicate the business side of our art?

The key is to know enough about the business side to be able to keep track of ingoing and outgoing funds, and to be able to see a snapshot of where your finances are at any given time.

You do have to run your creative empire (as little as it may be) like a business. In this business, you are the founder and CEO. If you don’t want to do the details yourself, you need to know how to hire people who you can trust to do your finances, and how to read a balance sheet. While you don’t have to have your nose in the books and count all the beans, you should expect to know enough to keep your financial advisers accountable. (Haha, a little pun there.)

If you don’t, if you wash your hands of all financial responsibility, then you have to be okay with the possibility losing really big… possibly even everything.

Is that worth the price of learning a few financial basics and putting them into practice? I think the creative assets we work so hard to build are worth protecting, not to mention the roof over our families’ heads!

So I’m going to assume, dear artist, that you’re still here and haven’t been bored to tears yet by this talk of numbers.

If you are, please note the following steps you can take to ensure that your assets are protected. If you’re like me, you want to keep it as low-maintenance, easy to use, and as simple as possible – and my suggestions reflect that. This means using online banking and automating as much as you can with it.

1. Have a separate bank account for your art business.

You need to keep your business-related finances separate from your personal ones. When you’re searching for that frame order you made on the 15th of last month, you shouldn’t have to sift through receipts for your daily Starbuck’s fix and the baby gift you got for your nephew. There are lots of other reasons, and it shouldn’t cost you much more (if any) to have an extra checking account.

2. Use your bank’s free online checking.

Enroll in your bank’s paperless checking so that you get your statements electronically. Not only do you save trees, you can access your account status from anywhere and do things like set up electronic payments from clients.

3. Set up automatic notifications with your online bank account.

You should easily be able to set up your bank to auto-notify you via email or text message for things like transfers or payments over a specified amount, statements ready to download, and payments due. This provides an extra layer of protection and communication, and doesn’t cost extra.

4. Set up auto overdraft protection in your online bank account.

While your goal would be to never allow your checking account to go below zero, on occasion it might happen. Overdraft protection can help you avoid costly fees by auto-drafting the necessary amount from a savings account you specify. It should also be a feature included with your account, and shouldn’t cost you extra.

5. Look at and download your monthly statements.

It’s a great habit to always look over your monthly bank statement. For one thing, there are often questionable or wrong charges in there that you will want to have corrected. And since many banks don’t keep more than a year’s worth of statements, you should download them and keep them in a safe place. I suggest setting up a monthly reminder, as an automated email from your bank account, to help you remember to do this. Learn how to read it, and be sure you understand what all the charges and line items mean. Call the bank’s customer support line until you get a good customer service rep that can clarify anything you need to understand.

6. Keep track of business related receipts.

Being able to separate and access your business related receipts is essential for returns to the store, as well as tax time. I suggest taking a snapshot of them so you have them in electronic form, and storing them in Evernote, Dropbox, or a similar place. Store any physical receipts in the same place everytime, whether it’s a box, file folder, or other place that you will remember.

7. Find and use qualified financial professionals.

Turn over your taxes and bookkeeping to pros if and when you can. Don’t use Uncle Jo-Bob’s Cheapo Tax and Bookkeeping Service. Talk to other creatives, freelancers, and artists you know and find professionals who understand your artistic business.

Bookkeepers can provide extra accountability for you as well as keep up with recording regular expenses, and they don’t cost much because they only need to spend a couple of hours a month once you have a system set up.

A CPA will usually only need to be paid after you get your tax return, and a good one will pay for himself or herself in finding deductions and providing guidance and moolah-saving tax tips.

If you take the time to find and speak with these experts, and follow their advice, then you will have your systems set up and humming with little to no maintenance involved. That frees you up to do what you do best: create great content!

8. Use credit with extreme care.

I’m not saying ‘never’ use credit cards; they have their uses if you use them correctly and responsibly. But use extreme caution: it’s hard enough to get an art business off the ground without having to deal with credit card interest payments. It’s very easy to get in over your head.

Take a good, serious look at your financial habits:

  • Are you tempted to buy things immediately with a card instead of waiting to buy them?
  • Do you have a hard time keeping the balance paid off every month?
  • Do you use it to cover expenses when your checking account is low?

These are big warning signs that a credit card is not for you.

I care too much (and you should too) for your well-being to go into debt slavery. Do what you have to do; lock them up, tear them up, or don’t use them at all.

9. Pay yourself first – before you pay your bills.

In other words, save. I like to say “pay yourself” because the ‘save’ word sounds so boring and unexciting.

But do you want to know what is exciting? Having a cushion in case something bad happens, like a sudden medical expense or if you lose a couple of crucial clients. Being able to go to that fun trip with your friends. Having the ability to buy braces for your teenager. (Ok, if its not exciting, it sure is nice to be able to have some money in the bank.)

The key to saving is the moment you get paid, or the first of the month, on a regular basis, have a prescribed amount automatically drafted out of your bank account to a special savings account. That way you won’t think too much about it or be tempted to hold anything back. Before long, you won’t even miss it… but it will be there when you need it.

10. Be generous – also take out money for tithing or charity.

Doesn’t this fly in the face of self-preservation? Why not keep the maximum amount you can for yourself?

Well, assuming you’re not mean old Mr. Potter, and regardless of personal or spiritual beliefs, being generous has multiple deeply beneficial effects on your view of money. It helps complete the circle of giving, and enables us to accept prosperity when we share our own prosperity with others.

Again, the best practice here is to automatically have a pre-specified amount auto drafted each month, that way it’s a habit, and you won’t miss it.

11. Keep on top of your taxes on a regular basis.

If you get a regular paycheck, you don’t have to worry about taxes too much. But if you’re a freelancer or independent artist with irregular income, you will want to keep on top of this. The following tips will help make tax time less dreadful and cause you less worry.

In the recurring theme of “transfer it before it’s missed”, have an estimated percentage of your monthly income transferred to a separate tax account (separate from both your checking and savings). Your CPA can help you figure out what percentage you need to save, or you can download a tax estimation form here from the IRS.

Keep track of not just your become tax, both state and local if applicable, but also other taxes such as property tax. Having it in yet another account, instead of just lumped in with your other accounts, makes it far less painful if you owe the IRS and have to pay in. You won’t be emotionally attached to that money because you know it’s for “the Taxman”, and it can be tracked more easily.

Work a little bit now… So you can enjoy more freedom later.

If these seem daunting, take them one step at a time and don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. Many of these steps are a once-time action… Take a little time to set your system up, and then you are free from worrying about it. The rest are habits that can easily take mere minutes out of your week or month.

When you free your mind from worrying about your finances, you will be in a much better state when it’s time to be creative. You will have fewer mental interruptions and be able to think more clearly.

And perhaps most importantly: you will know what you need to know to keep your business safe. Because remember, nobody will care about the financial health of your business more than you.


What do you think? Please share any other tips you have with the Artist Myth community at the bottom of this page. We value your input and we would love to hear it.

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