When you start an art business, there are few things more thrilling than making those first few sales.
Those few lines of revenue represent the validation that you are on the right track and the excitement of what’s to come.
Regardless of if you are looking into making art your full-time gig, are ramping up your side-hustle, or making art just for fun—you are going to be dealing with money at some point. So, it’s important to have a solid grasp on where your money is coming from and where it is going.
Financial planning might not be your favorite topic, but it’s the key to the longevity of your art career.
Fortunately, establishing clear financial practices in your art business is not as scary as you may think. Here are six practical tips for getting your finances in order so that you have financial security and financial freedom in your art practice.
Ask yourself the important questions and have clear answers
Before you decide to become a self-employed artist, you will have to figure out if you can realistically afford to take the leap. Being a full-time artist is a difficult path and it is only more difficult if you don’t have the financial stability.
How can you be sure it is financially responsible to go for your dream of being a full-time artist?
The easiest answer? You won't know until you try, so start selling your work while you still have another income stream. Start now. Don’t wait until you have officially started a business.
Gain insights to how to price your work and the demand for your work in different markets before you depend on it for your livelihood. You’ll be happy to have this knowledge and business practice when you are earning your entire living from your art.
Here are some other questions to ask yourself before going all in:
- What are my own personal financial needs?
- What are my business financial needs (materials, space, shows)?
- How many ways can I earn money for my art business?
- In what ways can I barter/trade my artwork for other services (like photography, marketing, etc)?
- Is crowdfunding an option for bigger expenses?
- What financial system can I set up to best organize and manage my business?
- What grants/ fellowships are a good fit for my work?
- What work have I made that has been successful?
- Who is my current customer? Who is my ideal customer?
Follow the 50/30/20 budget, but know your income will fluctuate
You don’t have to be wealthy to be financially free. Even with a relatively small earning, you can make a budget that allows you to have freedom in your practice, business, and life.
To start, make a list of all your current ongoing expenses. List out your rent, groceries, phone bill, gym membership … anything that is a recurring expense. Then, work on making a plan for where you can spend and save. Financial planners recommend a 50/30/20 split for your needs, wants and savings.
This means fifty percent of your income is designated to your needs like housing, food, electricity, your phone bill, your car, any debts, and health insurance. Thirty percent goes to “wants”—those things that aren’t necessary to your survival and business, but make life more fun and enjoyable like dining out, concerts, entertainment and shopping—and 20% goes to savings or toward debts.
However, things are a little different with artists.
Not having a regular paycheck means that one month you could be making double your budget to cover the 50% of your needs based portion. While the next month, you might not make anything. The tricky part of being an artist is being able to look at the year holistically so that you don’t blow through all your money in a particularly good month.
If you know from your past experiences that the winter holiday months are the best for you and the spring is generally slow, make sure you put a higher percentage toward saving in those months so that you can use those funds for the extras in the off-months.
What if your needs make up more than 50% of your after-tax income right now? That’s ok, that’s the case with a lot of artists when they start out and these numbers can be flexible month-to-month. You might have to adjust your wants for a while and learn different ways to save. It doesn’t have to mean eliminating all of your enjoyable activities, but it might mean dining out less and getting creative around how to cut down.
Things like bartering your services and time are great ways for artists to save in a non-traditional way. Trading weekly childcare services with a neighbor or carpooling is a great way to cut down on childcare and transportation costs. You can also trade your skills as an artist with other artists for professional services like headshots, marketing materials, booth displays etc. As an artist, you have a lot of skills that are useful to many people. Bartering is a valuable form of currency and helps build community around you—trust in the community, ask for help and help others when you can.
The key to financial freedom is knowing where your money is coming from and going
To begin with, keep your art business and personal finances separate.
Having a separate business account simply makes things easier. It’s easier to see where your money is going and to get an overview of your business right away. Plus, you don’t waste time sifting through line-by-line to extract all your personal line items come tax time or anytime you need to get some insight into your business revenue.
There are a few other tools that can help artists keep track of expenses and revenue. Quickbooks has an option for self-employment that helps artists with small business keep track of profit and loss. Artwork Archive also has an income feature that allows artists to track sales, workshop fees, and any other income and expense for their art business. You can get quick insights into how your art business is performing, generate invoices and stay on top of your budget.
Running an art business is easier and less stressful if you can understand how your money is flowing in and out.
So how do start keeping track of your sales? The short answer: in your art inventory system. Having an art inventory system that allows you to keep records of your artworks, sales, and finances is the foundation to a healthy art business.
After setting up all your inventory system, you will now be able to clearly see what all your revenue and expenses are over time. With that information, you can then predict your income for the upcoming months, explore what expenses you could cut down on, see what type of work is selling well and make more of that, and brainstorm different ways to add to your income. Having a system in place allows you to lay everything out in front of you to make informed decisions about your art career.
Using an art inventory system like Artwork Archive makes it easy to record your artwork, invoice your customers and keep track of your sales over time.
Plan short-term and long-term with savings goals
Saving money with the abstract idea of saving just “because” is not effective.
What is effective is saving money with a specific goal in mind. Goals inspire us to save in new ways, it in effect makes you *want* to put your money away for that goal. You will also think twice before spending it on the frivolous stuff.
Setting these goals will help make savings goals like a new studio, kiln, large equipment, expensive show or even a vacation more likely.
But what about those long-term savings goals that are out of sight out of mind.
It might be hard to think about setting money aside for saving or for retirement when you feel like you just don’t even enough for today. However, even small amounts of money put away regularly can be very powerful over time. Even amounts as small as ten or twenty dollars will add up and grow over time.
One of the best ways to get there is to first eliminate your debts as part of your savings plan. Since artists have some of the highest student debt in the country, it can feel like an insurmountable amount to chip away at and you might want to ignore it. However, it’s probably not going anywhere soon—so it’s best to pay it off so the interest doesn’t build up.
Act like the boss of your business (because you are)
Starting an art business made you the boss of your own small business. So now you have to start acting like one. This means knowing exactly where your art practice stands financially, making strategic financial goals for your art career, and making decisions for your business based on the numbers.
It also means staying firm on your prices and having a solid pricing strategy.
To examine your pricing strategy, take into account costs like materials, shipping, and especially your time when determining your price so that you stand to make a profit from each art sale.
Using a consistent pricing formula will help you skip the frantic “I don’t know what to charge!” phase and keep you from undercutting yourself while talking to an interested buyer. Offering multiple price points can allow you to bring in sales from a wider range of art customers.
Being the boss, you will need to keep track of your art sales so you always know how much money is coming in and when. A tool like Artwork Archive helps you manage which pieces have been sold and for how much so you have a baseline to measure against.
Remember that your goal is to price yourself out of your own work. Because if you keep making work that you can “afford”, you will never be able to afford more.
Don’t wait to learn about finances until it is an emergency
For a lot of artists, dealing with finances isn’t a priority until it becomes an emergency. It could be a small emergency like your car breaking down, or a bigger emergency like not having enough money for your taxes, medical bills, or retirement.
Either way, ignoring your finances will only create stress.
It’s not glamorous, but keeping track of your receipts, recording your income and expenses and planning for retirement is crucial to your long-term success. As an independent artist with a small business, it’s important for your long-term plan to start your own retirement fund when you are able.
Check in on your finances regularly and don’t wait till April to see where you stand as a business. This will help you make adjustments as needed and prevent emergencies.
The bottom line
Artists often stress about money. About when the next payment is going to come. And about having more of it.
However, the artists that are most likely to make a career out of their art are aware of their needs, costs, budget, and expenses.
Having financial success only means you will be able to make choices based on your passions and not out of necessity.