Master Your Finances

by Peleg Top

We all have a troubled relationship with money—especially we creative types. We spend a lifetime mastering our craft. But we don’t do money. We aren’t taught how to manage our finances or set up a billing structure. And few of us end up in work situations where money issues are handled confidently. What we know are a few vague money habits we learned from our parents, which we carry into our our businesses.

Take that lack of education and add the “starving artist” myth to the mix, and you get a person who isn’t controlling their money but who’s controlled by it. If you’re ready to take control of your money, here are the steps to do it.

Track It
First, start tracking your money. Watch every dollar that comes in and goes out of your business. Buy a bookkeeping program and learn how to use it. Quickbooks is a comprehensive accounting package that’s well-suited for small businesses. Or check out, a free online service that collects information from all of your sources and compiles an automatically updated snapshot of your financial position.

Your financial ledger is a source of great information: Careful and consistent attention will allow you to make financial decisions based on real information instead of hunches and whims.

Use It
Next, change how you use money. This doesn’t just mean cutting out luxuries; it means seeing money as the means to an end. What are you using your money for? What’s the bigger purpose? Consider whether major purchases truly contribute to your goals: Will this improve my productivity so I can spend less time at my desk? Does it bring me joy? Does it enhance my environment? Is it something I can’t live without? When I’ve reached my goal, is this something I’ll still want or need?

Create It
Money is created from service. The only way anyone ever earned a dime is from providing something that a customer needs. The key to creating money, then, is to provide service more consistently and extravagantly. Rather than waiting for your clients to tell you what they need, activate your creativity by imagining how you can serve your clients in ways they haven’t even thought about. How? It starts with listening. Think about what your clients care about in their businesses and connect to that. Focus your client conversations on their business needs, rather than on selling yourself. These conversations may lead to projects that didn’t exist before.

Accumulate It
The stress we feel about money comes from a fear of “what if?” What if we lose that major client? What if the economy remains soft? The way to ease that fear is to put yourself in a position where you can face an emergency and stay in control. Set a target to accumulate four months of your regular operating expenses in savings. Seems obvious. But how? Think of saving money as paying yourself. On the list of bills you have to pay each month, put your name at the top. Determine the amount you’re going to save every month and pay that “bill” first.

Instead of allocating whatever money is left at the end of the month to savings (and there usually isn’t much left), make your savings account the first “bill” you pay each month.
Excerpted from HOW March 2011. Illustration by Debbie Powell.

Quick Tips
1. Change your attitude toward spending. When considering a business or personal purchase, consider whether it furthers your goals. Does that new printer allow you to better serve your clients, or is it a fun toy? It’s not a matter of simply cutting out luxury items, but of being mindful about how you spend.

2. Connect with your clients. When you finish a major project, take your client to lunch, ask questions and listen. You’re likely to hear about business challenges and opportunities that can yield new work for you. Don’t wait for your clients to come to you with work; listen to their needs and suggest solutions—solutions that it just so happens you can provide.

Dig Deeper!
It’s a bit of a myth that creative types are flaky about money, but there are tons of resources available to help you get comfortable thinking about, talking about and managing your business finances:

1. Galia Gichon is a financial pro who works with small-business owners, especially women entrepreneurs, to gain control over their financial lives. She offers teleclasses, workshops and a free e-mail newsletter; find out more on her website, Down to Earth Finance.

2. If you’re just getting started or you want an easy, no-cost way to manage your finances, check out It allows you to track your bank accounts, credit cards, loans, investments, property and more; you can create budgets to track income and expenses. The site also scours banking and loan options to let you know if there are better deals out there. Plus, it has a mobile app for your smartphone.

3. Peleg Top’s book, Designer’s Guide to Marketing & Pricing (co-authored with Ilise Benun) offers practical advice for creative professionals about setting hourly rates and positioning your firm so that clients are willing to pay well for your services. Another essential for your business bookshelf is the Graphic Artists Guild’s Handbook of Pricing & Ethical Guidelines.

4. The Designer’s Guide to Money Learning Series and companion book, both by Ilise Benun, give you concrete tools to help get control of your finances, like scripts you can use to talk about budget and pricing with your clients.

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