How to go (mostly) broke and still succeed in business

You are insane.”

This is what a few inspiring souls told me two years ago when I shut down my brand consulting firm that I’d built since 2009. Why the hell would I walk away from something that I was good at, that paid me serious bank?

Six figures, some brand equity. Speaking engagements here and there. A sweet reputation where all my clients came on referral.

I HAD SOMETHING THAT OTHER PEOPLE WOULD KILL TO HAVE.

Basically, folks wanted to know the brand of audacity that made me think I had the RIGHT to shut down my business.

For me, the answer was simple: My business had come to take more from me than it gave me.

I’d begun to resent the time I spent helping others find their brand of awesome because mine had been lost in the shuffle.

In the cruelest Runaway Bride scenario, there I was — I had everything and nothing all at once and I had no fucking idea how I liked my eggs.

All my creative energy had gone into advancing everyone else’s dreams but my own.

It was time for that to change.

Today’s post is how I walked away from it all — went (almost) broke, survived a deliberate income drop from a sweet six figures to under $30,000 a year, and still managed to create meaningful work that gets me paid (and other meaningful work that will pay me eventually).

Ready? Shit. That makes one of us. Let’s go.

Debt = Normal and other lies I told myself

Over a 40-something year life, I’d done a brilliant job of keeping myself perpetually in debt. Whether my unflappable need for a new-ish car at regular intervals or the ability to just put a highly justifiable (but not necessary OMG IT IS BEAUTIFUL PRECCCIOUSSSS) expense on a credit card, I’d cycled from in debt to debt-free so many times that I’d normalized it.

Being in debt was normal.

Whatever debt I incurred, I knew I could handle it.

This meant that my hunt for the next client who would help me meet my monthly nut had become my sole pursuit. If I achieved this, I was successful.

Get client.

Pay bills.

Earn fictional medal for Self-Employed Person Who’s Stayed Afloat for Yet Another Month Award.

A beacon of success, I was.

My constant pursuit of paying my debt and finding comfort in this VERY NORMAL CYCLE of being in debt was crushing my creativity. I’d spent every waking hour hitting deadlines, creating briefs, taking calls, and husting to line up income for the month(s) to come.

I’d spent zero time on making things, bringing the ideas in my head to life. I had to make money because I had all these fucking bills.

That meant I’d spent zero time wondering what life would be like if I didn’t have all these fucking bills.

I had no idea what this looked like.

What I did know is that if I had any hope of changing anything and working toward a more creative life, I had to get my money sorted out.

I had to change the way I thought about debt and income.

Fuck you, debt. Fuck you.

When the crush of consulting was weighing on me hard — hard to the point of breaking down in tears with my therapist, desperate for any change — I asked for help one day.

Well, I actually blurted out, “Just tell me what to do!”

And my therapist, in an ever-so-therapist fashion, asked, “Why do you keep up the consulting work?”

What a stupid question. “Because I need the money.”

To which she replied, “What if you didn’t?”

What if I didn’t need ALL THAT MONEY to live?

I told her that I would need the consulting money until I’d paid off my credit cards and put some money in the bank.

And from that conversation, an exit strategy was born.

Because fuck debt.

My debt was robbing any chance I had to have the emotional space to live a creative life and I refused to let debt live in the space where my creativity should be rolling around on bean bag chairs and having pillow fights with embroidered pillows emblazoned with inspirational quotes (click that when you’re not at work).

Here are the steps I took to wrangle my debt and not incur new ones, as it was the only way I’d be able to make this creative career shift happen.

  • Credit cards: I removed them all from my wallet, sealed them in an envelope, and hid them. I wrote on the front DO NOT THROW AWAY. Under that, I wrote, “BITCH, YOU DO NOT WANT TO OPEN THIS.”
  • Debit cards: I took my business debit out of my wallet and left only my personal debit card. One less temptation.
  • Cash: For a year straight, I did the unthinkable — I used my debit card to get CASH out of the ATM. I paid for every expense — from parking meters to lunch — with cash. This was a real Fuck Me for the first two weeks when I ran out of cash. I also got super intimate with quarters again, which did bring a cute change purse back into my daily repertoire. BONUS. There is, however, a serious reckoning that came along with SEEING the money I was spending in a world that’s deprogrammed our sensitivity to money through the digitization of currency.
  • Automated charges: I reviewed my business and personal bank accounts for recurring charges. Get this — I had over $100/month going to subscriptions I barely used and shit like beauty boxes I was just disappointed in for the most part. I immediately canceled all my non-necessity subscriptions except for utilities, web hosting, and must-have software. When I was done, I saved over $225/month.
  • Car: I couldn’t remember the last time I didn’t have a car payment. I added the money I saved from my subscriptions to my monthly car payment and ultimately, paid it off two years early.

This whole year was tight. There were times I felt like I was suffocating, not having the excess of things I didn’t really need. There was more than once where I ended up in a store, ready to drop a wad on some magical, needless thing and did the walk of shame away from the register, realizing I had no way to pay. (Classy)

I was embarrassed that my life had come to this — I was a 40-year-old doing a nonstop rectal exam on my spending habits.

But as each month passed, credit card balances got lower. My car got closer to getting paid off. I got less stressed about not having as many clients coming up because the pressure MAKE MOAR MUNNY wasn’t looming like the Death Star in the distance.

I also got my savings shit together. Paying off debt was one thing. If I was going to live a creative life, I needed some money in the bank so I wouldn’t have to worry about life crashing down.

Holla for savings

Remember all those subscriptions that had effortlessly drained my bank account each month?

If only SAVING money were so easy. Turns out it was.

I found this app called Acorns. Yes, that’s an affiliate link. No, I’m not ashamed because Acorns has saved my ass more times than I can count.

Acorns connects to my bank account and credit cards and automatically “rounds-up” purchases. One those round-ups reach $5, the app moves the money into my Acorns investment account.

To-date, I’ve saved over $4,000 thanks to those roundups.

They paid for my emergency flight home when my mother died.

They paid for the lump-sum I used to pay-off my car.

At the end of every year, I transfer the balance of my Acorns account into my retirement savings.

It turned out to be the frictionless way I needed to save money. I also engaged in some higher friction savings methods, like putting 5-10% of every income nugget into a savings account.

I actually started to get pissed when I forgot to do that manual savings activity and would SHAKE MY FIST TO THE SKY and rectify my sin by making it up the next time I got paid for something.

I became a vigilant saver. It was so weird.

I felt great about having money in the back. Some money tucked away for retirement.

My bills were getting to be less and less each month.

And somewhere along the way, I’d started writing again. TV pilots. Figuring that world out and it felt wonderful.

And one day, I left

I made the announcement that I was shutting it down — my consulting. My Buy Me Coffee one-on-one sessions. My speaking engagements.

I was retreating to a quieter life where freelance journalism and voiceover work were enough to pay my bills.

Where I no longer needed so much.

And in return, I made so much more even though I made significantly less. I made more art. I spent part of each day writing for myself and discovering new avenues and eventually, this new career path writing for TV.

Speaking of less, it’s a good time to mention that Philip and I moved in together in 2016, which meant my household expenses were half what they were. A total cheat, having a partner to share expenses with.

But I’d built my life so that I didn’t need a partner to keep me afloat.

If he’d left, I had a mortgage I was paying on my own before he came along and would be able to afford after he was long gone.

He’s still here. We’re here for each other.

And we’ve had our run-ins with money but I didn’t build my get-free financial strategy with him as an essential ingredient.

Most of the time, he had no idea how I was or wasn’t spending my money. He’s the kind of person who really doesn’t spend money on anything (which I find completely fascinating).

Someone recently asked if he’d become my sugar daddy when we moved to California, with its significantly higher cost of living compared to Chicago.

The answer is “fuck no.” For me, building a life where I was dependent on anyone financially isn’t a “free” life. It’s another place of debt. That’s why our expenses, even though I make significantly less than he does, are split down the middle. And yeah, YMMV (your mileage may vary). Only you know what’s right emotionally, financially, and structurally for your relationship.

But he’s not my sugar daddy. We’re ridiculously together yet ever so not dependent on one another. Having his emotional support is important to living a full life by making so much less.

And that’s now it happened

That’s how I went (mostly) broke, tanked my income from nearly $200,000 a year to making under $30,000 (on purpose), did it all without a spouse, and found success making less but making more art.

I won’t lie and say it’s easy.

I’d be an asshole if I said that this is what EVERYONE should do. I hate those assholes.

I won’t say that my spending doesn’t still get the better of me sometimes.

But I will say that it’s a much lighter-weight life to live, not having about making some bloated nut each month when I don’t NEED all of that stuff to live a good life.

There are days I miss the fake sense of bravado that comes with watching an approved credit card transaction for a frivolous purpose. Feeling like I had Fuck You Money.

It was really my debt telling ME “fuck you.”

I do know that debt is the death of creativity. In my 40s, I don’t know how those with student loans manage a creative life and their debt. I wish I had a better solution and I CAN SO CAN YOU solution for everyone.

But leaving my debt behind was the key to carving out the creative life I wake up to today. And if you’re still finding a way to whittle down some debt that won’t be paid off for a while, do yourself a solid and carve out time for your creative endeavors.

Twenty minutes. An hour. A few times a week. Solo or with friends.

Find a way to keep from resenting the places where you put your energy until you can be free of the debt chasm.

There’s life on the other side. And it’s okay if it takes you awhile to get there.

Disclaimer: your mileage may vary (YMMV in contemporary parlance).

This post isn’t absolution from daily responsibilities and blanket permission to hit the Fuck It Button. You’ve built the life you have, this rich bonfire stoked by moving parts, people, and obligations. Walking away isn’t an option. I don’t have all the answers and my best advice is if you don’t know where to start when it comes to slaying your debt, find one small thing you can start to slay. Emerging from debt to live a creative life is a process, not a destination. The most important thing is to take one small step and keep stepping.

 

Love it? Get more (digital) Erika.

or subscribe the
old fashioned way