In this week's Ten Money Questions, we speak with Kyran Pittman, a writer who blogs about culture, identity and family life at Notes to Self, and about poetry and writing on 1,167. I asked Kyran to wax poetic about finances and below she responds with candidness about her money journey. Enjoy!
1. You write on your blog, "I never wanted to be the poster girl for frugal living." How are you frugal today compared to say, five years ago? Ten years ago?
I wrote that in reference to an article that profiled us in our local alternative weekly paper a couple of years ago, as an example of a family who had gone off the payroll grid. I was pouring a lot of creative energy into frugality at the time--making grocery store price books, consulting the online gas price reports before going out to fill up the van--and I had all the zeal of the newly converted.
At the same time, I wanted to be clear that I was looking at frugal living as a temporary measure; not a religion. When my husband, the majority breadwinner, went into freelance graphic design, it was with the expectation and hope that his business would eventually afford us a very comfortable lifestyle.
His studio has done well for a start-up. He nearly matched his salary as an agency creative director the first year, and was at par with it for most of the second. We have just entered year three, and the past few months have been extremely tough. We are living more frugally than ever before, and I can tell you the fun has gone out of it. I have frugality-fatigue.
Five years ago, we were hardly living high off the hog, but we were pretty much on auto-pilot. We had two small children, were committed to not having them in daycare or school forty hours a week, and were subsidizing that decision with debt. We would run a deficit a little each month; a little more around holiday or vacation time. Then pay it all down periodically with a windfall, and start building it back up. For a middle-class family with a steady and predictable paycheck, it was nothing out of the ordinary.
I've had a part-time administrative job, since 2002. I wasn't writing at all. It was assumed that when the youngest went off to kindergarten in a few years time, I'd get a "regular" job, and we'd get caught up. Then in 2004, we had a third child we hadn't counted on. Oops. Our horizon line to "regular" was extended by another five years.
Ten years ago, frugal was just how we lived. We were getting married. The wedding was paid for mostly out of my tips from waitressing and bartending. We didn't have a credit card. We rented an apartment, and drove a '64 Mercury Comet with fins. We were both starting over from scratch, after getting divorced, quitting our jobs, and running off to Mexico together. We had been back in North America for about a year, after all the pesos had run out.
My husband had gone back to agency work over my initial objections, because I was afraid of being tied down again to that illusion of security, but he was enjoying the work, and I was beginning to feel like settling down again might not be such a bad thing.
2. What is your most significant memory about money?
I guess I was around eight or nine when my parents woke me up one night, to tell me that a university library was purchasing my father's papers--manuscripts, drafts, and correspondence related to his writing--for a five-figure sum. This was the late seventies, and it was quite a bit of money.
They were so happy and excited. I wasn't allowed to tell anyone, but my father said it meant we wouldn't have to worry about money for a long time. I understood it was good news, but I don't think I'd realized until that moment that money was something we had to be worried about.
Of course, the worries came back in due course.
My parents both worked salaried jobs, but feast or famine defined my childhood experience of money.
So much is packed in that memory; including the awareness that writing has the potential to bring in large sums of money.
3. What is your worst habit around finances?
It used to be impulsiveness, but the past couple of years have cured me of much of that.
More than a habit, it's my mindset that causes me problems. I have a lot of deeply-rooted negative thinking around money. I don't think it's sheer coincidence that I find myself living in a financial atmosphere reminiscent of the one I grew up in. Some of that is a factor of being a writer, like my father. It's not like I came from a family of doctors, and I went off to med school, because that's just what you do. My mother is a lawyer, but she's the do-gooder kind, not the rich kind!
What I'm getting at is that some of our present experience of living close to the bone is attributable to choices and values. But some of it comes out of a scarcity mentally, and a fundamental mistrust of money. I was brought up in 1970s, socialist Canada, by a couple of wonderful, radical-thinking baby boomers. Some fabulous beliefs were imparted to me through that environment. But also some toxic ones. Like having more than "enough" money makes you greedy or immoral.
I wrote recently about realizing that my "enough" is the bare minimum for survival. I'm trying to become more expansive and generous in my attitude toward wealth, trying to substitute "enough" with "plenty."
Plenty is a word that suggests abundance but not excess. It suggests that there might be enough money, success, and talent to go all the way around, and then some. Which is what I need to believe in order to show up at my keyboard every day and keep writing.
4. Based on personal experience, what suggestions do you have for managing cash flow when an employer is no longer sending a check every two weeks?
Budget, budget, budget. Know what the priorities are: food, fuel, lights. When you do get paid, set aside the cash to cover those essentials, and then you deal with what's left as you are able. I used to think creditors and utility companies came ahead of groceries, and that the sky would fall in if I got a late notice. Trust me, it doesn't.
You learn to live in the present tense. Right now, if I think too far ahead, I freak out. I don't see how we're going to make it another month. But when I come back to the present, I find I have everything I need for today. And the next month arrives, and somehow we've made it.
So much of our journey is about stepping out on faith. It's hard to dispense practical advice, because most of what we've done flies in the face of conventional wisdom. And there's real risk, and real uncertainty. But it's been my experience that conventional wisdom is an oxymoron.
One resource that been invaluable for us is our personal financial advisor, Linda. She is our combination accountant, life coach and cheerleader. Her partner is a writer, so she understands the ebb and flow of creative fortune. She is able to balance long-range vision with day-to-day practicality. If you are lucky enough to find someone as holistic as that, hire her and never let her go.
Having friends who are also artists and freelancers helps. We can get together and laugh about the shut-off notices, and the creative use of leftovers. The camaderie bolsters belief, and scares off the shame.
5. What did your parents teach you about money?
Besides the attitudes I mentioned above, they modelled the idea that your work is more than a job; it's your vocation. They built careers, not hobbies, around the things for which they had a passion and a gift.
There are a lot of artists in my father's family. The message was that it was perfectly acceptable, if not expected, to live a creative life. And still, it took a long time for me to take myself seriously as an artist. It gives me an appreciation for how much harder it is for people from more conventional backgrounds to embrace art as a career possiblity.
6. Have you and your husband learned to work effectively from home? What were some of the challenges?
We are both NFPs on the Meyer-Briggs scale, if that tells you anything. It means we are both pretty free-floating people, who are more process- than outcome-oriented. Great for creativity. Rough on our eight year old, who likes order and consistency. I was so relieved when summer break was over and the kids went back to school, because now that we are both home, school is the only source of structure we have!
Neither of us really know when the workday begins and ends. I think we need to tighten the boundaries between work and family time, but then when a job or an idea comes in, it's hard to put it on hold. I am often writing or pitching before I get dressed in the morning, at the dining room table, with bowls of soggy cereal all around. He is actually working in his housecoat right now. You get the picture.
Keeping the faith is a challenge. We have an informal understanding that only one person gets to lose faith at a time. On those days, the other person HAS to stay upbeat. It's easier to be confident and hopeful when things are going well, harder when the rejections are coming in, and the jobs aren't.
7. On your blog, you indicate that you love the idea of getting paid to write. Is there truth to the saying do what you love and the money will follow?
I grew up among creative people who were following their bliss. Few of them were getting rich doing it, but they were definitely having rich lives, and none of them were starving. I think if you do what you love, there is the possibility that you will rise in your field and be rewarded financially. I am certain you will have less holes in your soul to try and patch with money.
8. What's the motivation behind 1,167? Can modern day poets make money by writing poetry?
Even the poets who are household names in certain kinds of households aren't getting rich off poetry. People like Billy Collins and Adrienne Rich are not making millions selling books of poems. They get paid well for teaching positions, and public appearances.
Even the most narcissistic poet can't delude themselves into thinking it's going to be a money-making proposition. Poetry is high art, and it is impossible to commodify, like a painting. It's lonely, hard work, and the occupational hazards are well-documented. You do it because you have no choice. Because you'll only be half-alive if you don't.
That being said, it comes with great benefits. Like travel. My husband and I got to take an all-expenses paid trip to Ireland for two weeks last winter, when I was invited to accompany a touring literary festival. He had a hard time feeling good about going, when we were struggling so much at home, but I was used to seeing my father fly off to Europe for readings and book festivals when he was strapped for cash. You learn to take things as they come. Carpe diem.
And there is nothing like the experience of bringing a poem into being, and then having people respond to it. It's elevating, humbling, indescribable.
It's hard for me to write poetry right now. Mothering young children makes it really tough to stake out both the temporal and interior space. Poetry requires a kind of going-away that prose doesn't.
I started 1,167 as way of committing to an arbitrary deadline I had set for myself, of having a book-length manuscript of poems by the time I was 40. That's two years off. I didn't foresee that the essays from my "life" blog, Notes to Self, would begin to generate the kinds of opportunities they have, getting picked up by major magazines and newspapers.
It seems like things are happening in that direction, and I need to go with it. I have quite a lot of material written towards a couple of essay collections, and have recently undertaken a memoir of growing up among male artists, and how that experience worked for and against me finding my own creative voice.
I haven't officially abandoned the original poetry goal, but I'm not sure what to do with 1,167. "Notes" readers seem as responsive to my writing about writing as they are to my slice-of-life essays, so it may not make sense to continue to split my energy.
Ideally, I will land a column or a book deal and to let the prose underwrite the poetry. As I bring these books into being, and the children grow older, I hope to have more space for writing poems.
I'm very extroverted, which is a big asset from a "branding" perspective (a handicap for getting down to work). Those household names I mentioned above are known, not just because the poems are good, but because they know how to use their public personas to get it out there.
Anyone who's interested in poetry has had the painful experience of enduring a lacklustre reading. If you don't believe in your own words, why should I? You've got to get behind it.
9. Do you and your husband see eye-to-eye on the finances? How are you different?
We share similar values and foibles. We are both definitely of the grasshopper-, not the ant- persuasion. Given a choice, we'd rather take a trip somewhere than have nice living room furniture. We both place a high premium on time, and are willing to make sacrifices to free up more of it that others might balk at.
Money is not a first language for either of us, however. We are barely literate, and no amount of self-education is going to replace a natural aptitude for finance, which is why it's so vital for us to have an advisor.
It upsets me when people assume that financial aptitude is synomynous with responsibility. It would be like me berating someone for not being able to write well. There's only so much you can learn. Ability is as much about aptitude as it is skill.
10. How have your children learned the value of a dollar?
My children attend a parochial school on scholarship. Many of their classmates are from Little Rock's wealthiest families. Forbes-wealthy. It's a great school, and they are lucky to go there, but I do worry that they are getting a very skewed perspective about our place on the spectrum of have and have-not. If they were in public school, they'd feel more in the middle. I worry they feel poor, and that we are passing along that scarcity mindset that I still struggle with.
It kills me to hear my eldest son tell his younger brother, "We can't afford that." And yet, I know it is character-building, as cliche as that sounds. I think it would be harder to be the rich parent and have to super-impose a reason to say no sometimes.
I try to talk to them about choices. I tell them we can't do this or that because Mom and Dad are working hard to try and be successful at what we love to do. That it's a choice we've made, the best choice for our family, and one that has natural costs and rewards.
Then they come up with so-and-so, who has everything, and whose grandparents are rich, and the whole question of inherited wealth, and I wonder why we didn't just go to med school afterall!
But you know, the night I found out that some of my essays were going to appear in a national magazine and be read by millions and millions of people, I went to my son's bedside and whispered the news to him. He sat up, eyes shining at me in the darkness.
I knew exactly how he felt, and I wouldn't have traded all the toys in all the world for it.
More about Kyran Pittman
Kyran Pittman is a poet and essayist from Newfoundland, living in Little Rock, Arkansas. She blogs about culture, identity and family life at Notes to Self, and about poetry and writing on 1,167. Her blog essays have been published in Good Housekeeping magazine and the Toronto Globe and Mail.
She met her American husband on the internet, long before it was fashionable. He is a freelance graphic designer, whose work can be seen at www.patrickhouston.com. They have three children together.
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