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Eliminating Credit Card Debt on an Artist’s Income

Jul 16, 2020
Empower Insights

How a young freelancer tackled her debt by defining her values

As a freelance artist, Samantha Johns’s annual income tops out at about $24,000 — before taxes. That number doesn’t leave a lot of room for extra expenses. But Johns, who is 34, grew up in a home where money was tight, so she learned early on how to be frugal. When she started living with a partner with more extravagant spending habits, though, her credit card debt began to creep up. “I didn’t feel like it was excessive,” she says, “but I was still spending more than I could afford.” Before long, Johns found herself with $4,000 in credit card debt. And, she says, “It was because I didn’t have a budget.”

Then, in 2018, Johns was offered an amazing opportunity. She’d been accepted to an artist residency in Sicily — but she’d have to pay for her own airfare. Unfortunately, she also realized that her mounting debt and lack of savings meant the trip was out of reach financially.

Still, the offer was too good to pass up. With almost a year before the residency would start, Johns resolved to get her finances in order and make the trip happen. At first, the Minneapolis resident didn’t make any changes to her spending. She simply tracked it (with the help of an app) so she could see where every penny went. Then, after two-and-a-half months of tracking, she made a detailed budget, with monthly caps for her spending in categories from gas to parking to eating at restaurants.

For the first few months, she did her best, but she still continually overspent in every category. Then came the lightbulb moment: “You see that you keep going over, and you see that the spending doesn’t reflect your values,” she says. Johns had intended to prioritize her art — but instead she was frittering money away here and there, without taking note of the cumulative effect of those small decisions.

If you pay off debt and don't reset habits, it just comes back.

After that realization, Johns made serious cuts to all of her spending. She also picked up more hours at each of her gigs. She promised herself that the longer hours and severely restricted spending would be temporary — just until she’d paid off her credit card debt. Once it was paid off, she’d start fresh and create a new, sustainable budget for the long term.

The plan worked. She put all of her extra income toward her credit card bill, making large payments that slowed the accumulation of interest. Seven months after she’d first created her budget, the debt was gone and she was able to attend the residency.

When Johns returned from Sicily, she kept her promise to herself — returning to working her regular hours and loosening up her spending a little. But she still keeps a close eye on her budget. “If you pay off debt and don't reset habits, it just comes back,” she says.

Though those seven months weren’t easy, Johns felt good knowing that she was working toward something important to her. And along the way, she learned how to comfortably budget for the long term without running up credit card debt. “Personal finance isn’t about math,” she says. “It’s about habits.”

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