Frugal Living for Creatives: the Basics

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A lot of people ask me how I manage to make a living as a full-time freelance artist. Despite the common stereotype, being an artist isn't always a low-income career path and you don't have to hit it big to make good money in the industry. However, living as a freelancer often means inconsistent income, and if you are starting your own business, you may need to make some investments before you start seeing any profit. Therefore, learning to live a frugal lifestyle is a very valuable skill for creatives, especially those of us just starting out.

So, how do you make a living as an artist? This is a broad topic for sure, but as the most basic level it calls into question: What does it mean to "make a living?"

If you think about it, that's a pretty deep question. In fact, people have been philosophizing and debating that one for thousands of years. However, regardless of your thoughts on the nature of the universe or how you define happiness or success, just about everyone can agree that it all starts in one place: survival.

Whether your aim is to become a millionaire before you're fifty or become one with the Tao, you will not be doing any of it if you are not around to do it. While I could write a thousand blog posts (and believe me, I intend to) about the intricacies of marketing your art or finding fulfillment as a creative in this life, it seems appropriate to cover the bare basics first. What are the basics for survival? In essence: food, water, shelter, fire, and security.


Don't starve the artist! Ramen? No. As delightful as that stereotype is, trust me that it isn't the solution. While it appears cheap and easy, packaged foods are almost never the best bang for your buck, and they don't have the nutrition needed to keep you healthy and functional. I'm not a big fan of MSG either. Did you know that you can make the equivalent of a cup of Ramen with regular pasta and homemade stock for even less than you can buy the packaged kind? 

The bottom line is that you need to learn to cook for yourself. It doesn't have to be difficult, and in fact, it's fun. Once you learn how to make a few basic meals from simple ingredients, you can build your confidence and creativity from there.

Buying staple foods in (reasonable) bulk is the best way to save money and eat well. Buying food that keeps well prevents food waste and saves you extra trips to the grocery store. Rice and dried pasta are incredibly cheap and add substance to a meal. Brown rice and whole grain pasta are much healthier and heartier options. Root vegetables like potatoes, onions, and carrots are excellent, inexpensive sources of nutrition that keep well in the fridge for a long time. Frozen vegetables are a good buy too and are much more nutritious than canned ones. If you eat meat, look for inexpensive cuts and buy them on sale. If you learn how to braise meats (a moist slow cooking method), then you will never have to deal with tough meat again and can save the money you would otherwise spend buying expensive cuts when you're craving a tender steak. If you freeze red meat, it can remain safe and nutritious for months or even years. There are thousands upon thousands of recipes you can make with these basics, and you can always improvise. I will be sharing some of my own recipes on this blog in the future.

Save your leftovers, obviously. Freeze what you can if you don't plan to eat it right away. Try not to hoard things though. If you throw out spoiled food immediately you won't crowd your fridge, which can lead to you wasting more as you forget about what you have or lose track of what is fresh. You won't be tempted to buy more Tupperware either. Never risk eating spoiled or questionable food. When you really get down to it, it is much less risky to not eat for a day than it is to get food poisoning.


It comes out of the tap. Drink it. In many apartment complexes water is included as a flat rate with rent, so if you can can score such a dwelling that is a plus. 

You really need to be hydrated. 

If you live in a place where the tap water is awful, consider getting a water filter that attaches to the kitchen faucet. These can cost a few bucks, but it is much cheaper than bottled water in the long run, and it will be there when you need it. I lived in Florida for many years, and although the tap water is "safe," drinking a glass of it tastes a whole lot like drinking a glass of piss. The filter helped a lot, and I was glad to be able to make tea and coffee and boil foods with water that didn't leave an awful aftertaste.

Stop drinking soda! Juice is much better, but it is still very sweet and concentrated. If you can't see yourself drinking only plain water all the time, adding just an inch of juice to a full glass of water is a great solution. It tastes great, is easy to drink, and is much cheaper and healthier than downing vast amounts of sugar all day. If you need to lose weight, it might blow you away how much just this simple change can help. Look for 100% juice varieties, otherwise you are just buying sugar water.


This is the greatest expense for most people and consequently also the greatest source of stress. I am a huge advocate of small and simple living quarters, both for frugality and by philosophy. I currently live in a 290 square foot apartment with my boyfriend, a cat, and a guinea pig; I honestly have no want for more space. Finding success and comfort in small spaces is best achieved by getting rid of all the crap you don't need. I'm a bit of a minimalist at heart and living lighter is an immense joy that I hope more people begin to embrace.

Living in a small space is also a truly wonderful outlet for your design creativity. Creating an efficient and attractive home in small quarters by using your creative mind and planning projects is really, really fun. Really.

Regardless of the size of your space, finding affordable housing is a lot about location. While big urban centers like Boston are highly attractive to creatives, living right in the heart of a big city can be a costly venture. Like all things in life, look for a balance. There are many places just outside big cities that are affordable, but still close enough to give you access to the urban center's cultural draw.


One needs to be warm, have light, and cook. In the modern urban context, this translates to the need for power, specifically utilities like heat, AC, and electric.

Having a small living space is probably the absolute best way to cut down on your energy needs. Apart from that and besides the obvious things like turning out a light when you leave the room, there are a lot of simple strategies that can help you save money on fuel.

Learning to make one-burner meals, ditching your TV, and making sure your windows are adequately insulated are just a few ideas. Having a smaller energy footprint is an added plus.

If you live somewhere with dramatic seasonal shifts, talk to your power company. It is possible to arrange it where you pay more during the summer (when you use much less gas heat, for example) to offset your winter spending. That way, you still only pay for what you actually use, but you can spread out the cost of your bill over the course of the year so you don't suddenly run into massive charges when the weather gets colder.


If you live in a first world country you already have a big leg up on this one. Keep in mind, however, that in your search for inexpensive housing you might come across some neighborhoods that are less than safe. Often there are much safer places for equally low rent in another part of town. Get to you know your area, and try not to get in over your head.

I am going to group health insurance under this heading as well. It is important to be covered, and this often becomes a problem for self-employed individuals. In the U.S., if your income is low enough, or you are disabled, you may qualify for public healthcare. This is a massive pain in the butt, and I only recommend it if it is your only option. I am fortunate enough to be covered by my parents' plan, but understandably that option is not available for everyone.

Once you can cover the necessities with your income, then you are already successful. If you are supporting yourself, everything else can be built from there. Really, the key to it all is to take a hard look at your priorities. You can give yourself the chance to spend your time doing what you love just by living light for while. There is a full and fulfilling life out there for those of us that spend less. Take the time to learn how to make things for yourself, whether it is food, furniture, of any one of the thousands of things you habitually buy. Relinquishing your dependance on commercial goods is a freeing experience that gives you a warm sense of independence as well as fewer worries. Over time, the things you used to buy become forgotten and unimportant, while your time and ingenuity take center stage instead.

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