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Saving While Self-employed: Tips from the Trenches

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Let’s start by admitting that budgeting and saving when you’re a self-employed freelancer or artist is exceptionally hard. How do you set a monthly budget when your income changes from month to month, or week to week? Having to figure it all out on your own is no joke, so that’s why we’ve put together a few tips to help you save. You’re at your best when you can focus on chasing the dream without stressing over your wallet.

When you can’t predict your income with certainty, focus instead on what you can predict. Setting a budget like a pro begins with figuring out fixed expenses.

Setting a Budget

It all begins with identifying fixed expenses: the cost of being housed, fed and with access to the things needed to keeping you hustling. Carefully—and honestly!—distinguish these from other variable types of discretionary spending: happy hour drinks, eating out, movie tickets or Netflix, online shopping, Lyft rides—the usual suspects for those times you want to treat yourself.

Identifying and Calculating Fixed Expenses

Fixed expenses are usually:

  • Education or childcare costs, including things like tuition or daycare

  • Transportation costs such as car notes, insurance, and gas, or public transit fares like Metrocards and bus passes

  • Housing costs, such as rent or mortgage

  • Outstanding debt payments like student loans, credit card debt

  • Utilities (gas, heat, water, phone, internet)

  • Groceries and food

  • Healthcare costs (insurance premiums, plus any prescriptions or medicine)

  • Taxes: As a self-employed artist or freelancer, you’re solely responsible for withholding and paying employment taxes so alway, always, alway set aside money for taxes. If you’re unsure how much to set aside use a recent tax return as a basis for your estimate.

(One easy way to remember these is by looking at the first letter of each: ETHOUGHT.) Calculate your total monthly fixed costs by adding all individual fixed expenses together.

Living on a freelance or self-employed artist’s budget often means relying on last month’s previous earnings. Because income can fluctuate, it’s mission critical to know exactly how much money to put aside each month to cover expenses for the following month. Tracking fixed costs lets you know exactly how much of your monthly income you need to save in order to cover living and work-related expenses for next month.

List and Calculate All Your Sources of Income

Tracking your income is as important as tracking your expenses. Figuring out exactly how much you bring in each month helps you plan and manage your budget effectively. Your sources of income include earnings from any jobs, residual income from royalties, income from any disability benefits or government programs, and any financial help you maybe receiving.

Calculate your total monthly earnings by adding all your sources of income together.

Identify Patterns in Your Income

Budgeting is always easier when it’s more predictable.

As a freelancer, you expect your income to fluctuate, but these fluctuations aren’t necessarily random. Tracking your monthly income overtime gives you the historic data necessary to recognize patterns and make inferences on your earnings. Look for trends in your monthly income. Do your lean months correspond with off-seasons or low-demand periods in your industry? Do you travel more frequently at certain times in the year? These types of questions help make your income and expense more predictable. Harmonize your wallet and your hustle by anticipating expenses whenever possible, and saving for them when times are good. Incorporate any trends you discover into your budget planning.

Building Your Budget

Now that you’ve listed your total monthly income and expenses, subtract your total income from your total fixed expenses. The formula couldn’t be simpler:

(Total monthly income) — (Total fixed monthly expenses) = Savings & Fun

50/30/20 Rule

Okay, so you’ve crunched the numbers, and even looked over your expenses and found a few places to cut back (seriously, you should!). Now what? How do you know if you’re saving enough, or spending too much?

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A great rule of thumb for budgeting is the 50/30/20 rule. The idea here is to:

  1. Limit your fixed expenses to a maximum of 50% of your total monthly income

  2. Limit your discretionary spending to 30% of your total monthly income

  3. Allocate the remaining 20% of your income toward savings

For many freelancers in New York, the cost of housing can make hitting these budget specs pretty tricky, but aim for as close to this breakdown as possible—especially for saving.

Other Tips and Tricks

Save Money by Automating Bill Payments

One of the easiest ways to save money is to avoid late fees, penalties and, if possible, interest associated with past due or late payments. Falling behind on payments can have a ton of expensive side-effects, all potentially ruinous to your hustle. These range from expensive fees to increased interest and lower credit scores, and even potential repossession of property. Automating your bill payments is a great set-it-and-forget-it way to avoid late fees, but does require you to have a good handle on both your income and expenses. Avoid potential overdraft fees from your bank by ensuring you have enough funds in your account to cover automatic bill payments.

Start an Emergency Fund

Open an account dedicated to potential emergencies and unexpected expenses, or anything else Murphy’s Law might have in store. A separate account is a great place to put some extra cash when times are good. Your emergency fund is a safety net for emergencies and unexpected expenses only! Consider an online savings account if you’re tempted to dip into your emergency stash.

Fight the Urge to Splurge, and Use Credit Cards Wisely

Resist the temptation to swipe your way out of a financial rough patch by leaning on your credit card. Each time you swipe your card, you’re increasing debt expense—a fixed expense!—and therefore reducing your available monthly income in the future. The same of course holds true for treating yourself: splurging today means less savings for tomorrow. Don’t stick Future-You with the stress and responsibility of solving financial problems created on a whim!

Find the Best Financial Offerings for You

As previously discussed in our post The 6 Best Banks for New York City Freelancers and Artists, discovering banks and credit unions that jive with your lifestyle can be tricky. But all the clever planning in the world might still go awry if you're not using the right tools for the job. Lifesaver makes finding the right tools easier than ever before by intelligently matching you with the very best financial offerings from your community, and with technology companies from around the web. 

Questions? Comments? Feel free to get in touch!

The 6 Best Banks for New York City Freelancers and Artists

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If you’re a self-employed contractor, artist or freelancer working in New York, finding the right bank isn’t an easy task. Chances are that the big banks on every corner aren’t exactly designed for the financial realities of self-employed life (also known as “the dream”). With a fluctuating monthly income, inconsistent access to direct deposit, and requirements that differ from the typical nine-to-fiver, freelancers and artists often find themselves scratching their heads when trying to figure out where they might fit in at a large national bank.

Traditional fee structures at large national bank chains, with their minimum balance and direct deposit requirements, usually mean that self-employed folks are paying more in monthly account fees, or missing out on potential interest they could be earning. And it isn’t just bank accounts that these individuals have to worry about—they also have to figure out retirement benefits and financial planning tools that their desk-jockey counterparts usually get through their employers.

But the fact is, across the five boroughs you are nearly a quarter-million strong—and you’ve got some really fantastic options available to you. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of the best banks for freelancers and artists with their nose to the grindstone here in New York.

Amalgamated Bank

What we love: 

If core values are important to you, this might be your next bank. Founded in 1923, Amalgamated was New York’s first labor bank, and is currently the largest certified B Corp Bank in the United States (and we’re in rare company, because New York has two!). As a mission-oriented community bank, they’re committed to transparency, corporate responsibility, economic justice and empowerment for its clients and community. They were also the “bank of the movement” for Occupy Wall Street.

Did we mention that they offer free online and mobile banking, with 13 branch locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx?

What they offer:

Affordable Checking: A basic checking account that includes online and mobile banking, with no minimum deposit to open and no monthly fees.

Give-Back Savings: A no-fee savings account that earns competitive interest, with no monthly minimums required to earn interest. This savings account lets you support charitable causes while you grow your savings. To do this, Amalgamated matches half the interest you earn and donates it to the participating organization of your choice.

Money Market Account: Requires no monthly fees, with no minimums to open and start earning competitive interest. This is a great option toward diversifying your savings.

Ridgewood Savings Bank

What we love:

Ridgewood is a member-owned community bank and the largest mutual savings bank in New York State. If you are looking to get away from the corporate feel of big banks, Ridgewood’s community-centric approach to banking might be a good fit. Founded in 1921 by 14 entrepreneurs living in Ridgewood, Queens, the bank offers several no- to low-fee account options with 24/7 access via online and mobile banking. They also boast 22 branch locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Long Island.

What they offer:

Basic Banking: A straightforward checking account with no monthly direct deposit requirements and a low $3 monthly fee that’s easily waived by enrolling in electronic/paperless statements.

Smart Move Online Savings: A bit of a unicorn, this online savings account has no monthly fees and offers 1.50% APY interest.

90 Day to Three Year IRA CDs: A hybrid offering between a certificate of deposit and an individual retirement account, IRA CDs are a great option for freelancers and artists to start building up their retirement savings.

Dime Bank

What we love:  

If community is what matters to you (and you maybe own one of these t-shirts),  then Brooklyn-based Dime Community Bank hits all the right marks. Founded in 1864, Dime has deep roots in Brooklyn extending over 150 years. You’ve probably walked past their iconic building. With four locations in Williamsburg and 24 more across Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Long Island, Dime offers a variety of no-fee checking and savings accounts, including a student savings account and a fabulously named “Fabulous 50+ Checking.”

What they offer:

Perfectly Free Checking: This one really lives up to its name and then goes a little extra. With no monthly fees, no minimum balances, and no purchase requirements, it also offers 50 free personalized checks and a "thank you" gift for opening.

Direct Interest Checking Account: Brings all the benefits of Perfectly Free Checking, but with the added perk of competitive interest. Already have a checking account elsewhere? No worries—they’ll buy back your unused checks and debit cards from that other financial institution.

Spring Bank

What we love:

Headquartered in the Bronx, Spring Bank was the first B Corp bank in New York. Spring Bank is committed to financial inclusion, supporting underserved consumers and supporting local businesses in here in the city. This community bank offers equal access to transparent and affordable banking products and services from its branches in Harlem and the South Bronx. (Full disclosure: Lifesaver banks with Spring Bank. We really like them.)

What they offer:

Community Chest Savings: Lets you grow your savings while supporting nonprofit organizations in from around the community. Spring Bank will match interest earnings from your savings account and donate it to the participating organization of your choice.

Credit Builder Loan: Well-thought-out offerings like this one are no doubt contributing factors in Spring Bank’s B Corp designation as an ethical financial institution. This loan was designed to help build or restore your credit and credit score, all while saving money. Once qualified, the loaned amount is placed in a savings account to secure the loan, and payments are reported monthly to credit bureaus to quickly improve your credit score. Once the final payment on the loan has been made, your funds are made available. In this way, you can continue to build your savings, or just use the funds without the worry of monthly payments—all after building up your creditworthiness.

Marcus by Goldman Sachs

What we love: 

Haven't you heard? Goldman Sachs has lowered their minimum deposit to open from $20,000,000 to...$1. And they offer all the security of a nearly 150 year-old bank, with the flexible convenience of a robust and elegant online presence. Marcus by Goldman Sachs is an online-only bank that offers some of the highest interest rates around. And of course, they’re probably the best-known bank in the world.

What they offer: 

Online Savings Account: Requires no monthly fees, no minimum balance to open, and a low $1 minimum to start earning 1.60% APY interest. Provides easy access to your money via electronic transfers and live (read: real person!) telephone banking five days a week, as well as 24/7 automated telephone banking and a robust online dashboard.

High Yield CDs: Ranging from six months to six years, and with APYs starting at 0.60% and ranging all the way up to 2.80%, Marcus’s CDs can be a great place for you to place savings or emergency funds while earning competitive interest.

Ally Bank

What we love:

While they’re not a real New Yorker, Ally is one of the largest and oldest pioneers of online banking in the U.S. They offer a wide range of products from checking and savings accounts, to auto and home loans and everything in between.

What they offer:

Interest Checking: Offers variable but competitive interest rates, with no monthly fees or minimum daily balance requirements, and up to $10 reimbursement for ATM fees per statement cycle.

Online Savings: This online savings account requires no monthly service fees and earns a competitive 1.45% APY interest to grow your savings.

Are you a freelancer or artist and don’t see your favorite bank? Drop us a line and let us know. Lifesaver intelligently matches users with the best financial offerings from around their communities, so give us a shout if there’s someone we’re missing!