Home Feminism and Finances I Suck at Financial Independence: Reflections of a Broke Teacher and Starving Artist

I Suck at Financial Independence: Reflections of a Broke Teacher and Starving Artist

by Bethany
A tiled floor which reads "Passion Led us Here" - a message from the His and Her FI Post financial independence blog

Follow your passions! Do what you love! ….even if that means you are broke?

While this timeless advice may be true in some ways it is time to admit that money matters. I am an artist, and have always been one. This was a self prescribed label as young as 6 and today a self prescribed financial downfall.  In addition to being the starving artist I chose another career that does not promise to pay all of the bills: teaching.

First, I should preface that this is not a “poor me” post. Nor is this a call for “well you can make a change, it was your choice.” This is a post summarizing the financial and societal facts of the careers I have picked. This is the gritty, “where I am now” post. This is for those who may identify with choosing a career suited towards serving the community and their creative passions rather than one that will ensure a stable and sufficient (even more than sufficient) paycheck. This is for those who may compare themselves and generally suck at the milestones of FI.

The Career Choice

Woman+Artist+Teacher= sucking at Financial Independence. Here is why; not only do woman have the cards stacked against them in traditional society but, artists fit securely in the “unappreciated till you die” category in terms of making a living and consistant wage, and finally teachers have been underpaid since the dawn of time.

Let’s start at the beginning.  As you have heard I am an artist. For me, art has always been what you want to see. That was really the initial draw, no one can take that vision away from you. No one can tell you how to do it right or what to make. Lastly, artists break the rules. They question the world and choose to create.

I found my medium in photography, although continued to dabble in everything from ceramics to drawing and design. Early on, I chose this path for college and pursued a Fine Arts degree. Do not worry, I was told then by everyone…. “You won’t make any money.”

I wanted so badly to prove them wrong. And I did a few times… I have sold a few pieces, been published, had multiple shows; my work gets out there every year. I even gave a TedTalk. I felt good about my progress in the realm of artists. Yet, this entire time I was working other jobs to pay the bills.

While I was in college pursuing my Fine Arts degree I had a total of 4 jobs at any given moment, I drove a squeaky and leaky beat up car, I lived between my Aunts (who was so generous) and my boyfriends. My tuition was expensive and my Financial Aid did not even begin to cover it.

I was a straight A student in High School and I went to community college early, for free,  through a program called Running Start that you tested into. I started my first quarter at the age of 15 where I continued to earn straight A’s until I completed my AA and needed to transfer to my 4 year University.

I applied for about 25 scholarships a month and received a small portion. Despite this, when I filled out the FASFA for my 4 year University, I was denied funds because my parents made too much. Mind you, I had not lived with my parents for some time, I was simply claimed on their taxes. In a strange turn of events, this was the first time I realized my family had any sort of funds as we grew up frugal (or as I called it them poor)  to the max.  The tuition was on me, at least the portion not covered by scholarships and there was no money filtering in from my parents.

In no way blaming, but here I was scooping out massive student loans every semester until I graduated with my Bachelors of Fine Arts. At this point one of my odd jobs had been an after school art teacher and this is where I knew  I wanted to go. What could be better than making stuff every single day?!

I enrolled for my Master’s before I even walked across the stage and started my Teaching Program. Financially this meant I took out even more student loans. At this point, you may be asking “Could you have just lived more simply?” This is a valid point. In some ways, yes, I think I could have knowing what I do now. However, I was not living the traditional college life of spend, spend, spend either. I was living to survive and splurge on a Starbucks every once in awhile.

I left school with a Master’s Degree, ready to change lives while doing art (what I loved). I also left school with a total of $73,882.72 in student loan debt and a 6 month grace period until I needed to start paying it off.

I invested in myself right? Isn’t that the best investment? Well, when it came time to pay the bill a total payment of $889.00 a month would be required. Yikes!!!! Hold that number in your heads for a moment, because it is not what I actually pay.

Teacher Pay and Teacher Plans

First off, what does teacher pay really look like? Was I going to be underpaid?  In the book How Does Teacher Pay Compare? by Sylvia Allegretto, Sean P. Corcoran, and Lawrence Mishel they methodically compare teacher pay over the years. This research is continually updated with the following being taken directly from a study published in 2016.

  • Average weekly wages (inflation adjusted) of public-sector teachers decreased $30 per week from 1996 to 2015, from $1,122 to $1,092 (in 2015 dollars). In contrast, weekly wages of all college graduates rose from $1,292 to $1,416 over this period.
  • For all public-sector teachers, the relative wage gap (regression adjusted for education, experience, and other factors) has grown substantially since the mid-1990s: It was ‑1.8 percent in 1994 and grew to a record ‑17.0 percent in 2015.
  • The relative wage gap for female teachers went from a premium in 1960 to a large and growing wage penalty in the 2000s. Female teachers earned 14.7 percent more in weekly wages than comparable female workers in 1960. In 2015, we estimate a ‑13.9 percent wage gap for female teachers.

In addition to the stats above it is important to clarify a few details for the breaks and benefits teachers receive (from my experience and some research online, although I am sure this varies a bit district to district and state to state)

  • We are allowed the traditional holiday breaks which we ARE NOT paid for. We are paid for the time we are in the building. This pay is then split up between 12 months. This is always a sore point for me when I hear someone say “Must be so nice to have vacation.” It is a vacation, but it is also not PTO.
  • During the school year, we have 2-3 personal days depending on the district and up to 12 sick days a year. For these days you are paid a substitutes wages and not your own “hourly” rate. I probably shouldn’t use hourly since we are salary, but if you had to break it down that way it is reduced.
  • We typically have great health benefits with affordable deductibles if you are single. If you have a family these become less than affordable and can cost around $1200 per month (according to some of my colleagues with families). Often the choice is to go with the other partner’s plan if there is one
  • We have a retirement plan that we sign up for in the first few weeks. It is a one time choice that cannot be changed. It is designed like a pension, therefore does not move with you. You have two choices for the pension plan and a designated percentage of your paycheck that is contributed, typically set to rise over time. (We can choose to open a 403b as well)
  • Teachers receive Tri-Pay in the state of Washington. This pay is distributed now in our checks and attempts to compensate us for additional time (the many meetings we attend), responsibility (the extra 8 hours minimum required to work at various events at school and our evaluation systems), Incentives   ( time spent after or before school, college classes, class materials or extra on site work). In the below statements this is factored into the numbers I am giving you since it comes to me in the form of paychecks. [As a side note- this is awesome!]

Meanwhile, I was fortunate to immediately find myself offered 4 positions and was able to choose the one in the area and school district of my choice. My starting pay was traditional for teachers, I had excellent benefits, and had to a retirement plan set in place. This was it folks. I had started my career that would allow for me to make work and pursue photography all while giving back to the community.

My first paycheck (I am paid once a month) was a net of $2,770. Cost of living for me at the time was about $2,100 a month. Rent and housing is expensive in our area. I had no credit card debt at the time nor did I have a car payment. So how exactly was I going to pay my student loans? Forget about FI and savings, I had not even heard of this concept yet.

Remember that number $889.00 per month? I enrolled in the PSLF, Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program that put me on IBR, Income based Repayment Plan and I ended up being able to pay $183.24 for my first year working. Affordable and still left me what I would have called “fun money” then.

While my student loan payments may now be affordable, the amount is not even touching my principal, meaning it would take a zillion years to pay off. I am currently banking on the PSLF to work. This requires I work full time at a Title 1 school for 10 years while making consecutive minimum payments. After this time, all remaining loans (except grad plus) will be forgiven. Countdown is currently T-minus 6.5 years.

As a note, if you are considering the PSLF program you should enroll NOW, get your loans transferred to FedLoan, fill out the form every year that affirms your work, and generally cover your butt to make sure that after 10 years you were not making the wrong payments, on the wrong payment plan, or did not even qualify. This has happened many times to people I know and I would hate for the same to happen to you.

Defining Successful

So I was not making a ton of money in some individuals eyes. From the college student who was trying to scrape by, it seemed like a huge amount to start!  While my pay has increased since my first year due to clock hour accumulation and time working, I am still in the bracket of being underpaid compared to other careers that require the same amount of education. Including my now partner, HisFI, who makes more that double my paycheck each month with a Bachelors degree.

The question remains, does money really matter? And, does more money mean success?

To the first question I had always said a firm No. I was not doing this for the money. I was not making art or teaching students for the money. I was doing something that I love. I am doing something I love. Yet, money still mattered at the end of the day. As altruistic and all encompassing as I attempted to be, I realized that money is what made things happen. It allows freedom in so many ways.

I think that there are a few reasons that I personally separated money from my decisions. One being that money is hard to talk about. I had a bad relationship with money until…literally 6 months ago, so of course I feel like my response will be that money did not matter that much to me. I was avoiding it and letting it control my life. It was playing into the “poor teacher” narrative and that was ok with me then, and irritating to think about now.

Second, is that there exists a stigma around art and money. On one hand you become such a “sell out” for the money … or maybe the money is seen as “dirty”. Then on the other hand,  someone purchasing your art made you “successful”. I know, we artists cannot make up our minds and simply love the nuance and tiny bit of insanity that surrounds these ideas.

So on this note, I was always at war with remaining authentic in my art and creation OR making money. Looking at this written down it seems so insane that these two cannot go together, but in the art world and even society receiving money for something creative or selling your own work can sometimes be seen as less than authentic. Especially if you are the one advertising it and promoting it. It is encouraged in the arts to be “discovered” by someone else. (If absolutely none of this makes any sense ask a fellow fine artist and see where the conversation goes.)

I can give credit to HisFI for pulling my head out of the sand and asking the hard questions. I am a stubborn individual so this was only part of the steps to a healthy money outlook. I also had to be ok talking about it. This was especially challenging since we (society) are not encouraged to talk about money or how much we make.

Currently, I feel successful for having a budget, knowing where my money goes every month, and having a career that offers me benefits and retirement. I know that in some ways I had it tough, but remain in a privleged group of individuals.  I also find that with teaching, I am giving back. I am hoping to inspire others to create and enjoy the process. A goal is to help students find their voice at a critical age. This is priceless.

The real answer to the questions I started this section with: Money really does matter, just not all the time. Money does mean success, just not all the time.

The Milestones that are Running away from Me

As I continue this journey and educating myself on money, investing and financial independence, I am reminded often of areas that feel out of reach.

Here are some things I have found that people boast about on the FI blogs. To give you an idea of how I’m sucking:

  • Savings Rate….50% is not happening anytime soon. I do have a HYS Account which is automated, so that is something.
  • Maxing out any Retirement Account. Ha! Um no to that as well. While I do have a 403b, I do not have an IRA, and I stay on the regimented subtraction amount for my pension with the district.
  • Paying off all student debt. Nope, not even close. I am banking on the PSLF.
  • Dave Ramsey style FI of being debt free. If you don’t include student loans and a mortgage then yes. I am pretty sure that is not how it works though.
  • FU Money. I do not rank on this. Where do I even begin?

Can any of you relate? Listen, I know that I am privileged in so many ways. 100%. I also feel the need to give voice to feeling like those major FI milestones that flood the pages of every Facebook community and Twitter feed are physically moving away from me. I can take some solace in the fact that I did not even know those ideas existed 6 months ago.

The Comparison Game

Comparison is in close relation to that feeling of the impossible milestone. Comparison is also toxic. This is most challenging for me when having conversations with HisFI. He has a savings rate of around 50%, maxed out his retirements and still pays half of the mortgage. Ugh.

While he may be “more successful” in the eyes of the FI path, I have had to swallow the fact that my path will be harder and longer. A current endeavor is to instead practice gratitude around what I do have and what I am doing. To adopt the mantra “Their success is my success.” Every step or discovery that is moving towards similar goals is laying new ground work for those who follow.

This is easier said than done. It is all to simple for narratives of “I have always been poor.” or “I can’t save enough” to creep into my mind and continually try to make camp where they once lived so comfortably for years. The struggle is real.

It is easy to slip into the comparison mindset because it is comfortable. Especially as a woman where we are taught to compare and compete with others including women from a very young age. This level of comfort for our brains immediately works to undermine the positive that we have done.

Seriously! Do you ever notice how you may be feeling really happy or successful and then immediately following this either something really bad happens or we compare ourselves to those who are more ‘successful’.  We wield our own mallet and pound that optimism down so quickly. (For more on this topic check out The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks)

Change and getting away from the comparison comfort zone asks that we retrain our brain with practices of gratitude, law of attraction and the like. This among other self improvement and self care weapons are what I am packing in my FI backpack.

Steps I am Taking to Not Suck at FI this year

My financial plan is as follows:

  • Pay off the new roof we just purchased on our 0 apr card
  • Build up my emergency fund by June (again, because you know emergencies happen)
  • Put the required $1200 into savings for our trip to Peru by April (Halfway there!)
  • Open a IRA in June and contribute $500 a month. (Finally a savings rate may occur)
  • Put the required $1000 in savings for FinCon 2018 by August (Always good to have some extra)
  • Continue to pay my minimum student loan payments and count on PSLF (ok maybe this still sucks)
  • Raise my contribution to my 403b from $75 a paycheck to $150 a paycheck in September
  • Reach two new certifications in teaching in the next two years and receive a significant pay raise

All of this will occur while still teaching, traveling, tap dancing, hiking, blogging, creating art, being a good animal mom and working on smashing the patriarchy. Thankfully being an artist leaves me with the winning trait of dreaming big and working hard.  🙂

You do not have to be doing everything right. You do not have to brag about your savings rate or success in paying off student loans at the start. It is easy to get discouraged and fall into the well  “I am __________ insert comfortable excuse here.” I know; this is me every few days. This is also me being a kickass woman in the world of art, teaching and now financial literacy.

We are all at our different levels of FI success. Follow our journey and we will follow yours. Strive to save, be frugal, live, not compare…and all of the above.



Angela @ Tread Lightly Retire Early February 19, 2018 - 4:59 pm

That whole comparison thing. Remember that you are still ahead of 99% of the population and pulling ahead even now. You are doing important work AND you enjoy what you do. That’s a rare thing indeed.

Bethany February 20, 2018 - 6:29 am

Thank you for the words of encouragement and reading! I have “Comparison is the thief of joy” on our vision board as a reminder too. #wegotthis 🙂

Peerless Money Mentor February 20, 2018 - 7:31 pm

Keep up the good work, Bethany! I remember writing a post on how I failed to invest my HSA funds. My goal was to be like Paula Pant and other people in much better financial situations than myself. On twitter she reminded me that I did a good job of saving money in my HSA and learning about the HSA hack for the future.

Bethany February 20, 2018 - 7:48 pm

That is amazing to have that kind of recognition and validation from someone you admire! By putting this down in words, I know I can give room to only get better. Thanks for the encouragement.

Tracy @ Financial Nirvana Mama February 21, 2018 - 7:23 pm

Bethany, you have so much courage and you are doing so well already. Keep it up and you will get there, it sounds like you are fully committed!

Bethany February 21, 2018 - 9:11 pm

Thank you for the encouragement! I know I will and it’s so helpful to put it out in words… accountability and such.
Thanks for reading.

Wise Money Tips March 7, 2018 - 4:16 am

Just being aware of your financial circumstances and doing something about it is the key. You are making the effort to save more and spend less. So you will likely see the results over time. Plus, the additional teacher certifications to increase income can be a big boost. Some teachers who stick with it for many years can and do make some very good money. Not to mention the significant pensions they often get.

Bethany March 7, 2018 - 6:17 am

Yes! patience is key, something I am trying to foster more of in my life. I am very pleased with the pension and the benefits- they do not scrimp there. Thank you!

Dave March 7, 2018 - 5:29 am

Great job. You can only be where you are in the process. Strive to make progress. Try to increase your saving rate by 1%-2% every year. Set goals that are attainable. Don’t compare your situation to others. Keep up the good work.

Bethany March 7, 2018 - 6:18 am

Thank you! All excellent advice, and I am huge on goal setting. I just automated my finances shortly after writing this post in order to have a savings rate.
Comparison is the thief of joy for sure.

Rocky March 7, 2018 - 5:32 am

On the road to success we all fail, numerous times. The only difference is when you decide to take an exit and set up camp! Keep at it Bethany and you’ll be FI in no time! Never mind the fact you are taking a more emotionally fulfilling route!

Bethany March 7, 2018 - 6:19 am

Failure is inevitable, this I know, so the awareness has helped. Thank you for the encouragement.

Mel March 7, 2018 - 7:07 am

Screw being a starving artist. That nonsense is so toxic. I felt bad for years asking for reasonable amounts to live while stage managing – like it might hurt the production or something.

Way to have made so much progress just 6 months into a journey! That’s pretty cool!

Bethany March 7, 2018 - 3:38 pm

It still carries a sense of guilt I think- anything with the arts really. Like somehow it will detract from the end product if we are not slaving away for nothing…You know what I mean?

Thank you so much! I am truly in the middle of my journey and enjoying sharing the revelations as they come.

BasicBitch March 7, 2018 - 8:03 am

First of all, you are doing awesome! A teachers salary is no joke and you are doing great at saving where you can!

I do have one question, though, you’ve maybe already blogged about this – I just found your blog today. My question is if you and HisFI have thought about combining finances? My husband and I plan for “our” retirement so we try to keep things equal in terms of saving for retirement accounts. We view all money going in as ours so we try to fund things equally knowing that if we ever did divorce, we’d still have to split up retirement accounts anyway.

Bethany March 7, 2018 - 3:48 pm

Thank you so much!

This is a great question! We have considered it, however because we are not married it would be more of a hassle, but still doable. I am honestly the speed bump in that way, as I think that HisFI is much better about viewing the retirements as “ours” and I am still working on this. It is all in the mindset. Part of me is a stubborn feminist who really holds onto independence and wanting to make sure I have a handle on my money (considering its has only been 6 months of me really watching it) before we make steps like combining our accounts. I will keep this topic in mind for future posts as we continue along our path! Thanks!

freddy smidlap March 7, 2018 - 9:09 am

my wife, marybegley.com is an abstract painter. she went to art school for a b.a. and grad. school for an m.f.a. she owed a smaller amount after that and worked in music stores in the beginning to get money. this was all way before we met. she also lived in a $300 apartment for most of the 90’s because it had studio space. in the mid 90’s she ended up managing a successful independent record label and still lived in this crappy space in the ‘hood where she saved for a house down payment. seems to me independence begets financial independence. studio space for painting was always the priority and never the need to have it all at once, so that was one way to get there. having 2 incomes when we met sure made it easier to destroy debt and save like crazy. i’m glad you have your vacation fund as that’s a good start and you have a new roof which should be good for 20 years. best of luck to you.

Bethany March 7, 2018 - 3:51 pm

Amazing story! It sounds like she was always thinking ahead with funds and living smart.
I am still drooling over the thought of a $300 rent payment. WOW! Every time I hear rents and mortgages like that I consider geo-arbitrage. 🙂

Mysticaltyger March 7, 2018 - 11:23 am

You only started seriously sorting out your financial life 6 months ago. I think you’re doing pretty well considering the short time frame. It does take a few years to really start getting some traction. But it seems like you’ve put yourself on the right trajectory…having goals both to save and earn more, etc. Despite their modest incomes, there are a lot of teachers out there who are in good financial shape. Partly it’s because of their pensions, but it’s also because teachers seem to be good at PLANNING. Planning is key to doing well financially.

Bethany March 7, 2018 - 3:53 pm

Thank you for the encouragement! Agreed, I LOVE to plan. After writing this post, I started to automate my finances and the best part was drawing out the flow chart for finances.

Leigha March 7, 2018 - 12:11 pm

I just don’t understand why you didn’t file the paperwork to be financially emancipated from your parents. It would have removed them from your FAFSA paperwork and would have lowered your contribution rate potentially getting you better grants and lowering your current debt load. With non-compliant parents, it’s a bit of a head ache and usually takes about 6 months to process, but it can be done.

Bethany March 7, 2018 - 4:11 pm

The situation was not so black and white on a emotional level and perhaps at one time I will write about it. However it is not something to be approached in the comments section of this post.

This is a great tip for anyone currently in school and not supported by parents. Thank you!

Tim March 7, 2018 - 1:01 pm

I really dislike the arguments about teachings having breaks which are unpaid. Of course they are unpaid. It’s a job that pays generally based on a 9 month schedule. The remaining 4 months one should have another primary job to fill that gap. I teach and I work in another field during time off from teaching. If one chooses to have 4 months of the year off that is a great benefit teachers can use to spend time with family and or travel.

I have never found where substitute teaching wages are less than primary wages. It has always been the opposite. Substitute wages broken down on a per hour basis are usually 20% more than an equivalent experienced full time educator. In general it is more beneficial to have a sub position for that reason.. but you also don’t have benefits. So it is a give and take.

Bethany March 7, 2018 - 4:04 pm

Tim. You are correct, we are paid for the time we are in the building and working as I stated. I was not arguing for paid vacation, only clarifying for those who may not know what our pay schedule is based off of.
It is really incredible that you take on two jobs during the school year! I have used that time for travel and family, although typically pick up shifts with a daycare or take on summer camps for students. So perhaps I should add that bullet point for the additional opportunities to make some more money in the summer.

The substitutes in our state make a significant amount less than us if you calculate hourly. At $12.50 per hour according to NEA. Here is the link: http://www.nea.org/home/14813.htm It can be challenging to talk about on a general scale since so many of these factors are state and district dependent. I was speaking from my knowledge within this geo-area.

Joe March 7, 2018 - 4:58 pm

Yikes, that’s tough. Keep at it, though. It sounds like you’re doing better.
I’ve changed my mind over the last few years about following your passion. It’s a bad advice.
A better advice I’ve heard is to follow your success. If you’re successful at something, then you’ll spend a lot of time on it and become more passionate about it. Art is tough, though. How do you define success with art?

Bethany March 7, 2018 - 7:35 pm

I have recently shifted that way as well. It seems to always be a back and forth for me, as you may have been able to tell in my post reflections- “money really does matter- just not all the time.”

I love that! I may be putting “Follow your success” on our dream board. On the note of art- I cannot tell you how many papers I wrote about “success and art” in college and I still don’t freakin know. 🙂

robert @ keepify.com March 7, 2018 - 7:49 pm

It sounds like you’re doing great confronting the challenges you have in front of you. The self-doubt, comparisons, tension, and struggle just shows that you’re aware and living intentionally. You don’t want it to consume you, but it’s I think it’s OK to consider at times.

I really respect this post as a ‘where I am,’ and I think all you can do is all you can do. Life isn’t worth nearly as much if you’re not enjoying your days. Counting more dollars certainly doesn’t change that after days nor after decades.

Bethany March 7, 2018 - 8:04 pm

This was one of the best comments yet. Thank you for grounding your words with such intention and reflection. “all you can do is all you can do” Appreciated.

Ms Zi You March 8, 2018 - 3:39 am

OMG, why are you beating yourself up? Life is not about comparison, you need to do what works for you personally. Pick the bits that work for you and ignore the rest!

Bethany March 8, 2018 - 6:38 am

Not as much of a beat up, as a “Where I am Now” kind of post and a slightly depressive edge. Ha! Thank you for the reminder though. Working on being kind to myself during the journey as well.

JayP March 12, 2018 - 9:16 am

You are doing what you want and that’s ok. But you can’t have it all. Going to FinCon and Peru probably isn’t a good way to get to FI. Teaching pays poorly but it always has. Taking on $70K in debt for a job that may pay $50K is not good in terms of math. At least you are upping your contributions and that’s great. You just have chosen a path that isn’t very consistent with quickly getting to FI. People don’t pay us to do what WE love to do, they pay us for filling their needs. If you really want it – then do the hard part. Work in the summer and put back all that dough. Take on side jobs, tutor, start a business, etc. There is nothing wrong with doing what you love and getting to FI in say 25 years instead of 10 in another career.

Bethany March 12, 2018 - 8:24 pm

You touch on some points here that I think need to be addressed. I think you really can “have it all”, and that is the entire point of both FI and the journey to that point. The journey asks that you define many of your own core values and what “it all” is for yourself and your family. While some individuals who are working towards FI make a beeline and cut out all things “extra”, I believe in a life balance (and travel hacking).
Considering I chose my career prior to knowing FI even existed or too much about finances, that point is moot. This is a “where I am now” kind of post and details my current career, not all of the side jobs that I do (and have) hustled at in the summer.


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