Making Money as a Writer Is a Curious Thing

Money as a writer

The following transcript is an attenuated Q&A from a recent nine-page interview between Thom Chambers and Joshua Fields Millburn in the premier issue of The Micropublisher magazine.

Thom Chambers: I know a lot of people will be fascinated by the dollars and cents aspect of transitioning into writing full-time. You left your day job on March 1, 2011 and in September 2011 published your first book, followed by several other books in the following year and a half. In the intervening months, did you have an income source or were you relying on savings?

JFM: I’ve gotten this question a lot, especially during our 43-city book tour. It fascinates me that so many people are interested in this. I guess I never thought about how much money my favorite authors make. I never thought, “I wonder how much money David Foster Wallace earns per annum,” or “How do Denis Johnson and Don DeLillo pay their utility bills?” But I have no problem discussing it.

Thankfully, I’m fairly open about the answer: when I left my old career I was already a multi-millionaire, and I have enough money to live off of the rest of my life.

OK, I’m joking, obviously.

Actually, when I left my corporate job, I left with very little savings (relative to my income level). I had enough money to live for a few months. The key to making it work was reducing my expenses to bare necessities. My minimalist lifestyle allowed me to pursue my passion for writing. My only bills when I left corporate America were my rent (which wasn’t much in Dayton, Ohio), my gas and electric, and insurance. Other than that, I bought food and hygiene products, but I refrained from any physical purchases last year.

No matter how much money you make, the equation doesn’t work if your expenses are greater than your revenues. This might sound like a banal platitude, but it’s the cold truth. People often think I have a ton of money, because I used to have a six-figure career. But those people didn’t see the other side of the equation. When I was making $130,000 per year and spending $150,000, the math didn’t work, and so I went into debt. By age 27 (I’m 31 now) I was worse off than I was at age 18. I had myriad debt I had to pay off, which took me two years of incredibly disciplined spending practices and Mozart-esque money management.

I didn’t just jump up and quit my job one day. I changed my spending habits over two years, sold my house, paid off my car, sold stuff I didn’t need, got rid of nearly all my bills (TV, Internet, etc.), moved into a small apartment, and then focused on leaving my job and living a more meaningful life.

Yes, I earn money now—our site is 100% reader supported—but not nearly what I used to bring home. And that’s perfectly fine with me; I don’t need that much money anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not allergic to money, it’s just that money is no longer the primary motivation for doing what I do.

I love writing, I love adding value to other people’s lives; the money is secondary.

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