Researching Makers’ Financial Attitudes and Behaviors: Part Three

This is part of an ongoing research project that aims to understand the financial attitudes and behaviors of makers who primarily receive their income from variable, contract-based employment. Part One provides information about “makers,” why we chose them, and our project goals. Part Two offers select stories from our interviews. Here, we present three themes that we have identified in our research.

In our last blog post, Kyle, Lauren and I told you about four artists who earn their income working in arts and arts-adjacent fields, primarily through contract-based work. We spoke to Pete, an A/V technician, photographer and musician; Rodney, a sculptor and craftsman; and Carrie and Becca, two visual artists with a creative studio who provide signage and wayfaring for local restaurants.

Since then, we’ve spoken to a total of 12 makers, including construction workers, set and prop designers, gallery designers, carpenters, and other art- and craft-based workers. From their stories, we have identified three themes that we feel are important to understanding the financial motivations of these workers.

Pete sharing his work schedule

Pete sharing his work schedule.

Theme 1: A variable schedule incentivizes working as little as possible.

Many of our participants told us how much they enjoy their free time, and this plays a part in their decision to work on a contract basis. It gives them the freedom to work when they want to, as they need to. We had hypothesized that the uncertainty of this type of work would lead individuals to work as much as possible and save as much as possible, to prepare for the times when they have trouble finding work. We found that this frequently wasn’t the case.

Take Pete: he told us “I take every gig I’m offered,” yet he also said “I only need to work seven days a month…sometimes I only need to work 4 days a month.” He could work more, but valued his free time more highly than the extra money. The people we spoke to knew how much they needed to make to cover their expenses, and they typically worked to that limit. As Rodney put it, “I [make] generally around $2,000 a month. It’s kind of like, I gotta make $2,000 to be broke but not have everybody mad at me.”

Rodney

We asked Rodney to pretend the cotton balls were $100 bills and asked what he’d do with this extra money. He told us he’d find ways to spend it. 

Theme 2: A variable income creates temptation to make large purchases.

Another trend we’ve observed is that variable income can lead to large influxes of money, which is then easy to spend. Carrie and Becca told us how their first year, after receiving some big contracts, they went out and leased a new, much larger studio. When we asked Rodney what he would do with $1,000, he said, “The only time I’ve ever had this, I went and bought a sailboat.”

Henry, a carpenter and owner of a local remodeling business, spoke to the phenomenon. “I’ve seen so many, umpteen guys that come in, they get one big job, and then then they’re driving the F350,” he told us. “Then they have a couple bad jobs and they’re driving the wife’s Corolla.” Sure enough, within a year, Carrie and Becca had given up their larger studio, realizing they couldn’t actually afford it.

Becca and Carrie at their computer

Becca and Carrie share the database they’ve created of all of Austin’s restaurants.

Theme 3: Work opportunities are word of mouth, so networks are crucial.

Almost everyone we spoke to emphasized the importance of having a network who can connect them to regular work opportunities. After years of networking, Pete told us, “They call me — and that’s one thing I love about my current situation. I never ever look for work. It just comes to my door and I say yes I can do it or no I can’t do it.” Others have to hustle a bit more, but work always seems to come through. Carrie and Becca, for example, find work by going out to eat and introducing themselves to the restaurant staff. “We’re literally landing a client almost every time we would go out to eat,” Becca told us.

Feedback

We presented our findings to JUST last Saturday, and they shared some helpful feedback with us. They agreed that volatile income makes it difficult for people to plan, as constant scarcity crushes the belief that it is possible to make a better world for yourself. We are not sure if our interviewees demonstrate this mindset: because they are “self-marginalized” and could theoretically find other, more stable work, it is hard to know if they feel they are trapped in their situations. The makers we interviewed told us that their lifestyle is one of choice as opposed to necessity.

We were told that many JUST clients sacrifice their credit to help their community, and makers are a group that values community very highly. Many people we spoke to also have bad credit, frequently due to unpaid student loan debt. Microcredit helps promote financial discipline, and this could potentially help some of the people we spoke to learn to save more, if they are so inclined. However, because they are “reverse entrepreneurs” — creating businesses in a haphazard way, as a means not to make money but to achieve freedom and pursue their passions — it is hard to know whether the type of financial incentives that help those deliberately starting a business would also be of interest to artists who mostly just want to do their own thing and make just enough money each month to get by.