Budgeting for freelance writers

Budgeting and finance have been significant interests for me for years, and I’ve gone through many phases of restructuring our family finances and investments with varying degrees of success–not to mention marital conflict. This year I took another stab at it. My general lifestyle philosophy is try things, see if they work, stop doing what doesn’t work, try new things. So on the umpteenth budget restructure, I was on the lookout for new strategies since past strategies didn’t stick. One thing I determined was that past budgeting approaches, such as the popular zero-based budget method that you find on many finance and lifehacking sites, failed to stick because of burdensome recordkeeping. I looked for solutions that were automatic, and required as little recordkeeping as possible. We ended up trying a number of techie-solutions, and a couple of very old school ones. We’re on our fourth month on the new system and it’s working EXTREMELY well. This post would be 70,000 words long if I included the rationale for everything we tried based on our individual family needs. Instead, I’m just going to say that each person, couple, family are unique and the key is to make sure solutions are appropriate for your unique situation. Big factors in ours included medical debt, variable freelance income, and a large mortgage.

Put the money in separate bins

In the past, I’ve relied on meticulous daily recordkeeping to make sure we were staying within our budget for each category of spending. That was never sustainable, because who has time for meticulous daily recordkeeping? We can’t even keep up with laundry and dishes consistently. Instead, I found ways to separate spending categories and put automatic limits on it.

The rough categories we ended up with were: stable, predictable, and fixed expenses; groceries; discretionary cash; long term savings; business and taxes; and holiday/mad money.

Stable, predictable, fixed expenses

We know how much our mortgage is, our car payment, insurance, etc. We used Mint.com to set up a basic budget for all categories, including the stable expenses. Mint.com links to your bank account, and will collect data on your spending and estimate budget amounts for you. This is the basis of our main budget. These expenses vary little from month to month and are trackable by logging in to Mint.com. Because the stable categories don’t change much, they require the least maintenance, and so this part most closely resembles a standard budget.


We went with the envelope system for groceries. Food and groceries are one of the most variable expenses, and easiest to overdo without being aware of it. I take out the week’s grocery money in cash from an ATM each week and put it in a literal envelope. I then shop with cash in hand. I take my list with me and keep track of the cost of items in my cart by rounding to the nearest dollar. I save a lot by shopping at Aldi for most of our needs. This system works beautifully for a couple of reasons. For one, it prevents a lot of food impulse buys. For another, by restricting what we can spend, we are wasting much less food. No overbuying “just in case.” One interesting observation is that your cash envelope weekly budget needs to be divisible by $20, because that is what you can get from an ATM. Unless you want to wait in line at a brick and mortar bank each week to get your $137.56 in weekly grocery cash. Nope.

Discretionary cash

Money for fun things, personal indulgences, dinners out, impulse shoes, and other “little things” has been a big problem for us. How much can we afford to spend? How can you keep track of it? How do you justify spending money on fun stuff when you have debt? I solved this problem by opening two online bank accounts with Moven.com for me and my husband. Each month, we transfer a bit under 5% of his take home pay into each account for our individual discretionary use. This is guilt free money we can save or spend as we choose. Moven comes with an app that you can check any time and will give frequent updates on your spending. Using separate accounts for “fun money” has been a good source of both discipline and freedom. Discipline because in the past we’ve used irrational justifications for “fun” expenditures and having an account with actual numbers forces rational choices and prioritization. Freedom because the spending truly is guilt free.

Long term savings

Right now, our long term savings is mostly in the form of debt paydown, but we have systems for all of it. Since my freelance pay is highly variable, we’ve designated my paycheck as the primary vehicle for debt payoff and savings. We have minimum payments in our regular budget on Mint.com. When I receive a freelance paycheck, it goes through its own algorithm. The basic breakdown is as follows:

20% stays in my business account for taxes and business expenses

10% goes into our fun money accounts on Moven

70% goes to the current priority debt payment

However, since our budget is pretty tight, some months (ok, so far every month) we end up a little in the red. So far, it’s been around $200-$300 each month so far. So before paying down debt, I have to bring the previous month into the black. The modified algorithm is like this:

20% stays in business account

10% to fun money accounts

[overbudget dollar amount] stays in checking account to cover previous month’s budget overrun

[remainder] is used to pay down priority debt

So last month we were $310 in the red. Let’s say I receive a $1000 check. I would leave $200 in my business checking account, transfer $50 to each of our fun money accounts, put $310 in the primary checking account to cover the budget overage, and make a $490 payment to the credit card account. Boom.

This eliminates a lot of temptation and confusion about what to do with intermittent variable paychecks and windfalls. For a windfall such as a gift or other unexpected income, the breakdown is the same, except no money is diverted to the business account. Our priority is still paying down debt, so there’s no surprise vacation or whatnot from a windfall. It’s just chop wood, carry water, until the debt is paid.

Other savings

I made an arbitrary rule that every time I get a receipt from a store with a savings card or loyalty program, I would put the amount under “You saved” into our long term savings account. It’s maybe $5 or $10 each time, but it slowly adds up. Once our debts are paid off, I would like to start filling up the savings account to the point that we can weather the occasional car repair or big medical copay without resorting to credit. That will be the next goal. For now it’s $5 at a time.

Even more savings

I signed up for a bank account with Digit.co to squeeze even more savings out of our current structure. The idea of digit is that it links to your main bank account, and, using its own algorithm, figures out how much you can “afford” to spare, then covertly withdraws it for you. It’s fun, you can take back the money any time, and you don’t have to think about it. Unfortunately, we’ve had trouble with digit taking WAY too much. I’ve tried dialing back the settings and complaining to the company, but for now I just have to turn it off for weeks at a time to make it stop taking withdrawals from our account. I hope they can tweak their algorithm to make it unobtrusive for us once more. It worked really well when it was taking small amounts. Even though I’m not 100% happy with it, digit has accumulated enough of a balance that it should cover Christmas for us, so that will help keep the credit card from taking the usual holiday hit.

Budgeting is super frustrating because life throws unexpected expenses at you pretty fast and hard. Medical costs are going up for everyone because insurance companies now think we should all be “coinsuring” with them so that we shop for the best deals. Stuff happens to your car, the dog eats something strange and has to go to the vet, you get caught speeding, your kid needs $700 for a school fundraiser, etc. etc. My budget hasn’t been able to account for all of this, but it has allowed us to get back on track faster when these things happen. It’s still a work in progress, but I really think that physically separating different categories of savings and using technology to automate recordkeeping have been a gamechanger for us. I hope this information helps you, too.



Read my 2007 story, “The Apprentice”

For reasons that are obvious within the story, I thought now would be a good time to share my 2007 story, “The Apprentice,” published in Heroes in Training, a Daw anthology edited by Jim C. Hines and Martin Greenburg. The story was, indeed, inspired by the name of a popular reality television show of the time, starring a certain presidential candidate of our time. I haven’t looked at the story in years, but when I glanced at the ending, I was pretty happy with how on-point it was for 2016. Obviously, I missed some of the best material by nine years. On the other hand, I was making fun of Donald Trump before it was cool. QED.

Here’s the link: The Apprentice

Persistent Critical Illness traps patients in ICU

Over at Michigan Radio, I wrote about a new category of illness affecting 5% of patients in the ICU, that consumes 33% of ICU resources. This was, unfortunately, pretty much exactly how my mother spent her final two months of life. I did feel something was badly off the rails when she was taken up to the ICU only for observation after an in-hospital fall and bump on the head. The rolling catastrophe that followed didn’t seem to make any sense. I am very excited to see research looking into this phenomenon, as this particular ordeal is perhaps the worst suffering I’ve ever witnessed or could imagine.


Amazing binturong-related breakthrough stuns binturologists worldwide


Photo credit Jennifer Pack

Since ancient times, humans have wondered why the binturong, a south asian animal also known as a bear cat, smells like popcorn. Other varmints smell like musk, poop, urine, rotting things, or have their own particular brand of funk such as Wet Dog®. The binturong, however, smells distinctly like hot buttered popcorn.

Duke University researchers have now isolated the exact same compound from binturong urine that gives popcorn it’s aroma, 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline. The binturong gets plenty of this stuff on itself when it urinates. The scientists theorize that the purpose of the scent is to let other animals know, “A binturong was here.”

Let’s look at more pictures of binturongs.

Photo credit Mala C

Photo credit Mala C


Photo credit Josh More

Photo credit Josh More


First, I want to let you know I did survive the 60 day bikram yoga challenge. It got a bit hairy toward the end because I had a cold for ten days. I toughed out most of the sick days–one class I literally felt so bad I slept the whole class through. I had to take a couple days off to recuperate, so there were a couple of double classes to squeeze in at the end. It was pretty awesome to finish. I felt lucky that I was able to find a 60-day space in my life, somehow, for this to happen. The benefits are kind of intangible. I am slightly better at yoga. I may or may not have added a few months to my life? Hard to say. I did get a free massage and facial at the spa next door and that was really nice.

I’m glad I chose to do it when I did because a family emergency made March Very Complicated. Everything is fine, but it simply would not have worked to do yoga every day. And from that I would say the lesson is whatever you want to do, jump in with both feet and go for it, because there’s really no telling what will happen or change in the future.

Speaking of change! I’m working on transitioning this blog to a more science focused space. I’ve been wanting to do that for quite some time, and as per above realized that there’s no time like the present. Watch this space!

Yoga challenge, somewhere in the middle

Today is day 37 of my 60 day yoga challenge. I already logged 30 classes in 30 days, so I can collect the first level of reward for the challenge–a free facial or massage at the spa next door. If I make it to 60, I get both, plus a free month of unlimited yoga.

Although I intermittently still feel awesome and am seeing a lot of progress in my practice and changes in my body, I would also say this middle part of the challenge is officially a slog. The kind of slog where you’re wearing good rubber boots and at first you’re doing ok, but then you sink in a little too deep and the muddy water goes over your boot, and you have to struggle to pull foot and boot out and continue slogging through the mud while your boots are slowly filling with mud until you finally just take the boots off and continue slogging barefoot. It’s like that.

It’s not easy getting all of those yoga classes in. It’s a drag arranging my day around it, day after day after day. I’m grateful that my schedule is very flexible right now, and that my studio offers many classes, including four 8 PM classes per week. Thank goodness for those 8 PM classes. I would have never made it this far. Usually the monkeys that sabotage my plans all day long are drunk and passed out by 8 PM and I can sneak a late class in.

Physically, I feel like I go through cycles of about 7 to 10 days. To start with, I feel “normal,” and am having a “normal” class and am doing my “normal” poses and doing my best, giving 100% in each one, with some variation for “fuck you” moments and bathroom emergencies. That lasts 2-3 days.

The next phase is totally wiped out. At this point, I’m trying to do my “normal” poses, but am randomly run over by trucks and have pianos dropped on my head. I spend a lot of time sitting or lying on my mat. Sometimes I get up and feebly attempt to rejoin the group. Sometimes I just lie there. On better “wiped out” days, I might still get at least one set of each pose in. On worse days, it’s 45 minutes or more of savasana. This is another 2-3 days.

After “wiped out,” something changes and I become superhuman. I unexpectedly have a great class and start doing new things in my postures. I am more flexible, stronger, and feeling like a rock star. These are the days I see change and progress, and it’s pretty cool. After a couple days, this new level becomes my new “normal,” and the cycle begins again.

Independently, I may feel exhausted or energized after yoga or throughout the next day. No correlation with how I feel in yoga. Likewise, I might go to yoga feeling like crap, with an actual stomach ache or headache, and have an amazing class. OR, I might go in feeling like a superhero and have one of those “run over by a truck” classes. It’s all quite fascinating.

I no longer notice the heat and almost never feel “too hot” in a class. I sweat profusely, and sometimes get dizzy, but nothing like that ever translates to “I’m too hot” in my head. It just doesn’t.

Emotionally, I’ve been cranky about the yoga, even as I’ve continued to show up or classes. Although it is a bit tiresome to go every day, it’s not really as if I’ve been missing out on life or not getting things done. Rather, I think it’s just a bit of old emotion working its way out through the process. I feel like I’m coming out of it, but for a while, people would tell me how great it was that I was doing all this yoga and how inspiring, and I would have to bite back a “fuck you!” kind of response and try to be all gracious. What’s up with that? I don’t know.

Fortunately, this is where a sunk cost fallacy can be helpful, because as cranky as I have felt about going to class, I’m even crankier about giving up more than halfway through. Fuck that! Grumble grumble grumble.

2016 Confusion report

Confusion is my home science fiction convention. It’s held every year in January in the Detroit area. I went to my first Confusion in 1998. I have not been every year since then. There were a lot of years I missed. I would say I’ve been a very regular attendee since the early 00’s. Something amazing and bewildering that has occurred is that Confusion has become a major literary convention, drawing dozens of authors from all over the country. Editors and agents have begun showing up, too. It’s awesome because it’s great for the convention, and it’s great to have another option for a networking event in the industry.

On the other hand, I’m feeling wistful about the cozy community we used to have. For many years there was a core group of writers attending Confusion, with a rotating writer guest of honor joining the group. There was usually one writer table in the bar, and I always knew where to go when I wanted to decompress from a panel or just get a hug from friends.

Confusion is not like that anymore. There’s no “home base” clump of writers in the bar, and the familiar Michigan faces are spread out among many other writers. That means it’s not that easy to walk into the bar and find “my people,” which is a little sad. On the other hand, that old “writer table” thing was probably overly on the cliquish side, so it’s not all bad that new people have shown up to disrupt the old default rhythms. I also spend a lot more time with fans these days, both because fans are what it’s all about and because so many of them have become friends in my everyday life.

At any rate, I had a great convention and enjoyed reconnecting with old friends and making new. All of the panels I was on seemed to go really well, with great topics and great audience participation. I felt a bit spread thin because there were so many people I wanted to see and so little time to squeeze it all in, but that’s a good problem to have. I am beginning to question my introvert identity. It seems like the reason I used to be so fatigued by social stuff and new people has been due to anxiety–overthinking interactions, worrying too much if I was offending or pleasing or even making an impression. Now that I’ve cleared some internal stuff, I find I don’t spend any energy at all on that old overthinking, and socializing and meeting new people doesn’t drain me like it used to. In fact, I wouldn’t say I find it draining at all. I still enjoy my alone time, and quite times with one or two friends, too, so I am probably more of an ambivert these days and enjoying having the option to meet new people without the need to “recover” after.

Staying up too late and having an inadvisable number of drinks? That still requires recovery time.

tl;dr: Confusion was great, but I now need a new cozy writer relaxacon.

I feel great

I feel fantastic lately, and as far as I can tell, there are three factors at work. 1) My previously unknown asthma is under control. 2) I’m a week into a 60-day bikram yoga challenge. 3) I finally finished a memory in EMDR. All three are connected, I think. Finishing the memory got a lot of negative, self defeating baggage out of the way. The positive cognition we installed was “I am fine as I am.” Simple as that. Doing yoga every day for the past week has helped, but I’m not sure I’d have had the courage to commit to and attend that many classes if I hadn’t finished the memory. I’ve been doing bikram yoga for 5 or 6 years and never got my act together to get this far into a challenge. Lastly, I think the asthma treatment has helped me finally achieve real results and progress with the yoga. In the past, I’ve had trouble staying in poses long enough to push my “edge.” Yoga is all about breathing, so now I’m working with fully functional lungs. There’s also a bit of fear of sensation, pain, or “getting tired” that I no longer deal with, possibly either because of the asthma or the now-processed traumatic memory. (Processing has made me a lot more comfortable with emotions and bodily sensations.) It’s a lot easier to just go to class and do my best in each posture without overthinking or stopping early…well, it’s hard to describe. But it’s great!

The initial impetus for doing the yoga challenge was to give my ankles some much-needed rehab after spraining both Thanksgiving weekend. (I fell down some steps–nothing terribly interesting.) The ankles are indeed improving, and the side effects are unbelievable.

I’m getting a lot done, working more, enjoying my work more, enjoying people more, feeling more social, rapidly losing weight without trying, and, yeah, just feeling pretty good. It’s actually kind of hard to make a blog post about just feeling good. There’s so much less to say about it than when I’m struggling or in a down mood. I guess because low moods lead to rumination which is perfect for really long blog posting.

I’m full of ambition, though. I’ve decided now is the time to reorganize my office. I’ve started a new novel, and I’m approaching it in a much different way than ever before. I would say I’m strongly trending away from the more commercially oriented style I’ve favored in the past. I find myself wanting to explore character much more deeply, and riff on the conventions and tropes of genre fiction. Like in a nearly satirical way. Freelance work is rolling in, after a long dry spell. I’ve heard it said many times that if you sort out your inside stuff, the outside stuff takes care of itself. Is this how it happens? I hope so.

I certainly hope the inside stays sorted, or becomes more sorted. I have another memory package to clear in therapy. The positive cognition I’m going for is “It’s not my fault.” I would say I believe it about 50% right at this moment. What changes will happen in my life when I fully believe this? (And before you ask “What’s not your fault?” …it’s everything. I feel like everything is my fault. All the time. Well, only about half time now.)

“The North Revena Ladies Literary Society” out now in July/Aug Analog

I have another new story in Analog, for the July/Aug 2012 issue, “The North Revena Ladies Literary Society.” It’s about a book club made of spies who save the world with books. This one, too, was liked by Locus:

A whole lot of action thriller and SFnal conspiracy packed surprisingly into a short piece. Nicely sketched characterization, with a slyly humorous tone.


It’s a double issue and I share the TOC with pal and fellow MAFIA member Rick Lovett.

[MAFIA = “making appearances frequently in Analog”]

Locus Likes “Titanium Soul”

I’m pleased as punch that Lois Tilton gave Locus’s coveted* “recommended” tag to her review of my story, “Titanium Soul,” in the June issue of Analog. Go check it out.

I remember when I was first publishing in Analog back in 2003-2005, and for some reason Locus wasn’t reviewing every issue of Analog. It’s pretty fuzzy, now, but I think none of my stories got reviewed there, so I’m grateful to Lois Tilton for staying on top of the avalanche of short fiction and keeping the reviews coming, even the ones that aren’t so glowy. No review is ten times worse than a bad review.

I’m also enjoying the positive comments I’ve been getting directly, and discovering via ego surfing on twitter, etc. It’s an amazing feeling when people connect with something I’ve written.

Because of that, I picked up some extra author copies of that issue, and will be taking them with me to Penguicon (where I am not on the program, but will be there in author stealth mode). If you want one, find me and ask for it. It would also be cool if you could use a secret password, like “coldy moldy bananas eggplant,” but it’s optional.

Also, I have another story in the very next issue of Analog, the July/August double issue, which should be coming out in a few weeks. I’ve already received my contributor’s copies. The story is called. “The North Revena Ladies Literary Society.” It’s about a women’s book club, spies, secret agents, books, terrorists, and more.

I can’t believe it’s been almost two weeks since I’ve posted here. I’m trying to think what I’ve been up to, and I’m coming up blank. I think I’ve just been kind of stressed out, but I’ve got about five telepathic blog posts written that you can check out on the telepathic internet at www.insidecatherinesbrain.com. Enjoy!

* Well, coveted by me. External evaluations bring out my inner Hermione Granger