Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

7 Ways Doing Your Accounts Can Boost Your Creativity

You’re a creative, not a bean counter. So it’s tempting to put off your accounts until the last minute, just in time for the tax deadline. If you’re one of the many freelance creatives who do this, we assume you’ve heard all the sensible arguments why this is a bad idea – and they haven’t persuaded you. But have you considered the potential impact on your creativity?

If not, here are seven ways putting off your accounts can harm your creativity – and seven creative benefits of knuckling down and getting them done each month.

1. Get money off your mind.

The more you ignore something, the more it weighs on your mind, like a mysterious piece of software running in the background on your laptop, hogging all the memory and slowing it to a snail’s pace. When you’re not sure exactly how much money you have coming in and going out, a part of your mind keeps worrying away at it, trying to estimate the figures and see how they all add up. Which reduces the mental bandwidth available for creative thinking.

As a creative professional, your headspace is your most precious finite resource. If you want to create your very best work, you need to prevent it being throttled by money worries.

When it comes to productivity, writing to-do items down is a well established way to get things off your mind and free it up for more important concerns. Doing your accounts works on the same principle – by inputting and checking the figures each month, you transform vagueness into clarity and certainty. That cloud of financial unease disappears from your mind – and, often, it makes way for a renewed creative sharpness.

When you’re not sure exactly how much money you have coming in and going out, a part of your mind keeps worrying away at it.

2. Reduce stress.

Uncertainty is stressful. And when you’re doing cutting-edge creative work, it’s unavoidable. Jonathan Fields has written an entire book about how top creatives and entrepreneurs handle the uncertainty that goes hand in hand with dreaming and daring big. It’s an inspiring book, and he makes a good case that uncertainty is a price worth paying for greatness.

But financial uncertainty doesn’t bring greatness, only stress. The kind of stress that eats away at your creativity. Life and creative work are hard enough – don’t make them harder still by neglecting your finances and adding unnecessary uncertainty into the mix.

What if the figures confirm your worst fears? Strangely enough, we’ve noticed that people are typically less stressed when they know the worst than when they were just imagining it. Once they get over the initial shock, and the world hasn’t ended, they start to make plans and consider alternatives.
Maybe you need to raise your prices, bring in more clients, or find a cheaper studio. Perhaps you need to speak to your accountant, bank manager, the tax office – or all three! It may not be fun, but at least you will be doing something constructive about your situation, and starting to get back your sense of control.

3. Give yourself a reality check


Yes, creativity involves dreaming and pushing the boundaries. And it also involves acknowledging reality and working within the constraints of what you have – in terms of talent, materials, experience, collaborators, budget and time. This is particularly true if you’re working on client commissions!
Taking regular stock of your business finances is one way of keeping yourself grounded and productively creative. If you’re happy with the figures, you can forget them and get back to more interesting work. If not, it’s better to find this out sooner than later – and spur yourself on to do something about it.

Life and creative work are hard enough – don’t make them harder still by neglecting your finances and adding unnecessary uncertainty into the mix.

4. Encouragement

Yes, we’re serious. Assuming you have at least a few clients or customers, it can be very heartening to go back through your invoices and remind yourself of the people who have paid you good money for good work.

Like most professional creatives, you’re probably a perfectionist, with a tendency to dismiss past achievements and focus on the problems you haven’t yet solved. Doing your accounts doesn’t have to be merely a robotic process of entering figures on a spreadsheet. It can also be an opportunity to pause and reflect on the month just gone – on the work you did, the people you helped, and the fact that people have valued your work enough to buy it.

5. Putting useful data at your fingertips

There’s a lot more to creative business finance than recording your accounts. And most of it is a lot more interesting – like figuring out where you can earn the most money with the least effort, to make your working life easier and more profitable.

Maybe you can afford to fire that client who’s making your life a misery. Maybe your cheapest and easiest marketing activity is actually the most effective, and you can drop some of the rest. Maybe you can save money on materials without cutting quality. And maybe making these changes would put an extra spring in your step and an added sparkle on your creative work, as well as more money in your bank account.

But you won’t know any of this for sure, unless you have those figures at your fingertips – ideally on an accounting system that lets you generate charts and see the data visually. Then you’re in a position to make some creative decisions based on the patterns you spot.

Maybe you can afford to fire that client who’s making your life a misery. Maybe your cheapest and easiest marketing activity is actually the most effective.

6. Fund your creative ambitions.

If you’re an independent artist of any kind, you need to buy yourself time, equipment and materials before you can start on a major project. Even if you’re servicing clients, you probably have creative initiatives of your own that you want to get off the ground – side projects, product lines or artistic ambitions.

Unless you’ve got accurate financial data about your situation, it’s hard to see where the money for this will come from. Once you start doing your accounts in order to work how to fund your creative projects – not just to keep the taxman happy – you’ll feel more motivated to get the job done. As Walt Disney said, “We don’t make these pictures to make money. We make money so that we can make more pictures.”

7. Build a remarkable business.

Everything we’ve said so far has been about using money as a tool, a support system that keeps your business running smoothly, and keeps you focused, creative and productive. But there’s also another kind of creative satisfaction that can come from being on top of your finances – that of building a remarkable business, that produces extraordinary things and brings you creative satisfaction in its own right.

If that’s the kind of creative challenge that excites you, then doing your monthly accounts is a small but essential step to making it a reality. And if you do a good enough job of mastering the money side of your creative business, you’ll soon be in a position to pay someone else to take the book-keeping off your desk…

“But can’t I just give it to someone else to do?”

Yes, you can, and at some point you probably should. But even if you can afford to hire a book-keeper right away, we’d suggest you do at least a couple of months’ accounts on your own. Firstly so that you know what’s involved and you’re able to monitor their work and stay in control of the process. And also because getting your hands dirty in the ‘engine room’ of your business, gives you a much more intimate sense of the links between small actions, decisions and expenses, and the big picture of your creative and business success.–

What’s Your Experience?

Do you make time to do your accounts monthly? Why or why not?Have you noticed any creative benefits from being on top of your business finances? (Even if it didn’t last long!)

More insights on: Creative Blocks, Money

Mark McGuinness and Sarah Thelwall

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Mark McGuinness and Sarah Thelwall are the authors of "The Creative Money Manual" - a guide to financial management tailor-made for creative freelancers and entrepreneurs. If you want to learn more about putting money at the service of your creativity, check out the Manual here.
load comments (24)
  • Gutsy Arts Girl

    Wow, you hit a nerve with me on this one. Especially your first comment, the more you try to ignore something, the more it presses on your mind. This is so true.  “resistance is futile” for all Star Trek fans!

  • DJDanMurphy

    GREAT article, some good points that hit home for me. Gotta say the feeling of control and completion when the accounts are finished is amazing. Thanks!

  • Alfonso Surroca

    This is SO on point. We recently went through this process at my agency and basically realized in practice all the points you’ve described. First, like typical creatives, we dismissed the numbers as un-creative drudgery and ignored it, and let it creep around in the background. Once we started looking at our finances ourselves, we found that we had more, not less, creative energy leftover. Just like you said.

  • Matthew

    Amen! This article seems to fit well with a broader topic I’ve been witnessing in myself- the wrestling match between the rational and irrational. I gravitate towards living, and therefore producing art out of irrational conclusions. I often don’t like feeling so measured. But as you say, being rational is life-giving to the creative process. The best work seems to come from a harmonic merging of both worlds.

  • Brian Setzler

    Every business owner needs reliable, timely accounting data to help with decision making and tax filing.  Not paying attention to your accounting system and records can easily cost you $10,000/year or more in lost deductions, revenue, A/R collections, late fees, etc.

    My advice is to know what you do well, what you like to do, and what brings in the money.  If accounting, numbers, and business planning doesn’t fall in one of those categories, consider outsourcing that work to an expert.  

    While I’m good at accounting, tax, and business strategies, I hire creatives to oversee marketing and design.  I’m of course capable of doing these tasks, but the results would likely be horrendous.
    Brian Setzler, MBA, CPA

  • Shawn Tuttle

    I long ago handed off this duty to a bookkeeper—the amount I pay her per month is nothing compared to the peace gained knowing it’s getting done (speaking directly to #1 above). Otherwise, knowing it needs to get done but not getting done is a certain kind of nagging hell in my book.

  • Judybentinck

    Very useful and interesting. How much is the book in GBP?

  • Mark McGuinness

    “we found that we had more, not less, creative energy leftover” – that’s the acid test for me, glad to hear it’s doing the trick for you and your team!

  • Mark McGuinness

    Thanks. You can probably tell that some points were the fruit of bitter personal experience. ;-)

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yep, as an unrepentant control freak I know how you feel!

  • Sarah Thelwall

     hey there Judy … it’s about £18 if you buy it at the $29 price … price goes up to $39 tomorrow!

  • Mark McGuinness

    I think you’ve touched on something important about creativity as well as life – it involves a tension between order and chaos, rational and irrational. 

    Like you, I find the irrational side very attractive. But you need both sides to come up with something truly original and worthwhile.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yes, nagging hell isn’t exactly conducive to creative work!  Great to hear you’ve got a system that works for you – and brings peace of mind.

  • Sarah Thelwall

     yep, it’s a great feeling … I liken it to the weight lifted by finding a cleaner for my apartment … I’ve always hated cleaning and not doing it as often as I might (because I was travelling and generally super-busy) was not only making it a less pleasant place to live but it made me feel guilty and it reduced my enjoyment of living in the apartment. Now that I have a cleaner I love living here and it’s clean and I have no guilt … marvellous! Plus when I want some extra … I just buy more time for spring cleans etc and it’s easy because I know who to ring to book more of them.

  • Sarah Thelwall

     and you can live without a nagging hell! I’m interested to know whether you sit down with your book-keeper and ask her how she thinks you are doing? i.e. do you ask her for advice or is it just a one way feed of receipts and invoices that she sorts and processes?

  • Mark McGuinness

    Glad you found it interesting. 

    Sarah and I are both Brits but we’ve priced the Manual in dollars as most of our readers and customers are outside the UK. According to it converts to about £17.80 – Paypal should show you the exact amount in GBP before processing payment.  

  • Devin

    Do most people not keep their accounts up-to-date monthly/weekly? It’s one of my tasks and has been for a years. Keeping money on the mind as a HABIT has really helped me keep things in perspective. Even in the early stages of a business, it’s essential to do your accounts: aren’t we all in this for the $?

  • Mark McGuinness

    Well, some of us are after other things as well as the $. ;-)  Especially creatives. Sometimes it even seems to be ‘instead of the $’!

    I haven’t personally heard of any creatives who do their accounts weekly! Monthly is great, but a lot of people don’t even do that, so I’m always thrilled when a client says they do monthly. 

  • Shannon Kate

    I have it on my ‘stuff I should do’ list that sits at the back of my mind to do accounts fortnightly, but it ends up being quarterly. 

    Which is silly, because it’s always such a relief and and insight when I do get them done. 

  • smartideas4life

    very impressive and great tip article that make habit of boosing creativity.

  • alivewithideas

    Great article!
    We use a great accountant to help us focus on what we love to do most.
    Check them out…

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