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The Minimalists
The Minimalists are Emmy-nominated Netflix stars and New York Times–bestselling authors Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. Alongside their podcast cohost, T.K. Coleman, this simple-living trio helps millions of people eliminate clutter and live meaningfully with less. Learn More.

Making Money as a Writer Is a Curious Thing

The following transcript is an attenuated Q&A from my recent interview with Thom Chambers in the premier issue of 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 quit your day job on March 1, 2011, and in September 2011 published your first book, Essential, followed by three other books. In the intervening months, did you have an income source or were you relying on savings?

JFM: I get this question a lot—especially during our tour. It fascinates me that so many people are interested in this. I have never considered how much money my favorite authors earn; like, “I wonder how much money David Foster Wallace earns yearly?” or “How does Gretel Ehrlich pay her utility bill?”

I have no problem discussing it, though—I’m open with my 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—I had enough money to live for a few months, but 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 rent (which isn’t much in Dayton, Ohio), utilities, and insurance. Other than that, I bought food and hygiene products, and I refrained from other physical purchases.

No matter how much you earn, the equation doesn’t work if your expenses exceed your income. This might sound like a platitude, but it’s the truth. People believe I have a ton of money because I had a six-figure career, but those people didn’t see the other side of the equation: when I was making $130,000 and spending $150,000, the math didn’t work, and so I went into debt. By 27 I was worse off than I was at 18: I had myriad debt I had to pay off, which took me two years of disciplined spending practices and Mozart-esque money management.

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

My initial plan was to become a barista while writing fiction on the side, which I was completely okay with because it aligned with my values. Then, thankfully, a plethora of people started finding value in our website, and so, yes, I earn money now—our site is 100% reader supported—but not nearly what I brought home before. And that’s perfectly fine with me: I don’t need much money anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not allergic to money—but the almighty dollar is no longer my primary motivator.

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

Now available: How to Write Better: JFM’s Online Writing Class.