The Hardest Part of Being a Hobo-American

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Note: This is a codicil to the entries I wrote called “Cut the Cord.” Part one is here. Part two is here. The entry below will make more sense if you read those first.

After more than five years of freelancing and making furniture to feed my pie hole, here is the most difficult part of being free of corporate America: getting paid.

This isn’t some screed about how vendors don’t pay me. Everyone I deal with (furniture customers, publishers, etc. ) is quite nice and honest. And no one has tried to stiff me on an invoice or avoid paying me.

But paperwork is paperwork. There are times when I build, film or write something and I don’t get paid for a year. But that’s just part of the deal. I might have to pay for materials for something that could take six months to build before a check comes through. That’s part of the deal. And there are times where people have owed me as much as $12,000 when I’ve had a $10,000 college tuition bill due. But that’s just part of the deal.

Being free from the daily commute means that I also have to be able to weather almost any financial crisis without whining, selling plasma or borrowing. For me, that means I have to have $20,000 in the bank at all times. My wife and I call it (and I’m so sorry for the implied swear word): “F-you money.”

As long as that money is there, I can pay almost any bill that comes up. I can wait out any vendor that has me on 45 days. I can hold out if I need to wait for something to clear there and something to process there. It takes much of the stress out of the accounting.

As I’ve found during the last 65 months, everything works out just fine in the end. You just have to be able to hold your breath for a much longer time than when you were paid every other Friday.

— Christopher Schwarz

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About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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26 Responses to The Hardest Part of Being a Hobo-American

  1. hgordon4 says:

    Yup. That’s called being adequately capitalized.
    Congrats on having made it past the 5 year point! That’s a milestone for a business owner.

  2. As someone who makes a living in some of the same ways as you do, I can relate to the anxiety that sometimes comes with an irregular pay schedule. By keeping two or three months worth of funds on hand at all times, you won’t have to run your business, or your household according to the whims of your customers, sponsors or anyone else. I think it is also very important to manage debt. While not everyone can remain debt free, especially in their business, I found that paying off the cars, house and credit cards a few years back added a tremendous amount of freedom and flexibility to the way I could manage my work. Without those monthly commitments I can do more of what I want to do and less of what I have to do just to get paid.

    • Couldn’t agree more. We paid off *everything* (house, etc.) eight years ago and that was liberating.

      • Dan Zehner says:

        My wife and I are planning to do the same thing in our mid-40s. Save enough during our careers to have an “f-you” fund if and when we just want to do our side gigs full time. 🙂 You’re doing it right and I hope we can join you there someday!

  3. mnrwoods says:

    Well done. It seems that thrift and saving and a work ethic are not entirely a relic of the past.

  4. error4 says:

    What is that tool in the photo and where does it come from?!

  5. Scott Taylor says:

    I understand the the f-you fund, I loved making to that point… Money equals freedom in this economy and freedom is the most precious of things…

  6. I still work in corporate America. The company I work for has had much better times. We have gone through at least as many rounds of layoffs as I have years in the company, and I have more than a few. I feel the need to have an Oh, crud fund. It’s named that way in my bank account. Better safe than sorry.

  7. 61chrysler says:

    Isn’t this the way successful companies used to function? I have often wondered why today’s huge corporations jump at the chance to eliminate valuable people when their profits become slim. I have read several accounts of companies in the past that were able to keep everyone on board in hard times. It seems to make sense to always put money away when times are good. Why the hell can’t the multi-billion corporations of today see the value as you obviously do.

    Yah, I know- stockholders and short term thinking…..

    Your method of doing business makes your customers, vendors and fans very proud to be associated with you.

    Thank you.

    • I am currently also “big corporate employed”. Big enough that they provide funding for customers/clients (several million $-)projects themselves. They do keep people on for as long as possible – even the much used temps, although they are usually first to go in a lay off round. Reason being that it is very expensive to train new employees, and even though the work is in a narrow field of expertise, it takes anywhere between 12 and 18 months for newly hired to become accustomed to the job itself and odd corporate ways of dealing with certain things. Basically laying someone off due to lack of projects is only financially sound if there are more than 8-12 months between projects, which has yet to happen. Of course people get laid off for other different reasons, but it still takes the 12-18months to replace the guy fully. Some never will be. Needless to say… $20,000 in this context will probably last for maybe an hour, if they’re lucky.

      Myself on the other hand, am working precisely in that direction, although not there yet. If for nothing else, then to have peace of mind at work, and to reserve the right to quit a crummy job at will, in stead of having to endure all sorts of unreasonable c..p for sake of the bank and mortgages. Financial independence – to some degree at least – is the new black.

  8. studioffm says:

    The development of a debt ridden society has been a part of the development of a society in the twentieth century, that spends to consume . We want stuff to give us comfort and identify us as good as, or better that our neighbour. Having a work force owing money is a great way to keep them stuck at that lousy job.
    Chris your example is inspirational to many. I have faced with my family the same cashflow issues on a monthly basis for 45 years.

    very best to you and yours
    david savage

  9. Derek Long says:

    Ahh, the pleasures of accounts receivable. I work in a much different business, but it is still very galling to have a client owe you $30,000 and counting six months after you did the work. Those are the times I’m happy that the “boss” still cuts my check every other week.

  10. Eric R says:

    Or you just have to be fabulously wealthy.
    It is so liberating… 🙂

  11. Karl Newman says:

    ? you get money for doing your woodwork? however did you manage to arrange that? this comment is only partly tongue in cheek, I worked in someone else’s shop (several of them) for most of 32 years. I have not been paid to do work now for nearly 10 years. I keep trying to “put my name out there” but no one is noticing. obviously I am putting it in the wrong places. I haven’t written a book, I do teach classes but I can’t afford to start a school.
    be well
    K

    • I’ve been selling my work since 1998 and make about a six to 10 pieces a year for customers, anything from Roorkhee chairs to workbenches.

      I’m not the guy to tell you how to get started, I’m afraid. I came in through the back door by becoming a hobbyist, an editor and then making it to sell.

  12. Jeff Hanna says:

    I’ve only ever been a professional woodworker and I am a little confused at some of the practices that have been described. The way I’ve always operated is anything over a certain amount of money I require a 50% down payment (anything less is all up front). I require the amount due upon completion (NOT delivery). This is clearly stated in my terms and conditions which goes out with every invoice. I think the biggest obstacle people have (and I certainly had it when I started out) was you can’t be afraid of asking for the money you’re owed. You don’t have to be a jerk, but there is nothing wrong with asking for payment for a job you performed. It can be uncomfortable at first, but most people are understanding that craftsmen aren’t exactly at the top of the economic food chain. If you let completed work leave your shop without receiving payment, you lose all bargaining power to get the money you’re owed. I’ve never been stiffed by a customer, but cash flow is critical to remain in operation.

    • I have no problems asking for money. I don’t ask for up-front money for a variety of strongly held personal reasons. Mostly because I’ve seen the craftsman abuse it – take the money and then let the project drag.

      So I don’t invoice until the work is done. And I consider that method as equally valid as taking up-front money. And, most important, it allows me to sleep at night.

      • Jeff Hanna says:

        I completely understand and respect that. I never let projects drag, but I don’t work T&M either, so it would be to my detriment to do so. I always give a lead time of expected completion and I would say 70% of the time I finish early (under promise, over deliver). I would say less than 3% of the time am I late and it is usually only a matter of a couple of days. When I am late, I always call the customer and explain up front that there has been a delay and they’ve always been understanding (I don’t wait for them to call me).

        I can see how the terms might seem a little too “corporate”, but the intention is to communicate clearly with the customer so there are no surprises. I only do it because I once worked in a cabinet shop where I was stiffed by my employer. To make a long story short, there was no communication between the owners and the employees of when we were getting paid. We were all passionate about the work and actually worked for an entire month without pay to finish the project as to not do wrong by the customer (who had paid our employer in full for the work we were doing). That was a really hard time for all involved and I never want to be in that situation again. My coworkers and I never got paid, but I was glad we completed the work. We’re only able to do what we do because there are people gracious and passionate enough to invest in our craft.

        • charlie says:

          And no stinking ads on your website!!! There’s a slew of celebrity internet woodworkers out there with web sites, pod casts, youtube videos, instagram etc., etc. I started to follow a few but soon realized it was all one big promo for thier corporate sponser. One site should change its name to the “advertisement whisperer”. You are free Mr Schwarz of corporate daddies controlling your content and dragging down your web site with obnoxious pop up ads. When you start giving away free Titan routers I’m out of here.

    • Only reasonable – you don’t get to run a tab at the grocery store either. Not around here anyway.

      • reply to Jeff Hanna. It especially makes good sense to get paid in rates when very special/great amounts of/very expensive materials are in play. You get to front a lot of money, and if the customer decides to pull the plug, then at least you will have your bases covered till then, or be able to stop dead in your tracks and focus on paying jobs until the given customer might decide to cough up and get the project going again. Not saying you can’t do it without, but the risk is far greater, and you need to be very well lined financially, if big/expensive/long term custom builds are your trade.

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