I’ve noticed that financial literacy has been on the rise exponentially in the past year. I imagine it is a combination of people studying finance on a need-to-know basis after hardship caused by the COVID-19 economic disaster, people being bored during the COVID-19 pandemic isolation period and wanting to put their time to better use, and the ever-increasing accessibility of knowledge through the Internet.
I’m the Director of Operations of Tempo. We started out as an esports team and gaming strategy content website, but have since then expanded to be a gaming and interactive media production company and game development company. I joined back in 2015 when the company was a year old and have stuck with it—through all its ups and downs—for the past 6 years. As the head of corporate operations, I oversee and personally handle a lot of the company’s legal, finance, and human resources matters.
As you’d expect from a role like that, I am one of two people in the entire company who have the security clearance to access any and all of our confidential and sensitive information. That gives me a unique insight into our employees’ and contractors’ lives and allows me to build a general profile of what the average esports player, content creator, and influencer is like from a financial sense.
This guide is not going to walk you through the fundamentals of being a content creator. I’m not going to tell you when you can quit your day job, or describe how you can best monetize your Twitch stream, or explain how to file your taxes as someone with no W-2 income. If you don’t know how to even get started being a sole proprietor, or if you don’t even know what that means, then you need to take care of that first.
Instead, this guide is going to point out some basic things about finances that I often never see covered in other guides. Maybe it’s because these are a bit more obscure, or maybe it’s because relaying this kind of information to someone may be perceived as brutal. Either way, I think this is information that you need to know to improve your baseline financial competency as a content creator or other kind of online influencer.
As a disclaimer, I live in the United States, and a lot of this advice is geared specifically for residents of the United States. Additionally, I am not an investment advisor, certified accountant, financial advisor, or real estate agent… and even if I was, I wouldn’t be your advisor, accountant, or agent. To you, I am nothing more than a guy on the Internet writing blog posts on his personal website. If any of this information sounds helpful to you, make sure you consult with a real professional to see how this may apply to your unique, individual situation.
You probably won’t have this job forever.
You need to worry about your job security far more than normal people. If a “normie” loses their job, they can submit their résumé to a similar, comparable company and probably get hired somewhere else (unless they did something incredibly stupid and got involuntarily terminated due to their conduct). You, on the other hand, can’t really do that. How many companies do you think would want to hire you when your entire professional experience involves playing video games all day and talking to a camera?
A lot can change in the content creation and entertainment industry. There might be some sort of accident that affects your face, and people stop watching your content because they no longer find you attractive. That sounds terrible, but you very well know that that’s definitely a possibility. Maybe, due to the stress and pressure of being a content creator, you start overeating and become overweight, and then people stop watching your content because they, again, no longer find you attractive.
Even on a less personal level, trends change. What if you’re a video game streamer, but the video game (or maybe even the entire genre) that you’re good at becomes not as popular anymore? There are many examples of extremely popular StarCraft II players who just don’t pull viewership numbers anymore because people don’t really play much StarCraft anymore. Or, what if your target audience gets older and consumes less content, while you fail to make a personal connection with the new younger generation?
What if you randomly get canceled for something you didn’t do? What if someone just doesn’t like you or is jealous of your success, and decides to make up a story that turns your entire community against you? It’s considered taboo to ask questions or not believe the victim. Sure, you can file a defamation lawsuit, but what about your income source right now?
Never take a single day as a content creator for granted. Save your money like your life depends on it, because it does. Take this especially to heart if you don’t have an academic background or degree beyond secondary school that you can fall back on if your content creation career goes awry.
Treating yourself to something that makes you happy once in a while is very important, but I do not recommend splurging on anything big until you have five (yes, five) years’ worth of basic expenses saved up. This should obviously be assessed on a case-by-case basis, and the savings buffer can be reduced depending on your non-influencer qualifications, but the 3-6 months of expenses that normies save up for is not enough for you. Five years’ worth of expenses will cover things while you get back on your feet, enroll in a vocational or trade school, and build a up a new career.
Invest in your own safety and security.
As a public figure, there is a large target on your forehead. No matter how wholesome and well-liked you might be, there will still be people out there who dislike you. Most people take out their anger by sending you mean messages on social media, but there are people out there who are mentally unstable and will take things too far. If you are unlucky, you end up becoming a victim of one of these people.
One of the best ways to invest your money is to spend a little bit more to make sure you are safe and secure in your home.
It might feel good saving a ton of money by living in a regular house in a regular neighborhood with a bunch of other people, but that leaves you out in the open. It is fairly easy to find people’s addresses nowadays. For example, did you know that, if you are registered to vote and didn’t fill out a special form to tell your local government not to release your information, your address and party affiliation becomes public record? If you live in a regular house, someone can literally drive up to your home and threaten you in-person.
Ever since moving out of my parents’ house, I have never lived in a publicly-accessible location. I’ve only lived in high-density apartments and condominium complexes that have 24/7 security. At the condo that I recently moved out of, you would need a credential to even drive into the building property at all, then you need a key fob to get into the building, a key fob to be able to use the elevator, then a physical key to unlock your door and bolt lock to your own unit. Does this absolutely guarantee that a predator won’t show up at my door? No, but it sure makes it borderline impossibly difficult.
You are your own most valuable asset. If you have the funds available to upgrade your living situation, don’t underestimate the value of security guards and restricted-access building lobbies that stand between your door and the street. (On a related note, don’t fall for the false sense of security that an unattended “gated community” might give you—those are functionally useless, as people can climb over the gate, and the access code is often given away by your neighbors to delivery drivers.)
Set up a wishlist of personal items you need or want.
A lot of content creators and influencers have Amazon wish lists or other gift registries, but people tend to make two distinct mistakes. First, some people… don’t actually have wish lists. Second, some people put exclusively business items on their wish list but leave out all their personal items.
It is in your best interest to buy business expenses with your own pre-tax income so you can write them off as deductions, and be gifted personal items from others so you end up saving as much of your post-tax income as possible. The magical element here is that you do not have to report your gifts as income (because they are gifts); taxes on gifts are (usually) paid by the giver, not the receiver.
Imagine that there is something worth $70 that you have to buy for business. All you need to do to earn this purchase is to make $70 and buy the business item. Now imagine that there is something worth $70 that you have to buy for personal reasons. In order to afford this $70, you have to make about $100 in actual income, pay $30 in income taxes (this is just an example, and your tax bracket may be different), and then use the leftover $70 to buy your personal item. Consequently, if someone wants to give you money to buy this $70 personal product, it’s in their best interest to just straight-up buy and give you the $70 product, as opposed to giving you $70 in cash so you can buy it yourself—because, after taxes, $70 in cash won’t be enough anymore.
There’s nothing wrong with putting high-value business expenses on your wish list, especially if you have a few whales who love to spend a ton of money on you. However, keep in mind that, if you still have personal expenses left that you need to account for, it’s not optimal for someone to buy you business products in lieu of personal products, if the value of both products are identical.
Take full advantage of all your tax-advantaged retirement accounts.
Most people are aware of IRAs now and have started a Roth or Traditional IRA with their favorite brokerage or provider. If you’re going for a long-term savings plan, it is very important that you max out this account every single year before you put your money in any other kind of savings platform. For example, if you have an individual brokerage account and an IRA, and your investment objective is long-term growth, and you put money in your individual brokerage account prior to maxing out your IRA’s yearly contribution, you’re doing it wrong.
(As a disclaimer, note that I said you should always be maxing out your IRA if you have a long-term savings plan. Early withdrawals from IRAs come with penalties, so if you need investments with the utmost liquidity for an upcoming big purchase, then putting that income in tax-advantaged retirement accounts may not be the best course of action. If you are unsure how to proceed, consult with your own tax professional prior to committing to any investments.)
But let’s say that you’ve already put in the maximum allotted amount into your Roth IRA this year, but you still have some leftover funds that you want to invest for long-term growth. Then you would put that money into your individual brokerage account, right? … Well, no.
As a sole proprietor, you have access to more tax-advantaged retirement savings options. Before you start buying index funds on your regular brokerage account, do some research and look into SEP-IRAs, i401(k)s, and SIMPLE IRAs. These are all special retirement programs for business owners (and all content creators and influencers who make Form 1099-NEC income count as business owners, even if you might be your own employee), and they may carve a fairly large chunk away from your tax liability.
For example, I have a SEP-IRA with Vanguard. Each year, I can contribute several thousand dollars into this SEP-IRA, depending on how much taxable income I made that year—and this is on top of the $6,000 I put in my Roth IRA. These several thousand dollars in my SEP-IRA are tax-deductible, which means it’s as if I had never made this income to begin with. Within this SEP-IRA, I am able to invest my money as if it was a normal brokerage account. Seeing as my objective is long-term growth, I usually buy growth-oriented Admiral Shares, a special type of index fund by Vanguard.
Be cautious of aggressive Schedule C deductions if you’re planning on getting a traditional mortgage soon.
The real estate market has been absolutely insane lately, and you might be someone who wants to get in on the hype. Warnings of emotional investing aside, if you do truly want to purchase a house, chances are, you’ll need to borrow some money from a lender and get a mortgage.
This process is fairly straightforward for normies because they’re on a set salary. The lender will contact their employer, check on their job security, verify their employment, and base their approval amount on their salary. However, independent contractors generally don’t have set salaries—you never know how much advertising revenue or sponsorships or tips/donations you’re going to get each month—so lending to an independent contractor is inherently higher-risk.
The way banks calculate how much they lend to an independent contractor is to look at your Schedule C in your yearly Form 1040 filing to the IRS. From there, they look at your net income (not gross income), re-add business expenses for home office use and depreciation, and subtract the remaining 50% of your meals deduction to find your overall yearly income. They look at the previous two years of tax returns for this; if your income has increased year-over-year, they take the average of the two, and if your income has decreased, they use the lower value.
If you’re intuitive, you may see where this is going. If you take a lot of business expense deductions, your net income is going to decrease, and your mortgage amount is going to decrease as well. This is because lenders are using the information on your Schedule C while honoring the true spirit of the concept of “business deductions,” in the sense that, the only reason you were able to make that amount of gross income is because you had to spend your own money too. Thus, they don’t see deductions as ever having been your money, but rather, a resource you needed to use to make your income.
For people with squeaky clean Schedule Cs, this might not be a problem. However, if you smudge your deductions a bit or walk within the gray area, it may seem counterintuitive to have a lower mortgage approval amount, even though you’re keeping more money by giving less of it to the government in taxes.
I personally faced this problem for years, and this is the conclusion I came to: If you’re rich enough that you’re willing to pay income taxes on your money, then the lender can feel comfortable taking that money into consideration when determining how much you can borrow. If you’re taking a ton of deductions, the bank has no concrete way to prove that you’re not just scraping by and taking those deductions because you have to, so it’s in their best interest to not take the risk and just disregard that from being eligible income.
And yes, there is yet another side to this—independent contractors can just elect not to take deductions (because you are not required by law to take deductions), thus artificially inflating how much money it appears like they’re making. Banks would then base their lending decision on this information, you end up wasting more money on taxes, you get a bigger mortgage, and you increase your chances of not being able to make payments and defaulting on the loan.
This is obviously a fairly involved process, and I have no be-all-end-all advice for you apart from doing research on this and calculating a good balanced situation for yourself for your taxes. The point here is, don’t be caught off guard that this system exists in this manner, and educate yourself about how mortgages work (and possibly some alternative lending solutions) at least two years before you plan on purchasing a house.
As you’d imagine, this only scratches the surface of finances for sole proprietors. I’d classify most of this as basic information, or low-intermediate at best—and this is why a lot of people off-load their finances to a certified accountant.
I mentioned this at the top of this blog post, but to reiterate, if any of this seems useful to you, make sure you do your own research and reach out to your own advisors and professionals to figure out how this may apply to your unique, individual situation.