Making Harmony with Money: An Open Letter from Dad

Dear Erika and Johannes, 

There’s a saying that goes, “The cobbler’s children have no shoes.” It means that we parents don’t always share our professional know-how with our own children. But now that you’re on the cusp of your careers, I would be remiss not to provide you with some financial guidance.

Over the years I’ve been proud to watch you two grow to a remarkable level of artistry, and it has reminded me of all the joy I got from making music when I was younger. I’ve loved watching you from the audience just as I’ve loved the opportunities we’ve had to make music as a family. You’ve each demonstrated so much discipline in the pursuit of your craft. And I want you to know that that same discipline is all you need to manage the more practical sides of your artistic careers.

With the right mindset, we can develop habits that make for better financial outcomes and sustainable artistic careers.

As you know, I stopped pursuing music professionally when I was 23 – not much older than you are now – in favor of focusing on business. While I don’t regret that decision, financial concerns were an important part of it, so I’m sensitive to the challenges you’ll face. And since your mom continued her own musical career, I have remained connected to the economic reality of a musician’s life.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my career in finance, it’s that your mindset is one of your most important tools. You know this is true for music, too. Just as our performance improves when we become more aware of our full selves, so does our relationship with money. With the right mindset, we can develop habits that make for better financial outcomes and sustainable artistic careers. 

How so? Consider this situation: You’ve just finished an enjoyable, well-paying gig. Your fellow musicians want to grab some dinner before heading home. Someone suggests an expensive restaurant and, before you know it, the bill is way over budget. “Oh well,” you tell yourself. “The gig paid nicely, so why not?” 

How can we avoid traps like this, or even turn them to our advantage? This common situation outlines some of the most important aspects of the mental game between you and your money. Luckily, if you internalize the following lessons, you’ll be able to navigate not just tempting dinners, but a host of tricky financial situations.

  • LESSON ONE: Become fully present in your relationship with money. Acknowledge every bit of income and expenses by asking yourself things like: “Am I grateful for this income?” “Will this purchase bring me joy?” “Is it worth it or are there smarter spending options?”

    Even the most emotionally in-tune people might sleepwalk when it comes to their relationship with money. Technology enables this, making spending so convenient that we hardly have to think about it. We’re wired for instant gratification, so our brains get hijacked by messages to spend that come from social media, peer pressure, marketing ploys and our own greed and laziness. The only way to resist these messages is to counteract them with our own. How are we going to feel about that fancy dinner when we look at our bank account the next day?

  • LESSON TWO: Spend less than you make. There’s no sugarcoating this, and the only way to do it is to know exactly how much disposable income you have. (I’ll go into more detail when we talk about budgeting.) In the meantime, be mindful of costly situations like the aforementioned dinner and practice ways of avoiding or modifying them. 
  • LESSON THREE: Reframe tempting situations. Remember that discipline is choosing what we want most over what we want now. You can navigate tricky situations with the reminder that you’re not denying yourself by forgoing the fancy dinner, but rather satisfying a different, longer-term desire. Practice excusing yourself from such situations by saying something positive, such as, “I’d love to go, but I’m trying to save money.” Stay away from the negative: “I can’t go because I’m broke.” Cultivate the resolve to choose what’s most important. 
  • LESSON FOUR: Think about your income and spending as part of an integrated whole. We fall into overspending traps by splurging in good times, rationalizing it by assigning “extra money” to treats. But this devalues our work – we’ll really need that money to manage through leaner times.

We live in a consumerist society – I get that. We’re under a lot of pressure to appear successful, and money is one way we try to do that. But remember that the appearance of wealth is just that. Someone you may envy for all the things they have could be miserably in debt. And if that dinner was too expensive for you, it was probably too expensive for others as well. Luckily, by acknowledging your feelings around finances, you can manage your money in the way that benefits you most.

Now that we’ve considered the importance of mindset, we need to know how to apply good money habits. 

Let’s begin with budgeting. A budget is just a plan, and you know my “dad quote” on this: “People don’t plan to fail, they fail to plan.” Eye-rolling aside, you already know this to be true. How else could you have become the accomplished musicians you are today? When we plan, we become empowered by holding ourselves accountable.

Let’s look at a budgeting guideline called the 20/50/30 rule, which describes a good way to allocate income.

To get started, note that you should always pay yourself first. At least 20 percent of your income should be set aside for long-term financial goals, like paying off debt, building an emergency fund or saving for your future. 

Then, don’t exceed 50 percent for fixed expenses. These are things that must be paid on time and without fail, including rent, insurance, utilities and more. This leaves the remaining 30 percent for discretionary spending. These are items you have control over: food, clothing, “fun” shopping and so forth.

As your career progresses, you might be tempted to use your increased income to upgrade your lifestyle. Instead, reassess those long-term goals.

Now, be mindful of needs versus wants. I may want a new BMW, but my pre-owned Honda fulfills my needs just fine. This applies to many things we spend money on, from clothing to eating out to where we live. We get in trouble when the things we want but can’t afford become fixed expenses in the form of credit card debt, rent or installment payments.

When you’re starting out, these 20/50/30 proportions may not seem achievable. Take them for guidelines until you can get there. After that, beware of “lifestyle creep.” As your career progresses, you might be tempted to use your increased income to upgrade your lifestyle. Instead, reassess those long-term goals. Is your emergency fund where it should be? Are your debt reduction plans on track? If not, fix these first, and stay within the 20/50/30 guidelines.

Building a career in the arts is challenging, and it’s easy to fall prey to negative moods about money. Many feel resigned to their financial struggles and come to believe that they have no influence over their situation. But that’s a toxic outlook for any artist to have. What you do matters – whether it’s making wise spending decisions or creating meaningful work. 

I’m certain that musicians today can earn enough money for both a sustainable career and a satisfying life. And just as with music, your journey toward financial well-being is a lifelong one. You’ll make mistakes – we all do – but with the right mindset you don’t have to say, “I’m not good with money.” You can say, “I’m not good yet – and I’m still learning.” 

You can do it. 


Tad Gray

Tad Gray is a father of three (including two musicians), a clarinetist, and a certified leadership coach. By day, he is a Wealth Advisor with Buckingham Strategic Wealth and a Certified Financial PlannerTM professional. …more 

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3 Responses

  1. Hi Tad,

    Thank you! Enjoyed reading your article very much. I wish I had someone write me this letter when I was in my twenties.. or thirties… even forties!!!!…. Though my poor mom always begged me to “Save your Money! ” “Save Your Money!” That was not enough. I wish I had these guidelines put into my head back then….in the firm but gentle way of your letter to your children. You have a great writing style also! Congrats on being published!

  2. Julie Fox Henson says:

    This is wonderful, Tad. I will definitely share it with my boys, who are both considering music as a career. Since Alan and I are both professional musicians, we have struggled with these issues, and still are, now with college tuition and retirement needs looming!! Very well written!

  3. bill wesley says:

    The trouble with a career as artist is that economic measures are what define art, art is rated by the money it will fetch and not by the content it offers, what makes art great is its popularity among the customers who will pay, the proof of value is in the amount that will be payed. This means art acts much like any other form of status building, competition for ownership establishes who is dominant and this struggle for dominance determines what is and is not art and not at all the content, what matters is name brand recognition. Since content does not determine what is or is not popular but rather political outcomes do an artist has no control over whether their work will be popular or not, its pretty much determined by pure random chance of the moment, fashion is fickle and unpredictable therefor the position of “successful artist” is not a real career choice unless one thinks of “lottery winner” as another “career” choice.
    If you want to be an artist you are more likely to fail than with any other career choice, doctors and lawyers do not rise or fall on the vagaries of happenstance fashion, you had better be prepared to fail financially at least, the only real certainty is that artistic integrity will be a burden, most people who make money in the arts make that the number one concern and not the art, unless they are very lucky.

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