How do you do money, freelance-journalist Natasha Vargas Cooper?
You’re totally freelance now, is that right?
I’ve never been offered or gone out for a staff job. There’s a lot of outdated dues paying I won’t abide by. I also don’t dig on having to deal with other personalities in an office setting or as a day to day thing. It wears me down and out. I worked as a union organizing and policy analyst for six years, and there was a lot of focus on having harmonious relationships with co-workers and members to make the organization function better. A lot of personality tweaking and processing that felt worth it for the sake of a much greater and loftier goal. That made a lot of sense within a union context. I don’t want to do any of that within a writing context. I want to be left alone and focus on the work. The work is the best part. Hell is other people, right? Any organization with more than two people is dysfunctional. There’s one editor I would work for full time if he asked, but he hasn’t.
You decided to live with your parents when you went into writing, and I remember reading something you wrote about living there. It seemed like it was much more of a choice than it was the boomerang-generation-last-resort that a lot of people talk about.
Living with my parents doesn’t impede my independence or creativity—living in poverty does. Living with my parents enables my ability to write. If I had to pay 750 bucks a month in some windowless shit hole in Korea Town, I’d have to do five to six fluff pieces a month on think-y pop culture pieces no one gives a shit about within an hour. I’m a slow writer and that sort of work shreds my nerves and exhausts me. Doesn’t leave room for much else. So I’d do that so I could … do what? Pay rent to some landlord who won’t fix my toilet? I’ve lived on my own and paid my own way before and I don’t need to prove to myself or anyone else that I can take care of myself. What I want to do is journalism and being mired in poverty or debt doesn’t allow me to do that. I’m in a fortunate position where I can ask myself what do I WANT to do rather than ‘what do I NEED to do’? I like to take full advantage of that privilege, I grew up solidly middle class, and I don’t want to backslide. That’s the point, to move forward; my parents didn’t work their asses off so I could drink alone in an apartment and eat ramen. I’m not interested in that sort of struggle. I like living with them, they are cool people and have a pool.
Do you live paycheck to paycheck?
There are entire months when I don’t get paid. Realistically I probably only get paid five times a year. I’ll get a large sum of money and I’ve been lucky enough live on that before it gets down to zero I’ll get paid again. The goal is to get big ticket pieces so I can spend my time on those, and don’t have to cobble together smaller pieces and listicles and slideshows, which I’m not very good at anyway. I am not a blogger, I can’t hack it as one, I’m slow. I had two weeks at Gawker that made me want to put a gun in my mouth.
I’m pitching five editors from five publications constantly. I have relationships with them. I’m not sending blind queries. There are two ways the magazines pay. One is a negotiated fee-per-word, and one is a lump sum payment per piece. And I have a good rate. Very early when I started writing I got a book deal and my first longform piece was for The Atlantic, and through those I was able to establish myself early on.
How did you learn how to negotiate?
Whenever I’d get a piece, I’d tell my dad—who was a journalist for 30 years—and he’d say, “How much are they going to pay you?” I’d respond sheepishly that “I didn’t ask” because at the beginning it kinda felt like the editor or magazine was doing me a favor. And he’d make me get back on the phone and get a contract. Coming from a union background, I also don’t, uh, have a lot sympathy for bosses. These are giant conglomerates who can absolutely afford to pay $25,000 for a photo shoot, so they can absolutely pay me my measly fee.
I don’t have any sentimentality about this profession. I don’t romanticize it or my relationship with these magazines. And I don’t have any illusions that the business relationship I have is with the editor I’m working with, because it’s not a friendship, it’s a business deal (not living in New York helps reinforce this perspective). So I ask for a contract, I say, “Okay, this is the fee,” and sometimes they’ll push back on it, but I have a pretty good idea of what my work is worth now.
Day to day, what is spending like for you.
I don’t use credit cards. I can’t. They’re too dangerous. I do have one but it’s for absolute emergencies only, like I got kidnapped and need to rent a car to drive two states over back home. I have a debit card. I try not to ever use cash, because cash just disappears. I spend it, and then sometimes I literally lose it after putting it my pocket. It’s a mess. Plus the debit card is a kind of automatic book keeping. My bills right now are very overpriced healthcare because I am self employed, car insurance, and cell phone, and every year I save up to travel to Hawaii for 10 or 11 days or something, just go alone to cavort with dolphins and starfish and shit.
How do you keep track of your spending?
I don’t track. I don’t login to my account. It makes me nervous. I don’t live monastically, but I don’t spend money on anything that I don’t think it’s okay to spend money on. I maybe go out to eat too much, but that’s it. I refuse to feel bad about that. I roughly know how much I have in my account, whether it’s below $1,000. When it drops below $500 I will adjust my spending. I don’t have a problem with spending. I have problems in a lot of other facets of my life and worry about those. Getting paid is hard, spending I can handle.
When money gets really low, I know about two weeks before I’m going to run out, I’ll get an alert from my account, and that’s when I get on the phone with outlets who haven’t paid me in 90 days.
How do you pay your bills?
I have a whole neuroses with my cellphone bill. I have phone alerts set up, and I’ll pay it over the phone after the first call. For my health insurance and my car insurance, I write my dad a check. I don’t know anything about it and I don’t want to know anything about it. I just write him a check and if it goes up, I write the check for more. When I was living my boyfriend, I had him take care of the bills. I don’t know what it is, I just don’t want to deal with it. If I have to deal with it on my own, I will find a way not to deal with it, you know?
Besides bills, where does your money go?
I’ve weened myself off of clothes shopping. Not that I’m a recluse, but I really don’t see people enough to merit a lot of outfit changes. Plus I have plenty of clothes. When I had the union job, I had a lot of disposable income, but now when I do buy clothes, I tend to feel bad about it because I have enough clothes. I don’t do luxury items. Right now I’m interested in buying furniture, and I’m okay with that. I’m okay spending money on audiobooks. They’re expensive, they’re like $25, but I like them so I feel fine buying them every ten days. I feel good about spending money on food. I feel good about spending money going out to eat. And I am okay picking three days to stay in a fancy hotel and write. Basically the whole point is to not make me worry about money. Though I have two constant money nightmares, one that I’ve forgotten to check out of a hotel, and they just keep charging me, and the other that I’ve rented a car and I can’t find it, and they keep charging me (details!).
One thing I’ve admired is your tendency to call out clients that don’t pay you.
Well there’s absolutely no excuse for that shit. That’s just bad labor practice. Besides being exploitive, arrogant, and disrespectful–it’s illegal. So I will gladly burn those bridges and publicly shame them. When an employer was cutting worker benefits or fuckin’ with the union in some way, you picket. You put the rat outside. Or we’d have 20 employees march on their office. I don’t have 20 other people to march with me so I will just email blast the top brass, other staff members, until I get a response. Phonecalls and tweets, they don’t like that. You make an issue hot, people have to move. I don’t work for magazines that pull that, it upsets and demoralizes me too much. When I have money, it’s not worth the agitation track them down every day. I’m not a fucking money collector. But when I’m running low on cash and I look and see that a certain magazine is six months overdue in paying me, I campaign.
Do you have retirement savings?
I have a little bit of a 401k left over from my union job, but other than that, no, and that’s the number one source of contention in my household right now, that I’m not currently saving. My family wants me to start it now, but I feel like I haven’t made enough money to be saving yet. I’m 28. Hopefully by the time I’m 30 I’ll feel like I can start putting something away.
I have a feeling I know how you do taxes, but: How do you do taxes?
I don’t do anything throughout the year. I take a week and do it all at once. I rarely use cash and so my debit card statements are basically my books. I print them out and go over them over the course of a few days while sitting in front of the TV watching a show. I very deliberately don’t pay a lot of attention to all the numbers I’m adding up. I don’t want to know what it costs for me to live, how much I’m actually get paying. I’m self reflective about a lot of things, but how I spend my money isn’t one of them.
How do you like to split the check?
I hate splitting checks. Hate it. I think it’s gross. One person pays, the next person pays the next time. Okay maybe if you’re in a big group you have to split it up, but otherwise, it’s $30, someone should just pay for it. And on dates, it better be the dude. When I go on dates, I am a total proponent of the guy paying for the first two dates. I’ll pay for the third, but the first two he better pay for–birth control is expensive and makes my tits hurts. You think dinner is expensive? Plan B is expensive. Fuck you. Chances are you’re going to get blowjay after this date so just be a gentleman and pay for my fucking pad thai. Girls who let dudes get away with that shit are scabs. SOLIDARITY, SISTERS.
Do you just sit there, or do you make a grab for your wallet?
Oh I’ll go for my wallet, but he better slap my hand out of the way. I’ll pretend like I’m going to pay because that’s polite form, but if you let me, I won’t think much of you. If you can’t afford to pay for a dinner, then you take the bus for a couple of days and save up, I’ll pay for dessert.
Previously: How Matt Levine Does Money