The Art of Money
Turning financial success into a creative pursuit
What do you consider the act of ‘making money’? Is it an act of accounting and measuring? Or, is it an act of imagining and contemplating? Our finances involve numbers and data, but they’re intractably tied to our personal ideas, experiences, feelings and behaviors – intangible things you can’t formulate in a spreadsheet. Therefore, to manage the human side of money, it’s better to think more like an artist than a scientist.
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It’s a shame many famous artists had financial troubles.
Johannes Vermeer is said to have left behind 10 young children, a house full of paintings no one wanted and enormous debts, causing his wife to declare bankruptcy. Mozart wracked up massive amounts of debt, too, to feed an extravagant lifestyle. Not to be out done, Oscar Wilde lived far beyond his means, until he eventually fell into poverty and supposedly spent his last bit of money on booze. When he took his own life, Vincent van Gogh was poor and destitute.
It’s a shame, because some principles great artists follow to make art could also apply to making money.
Art and money share more similarities than we like to think. Money, like art, is a means of self-expression; it helps you turn the life you imagine into reality. They’re both deeply personal. There is no one right way to sculpt a Greek goddess or invest in stocks. Most of all, money offers a lot of insights into human behaviors and sensations.
It is often those human elements that lead to financial problems, but that also give our financial decisions meaning. Therefore, when trying to create a financially successful future, we may need a little more right-brain than left-brain thinking.
Take it from Andy Warhol, an artist who loved to blur the lines of commerce and culture, who declared:
“Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”
Why it helps to think of money as more art than science
Is personal finance an art or a science?
The juncture of art and money has gotten most attention as it relates to investing. Investor Howard Marks said:
“Investing, like economics, is more art than science.”
Investing encapsulates the vagaries of human nature in the face of uncertainty. There is an element of personal intuition that guides the algorithms. That element of variance and uncertainty is what Barry Ritholtz expands upon in his definition:
“Investing is the art of using imperfect information to make probabilistic assessments about an inherently unknowable future.”
Perhaps it’s not a coincidence then that some investment charts resemble the art of Piet Mondarian, as if an abstract geometric representation of human behavior, financial enterprise and economic forces.
Retired adviser and author Paul Merriman, meanwhile, advises us not to take the investing-as-art concept too far:
“Follow your own instincts and hunches and amateur research if you want to bet on sports teams. But don't do that with your savings.”
While contemplating risk and return expectations based on intuition and feelings may not be wise, there is a good reason for thinking about money from an artistic point of view.
The art critic Jerry Saltz describes art as “a means of expression that conveys the most primal emotions: lonesomeness, silence, pain, the whole vast array of human sensation.” These primal emotions are often the source of our financial challenges.
More than 80% of Americans have financial regrets, according to a Bankrate survey. Most of these regrets can be attributed to personal attitudes and behaviors, such as spending beyond our means (too much debt), thinking more of the present than the future (not saving) and comparing ourselves to others (too much house).
You can have all the financial data, research and evidence in the world. But what good is it if you never analyze yourself?
As Morgan Housel puts it:
“Financial success is not a hard science. It’s a soft skill, where how you behave is more important than what you know.”
Thinking artistically about money – to have deeper awareness of our emotions and behaviors – may not be just an interesting perspective but a necessity. But I’d argue that an artistic mindset can do more than just help us make better financial decisions.
Alain de Botton and John Armstrong in their book, Art as Therapy, describe art as a tool:
“Like other tools, art has the power to extend our capacities beyond those that nature has originally endowed us with…Art can help us identify what is central to ourselves, but hard to put into words.”
Money is also a tool that has the power to extend our capacities beyond our natural abilities. It allows us to buy things we couldn’t create on our own. Investing allows us to grow our money and create a desired lifestyle that most of us couldn’t achieve by saving a portion of our paychecks alone. Money, like art, can help us imagine a better life, whether that means going to college, retiring from work or giving back to our communities.
Further, money can help us identify what is central to ourselves. When thinking about our financial futures we’re forced to determine what needs, wants and values are most important.
Money is one part data and math, two parts imagination and personal awareness. The science is the data and information we gather; the art is what we decide to do with it.
So, how can we think more artistically about money? And, how can it specifically improve our relationship with money? Well, let’s learn from the artists themselves.
Money lessons from famous artists
Here are some words of advice from artists that could double as insight for turning financial success into a creative pursuit.
M.C. ESCHER // “Are you really sure that a floor can’t also be a ceiling?” → Financial success is a matter of perception and deception.
M.C. Escher is known for images that play with perception and dimension to form mind-bending illusions. In a sense, they represent how we see the world. When faced with uncertainty and incomplete information, our brains like to take mental shortcuts that can distort reality.
These biases can have profound effects on our financial decisions. For instance, we may spend rather than save because we perceive our future selves as someone else. Or, we may buy an investment based on what we want to believe, despite all the contrary evidence. It is why the right financial steps often feel counterintuitive.
Take investing. In Winning the Loser’s Game, Charley Ellis flips the perception that it’s all about picking winners:
“Even though most investors see their work as active, assertive, and on the offensive, the reality is… stock and bond investing alike are primarily a defensive process. The great secret for success in long-term investing is to avoid serious losses.”
An awareness and understanding of the financial Jedi mind tricks we play on ourselves can help us make better financial decisions. Question your perceptions to avoid self-made deceptions. In art and money, it helps to ask: Is how I see the world, how the world really is?
FRANCISCO GOYA // “The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.” → Financial mistakes arise when emotion silences reason.
Many of Francisco Goya’s paintings shed light on humanity’s dark side; especially, times of war, when reason is overrun by our primitive instincts. Accordingly, there is a reason for every object, movement and shade of color in his work. Without it, they would just look grotesque.
Similarly, it’s important to remember your reason for every financial decision – where you park your money, what you invest in, how much you save, etc. – because there are times when everything feels unreasonable – loss of a job, stock market booms and busts, financial windfalls, etc. Those are times ripe for the monsters of fear and greed.
How we react during our most perilous financial situations will have a greater effect on long-term wealth than every small, $5-latte decision. Unchecked emotions often lead to bad decisions, from which some people take advantage, as immortalized in Warren Buffett’s famous advice to “be fearful when others are greedy and greedy only when others are fearful.”
Controlling emotions is an art, whether on a canvas or in a portfolio. The goal is to “do the average thing when everyone is losing their heads,” as Napoleon said.
HENRI MATISSE // “Don’t wait for inspiration. It comes while one is working.” → The right conditions for financial success are created by working on your finances.
Henri Matisse stopped painting and sculpting after a bout with stomach cancer confined him to a wheelchair. But he didn’t stop making art. Instead, he started working on paper cut-outs, which are as admired today as any of his paintings.
Great art doesn’t require ideal conditions – and neither does building wealth. A janitor can become a millionaire. In fact, most of the people studied in the classic finance book, The Millionaire Next Door, became millionaires slowly and steadily, not by winning the lotto, having a generously rich uncle or being a famous artist. The probability of becoming wealthy through such a financial windfall is lower than about 1 in 4,000.
The right conditions for financial success are created by working on your finances. Wealth by consistent saving and investing is all but a certainty with enough time.
SALVADOR DALÍ // “Have no fear of perfection. You'll never reach it.” → Good enough is often the best kind of financial plan.
Salvador Dalí’s ability to make dreamlike landscapes appear so real may be close to perfection. Yet, as someone who produced more than 1,500 paintings and many other drawings, sculptures, costumes and set designs, he found joy in trying to create new things not masterpieces.
That creative spirit is helpful for building a fulfilling life, too.
The aspiration for “financial perfection” can be a mistake for two reasons. One, there is no amount of financial planning that will protect you from suffering, whether it is a financial recession or the death of your partner. We can all expect hardships, which is why you have to enjoy life as best you can. That brings us to the second reason: What is financially optimal is not always personally optimal. Contrary to some financial gurus, money should be that tool, not a ruthless dictator demanding us to obey a spreadsheet.
In other words, your personal feelings matter. As financial writer Christine Benz writes:
“...it's important to remember that not everything can be weighed and measured. Your personal preferences, appetite for risk (or peace of mind) and simplicity, and good old common sense are just as important to arriving at the right answer as is crunching the numbers.”
If you earn enough money to meet your needs and goals, that’s perfect enough.
ANDY WARHOL // “You need to let the little things that would ordinarily bore you suddenly thrill you.” → The boring, simple steps are the ones that most likely lead to financial success.
This quote is ironic coming from someone who worked hard to cultivate his fame. When Andy Warhol was just developing his style, a friend suggested he try painting something anyone would recognize, like soup. His depiction of familiar objects, from food to celebrities, made him one of the most famous artists in history.
Warhol’s artistic style works with money, too. Building wealth does require unique means. In what Warhol may even find as a work of art, University of Chicago professor Harold Pollack proclaimed the best finance advice could fit on a 3-by-5 index card “because the correct advice is so straightforward.” His tips:
Max your 401(k) or equivalent employee contribution
Buy inexpensive, well-diversified mutual funds
Never buy or sell an individual security
Save 20% of your money.
Pay your credit card balance in full every month.
Maximize tax-advantaged savings vehicles like Roth, SEP and 529 accounts
Pay attention to fees. Avoid actively managed funds.
Make financial advisors commit to the fiduciary standard
Promote social insurance programs to help people when things go wrong
Like a can of soup, good money advice is not extraordinary. But commit to it (or let it thrill you!), and you can create a life that is anything but ordinary.
JERRY SALTZ // “Art is a verb.” → Money is a verb; you keep working on it and it keeps working on you.
What the art critic Jerry Saltz means is that art is active. Art’s purpose isn’t to just be looked at. It has the power to change us internally and externally; the power to change the way we think and the way we behave.
Money is also active. Every dollar is a decision to be made, involving trade-offs between costs and benefits. You are always choosing to save it, invest it or spend it based on your needs and desires. Money also does things to us, influencing decisions ranging from the clothes we wear to the career path we follow. Consider your likelihood of going bankrupt increases when your neighbor wins the lotto.
Reframing money as an activity rather than an entity can help us think more carefully about what we do with it and what it does to us.
VINCENT VAN GOGH // “One must go on working silently, trusting the result to the future.” → Focus on what you can control, not the outcome.
Hopefully, during his short life, Vincent van Gogh took these words to heart. Because he only sold one painting while alive. Now his work is auctioned for tens of millions of dollars. So, he trusted the result to a future he never got to experience.
While that may sound disheartening, it is also a relief. Even someone as brilliant as van Gogh couldn’t control the outcome of his work.
When it comes to financial success, it is better to focus on what we control. We can control how much we save or spend and what investments we buy. We can’t control the stock market, the economy, the government or our longevity. But we can plan around those things. That way, we can create the best possible conditions for financial success, then trust the outcome to the future.
After all, what amount of worry could ever add a penny to your bank account?
MARK ROTHKO // “There is no such thing as good painting about nothing.” → There is no such thing as financial success without meaning in your life.
Famous for simple rectangular shapes of contrasting colors, Mark Rothko is a common target of armchair artists who exclaim, “I could paint that.” But you couldn’t. You couldn’t because the deeper meaning of abstract art isn’t simple to create. The art form is meant to give viewers a personally emotional experience.
Meaning is a necessity in art and money.
What’s the point of money if it’s not used for things that give your life meaning? What is money for? What type of life is worth saving and investing your money? This is the crux of money as an art; it can be a tool to color in the shades of meaning in your life.
What is meaningful to you, may not be to me; and what is meaningful to me, may not be to you. However, studies indicate there are some common sources of meaning, including family, giving back, life experiences and work. Sure, money isn’t a requirement for living a meaningful life. Living a meaningful life though will always lead to using money meaningfully.
YVES KLEIN // “My paintings are but the ashes of my art.” → Financial process matters more than financial goals.
What artist Yves Klein is saying is that the process of making art is more important than the result. The painting is just what’s left over from the fire that is the art of creating.
This is an important perspective for making money, too. Although your financial goals matter, your process matters more. Financial independence, for example, is the work of saving a specific amount of money in a retirement account every month for years. Committing to the process simplifies each step and increases the chances you stay on track.
Take it from an artist of the gridiron and master of “the process”, Nick Saban, who said:
“Success doesn’t come from pie-in-the-sky thinking. It’s the result of consciously doing something each day that will add to your overall excellence.”
The art creates the painting; the consistent financial steps manifest the financial goals.
MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ // “The hardest thing is to do something which is close to nothing because it is demanding all of you.” → Nothing is the hardest financial step to take of all.
Perhaps, the most well-known work of artist Marina Abramović was the MoMA performance called The Artist Is Present: “Seated silently at a wooden table across from an empty chair, she waited as people took turns sitting in the chair and locking eyes with her. Over the course of nearly three months, for eight hours a day, she met the gaze of 1,000 strangers, many of whom were moved to tears.”
Nothing is an action, an action that can induce deep feelings and alter our perceptions.
The act of nothing, though extremely difficult when emotions are high, is often the right financial decision. It is the discipline to do nothing when tempted to buy things we don’t need or truly value. Or, as an investor, it is the discipline to do nothing to your portfolio when the market falls.
You’ll be better off for it. As Nassim Taleb notes in Fooled by Randomness, you may have a 93% chance of seeing positive gains if you check your portfolio just once a year, but only around 50% if you check it once a day.
Money and art are the only two things I know where you can really make something out of nothing.
AUSTIN KLEON // “Creativity is subtraction.” → What you eliminate from your financial life is often more beneficial than what you add.
In the bestselling book, Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon writes of the paralyzing effect of abundance on creativity. When you think you can do anything, you do nothing. Limitations paradoxically help us start thinking and acting more creatively.
It is an effective principle for making all of life more creative. As a creative endeavor, financial success depends on what you eliminate as much as what you accumulate. Unfortunately, research suggests that we tend to favor adding components when trying to improve a situation. We think in terms of adding things to increase happiness: If only I had that car, or if I just earned this much more, I would be happy. But you may find more satisfaction through subtraction than addition.
You can limit your spending so that you spend only on what you care about. You can get rid of some material things in your life so that you have fewer responsibilities and more time. You can even reduce the number of financial decisions you have to make by automating your finances.
Limiting your needs in life makes you more satisfied with what you have – and less likely to waste time chasing what you don’t need.
Bob Seawright, of the most excellent newsletter The Better Letter, advocates for the principle of addition by subtraction this way:
“Most people try to improve by addition. I say do the opposite. Remove things. ‘Filter’ is the right word: distill, distill, and keep distilling. We all know when we are eating poorly, reading garbage, or wasting time. Remove what we know is wrong. The more noise we eliminate, the easier it is to find the signal.”
Reverse the default order. Over the course of a week or so, take note of all the things you could discard from your life. And, heed the words of the Spanish saint Josemaria Escriva:
“Don't forget it: he has most who needs least. Don't create needs for yourself.”
QUESTLOVE // “The only mofos in my circle are people that I can learn from.” → Choose your financial influences wisely.
Having toured the world for years with the legendary Roots crew, written a couple bestselling books and performed nightly on the Jimmy Fallon Show, Questlove’s work ethic is undoubtedly a key to his success. Another major contributor has been the people he’s honed his craft with – Elvis Costello, Common, D'Angelo, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Jay-Z, Al Green, Amy Winehouse, and John Legend, just to name a few.
Art is not a solitary exercise in that an artist’s work is essentially the accumulation of the influences of those who came before. Surround yourself with the best and your art can only get better.
In the same way, our attitudes toward money reflect our personal experiences and sources of information. Surround yourself with reputable sources and those who have your best interest in mind, chances are you’ll be more successful.
At all costs, avoid bullshitters. I once wrote that you could apply Sturgeon’s Law to finance and make a case that 90% of financial advice and marketing is bullshit. All the financial products and tips promoted in financial media won’t make you richer. Better to work with a financial adviser who is legally obligated to do what’s best for you than your uncle or plumber who has a “winning” investment tip.
Learning from the best is both an art and good financial sense.
When we change our perspective about money from a computational exercise to an art form, I think we start making better financial decisions. Because we start to make them in the context of creating a better life rather than simply a bigger bank account.
Perhaps, the most important thing we need is permission, as you may be thinking this is just all my own interpretation. I can take these quotes and apply them to anything. Anything can be reframed as art. But, that’s exactly what makes art great. So, go ahead, make great art.
Links to various things I enjoyed recently.
Speaking of art, Tim Urban of Wait but Why has mastered the art of getting people to change their perspectives about the biggest questions in life.
…the life we’ll be living 10 years from now will largely be determined not by our past selves but by our present and future selves. If we imagine what we might regret down the road, it’s very much in our hands to do something about it now.
This is the good news about being a human. The time we have left with family and friends is not a law of nature like the weeks we have left to live. It’s a function of priorities and decisions.
This is an excerpt from a new book by psychologist Frank C. Keil that seems really important in this cynical age we’re living in.
We are all born with many essential ingredients of wonder—with inquisitive minds, fascinated by the world around us. Young children and even infants are naturally engaging in intuitive science every day, often with sophisticated methods. But that early bonfire of inquiry can shrink to a tiny flicker. This loss of wonder is not because we suddenly understand everything—we don’t—but because distrust, disengagement, and denial can become embedded into many aspects of our lives.
Jason Zweig is on the Mt. Rushmore of finance/business writers.
If it feels brave to you to rush out and buy energy stocks, you’re kidding yourself; that would have been courageous in April 2020, when oil prices hit their all-time low. Now, it’s a consensus trade. Courage isn’t doing the easy thing; it’s doing the hard thing… You can be pretty sure you’re manifesting courage as an investor when you listen to what your gut tells you—and then do the opposite.
On the Write Side of Money
A short Q&A with notable finance/business writers about writing.
This edition features the one and only, J. Money. He is an award-winning financial blogger, but I think it would be better to describe him as a “financial blogging empire builder.” In addition to doing his own stuff, he’s done so much to promote the wider financial blogging community. Be sure to check out all the things he’s up to at jmoney.biz and give him a follow on Twitter @BudgetsAreSexy. Enjoy!
Describe your ideal writing experience (ex. when, where, what, how).
Oh man, the BEST time for me to write is when I'm *in the flow*, which usually happens in the mornings around 8-10 when I'm at my local coffee shop downing hazelnut lattes, lol... Something about the energy of the people there and starting off a fresh new day, and of course having all three of your kids in school so you can concentrate for at least 10 minutes straight (!!!). I find it takes me two to three times longer to get my thoughts out if I miss that window, and then it's usually never as good - or RAW - so I do whatever I can to hit the laptop in those sweet sweet hours...I'm also one of those people who can only write about things when I have an *opinion* on it, so thankfully I'm in the blogging business and not the journalism biz!
What led you to start writing?
I bought a house at the peak of the market (2008) with no money down and no budget, and after googling for $$$ tips one day I stumbled across the world of blogs and was instantly hooked. The realness of everyone, the community, the transparency of numbers - it was all so alluring!! And I started learning a ton in the process. After a while of reading (6 months?) I thought what the hell - I'll start my own blog and document my financial journey to the world too... Little did I know it would completely alter my career and life/friendships/money/mentality - EVERYTHING for the better. I've since grown my net worth to over $1,000,000, launched and sold multiple online projects, and eventually crafted my ideal lifestyle of working a few hours every morning and then enjoying the rest of the time off to do as I please. All from writing - with no experience whatsoever!! (That's the power of the internet these days - anyone has the potential to create and turn it into something valuable for others!!)
What trait is most important to become a good writer?
I'm pretty biased to the blogging world, so to me it's all about being REAL and vulnerable and just being able to share the $hit out of your story or idea... Everything's been talked about already over the years, but you have your VERY OWN perspective and life experiences on it, so being able to dig down and really push to get out those thoughts out has a much higher chance of getting someone to *take action* afterwards which to me is the ultimate sign of a great writer - affecting change! Whether in the mind or habits or your wallet if you're in the personal finance game like I am. What's the point of writing something that just gets forgotten afterwards?!
How do you judge if a piece of writing is successful?
If I'm proud of it when I hit publish! Doesn't matter what happens from that point on, though of course I always WANT the audience to love it and appreciate it as much as I do, haha... But rarely does that happen with my favorite stuff - it's always the random thoughts that end up taking off for one reason or another... Probably because they're more raw and not overthunk :) But to me the joy has always been in the producing of the words and getting your ideas out as close as you have it in your head as possible, so the times when I'm able to pull that off I'm pretty proud of myself.
Who are your favorite writers?
David Cain -- thoughts on being a better human
Derek Sivers -- thoughts on being a better entrepreneur
Doug Boneparth -- just downright hilarious
What writing book, article or blog has helped improve your writing?
I've never read a book or blog about writing - is that weird?! My style, as you've probably noticed by now, is 100% conversational, so fortunately all I have to do is basically write like how I talk :) Though not everyone appreciates it as evidence of some of the hate mail I've received over the years:
“Tired of the awesomely awesome hyperbole. It felt like I was listening to a used car salesperson”
“The content is good, but I’m unsubscribing because I have a difficult time with the grammar style of this blog. I feel like I’m reading text messages, not trying to save for retirement.”
What money book, blog or podcast do you recommend most?
I absolutely LOVED "Essentialism" by Greg McKeown -- not exactly a money book per se, but definitely a "how to make your life better" book by focusing on the essential in your career and life and money and everything really... It completely shifted how I organized my days and now have as close as a dream lifestyle as I can get. And ironically I'm even more productive now working much less than I was cramming in 60 hour weeks!
What are your favorite sources for news, research, data, etc.?
I consciously choose not to consume too much news (and don't have a need for research really), but I will hit up Twitter whenever I have questions or wanna poll people or just get a quick hit on what's going on in the world that day... I find I learn much more from regular normal people out there vs "experts", so most of my habits and success come straight from the personal finance community online. It really is the best! And mostly positive too, unlike other pockets of the web.
You’re organizing a dinner party. Which three people, dead or alive, do you invite?
Tony Hawk - So chill and great at staying relative after all these decades! Would try and sneak in a personal skate lesson during dinner too by bribing him with dessert, lol... (I just took up skateboarding at 42 and I'm addicted!! (And did not see that coming whatsoever))
William Paca - He's a signer of the Declaration of Independence and an ancestor of mine! Would love to pick his brain and get to know more of this illustrious lineage I come from ;)
Warren Buffett? - I feel like I need to meet him at least once to up my street cred in the PF game... Would love to check out his actual budget too, because you know he has one!!
What is your favorite piece of advice (writing, life, finance or business)?
Know that you can craft your OWN ideal lifestyle!! You don't have to do what everyone else is doing - there are no real rules in this world!! It's just you and your dreams while everyone else is trying their best to live theirs too (but usually failing :(). Start with the end in mind - what your dream days would look like - and then work backwards to see what you need to do to make them happen... Money is an important part of it all of course, but it's not the END GOAL despite what it might seem like sometimes. The whole point of money is to set up your ideal life, so why not start there and inch towards it each week than waiting decades later to finally start living?! Get that happiness!!
Take a Penny, Leave a Penny
Derek Thompson recently had polyglot Josh Wolfe as a guest on his podcast, Plain English. In response to the question of how he tries to distinguish himself as a venture capitalist, Josh said, “There are generally these two arrows that I’m always trying to find. One, I call the arrow of inevitability and one I call the arrow of impossibility.”
This brought to mind Steve Job’s famous adage: “Creativity is just connecting things.” It seems then that innovation is the result of melding two distinct entities. And it’s something we can apply to our own lives. For example, when deciding what we want to do in life, we can find an intersection between our skills and our interests.
So, what are your two modes of operation? What have you been thinking about recently?
Please feel free to share in the comments.
Your Moment of Grace
“Start by doing what is necessary; then do what is possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
-St. Francis of Assisi
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