Emily Guy Birken, a personal finance freelancer, was a recipient of a 2018 Plutus Award. Now, a year later, we catch up with her about her creative way to push through writer’s block (hint: it involves colored pencils) and how important self-care is to freelancers to prevent burnout.
1. Can you tell us about the Plutus Award you won?
In 2018, I won the Best Personal Financial Contributor/Freelancer Plutus award. I’ve been contributing to various blogs in the personal finance realm since 2010. You can find my byline on PTMoney.com, Wise Bread, Money Ning, Money Crashers, CashMoneyLife, Student Loan Hero, the Dollar Stretcher, and Lending Tree. I’ve loved being a blogger-for-hire for all these years and getting a chance to learn about every aspect of personal finance, from insurance to investing and from side hustles to money psychology.
2. How did you feel when you won the award, knowing it was from your peers?
It was so gratifying and exciting to know that I’ve made a difference in this community and that my work has been meaningful for my peers. I was truly overwhelmed!
3. Have there been any topics you’ve covered/are planning to cover that people have really responded to? Why do you think that is?
I have found that I always get a big response when I write about behavioral economics and the psychology of money. We are all prone to irrational behavior when it comes to money, and uncovering the psychology behind those irrational decisions feels incredibly personal, because it helps readers to better understand themselves. And I try to always provide actionable tips for how my readers can use this clearer understanding of themselves as a way to make better financial decisions.
4. What do you do to push through any creative blockers? Do you have any fun ways to get the creative juices flowing again?
When I get writer’s block, I find that doing something creative that’s unrelated to my block can be really beneficial. I love to draw, and I sometimes find that inspiration strikes when I start drawing. The bulk of my mind is focused on making my little cartoon, which frees the edges of my brain to work on the writing block that had stymied me.
I am also a big believer in reading and consuming other artwork to get inspiration. I have had some of my best ideas after watching a thought-provoking movie or while reading a novel that has nothing to do with what I write about. It gives me new ideas to connect to the things I already think about, which is how you can come up with innovative and fun ideas.
5. Do you make stepping away every now and then a priority? What do you do to recharge?
We need more rest than we think we do, especially if we do “low-impact” work like writing in front of a computer all day. Your muscles don’t tell you that you’re tired when you’re a blogger, so it can be easy to feel like another shot of caffeine should power you through more writing, more research, more time at your desk. It can be easy to fall into the thinking that more hours at your computer will make for more/better/faster blogging. But even though you may not feel tired physically after a long day slaving in front of a hot laptop, your brain can’t function at a high level for hours on end. So I try very hard to make stepping away a priority.
There are a few things I do to recharge regularly. I love to take long walks through my neighborhood while listening to audiobooks. My dog loves to go on these jaunts with me, and it’s fun getting the exercise while “reading” something intriguing and seeing my dog explore. I also try to take time to draw every day. I find it both soothing and relaxing to make something cute or beautiful or fun. I’m also a big proponent of naps! When I find my brain feeling sluggish, taking a quick 20- or 30-minute nap can be really invigorating, and there is something so freeing about being able to nap whenever I please.
6. What advice would you give someone looking to start their own blog?
Just do it! We can often get bogged down by thinking that we need everything to be perfect and have the stars align before we’re willing to start on a new creative endeavor. But one of the best ways to learn is by doing, and when the barrier to entry is as low as it is for blogging, there is absolutely no reason to keep yourself from starting something you want to do. There are certainly things you can do to set yourself up for success when it comes to SEO, monetization, keywords, etc., etc., etc. But none of those will help a blog that doesn’t exist.
So, start by writing what’s on your mind and in your heart. Write about the things that interest you and that you can’t stop thinking about. I guarantee there are other people out there who are thinking about the same things.
And remember that the internet exists (basically) forever. Something you write today could positively affect a reader next year or 15 years from now. You never know what you put out there that will change a mind or change a life. So don’t wait until things are perfect to share your ideas and your story.
7. If you hadn’t ended up being a personal finance writer, where do you think you’d be right now?
This is a really tough question to answer, because I basically fell into writing about personal finance. I’m an English teacher by training, and taught high school English for four years. My husband and I moved when I was pregnant with my eldest son, who was due at the beginning of the school year. My original plan was to take one year off to stay home with him, and then return to teaching the following year. But we had trouble selling our old house and were carrying two mortgages for a while, so I sought out some writing work I could do from home to bring in a little extra money.
It never occurred to me that I would end up writing about personal finance, but one of the first writing gigs I landed was for PTMoney.com. PT liked my work, passed my name along to his blogging friends, and invited me to the first FinCon in 2011.
If that hadn’t happened, I’m honestly not sure where my career would have gone. It was pretty clear about six months into being a new parent that I was not willing to go back to the classroom. I knew I would not be able to give either my family or my students the kind of attention they needed. While I did do some writing for non-PF outlets early on, nothing was as reliable, lucrative, or enjoyable as the work I did writing for my financial clients.
I suspect I would have gone back to teaching eventually if writing about personal finance had not worked out, because I doubt I could have created as successful a freelance career writing about travel, education, and parenting. And I do miss the classroom. But I am much happier, healthier, and more engaged as a parent with this career, so I am beyond grateful that I am enjoying this accidental career.
Thank you for sharing with us, Emily!