My money lessons: A freelance illustrator shares her story

Published by Niki Groom on 16 November 2018.
Last updated on 16 November 2018

Niki Groom (pictured), 42, is an award-winning fashion, beauty, food and lifestyle illustrator based in Bristol. Here, she shares her experiences of managing her money as a freelancer and the recent lessons she has learnt that help her to sleep better at night.

Until recently, I felt uncomfortable talking about my finances. I’ve always been very British about it, and it’s something I believed was best kept private.

We didn’t grow up having lots of money and as someone who wanted to go into an art and design-related career, I knew that having too much of it would never be a problem.

But now I see that the idea of financial planning isn’t only for those people who are drowning in cash. Getting my finances in order and being realistic about my future has given me a feeling of security that I didn’t expect.

In my late 20s, people I knew discussed being mortgage-free by the time they were 50 and I would glaze over, happy that I was living in the now. I felt that money almost wasn’t for me, that I needed enough to pay my rent and go on holiday occasionally but otherwise I didn’t have the desire to earn a huge amount. What was more important to me was following a career that I loved.

I graduated with a degree in fashion design in 1999 and, as I received a full grant and worked in the holidays, my student debt amounted to just £7,000. I paid that off slowly over a number of years and then put a small amount of money in Cash Isas for the years that followed.

Photographer: Fiona Finchett (

I felt a sense of financial freedom from not having commitments such as a mortgage. I believe that’s why I felt able to make the move from being a full-time employee to a freelancer in 2010. In the early days, I was a freelance fashion designer working on a day rate here and there, but eventually I was contracted on an ongoing basis as a head of design at a clothing company, so while I was freelance I still had security.

In my late 30s, I moved out of London and bought a small house in Bristol. I used all of my savings from the previous 18 years as the deposit and left myself with nothing. Soon after that, I made the huge leap to follow my passion for illustration, something that had been just a hobby until I joined Instagram and started getting commissions.

The first couple of years went well, but 2017 was a dreadful year for me. I can’t pinpoint any one reason. I think it’s just the nature of being freelance. I earned £24,000 over the year, and my outgoings accounted for a large percentage of this. One month, I only invoiced for £300, but my mortgage repayment was more than £900. I lived with a low level of constant stress, and was in debt for over 12 months. On top of that, I saw a few friends get ill and their partners having to take on extra work to pay the bills. As a single woman, it really made me wonder how I would cope should the same happen to me.

So I finally bit the bullet and asked to meet a friend who is a financial adviser. He already knew I was terrified of discussing my lack of savings and a pension and understood than my earnings vary wildly from year to year. Instead of frightening me into paying for insurance I can’t afford or encouraging me to commit to large pension contributions, he talked through my options and let me offer amounts that I felt were realistic. Thankfully, I’m having a brilliant 2018 and have extra money that I can put away.

I’ve decided to go ahead with critical illness insurance. I expect to pay around £30 a month for the next 20 years, and should I get a serious illness within this time, I’ll get a one-off payment of £50,000. Hopefully, I won’t get ill but if I do it will be a relief to focus on getting well rather than working out how to pay my bills.

I will also put £100 or so into an investment Isa every month. This will at some point mean I have a rainy-day fund for when work goes quiet or my roof caves in (please don’t let my roof cave in).

I’ve also discovered a small pension from working at Monsoon over 10 years ago that I’d forgotten about. I only paid in to it for a year or two, so was so surprised to see that my £4,000 had grown to around £20,000 without me doing anything. I will add £50 a month to that pot for now.

I certainly won’t be buying a yacht in my later years, but it might just help out with an electricity bill or two.

Money still doesn’t drive me, but getting on top of things has replaced my underlying fear with a sense of freedom and security. I find that when I’m not anxious about my finances I have great ideas and brilliant projects seem to come in. Right now, I feel confident I can continue to support myself as a freelance illustrator for years to come, with a little planning.

I would really encourage any freelancers who have their head in the sand about their financial future to seek out the right adviser for them and have a chat.

It might not be the most exciting hour of your life, but it might just turn out to be the most useful.

Niki Groom,,

Do you have a lesson you’ve learnt about money you’d like to share? Please email

The first picture of Niki in this article was taken by Remco Merbis

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