How I Went From Artist To Financial Planner

Georgia Lee Hussey made a big career change in 2010: She went from an artist to a Certified Financial Planner. Now, she runs her own company, Modernist Financial. Here's her story of how that unlikely transition happened.

Mistake #1: Studying Art, Then Trying To Make It

When I was 18, I was lucky enough to receive a huge scholarship to Sarah Lawrence College, where I made the (not-so) practical decision to study installation sculpture and creative writing.

Eight days after graduating, I moved to Portland, OR, because rent was so cheap that I could actually make art. My friends and I drew and built, started bands, record labels, restaurants and galleries, all while working part-time at pizza shops and bars, and living in gloriously green neighborhoods.

Yet, I believed that artists were supposed to live in New York City, even as the evidence piled up that most of my NYC friends were spending their time hustling for rent, not making art. So I moved to Brooklyn in 2003 taking a corporate day job to pay for rent and therapy, trying to make my art on the side. Yet, I couldn’t shake my self-doubt that I might not have the perseverance to make it as a professional artist/writer. In 2005, walking home from the subway after work, I suddenly realized I hadn’t seen a tree in three blocks. I needed trees more than I needed the MOMA! So, I gave up on NYC for the last time, and moved back to sweet, earnest Portland.

Mistake #2: Buying a House I Couldn’t Afford

Back in Portland, my friends weren’t working at coffee shops or bars anymore, they were getting book deals and record deals. And they were all buying houses. Like many Americans, I had been told that buying real estate was the most practical financial decision I could make. And, I noticed, it was the only financial decision my friends discussed openly.

Like many Americans, I had been told that buying real estate was the most practical financial decision I could make.

Portland’s real estate boom was at its peak in 2006. Now we call it the subprime mortgage bubble, an apt name given that I too succeeded in getting a mortgage (a 550 credit score, no savings, and a two-month-old job selling modern furniture on commission). Carrying two terrible loans I didn’t understand, I somehow bought a shoddy ‘70s ranch house on the edge of Portland.

As a single woman, I found myself with a huge mortgage to pay and no clue how to make my irregular commission income fit into the cycles of utility bills, groceries, and house projects.

Teaching Myself about Money

The pace of my bills quickened, while my collection of overdraft notices grew. I needed to fix the financial mess I was making, but I realized that I didn’t know a damn thing about money. So, as a good liberal arts student, I started envisioning a path to solvency. I read every personal finance blog I could find. With their help (thank you Get Rich Slowly), I taught myself how to: balance my checking account despite my uneven income, use envelope budgeting to put aside money for upcoming expenses, build a sinking fund in order to pay my mortgage, pay down my debts, and manage work-trade deals with handy roommates.

I made all of that happen, but I still made big mistakes with my money. Logic and willpower weren’t changing my behavior. I could conceptually understand money, how it worked and how it should be optimally structured, but I still spent money I didn’t have, regularly overdrawing my bank account.

My Broken Money Stories

I looked around at my creative community, and realized that we were all telling ourselves nonsensical stories about how we were incapable of making or managing money. It didn’t make sense, since we were some of the smartest problem-solvers I’d ever seen in action. Why did our dysfunctional relationship with money feel like a foregone conclusion?

All of us are burdened with a pile of broken money stories from our cultures, our families, our identities. As a woman, and the daughter of a Southern middle-class white mother, I secretly believed that my highest value was being scintillating and beautiful enough to marry a rich man (or a rich woman in my queered retelling).

As an artist, without a family to act as my patron, I could choose from two narratives. I could starve in a garret and remain creatively whole, while telling the Man to go f*^k himself — I didn’t need his dirty money. Or I could sell out, make a ton of money, lose my creative integrity and end up a coke-addled, lonely soulless shell of an artist, probably living in L.A. As a progressive, I knew that money was dirty, the root of all evil (the mo’ money, the mo’ problems). I knew that I didn’t want to be filthy rich, yet in a rich man’s world, money made the world go round.

All of us are burdened with a pile of broken money stories from our cultures, our families, our identities.

All these latent beliefs fueled a behavior pattern that undermined my financial success. I still missed bills, and bought little luxuries on impulse, when I was stressed out. But, I had also invested in enough therapy to decide that I had had enough.

An Entrepreneurial Vision, Fueled by My Mistakes

A vision was born: I could be the force to help my people (creatives, queers, women) become aware and empowered around their money. I could help them tell a whole new money story.

So, in 2009, I got lucky enough to sell my house and make about $10,000 (not really a profit once you calculate the principal payments, time, and cash I put into it). I was able to leverage this pile of cash into my transition: I went back to school and then passed the two-day-long CFP (CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™) exam.

It's unusual to get your CFP before entering the industry, but ethically, I wanted a solid understanding of my work before I started advising people. (If only that were the case for the industry at large.)

I went to work for two very patriarchal institutions: a big ethically-challenged brokerage firm and a small family-owned firm. I was always the only CFP focused on comprehensive, time-intensive, accountability-focused advice, rather than just selling whichever financial products had the highest commission rates. I was horrified by the culture of mediocrity and homogeneity. There had to be a better way.

Team Modernist Is Born

Two years ago, I founded Modernist Financial. Like the Modernists in the 1920s, we’re out to “Make it New!” As a B Corp, we’ve built our company around our values through progressive business principles like: open books financial management, structuring our strategic planning around employee input, and a commitment to donating 3% (and growing ) of our net profits, with significant pro bono and volunteer benefits.

My creative background is exactly the reason I am such a good entrepreneur and financial planner: Being a writer trained me to communicate my vision; creating an installation sculpture proposal taught me to lay out all of the steps to make my vision a reality; the love of my creative community taught me to engage with my people. And, that ‘70s ranch financed the beginnings of the vision.

Our clients are creatives who (after inheriting, selling a business, or retiring) want advice they can trust, tailored to their lives and values. They want help gaining awareness of their money stories and structuring their day-to-day spending around their discoveries. Of course, they also want accountability, ESG investing, and collaboration between their advisors.

This is just the beginning. As Modernist Financial grows we hope to serve the entire income spectrum; from pro-bono for the under-resourced, to folks just starting their financial journey, to our current clients with a net worth in the millions. We all deserve financial awareness and the skills to make financial decisions in alignment with our best selves.

Who knew that getting a really expensive education in sculpture and writing, and then buying a house I couldn’t afford would lead to my creative vocation...in finance?

Being extraordinary is about living a life of purpose. The Unconventionals is our celebration of extraordinary women who know there is no right way to follow your dreams, and are creating their own roadmap for success. These women recognize that progress comes from the urge to stir up the conventional in order to change the world.

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