excerpts from court transcripts with phrases highlighted like "hobby business"

How I lost $20,000 while running a small business

I've been mulling over what kind of business recap post I could write for 2023. A review of new forms I made, like pumpkins and winter trees? Skills I learned, like laser cutting and woodworking? The steps it took to start selling work at craft fairs, like getting a canopy or configuring a point-of-sale app?

My mission is to get more people talking about pay. Yet I can’t help but recognize that none of these ideas go anywhere near my financial behind-the-scenes. Why am I hesitant to share my metrics, when I’m so deeply proud of my growth? And when I know for certain that if I shared concrete details about my income and costs, it would help other artists, the way other small business owners' transparency has helped me?

Hesitant isn't the right word. I’m scared.

My belief in the value of talking early and often about money exists alongside a dark reality that whatever I write here can and probably will be used against me in court, because it has happened before. My ex has repeatedly used the about page of my business, my profit and loss statement, and my former Linked In profile to argue that I should be making tech money instead of making pottery.

I don’t have a rosy social-media-ready montage of my growth. Instead, I have a small business that is struggling to survive ongoing financial abuse by my ex.

My single biggest expense of 2023

Last year my legal costs that followed from merely requesting child support came to $20,000. 

That's a LOT of money.

It's a lot to me now, when I do not sell $20,000 worth of pottery a year, and have not had full-time paid work in almost four years. But it also would have been a lot to me during the brief time I worked for a corporation, and that number would have represented a fifth of my annual take-home pay. (I've written before about how scary spending just $1000 was).

For comparison, let's look at a few of my business expenses last year as a potter. My office rent came in at $7,750. My community pottery studio membership: $3,900. How about some utilities... alarm system: $660, internet: $620, electricity: $325. Bringing our running total so far to only $13,250.

I could keep going. There are so many other reasonable expenses to running my business, such as materials & supplies (clay, glazes), or software and services (bookkeeping, design). Some startup costs are assets like office furniture and booth equipment, that I won’t have to buy every year. Others are investments in coaching and professional development to help me grow this business over time. I can justify all of them. None of them hold a candle to the cost of family court.

The high cost of family court

Here in California there's supposed to be a free system for requesting updated child support through the Department of Child Support Services. That's who I asked to recalculate support last spring. They took financial documentation from both me and my ex, did some math, and proposed an adjusted amount over the summer. My ex refused to agree to the new amount, and instead had a lawyer respond and request a hearing. With that, he made it impossible for me to avoid the expense of litigation. At our court date this fall, the judge didn't make a ruling, and set a second court date for this spring. So both the stress and expense continue to accrue.

Not only do court costs completely overshadow my business expenses, the details I share publicly about Equal Clay are repeatedly used against me in legal proceedings. My art business is painted as irresponsible because I haven’t yet turned a profit. I’m shamed for not being more capitalistically motivated and accused of not pulling my weight. I’m constantly pressured to give up this space I’ve worked so hard to carve out for myself.

Because of the financial, mental, and emotional toll of being dragged through the court system, I am not free to live the kind of life that I want to—a life where I can grow my small business and celebrate my successes without fear of having it all twisted around to harm both me and my kid.

Surviving financial abuse

For now, I'm still a potter, and that's an act of resistance.

I'm taking up space as an artist, knowing that from the outside it can and will be held against me. Over and over.

If I had been free to choose how to spend the $20,000 that I was cornered into spending on legal costs,  I could have built my dream studio:

  • $6000: kiln and electrical/installation costs
  • $5500: pug mill for reclaiming clay
  • $2700: clay water recycling system
  • $2000: wheel with drain and leg extensions
  • $1000: slab roller
  • $1000: wedging/work tables
  • $800: air filtration
  • $400: glaze fountain
  • $600: small items like mops, sponges, and other studio tools

It's wild that the court has nothing to say about causing $20,000 of opportunity cost. Court may not have the vocabulary to name it, but more and more I am finding the words to talk about what happened to me, and what continues to happen. I'm connecting the dots about financial abuse at home and financial abuse at work. I'm eager to write much more about it, as I process all of these experiences and as it becomes safe enough to do so. Through writing I'm starting to dream about what freedom from financial abuse could look like.

If you were forced to spend $20,000 this year, but could choose where it went, how would you spend it?

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