How a New Zealand Sci-Fi and Fantasy Writer Does Money

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Karen is a full-time high school teacher and part-time novelist in Christchurch, New Zealand.

So, Karen, tell us a bit about your finances.

My salary is $56,600 NZD a year, which is, at the moment, about $37,000 USD.

I have a student loan that is about the same amount, and I’m trying to pay that off, and save for retirement, and travel internationally once every two years.

In addition, I earn money related to writing. No advances this year, but I sold radio drama rights for one book last year, and I get the odd royalty payment on my one book that earned out in the US.

I also get paid for speaking engagements and the like. I’m a finalist in the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Readers this year, so I do some workshops as part of the celebrations, and get paid for that. (Which is fun, but actually I’m really excited because this year the ceremony is in Government House and I get to meet the Governor-General.)

I’m good at saving for specific goals, but I’m kind of terrible at vague “savings” accounts. Those get emptied as soon as I want a thing. So, in a move I attribute entirely to The Billfold, I set up a whole bunch of sub-savings accounts last year, and it’s been great.

That does sound great!

I have, like, ten different questions, but let’s start with the biggest one: can you share your book title so we can link to it and you can maybe get some sweet Billfold reader royalty money?

Hah! Sure. My first book is Guardian of the Dead, my second is The Shattering, (they’re standalones), and the duology is When We Wake and While We Run.

First two are urban fantasy set in New Zealand, last two are sci-fi near-dystopia set in Australia. Tough smart ladies, worried boys with secrets, all that good stuff.

That is ALL the good stuff.

So let’s talk about those sub-savings accounts, then. When did you start setting those up, and what are you saving for?

I wanted to go back to WisCon, the feminist science fiction and fantasy convention where I first met my best friend, nearly ten years ago at WisCon30. So I emailed her, and two other excellent ladies of my US acquaintance, and said LET’S GO TO WISCON40.

Which is in 2016. And I said this in 2014, because kids and schedules and mostly, savings. And then I set up an account called WisCon40 and dumped an automatic payment in it every payday.

So that was going well and I loved seeing that money rise, and THEN I broke a tooth. And the deep horror rose within me. A largish chunk of WisCon many went to fixing that.

I grimly did more maths, and put more in the automatic payment so I would still meet my savings goals for WisCon40, and immediately set up another account called Emergency, and dumped payment in there every payday. Now I have “Bills,” “Long-term Savings,” “Holidays,” “Emergency,” and “Cushion.” And, of course, WisCon40, still going strong.

So let’s talk about these WisCon costs. WisCon is in Madison, Wisconsin, right?


How much does it cost to fly there from New Zealand?

About $2,500-$2,800, NZD.

About $1,800 USD. That is a lot.

That’s the price you pay for travelling from here: everywhere is pretty hard to get to, and expensive. I first went to WisCon from Japan, which was much cheaper.

That makes sense. And then once you get there, the hotel cost is pretty much negligible, right? Or are you also trying to get the cheapest lodgings possible?

It’s about $400 USD each, with tip and tax. I learned not to cheap out on that. I am too picky and restless for hostels. I need a hotel, in the con, on the quiet floor.

The quiet floor is the BEST FLOOR. If you’re going to a con, always ask for the quiet floor.

Prior to your tooth emergency, what percentage of each paycheck went into the WisCon fund?

I am going to do QUICK MATHS! So… 5 percent. Now it’s 7 percent.

Is that 7 percent into the WisCon account, or into all of your sub-savings accounts total?

Into the WisCon account.

How about the other accounts, then?

Excluding bills, about 10 percent.

I should talk about student loans for a second, I think. When you register for tax at your job, you note whether you have a student loan, and because they’re all government loans, the government takes 12 percent of each paycheck That’s standard for all NZ ex-students with a loan. You can make additional payments, and I’ve been doing that (another 10 percent of post-tax paycheck), but lately I’ve realised I should be smarter about that, because as long as I live in New Zealand, that loan is interest free.

Interest-free loans are the best kind! 

So Team America generally assumes that we’re the only country with a huge student loan problem, which is of course the most American sentiment ever. What kind of student loans do New Zealanders usually take out?

What you call federal loans, I think. If you’re at a registered course above a certain level, you can borrow from the government for course costs. You can get an extra $1,000 for course materials, which you apply for separately, and you can also apply separately for “living costs” which do not actually cover the cost of living.

To make up the shortfall, most students either work, borrow from family, or use credit cards to make up the difference.

The deal used to be that you graduate, and then the interest started. But we had a big problem with what was called the Brain Drain, where educated New Zealanders went “I am not making enough money here; I can get a job overseas where they will pay me tons more, and also I can travel from there,” and promptly moved, taking their skills and tax money with them. Often they came back eventually, but still.

So—and I think it was a Labour government, but I’m not positive—the government of the day said “Okay, so, as long as you’re resident in New Zealand for six months out of every year, we’ll write off your interest.”

Technically, the loan isn’t actually interest-free. They charge it! And then they wipe it.

But as long as you don’t pay it, that’s okay. 


So you pay student loans, you’ve got your WisCon fund, you’ve got your new sub-savings funds… is this the first time you’ve started saving? Like, did you have an emergency fund before your tooth accident?

Yeah, this is pretty much the first time. I was a student for years, so I had no money. Then I was a full-time novelist, so I had no money. I got a grown up salary for the first time last year, and that was the first time I started seriously saving.

I feel like I’m a decade behind people who started teaching right out of university, but hey, I’m getting there.

That’s how life and money tend to go, sometimes. Slowly, but you’re getting there.

What surprised you about doing money, as an adult? Like, what did you think money was going to be like, and what had you not considered?

I think, like a lot of people, I never considered what it was going to be like to pay off those loans. It seems like play money when you’re coming out of high school.

And I never really considered emergencies being something you should save for. Because as a pre-adult, the emergency happens, and your parents cover it. Things I wanted, I had to save for from part-time work, and that made sense to me. But the idea that I should also save for inevitable but unexpected costs took a long time to sink in.

(This is super middle-class, of course. In poor families, the emergency happens, and it’s not a matter of “your parents cover it.”)

What advice do you have for Billfold readers?

Emergency account is the best account. I broke a tooth again last week! And I walked out of the dentist smiling.


Photo credit: karlnorling



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