There’s a good chance you already follow Alice Gao on Instagram. She happens to be the only photographer on my personal feed. Recently, as I was flipping through her portfolio, I realized that those dreamy inspiration photos I had pinned to my wedding Pinterest board were actually hers. Alice not only has an artistic eye, but her photos always have a personal feel to them, even if it’s a seemingly simple still life. Needless to say, I’m a true fan. When I found out she had an interest in personal finance, but didn’t have a platform for it, I had to find out: How does a jet-setting photographer with great personal style do money?
Alice has worked with clients like Bergdorf Goodman, Cartier, New York Times T Magazine, and Tiffany, and has almost 1 million Instagram followers.
In this interview she talks about her work, why she’s on a shopping ban, how she made the leap from consulting to photography, and why she’s not 100% sold on retirement.
NAME: Alice Gao
LOCATION: New York, NY
JOB: I am mostly a full-time freelance photographer, but have my hands in a few other cookie jars (and hope to expand that reach even more); I hate to use the phrase “I’m a creative,” but I guess it’s just vague enough to fit the bill.
You used to work in research consulting. How did you make the leap to photography?
Growing up, I didn’t know that jobs like Art Director or Creative Director or Prop Stylist existed. I also always enjoyed creative writing, but I never thought you could get a job with an English degree, so I went the practical route and majored in Economics. I was always really good at math, and figured my job prospects would be better.
But the summer after junior year, I failed to land a big finance or consulting internship. I didn’t know it at the time, but my failure actually turned out to be a blessing.
In college I started getting into photography and posting my pictures onto Flickr, so instead of a finance gig, I interned with a local wedding photographer, as well as with a photo agent in NYC.
While my friends were toiling away at investment banking internships making very good money, I was barely negotiating to get my subway metrocard paid for. That prior summer I had (no exaggeration) emptied my bank account to buy a Canon SLR off a guy on Craigslist. That camera plus my subsequent lens purchase at B&H the next day left me with less than $50 to my name. If I hadn’t done that, who knows where I’d be now, though?
I graduated and moved to NYC for a (short-lived) job as a photo archivist, and I started a blog to just share images I took of experiences in my new city. I then ended up in a research consulting role focusing on the financial industry, and working on my blog in my spare time, sometimes even editing photos during my lunch break!
I really wanted to make the leap and try photography full time–I came up with a number that I thought would be enough to start a business: $15,000 (haha, it wasn’t enough). But I had a goal post to work toward, and stopped shopping while trying to achieve it.
Once I hit the $15,000, I quit. Even though I hadn’t booked a single paid job yet and had nothing in the pipeline.
So how did you make it work?
I was living with my boyfriend at the time, and our rent was $1,950. He helped me out by covering our rent while I worked to build my business. I realize how lucky I was to have that. Besides that, I got by by doing wedding and portrait photography–reaching out to that place I interned at in college and assisting other photographers who I met on Flickr. The first year I was embarrassed to send my taxes to my accountant, because I made such little money.
You have an impressive Instagram following. How did you grow it?
People always ask me that. It was mostly timing. About a week after Instagram came out, my friend was like, “Hey, you should join this. It’s kind of like Hipstamatic.” So I was one of their early users, and one day I was featured as a ‘suggested user’ and my following blew up from there.
Were there any signs of “Entrepreneur Alice” when you were little?
I’ve been “working” since I was 11. I mowed lawns for my parents for $20 a pop, and then tutored and babysat in high school.
I’ve also been on eBay forever. In high school I got jealous of my friends who had designer jeans (True Religion, Paper Denim & Cloth, Rock & Republic), which had just become a thing. Even then, I was always looking for deals. I spent a lot of time on Authentic Forum, a forum where all designer denim-crazed people gathered to chat. Eventually, I became a trusted authenticator, giving my advice and opinions on whether an eBay listing’s jeans were authentic or not. I’d buy the designer jeans from the forum, wear them (and even learned to do an original hem myself); then when I got tired of them, I’d sell them on eBay, or vice versa.
You were born in China, and didn’t meet your dad until you were three. What was money like growing up?
I grew up in East Brunswick, a relatively affluent town in New Jersey. I remember going to my friends’ houses and seeing they had things like tennis courts and a 6-bedroom house…even if there were only one or two kids. I was a latchkey kid who was often home alone at five years old, eating TV dinners. At school, I got free and reduced lunch. We started out lower-middle class–my mom was a lunch lady at Rutgers University, and my dad was working on getting his PhD. After my dad finished his PhD (which took forever and a day) and got a job, we eventually moved up to be solidly middle class.
What did your parents teach you about money?
I am constantly impressed and amazed to this day with how they selflessly saved money, even when they had almost nothing. Somehow they saved up enough money to pay for my college education by being frugal.
The also taught me that I needed to have good credit. I got my first credit card when I was 15 or 16. To this day, I’ve never had credit card debt, because that terrifies me. If I knew I needed to buy something I didn’t have all the cash for right away, I’d open up a new credit card with 0% interest. Then I’d pay it off as quickly as possible. I did this for my first Macbook Pro circa 2011.*
*Luxe: While this worked well for Alice, note that this strategy can get you into trouble if you aren’t 100% sure you can pay the balance by the time the 0% promotion period ends.
Student loans are the bane of many people’s existence. Did you have any?
Even though my parents saved, I still had student loans (under $20k). But I wanted to graduate early. In conversations with my parents, we figured that if I did save them the tuition from the early graduation, they’d also pay the student loans off. I busted my butt, sometimes taking six classes and managed to graduate a semester early, debt free, something I am eternally grateful for. I also worked several jobs throughout college to fund my frivolous spending, like spring break trips and eating off campus.
Is there anything keeping you up at night right now, money-wise?
Buying an apartment has kicked me into gear in terms of thinking about money. It forced me to rethink and shift priorities. It’s a long story, but currently I’m paying both a mortgage and rent on my apartment. I’m now renovating the apartment I bought and all of a sudden spending money on luxuries seems much less important.
I put myself on a six-month shopping ban. I’ve really cut down on spending on objects and all of the things in my life give me more anxiety than joy when it becomes too cluttered. Now I’m much more considerate about what I buy.
My boyfriend and I also just moved into a much smaller, cheaper apartment so we’re now spending $1,400 less on rent. It’s a tiny fourth floor walk-up with no amenities. There isn’t even laundry in the building, and I gave up a full-size dishwasher, though I only used it as a drying rack as most Asians do!
How did you save up for your down payment?
I think years of “not spending more than I make” and then steadily increasing my earnings year after year of being in business allowed me to save without really putting a concerted effort into doing so.
Bizarrely, I wasn’t really looking to buy. I had another studio apartment in the building where I was living, and used that as my office. The rent on that was getting to be ridiculous ($2,850 for a ROOM) after two years of rent increases, so I popped onto Streeteasy and next thing you know, I’m putting an offer on a space that needed a gut renovation.
I think years of “not spending more than I make” and then steadily increasing my earnings year after year of being in business allowed me to save without really putting a concerted effort into doing so. I realized I had enough for a down payment on a small studio, and if I weren’t in immediate need of that money, why not put it into this project (little did I know the headaches that would ensue…)?
What kind of headaches?
The gut renovation on this apartment I bought will end up being way more than the down payment itself. Let me tell you, it ain’t for the faint of heart! To pay for it I’ve been busting my ass and working as much as humanly possible–that’s kind of a plus about running your own business too. You’re not capped in terms of salary (to an extent, I suppose there ARE only 24 hours in a day). I refuse to ask for parental financial support in this–they’ve done more than enough for me–so I am just doing it the only way I know how, keep working and making money.
Do you have a budget? Why or why not?
I don’t have a budget–my philosophy has generally always been to spend less than I make. I’ve been through extreme “financial diets” in the past and would totally restrict myself on spending, but then I was miserable and I realized that kind of structure doesn’t work well for me (probably why I quit my 9-5).
What personal finance advice do you ignore?
I don’t believe in retirement! I see myself as a 70-year-old woman owning a bunch of properties with multiple passive income streams. I mean, hell, I hope to be making MORE than I am now, so why deflect the taxes now by putting money in my SEP IRA and then take the money out when I am taxed at a higher rate? 🙂
What’s expensive for a T-shirt? A handbag? A dinner out?
Ooof, I’d say $80 is expensive for a T-shirt.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be answering about handbags, because pre-renovation Alice may or may not have bought three Hermès bags in her lifetime.
I’d say $120/person is expensive for a dinner out.
And your biggest money regrets?
Not investing when I was younger, out of laziness. Since I’m self employed, I have a SEP IRA and I literally only just opened a brokerage account at the end of last year. Before that, everything was in savings, not even high-yield savings accounts, so basically losing money. People always think that because I studied economics, I’m good with all this shit, and I’m like, “No, I studied theory economics! Totally impractical for day-to-day things.” I wish I had taken a financial literacy class when I was much younger or something.
And at my early jobs, I didn’t even think to negotiate my starting salaries. Looking back, I wonder if my male coworker from my finance job made more than me.
Do you talk to your friends about money?
Only a little bit, and usually it’s me asking what the heck I should be investing in. I’m really lazy, though, and really have mostly just stuck to the SPY* and a few other index funds.
*Luxe: Please do your own research before making investment choices 🙂
What’s your best money tip?
I am soo not the right person to ask for tips. I think I would say to compartmentalize expenses that are outside of your control. Plan and save for unexpected things and when those things happen and are out of your control, don’t sweat it. I used to get really upset every time I was hit with a medical bill of any sort (I have the worst health insurance as a freelancer) but now I just think of those expenses almost like rent, a whole separate category for them. I try not to let those get me down so much nowadays since health IS important and my needing several crown replacements (at $1,450 a pop) is more or less out of my control.
What are your savings goals?
I’d say my 5-10 year goal is to be able to buy another piece of property outside the city. Ideally in Paris…
Final question: How much money would you need to feel like you’ve “made it”?
I don’t know that there’s a monetary attachment to feeling like I’ve “made it.” Though if it could involve a shiny sprawling new apartment with real bedrooms and a washer/dryer somewhere in Manhattan… that might do it. In that case, it’s probably like $10 million (:rolling eyes:)!
See more of Alice’s work and side projects:
I’ve been wanting to feature other people’s voices on the blog for a while now–you know, regular folks who are still a work in progress with money–and I’m so happy with how this interview turned out! I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better person to feature–there were so many things about Alice’s stories that I could totally identify with: from being home alone as a kid, to taking big risks like quitting jobs without a backup plan. Here are my favorite takeaways from the chat:
It’s so important to diversify your experiences, especially in college and early in your career. You never know what kind of hidden talents you might have, and trying new things is the only way to uncover them.
Even if you don’t have a solid plan, spending less than you earn gives you options, like, in Alice’s case, the ability to buy an apartment on the fly.
If you want to make a career change, blogging and networking can open some serious doors, even inadvertently. Alice’s blog doubled as a portfolio for brands to find her work, and her Flickr community helped her find paying gigs when she was first starting out.
A million thanks to Alice for being so generous with her time and letting me play pretend magazine editor.
I hope this was a fun read. Let me know what you think in the comments!
All photography courtesy of Alice Gao