Covid and Me | Where I am as a human and business in the middle of the pandemic
I wasn’t sure whether to write this, but I have always tried to intersperse the joy of the weddings that I share on this blog with the reality of my life, as the person behind this business. I am sure many people reading this will be aware of the precarious position many small business owners and freelancers find themselves in at this time, but I want to tell you my story because, as much as anything, I think writing it down will be cathartic. This post is quite long so maybe grab a cup of tea before you get started.
The Back Story
First, a bit of back story as it sets the scene for a lot of what I am feeling now. 18 months ago marked the end of my marriage. My ex-husband and I had been together for 10 years and married for six. He worked with me in my business. We spent pretty much 24 hours a day together, every day.
I haven’t told the full story of the reasons for the marriage breakdown publically but the short version is that over the course of our relationship my ex-husband lied to me, manipulated me, gaslighted me and broke our marriage vows repeatedly. I loved him, and there were good things about our relationship, but in the end the bad was so bad that I reached breaking point.
Breaking point for me looked like such bad anxiety that I couldn’t leave the house for three months without having a panic attack. I was on medication for depression and anxiety. I was seeing a therapist. All of my energy was focussed on trying to stabilise my mental health while starting divorce proceedings.
This meant that I had limited energy to focus on my business, and I poured the energy I did have into providing the best possible service to my existing clients. I wasn’t doing any marketing for a long time, and that’s had a serious knock-on effect that’s meant a significantly reduced number of bookings over the last two wedding seasons.
Fast forward to 2020
I have, over the last year, been in a really good place. I’ve done a lot of work on myself in therapy, through meditation and via other self-enquiry routes. My mental health has been stable, I haven’t been on medication for over 18 months and I currently class myself as someone who, for the first time in her adult life, is free from depression. That’s pretty amazing, right?
In fact, after spending a year living with a friend just outside of Birmingham, I decided I wanted to stay in Birmingham and make my home here. I moved into my own flat a month ago. My own journey of self-exploration through therapy inspired me so much that I did an introduction to counselling course at the start of the year, and made plan to go back to University to study for a foundation degree in the Autumn.
I really felt like this was the first step towards me building a future for myself.
My wedding photography bookings still weren’t where they needed to be for this year, but I figured I’d pick up a few last-minute ones over the summer and then get a part-time job in the Autumn, alongside my studies.
Then Covid Happened
As of August 2020, 90% of my bookings for this year have cancelled or postponed. The remaining bookings are much later in the year, and there’s a strong possibility they won’t be able to take place. That means no income. As a wedding photographer, I make the majority of my income over the summer, so I’ve been living on a dwindling reserve from last year’s bookings until this point.
Most bookings are now being postponed to next year. This not only means no income now, but it also means I lose the ability to take on enough new work because I now have a lack of available dates in 2020. Both my current income and my future income are affected.
When the Government announced their measures for Self Employed people, I quickly realised I’m not eligible for them because, like many others and on the advice of accountants, I set myself up as a LTD company. If you want to find out more about why people like me might set themselves up as a LTD company, this article is helpful.
The only help that’s available to me as a LTD Company Director is the Corona Virus Retention Scheme. In order to access this scheme I have to furlough myself – i.e stop working – and then I can claim 80% of my PAYE income. My PAYE income is just over £700 a month, with the remainder of my income being paid through company dividends. The dividend element of my income is not taken into account. This leaves me with just over £500 a month and no income coming into my business.
The £500 a month is taxable and also impacts on access to other support like Universal Credit. For me, Universal Credit wasn’t really a viable option as it wouldn’t cover my outgoings, which would leave me without money for things like food. Let that sink in – for a lot of people, the support available doesn’t cover the entirety of their basic needs. I live in a modest one-bedroom flat in an inexpensive part of Birmingham.
Before I continue, it’s worth mentioning that friends who ARE entitled to help as self-employed people aren’t really faring much better under the scheme. Most wedding photographers have fairly high expenses. We travel a lot for jobs. We need expensive equipment and software to do everything from editing to social media management. A lot of our expenses aren’t going away while we sit at home unable to work, so they have to be covered out of the grant entitlement, which is also taxed.
I spent the first few months of lockdown temping in call centre on a temporary basis. This really meant I didn’t have the time or energy to work on Babb Photo.
This is all quite a lot of doom and gloom and I’m sorry, but 2020 has been a struggle for me and a lot of others.
I feel like I did so much hard work to get to this point. I, like many others, worked tirelessly to build a business that I’m passionate about over the last 9 years. My business has given me so many amazing opportunities. I’ve met wonderful people and got to witness their happiest days, I’ve travelled to shoot celebrations all over Europe. I’ve made friends all over the world.
That’s not been without sacrifices. Having a job I love has meant missing family BBQs, birthdays and weddings because I work every weekend over the summer.
I also work evenings, talking to potential clients and helping existing couples plan their wedding photography. I spend weekdays editing and marketing and networking and doing all of the millions of jobs that make up running a small business. Small business owners work HARD.
I have been a UK taxpayer for 25 years!
Most importantly, I pay tax. I have been a LTD company for 5 years. Prior to that, I paid tax as a sole trader. Prior to that I was employed in the public sector and paid tax through PAYE. Currently, I pay both Corporation Tax and PAYE on my personal earnings. While I pay slightly less tax overall (about 7% according to the article I linked to above) than those who are only paid through PAYE through their company, I don’t get any holiday pay or sick pay or employer contributions towards a pension.
The Government keep talking about parity between the employed and the self-employed. There is no parity. Some people can access 80% of their full salary, some people can access 80% of their self-employed income after expenses and some people can access 80% of the element of their salary paid through PAYE. That is not parity.
Many people, including those who are being laid off and those on zero-hours contracts, are only entitled to Universal Credit and nothing else. Their Universal Credit eligibility is dependant on the incomes of others in their house, so a family can lose a whole income and not get any help at all.
Where are we now?
After spending a lot of the start of Lockdown crying and feeling immense stress, I’m now feeling a bit more pragmatic for the most part. Everything is still really unclear and uncertain. I don’t want to lose the business I’ve worked so hard to build. I don’t want to lose the home that represents my life starting again in earnest, after a turbulent few years.
While this current situation is tough, I’ve been through tough before and I came out the other side. That said, having support during this time, especially from the Government who promised that no one would be left behind, would make such a huge difference. While a lot of businesses are now starting to get back to normal, there’s no end in sight for the wedding industry at the moment.
If you want to help, here are a few suggestions about how you can.
1. Write to your MP – WriteToThem makes it super easy to find your MP and email them through their web portal.
2. If you’re in a position to, buy a gift voucher for a future shoot off your favourite photographer. This applies to other small businesses too. If you want a voucher for shoot with me when this has all blown over, drop me a message.
3. Send me cute animal pictures / memes / videos via Instagram. Cute animal content is the content that’s getting me through these long days stuck inside.
4. Support me online. The more people interact with my content, the more people will see it. Share my posts, comment on my Instagram pictures (a like is nice but a comment has more weight when it comes to the algorithm), tell your friends about me. If you’re a former client, share a couple of pictures from your shoot or wedding and say why you love them (don’t forget to tag me!). If you’re a client later this year, share some of your favourite pictures from my feed and tell people why you booked me.
5. If you hear about any jobs that I can do from home give me a shout. As well as photography, I can help small businesses with social media stuff, copywriting, blogging etc. I’m also shit hot at admin and customer care type stuff.
That’s all. Thanks for listening. I need a lie-down after writing this… here are what some of my friends have told me about how this has affected them.
Andy – The whole situation and the uncertainty of how long it will go on is the thing that is causing the most anxiety for me. Every month weddings are off causes further financial implications due to more couples moving their wedding to 2021, which in turn adds to the anxiety of trying to work out how to make a living next year when everyone from this year is filling up key slots for new bookings next year. The uncertainty of how long the government will support us adds further anxiety because if they say weddings can take place again in May or June do they stop offering financial support, even if all our couples from those months have moved their weddings to 2021. There’s just this great unknown we’re all shuffling towards, and because it’s the same for everyone, no one has any answers… as a single income household, with two children to support, it’s incredibly stressful because we have to ride it out and hope for the best, but no one knows what that actually means, and how it will affect our ability to stay in business.
Naomi – This has meant that the savings I’ve had (for the first time ever in my life) that I was putting towards pension/maternity expenses so we could think about having a family will now be used to live on and pay business expenses. My profits from the last 3 years are pretty low and I won’t get much from the self-employment scheme. I’ll be lucky if I get nearly half of what I pay myself every month (which isn’t a huge luxury salary but the bare minimum I need to pay for bills, mortgage and a little bit for myself) and even then I need to put aside 20% of that as it’s taxed. Emotionally I feel like I’m a second rate citizen. I feel misunderstood by the government who are punishing me for having a career doing something I love. I feel like they’re punishing me for not being a business whiz. My profits look terrible because I’m happy if I can do this and just get by, using expenses to pay for the legitimate costs of running a business from my home, as well as investing back into the business. I feel like I’m being demonised to the public – “self-employed people pay less tax” and with articles that start “the taxpayer will be paying for a scheme for the self-employed” – as though I’m not a taxpayer and I’m a huge leech on “the system”. In reality I take less from it not having benefits of sick pay, holiday pay, decent holiday packages or pensions. Emotionally I feel exhausted and spent, anxious about how my business will be impacted by clients postponing to next year or the year after, or by cancelling and being liable for refunds. I’m desperately disappointed (as are we all I’m sure) that all the work I’ve put in over the last 4/5 years to get to where I am now will be a waste.
Matt – Last week felt like an emotional rollercoaster. Over a period of 3 days I had multiple calls from all my April – June couples asking for advice, what other couples were doing and eventually asking to postpone their wedding to later this year or 2021. My couples were naturally in a stressful and potentially heartbreaking situation so those calls were emotionally draining. In addition, I had to consider the impact this would have on my livelihood and balance this with my couples needs. Following that ’survival mode’ period my mental health has taken a hit. A combination of the uncertainty (trying to ignore that this might last a lot longer than 3 months), financial fears (I don’t qualify for the gov’s self-employment relief) and losing my daily routine which was built around my mental health, has been tough. In addition, my fiancé and I were planning to use this season (which has now been cut in half) to save for our wedding next year. As she is also a wedding photographer our entire household income has been slashed meaning we’re going to have to make some difficult decisions.
Corina – I feel anxious, forgotten and unimportant. Since I launched my business three years ago, I’ve struggled with feelings around whether I can make it a success. This year was looking very promising and for the first time, I felt proud with my achievements and self-worth. However, since the government announcement regarding financial help, I felt like a failure. In my first year, my business made a loss and the next two were very low in profits. This business means a lot to me because it involved things I felt proud about like taking the leap of faith and having a new business in a foreign country. Now questioning whether I can keep it afloat during this crisis is crushing me. Top this with financial anxiety, worrying about mine and my partner’s future and about the health of my family back in Romania, and you have my personal recipe of feeling overwhelmed, worthless and unsafe.