“But you’ll never make any money.”
Anyone who has gone into the arts is familiar with this refrain. Every time someone used to say anything to this effect, I’d shrug it off indignantly, assuming they were projecting own fears and insecurities on me. “Maybe you won’t make any money,” I’d think to myself, “but I’m going to be a movie star by 25.”
Well, dear reader, I hate to disappoint you, but I am now almost 27 and very much not a movie star. I’m auditioning, taking scene study classes, and acting in short student films while working in hospitality and spending too much of my income on lyfts and craft cocktails. Although “how will you ever make money” isn’t the kindest thing to say to a 19-year-old theatre student, it’s time we get real about money. I’m sharing what I’ve learned about earning, keeping, and saving money, so that some bright-eyed actor out there can learn from my mistakes.
I come from a privileged background, so it took me a little longer than many folks for reality to smack me in the face. I’m endlessly grateful for the life afforded to me by my parents. And it’s also high time for me to take my financial future into my own hands.
Other than those who are extraordinarily lucky and/or well-connected, most people don’t pull in a living wage from acting until they’ve spent years in the business. By the time I graduated from college, I’d fully realized how hard it would be to support myself as an actor so out of fear I decided to get a full-time job instead. I was living at home — what a great opportunity to save money, right? WRONG. Who knows where my salary went — my only financial obligations were my car payment and a cell phone bill — but I managed to be totally broke at the end of every month. On top of reckless spending, I was also miserable in my 9 to 5. I’d get a knot in my stomach every day as I climbed the stairs to the office. It wasn’t a bad job, but it wasn’t the job for me. After 18 months I left to try to pursue theatre in the Bay Area.
I had some middling success there, doing about a year of murder mystery theatre, working part-time doing marketing at my local theatre, and performing in three Shakespeare productions. But I knew in my heart of hearts (as did my parents) that I needed to get my tookie back to New York.
I make it back here last April, move into a cute two-bedroom with my best friend with no savings and no clue what to do next. Because I knew something had to change with my money situation, I started tracking all of my income and expenses on a google spreadsheet. I spent an obscene amount of money on non-essential items like pizza delivery and bottles of rosé. “Treat yo self” is a dangerous motto to live by. Although I was creating a budget and tracking my money, I didn’t really *do* anything about it until I’d nearly maxed out my credit card. I’m a procrastinator, ok?
This fall, I kicked my butt into high gear and started really learning about personal finance. I cut my expenses down and canceled any subscriptions that weren’t adding value to my life. I downloaded Ebates, Flipp, and Ibotta (apps I’m still not maximizing to their full potential.) I read The Financial Diet and am making my way through Money Diaries. I opened a high-yield savings account and plan on opening a Roth IRA next month. Like yoga, learning to manage my money is a practice. It ebbs and flows. I have great months and months where I find myself way over budget. Learning to consider eating out a treat and not a necessity has been an uphill battle. I’m persisting with this not only because I’ve got bills to pay, but also because despite my inconsistent income I have big financial goals. I want the things a lot of people want — a sizeable emergency fund, travel money, and eventually a baby and a house.
But to do those things and stop living paycheck to paycheck, I need to face my biggest financial challenge: increasing my income. I’ve done so many jobs in the past year, y’all. Tutoring. Walking dogs. Direct sales. Events. Hospitality. Some of them have worked and some of them haven’t. I’ve learned a lot about what types of schedules and workloads work for me. I found out what work makes me feel too exhausted to do anything else and the work that leaves me creative energy to work on my acting and writing.
Time and time again, I’ve come back to freelancing. I get stuck in an endless loop of questions: “What is my niche? How do I find clients? What should I charge? Do I need a website? Am I good enough?” And on and on and on. You can imagine how little I actually get done when I’m stuck in that loop. So I’ve decided to follow the advice of a friend who told me to just start. “Done is better than perfect,” she told me. So I’ve started. I’m putting myself out there and I’ve got a couple of clients. Sure, one is my Dad (hi, Dad!) but work is work.
And If you’re hiring, here are some of the things I love and am really good at:
I love writing copy for other people’s projects. (So much less emotional investment than writing my own projects!) I love doing research and creating slide decks or colorful charts. I also want to learn some UI/UX design because I’m obsessed with how most websites and blogs (including this one!) could be more intuitive and user-friendly. I’m enrolling in a class this summer, so stay tuned.
To any actors who don’t know what they’re doing or how on earth they’re ever going to make money – there are so many options. Yes, you can take the classic performer route and become a server if that’s what works best for you. Ain’t no shame in that game. But talk to your friends. Talk to older actors and artists you meet and see what they’re doing. This profession isn’t one-size-fits-all. Find that sweet spot where you can be agile but you’re still working within a plan. Us free spirits still need to pay rent, which is a lot easier to do when you have a handle on your cash flow. Don’t feel bad for what you don’t know, we all have to start somewhere. I have a lot that I’m still figuring out (like…how EXACTLY does the stock market work???) I’ll let you know how it goes.
Love and theatre,