Go For The Dream, Not The Debt

A vital to-do list to never be a starving artist again

Photo: Laura Chouette/Unsplash

When I was 19, I left my expensive liberal arts school and packed up my PT cruiser. I was going to be an actress come hell or high water! At that point, I actually romanticized being a bartender — singing show tunes with my co-workers, waiting hours for auditions, and wearing nothing but black.

This fantasy was a lot less cute when it became my life.

If you expect to struggle, you will. Of course, it’s not helpful that you know an actor in their 40’s who spent the last 20 years booking co-stars here and there and wiping down tables at the Cheesecake Factory. The trope is featured in movies like A Star Is Born and new hit, The Prom.

But, Flannery, if it’s a stereotype, isn’t it somewhat true?

We are not responsible for the generally true. We are responsible for the personally true. If we’re living by the rules that generally exist, we’re not innovating. We’re not taking risks. Without daring to go against the fray, we’ll never start the restaurant, pursue the football career, or ask out the cute girl at the bar.

If you’re reading this, I’m hoping you chose to take that risk. Leaving college and pursuing a career in entertainment was the best decision I ever made. I had some help along the way and had some serious missteps.

This is my list of must-dos and do-nots from my years of trials and tribulation.

1. Open a Roth IRA as soon as you earn income

Artists and creatives rarely have steady jobs that will provide them with a 401k. It’s insanely important to save EARLY! My grandfather sat me down and helped me open one when I got my first job as a waitress.

My IRA yields a 13% return. If you’re new to investing, that means if I invest 10,000 (you can’t invest this much at once — we’ll cover that later), you make 1,300 just for sitting on your bum.

Why a Roth?

When you contribute to a traditional IRA, the contribution is tax-deductible. However, you must pay taxes when you take out that money in retirement.

With a Roth IRA, you don’t get a tax break when you put money in, but you aren’t taxed on the money when it is withdrawn.

Roths are best for people who will probably pay higher taxes in retirement than they do currently. If you’re starting your career in the arts, take advantage of this.

There are rules involved about when you can withdraw money and the income threshold you must be below to contribute to a Roth IRA ($137,000 for an individual). The current limit for investment per year is $6,000, meaning you cannot contribute more than that amount into one Roth per year. I invest with Vanguard — give them a call for more tailored info.

2. Stop blowing your money on margarita mix in service of the ‘lifestyle’

I have watched actor friend after actor friend prioritize drinks and fancy dinners out over a Sunday grocery trip. The price of alcohol is astronomical in Los Angeles and New York. And I get it, you’re out, you don’t want to feel left out, and after all, “this is networking.”

I’m not judging; I’m speaking from experience. I used to go out often and viewed spending money on cocktails as “self-care.” Truthfully, the self-care aspects of the evening — socializing, dancing, letting loose — were free.

Then I became a bartender. Not only did I start valuing every dollar that passed through my hands, I realized that paying fifteen dollars for a margarita was a complete ripoff. I was charging for ice, a bit of shitty tequila and sugar.

Prioritize your spending

Ask yourself, is this night worth 100 dollars? Can’t I find fun without copious amounts of alcohol? You are an artist first and foremost. Your spending needs to speak to this goal.

I massively cut down on my drinking a couple of years ago. I would go out and order a soda water with lime, so I still had a fizzy and fun drink in my hand (if you flirt with the bartender, it’s *usually* free — be aware sometimes you will be charged 4 dollars, and it will be a buzzkill.)

If I were in the mood for a drink, I’d have a glass of wine with my roommates while getting ready and maybe a drink at a bar later in the night where I got an employee discount from my bartender roommate.

Every weekend, I saved roughly 80 bucks (from the average two nights out). I’d drive to the bar (the only thing is safety. If you’re going to a neighborhood where you don’t feel safe walking alone, take an Uber. That is worth the money). I’d then be the kind friend who made sure my friends got home safely at the end of the night.

I not only felt better, but I was saving an extra $320 every month. Imagine that your rent just went from $1,600 to $1,280.

That’s $3,820 every year and a huge chunk right into retirement.

3. Budget, budget, budget

I know, the word scares the hell out of me too! Here’s the thing — I’ve never done this until recently, and I wish I’d started earlier. I sat down with my boyfriend at the beginning of the pandemic. We wrote down all of our monthly expenses.

I made two columns:

  1. NEED: things like phone bill, rent, and an estimated grocery bill.
  2. WANT: things like an Amazon subscription and a gym membership.

I realized I was overpaying. By comparing my expenses with my boyfriend’s, I realized that he was paying less for every expense. Let’s break it down.

Expenses

Phone Bill — my boyfriend had the same service, but his provider was cheaper. More than that, it’s absurd that we each pay for an individual plan. Call your provider after getting some prices from competitors and ask what they can do for you. Some offer family plans which bring the costs down for everyone involved.

One of my goals this year is to pay less on my phone bill. It’s a whopping 60 bucks every month! The main reason I haven’t handled this yet? I’ve already managed to cut it down from 100/month! Everything is perspective. Always look for the deal.

Storage/ Cloud Space — I spend so much money just hosting my files! Dropbox business runs $12.50 / month. My boyfriend told me about Backblaze, which is 6 dollars/ month and backs up your computer (which I desperately needed). But then I invested in one 50 dollar external hard drive and transferred all of my files there.

Not only did it make me feel more organized, but getting out of the cycle of small monthly recurring payments has saved me a lot of money and stress over time.

Other recurring B.S. — I was paying for STARZ for years and didn’t even know it. It was charging through my Amazon account, so I assumed it to be other spending. That’s $107.00/ year for a service that I wasn’t even using. It was an accidental continuation of a free trial from that time I wanted to watch Outlander — the men in kilts were not worth it.

My rule now? If you sign up for a free trial, cancel two days before. Set alarms on your phone to cancel for the three days prior to you being charged again. Do whatever you can to remember — write on your bathroom mirror, put sticky notes on your front door — because once you’re in the system, it’s really hard to get out.

4. Be weary of autopay

I read many articles about personal finance, and several people recommend autopay to avoid late charges.

My long-held belief may be bull head-ish and archaic, but my finance savvy Grandpa always swore by it.

Don’t let a computer pay your bills for you.

AMC Stubbs started charging us again for our movie passes, in a pandemic. My website domain renewed, and they charged me an extra 20 dollars for a protection plan — it was more expensive than the renewal. My gym, Crunch, started taking money out of my account before they were even open again — even after I’d called to cancel.

I’m not saying they’re necessarily going to screw things up, but you’d be surprised how often you’re charged for things you didn’t want (like my website host). It actually saves you time to do it yourself. If you’ve ever waited on hold, you’ll know why I’m saying that — fixing the problem takes longer.

Pick a time twice a month, make some tea, pull out all of your bills and sit through the thick of them until they’re all in the shredder.

Take responsibility for your finances.

5. Start putting up boundaries

Have roommates who tend to forget to chip in for the paper towels? Have a significant other who lets you pick up the check every time? Is there a pushy trainer at the gym who is trying to corner you into personal training?

Saying NO is empowering

No one is going to set boundaries for you. I know we’re all concerned about coming off as rude, especially when it’s about money. But you are an artist, and you are investing in yourself and your future. If someone can’t understand that, then they probably don’t understand you.

I’ve been accused of nickel and dime-ing before, which hurt my feelings because I consider myself a generous person. But you also have to unpack each situation — in my case, it was coming from a narcissistic person who wanted me to service him. We have to ask ourselves (and our moms): am I doing something rude, or am I protecting myself?

Asking your girlfriend to split the bill is not rude; it’s a practice of honoring yourself. You will put that money into savings and build a better future for yourself.

Anyone you’re dating should see that as a strength. You know how to manage money and don’t frivolously throw it away. You have goals and ambitions and expect the people you date to have them too. You expect them to pay for their own damn self (mostly) because they’re (hopefully) a grown-up.

Is it right for me to charge my roommates for every little small thing? Here’s the thing — you don’t have to pay for anything, for anyone (unless that person has spent money on you). My advice is to keep things entirely financially separate. Avoid I got you this time, you get me next. It always gets hairy.

Everyone has different expectations and comfortability around money. Do not force others to kowtow to your expectations.

Know your course, stay true to it, and if someone calls you out for being cheap or protective over your money, explain to them your goals (or don’t!) and keep on living your life. In other words — I think it’s okay not to split the bill evenly when you had soda water, and everyone else had cocktails and mozzarella sticks. Call me cheap!

Anyone who expects you to pay for them is an entitled brat. Anyone who expects you to work, do chores for them, clean up after them, or cook for them for free is an entitled brat. Steer clear of these people. You don’t have the time or space in your fabulous, rich, artistic life.

6. Restructure your thinking

Artists, your time is INCREDIBLY precious. But getting rich quick is not a reliable option. Be wary of schemes (dear God, don’t get involved in a pyramid scheme) and gurus who exist to make money off of you. If you have to pay someone a boatload to help you with your finances, I would argue you can find effective (and free!) resources instead. Try YouTube. Try blogs. Try Harvard free courses. Ask your Uncle. Ask your friends. Do your due diligence, and then maybe consider a financial planner if it feels right.

I’ve forced myself and my boyfriend to sit down once a month and learn something new related to finance. What I learned was, it’s not so scary. Demystifying money was the first step to enjoying the process. My boyfriend now invests on Robinhood, and I’m looking to plan a budget around owning a home in LA.

We can all do this

It just takes commitment and a little bit of time. I hope you feel inspired to ditch the old guard notion that artists need to starve. I’d argue the opposite -

Artists need wealth to thrive

Wealth allows us to take a few months off to finish that novel. Wealth allows us to splurge on that fantastic classical acting class. Wealth allows us to jet off to Italy for inspiration for a new piece of choreography.

Wealth isn’t dirty

You are using it to give back. To build. To be creative. Wealth isn’t reserved for crooked Presidents and stuffy old businessmen. It’s available to you, knocking at the door to improve your life and your work.

You just have to let it in.

// Flannery Maney is an LA-based screenwriter who is currently living in Europe. Follow her on her site or on Instagram! To check out her band, click here!

Read more from Flannery:

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Flannery is a writer, traveler, and the voice behind the indie duo, Alice Bloom. She is LA based, but is currently traveling the world <3

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