Budgeting and planning for unexpected expenses can be challenging for everyone, but creative professionals -- including independent photographers, artists, writers, stagehands, entertainers and others -- have some extra curveballs to cope with. Instead of drawing a salary, creative pros often piece together an income from multiple sources that could dry up at any time and often don't carry benefits.
As a model and union actor in Los Angeles, Zondra Wilson has seen the highs of lows of the business: fellow actors living out of their cars or scraping by on food stamps, as well as actors blowing the bank after landing a lucrative new gig. Still, even if you don't hold a 9-to-5 job, there are ways to achieve financial security. With this in mind, here's a primer on the financial challenges creative professionals face, as well as tips for navigating money management.
Learn to live through lean times. Budgeting around a variable income is a huge challenge for creative professionals. One month an actor might be working steadily and the next he's spending all of his time at auditions in the hopes of landing a new project. "Sometimes the way that people manage is using credit cards to bridge the gap [between income and expenses] and if that goes on for a while, they might see their debt load creeping up," says Amanda Clayman, a social worker and founder of the financial wellness program at the Actors Fund. Through workshops at the Actors Fund, Clayman tries to teach people how to manage cash flow and build up a contingency fund for dry spells.
Wilson started a USDA-certified skincare line called Blu Skin Care that she hopes will pay off in the future. For now, she's trying to minimize expenses to fund the business, so she moved out of an expensive apartment and into a house with three other women to cut costs. "I set up a shoestring budget because you never know when you will book your next job," she says. "I write down the minimum cost of what it takes for me to live on, and budget around that number," she adds. Wilson even gave up her car and now uses Uber or a housemate's car if she needs to get to an audition. Working a day job can prevent performers from attending auditions during the day. In fact, Wilson has seen fellow others work night-shift jobs like security guards that keep their days open for auditions.
Manage an influx of cash. With the financial and emotional ups and downs that come with professions in the film or music industry, it's tempting for creative types to splurge when they're suddenly flush from landing a TV series or a regular gig. "A lot of people, when they get that first big check, will buy that brand new car or splurge on this expensive wardrobe just to find out the show was cancelled," Wilson says. For TV actors, "the rule of thumb is to wait three years after you become a series regular," she adds.
Clayman agrees that being a high spender after landing a new position can be a problem. "It's a time of high confidence and high excitement; those kinds of emotions often cause us to be freer with our money," she says. She's seen people who fall prey to overconfidence after that first big payday learn to be more conservative the next time it happens.
Charge what you're worth. Society doesn't always value the work of artists and entertainers, and some creative professionals have their own hang-ups around money that prevent them from collecting on invoices or charging what they're worth. "It's hard to receive money for something you love to do anyway because it feels like you haven't put in enough hard work," says Tiffany Angeles, a Los Angeles-based money coach and owner of a photography business that helps other professionals overcome money issues. "If you have a hard time receiving money, then this is the first thing you should work on. Otherwise you don't have a business, you have a hobby," she says.
When clients have difficulty accepting money, Angeles works with them on feeling gratitude for the money that's coming in. "We work on just saying thanks and keeping our mouth closed, especially in a sales room where you have to sell your own products," she says. Sometimes creatives feel intimidated or unsure of their value and discount their prices before they even get an answer. "It's a knee-jerk reaction," she adds.
For better or worse, many entertainers are more distanced from their fees, because they might get handed a standard union contract without the opportunity to negotiate or their agents might handle negotiations for them. Despite this, Clayman sees some improvements in this arena, with entertainers no longer viewing themselves purely as artists but also as businesspeople. "We're in a period now where people expect to be entrepreneurial; people are more in charge of their brand," she says.
Despite the financial stumbling blocks of the business, Wilson says she's glad to have stuck with it. "In my case, although I've gone through some extremes," she says, "it has been worth it."
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