The starving artist, struggling financially, mired in debt, living from paycheck to paycheck. It’s a cliché as old as time, and one we’ve been trying to overcome for nearly as long. But it’s not as if there’s absolutely zero truth to it, and if you see a little too much of that truth reflected in your own life, it may be time to start turning your attention to your finances. I’ve heard so many folks in the arts say, “I’m never going to be able to retire,” or “I’m never going to pay off my student loan debt,” or “I have no savings because I have no money.” Though getting on top of your financial situation might seem overwhelming, it’s not as far afield as you might think.
I’m not a financial expert myself—it’s always been a bit of a mystery to me, honestly, and I tend to be easily overwhelmed by money matters. So I’ve taken this assignment as an opportunity to gather as much information from experts as I could. I spoke with the founders of the Institute for Financial Wellness for the Arts, the director of communications at the Actors Fund, and a certified financial planner, Lauren Lyons Cole. My main takeaway: Basic financial independence isn’t all that scary and can actually be rather simple to attain. And if it’s something I can understand and execute, anyone can. By understanding just a few basics, you can start to demystify the concept of financial wellness and put yourself on a path to savings and security that will literally pay dividends in the long run.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
Step 1: Understand your day-to-day and month-to-month spending. You can’t make any strides toward saving until you know how much money you have and how you’re spending it. When coaching artists and industry folks, Erik Sussman, co-founder of the IFWA, always establishes this as the first step to financial wellness. “It’s literally writing down what it costs you to wake up in the morning, pay your bills, pay your rent, pay your mortgage, your cell phone, your food, and really understanding your day-to-day and month-to-month finances,” says Sussman. Make a budget spreadsheet that outlines all of your income and all of your expenses from the past six months. This way you’ll be able to understand where your money is going and how frequently it’s coming in.
This is also the time to understand any debt you might have and how you’re planning to retire it. Lauren Lyons Cole, a certified financial planner and the former director of personal finance at Business Insider, tells her clients not to get overwhelmed by the mere fact that they have debt. “The important thing is to come up with a payment plan you can afford, stick to it, and try not to think about it while you’re paying them off,” she says. “I know that’s easier said than done, but it’s important for your mental health. Worrying about student loans won’t help you pay them off sooner. It’s also important to make sure you don’t overlook other financial priorities, like saving up an emergency fund and putting away money for taxes and retirement.”
Then you can start to prioritize spending habits. Kristi Gomez, an IFWA financial coach, told me, “Everybody can find 50 or a hundred dollars a month out of their budget to save, no matter their expenses.” Not that these decisions aren’t difficult ones. “A lot of people will do a budget, and there will be $300 a month going to Starbucks. There’s an emotional element to planning, and that emotional element is, what are your priorities? Do you want to retire one day, or is your Starbucks every morning that important to you?” If this sounds a bit like the great avocado toast debacle of 2018 to you, you’re not alone—but it’s an extreme example of how small, incremental savings can make a really big difference if that money is being put in the right places.
Step 2: Take the money you can save and put it in a savings account. Here’s where to put that avocado toast money. Once you’ve established your day-to-day and month-to-month financial patterns, create some basic interest-bearing accounts to hold your excess funds. Lyons Cole recommends you split your income into three basic accounts. “Anytime you make freelance [pre-tax] income, only put about half of it into your checking account for current expenses. Split the rest between two savings accounts: one for taxes and one for an emergency fund,” she explained. “Transfer 30-40 percent of each check to your savings account for taxes, and transfer 10-20 percent to an emergency fund savings account.”
You’ve probably been keeping most of your money in your checking account at your bank; sure, it’ll earn some interest there, but if you look at your history, you’re probably only earning pennies. This is because the average annual percentage yield or APY—how much money your money earns per year—is only about 0.06 percent at a standard bank. A good interest-bearing account can yield up to 2.15 percent. While that may not seem like much, for each $100 you have saved, you’ll earn $2.15 a year instead of six cents. It’s basically free money you can be earning on the money that’s already sitting in your account. It’s a no-brainer.
Step 3: Build a safety net. Lyons Cole recommends artists and freelancers have 12 months of living expenses in an emergency fund account. This way, she says, “You can still pay your bills if you’re in between gigs or working on an unpaid project to build your portfolio.” Sussman is a bit more modest in his recommendation. He says, “We want all of our clients to have three to six months of emergency reserves.” Either way, take the monthly budget you worked out in Step 1, multiply it by 3, 6, or 12, and start squirreling!
Step 4: Have a good offense and a good defense. Now that you’ve got your basics down, it’s time to start expanding your investments and diversifying your assets. According to Sussman, you want to have both a financial defense and a financial offense. Your defense is your insurance policies: health, disability, and life insurance. Your offense is how you get your money to make more money. This is where you can begin to invest in stocks and bonds and retirement accounts.
Both Lyons Cole and Sussman recommend a SEP IRA (Simplified Employee Pension Individual Retirement Arrangement) account for your retirement funds. If you’ve heard of a 401k, a SEP IRA behaves in almost exactly the same way; it’s just an account for an individual, independent person, rather than an employee at an organization. It offers steady financial growth, but the catch is that you can’t touch the money until you hit retirement age—59 and a half—or you’ll take a tax penalty.
That’s why Sussman recommends diversifying your accounts into options you can access now and options you’re forced to let grow until retirement. Some options he recommends that you can dip into any time you need it are bonds—yes, like the ones Grandma bought for you for your birthday as a kid—and whole life insurance. Both of these options are slow, steady earners that offer little risk if the market takes a downturn.
Step 5: Start saving early. This is another point Sussman greatly stressed. There’s a principle in the financial sector called the Time Value of Money. Basically, any money that’s earning interest is worth more the earlier it’s received. Sussman explains, “If you’re 25 years old and you save X amount of dollars, that will mean a certain amount to you in retirement. If you save the same amount of money, but you just waited until you’re 35, the difference in income could be 40-50 percent.” It’s so drastic because the money is earning compounding interest, which is simply interest on top of interest, and the more it grows, the larger the dividends it’s bringing in. So even if you start with a small sum and leave it alone till you retire, the interest it’s consistently earning over time means much more money by the time you’re dipping into that account at age 65.
Step 6: Tap into the resources available to you. Money is a scary and daunting thing to play with if you don’t feel confident in the decisions you’re making. That’s why it’s critical to tap into the resources available to artists and industry folks, and there are many out there. The IFWA has a huge online database of resources, a huge glossary of financial terms to help you decode the mumbo jumbo, free online financial literacy classes, and free and confidential consultations with their coaches.
The Actors Fund—a free and confidential resource for all industry professionals in theatre, dance, film, TV, radio, and more—also has an incredible host of financial wellness options including complimentary in-person workshops in NYC and L.A. (coming soon: Chicago), where you can meet with social workers who will guide you through everything from budgeting basics to debt management to understanding Medicare.
As you get older, the Actors Fund also offers an entire program of senior services to help you gain access to your union pensions, manage retirement income, assess housing and medical care options, and much more. They even provide access to the Actors Fund Home, an assisted living and care facility located in Englewood, N.J. If you’re facing a financial, medical, housing, or personal crisis, the Actors Fund also offers emergency financial assistance.
There are tons of resources out there for performing arts professionals. These are just a few of the options, so if you’re confused, struggling, or just need someone to help you figure out how to pay your student loans, reach out and see if you’re eligible for assistance.
Personal finance is just that: incredibly personal. There are myriad factors that come into play and affect what you can and should be doing with your money. It may be best to consult with a financial planner to come up with an individual plan that works best for you. Both the IFWA and the Actors Fund have folks available who can help you plan. But all these steps can have you feeling a bit more confident that the money you have in the bank is doing what’s best for you in the long term.
Having sat down with these professionals and learned exactly what steps I could take to make sure I don’t end up destitute and afraid, I’m feeling much less overwhelmed than I was before I wrote this piece. Though I don’t know if I’ll be giving up coffee and avocado toast any time soon, I’m actively working on Step 3 and feeling grateful that places like the Actors Fund have my back in the meantime.