Personal Finance for Artists

Photo by Barry Goyette.

When I was in high school, I dreamed of a career on the stage. I threw myself into intensive dance and singing lessons every night after school, and spent hours in studios rehearsing musicals. I envisioned myself on a Broadway stage, rehearsed my Tony acceptance speech in the mirror, and practiced my signature for the day fans would ask for my autograph.


Senior year, college decisions forced me to think about the logistics of my future, and suddenly my idealized vision of starring on Broadway clashed with real, pressing decisions about money, college, and my career. Understanding the harsh reality of “making it” as an actor, while also feeling the immense weight of a lifelong dream on my shoulders, I was torn. I began considering other possible careers and grappled with the idea of not spending my life on the stage. Around that time, a director of mine asked about my plans for college.


“I’m deciding between musical theatre and environmental science,” I explained.


To my shock, he quickly responded, “Go with environmental science.”


He wasn’t saying, “Don’t go for your dreams,” or implying that I didn’t have what it took to make it to Broadway. As a professional actor himself, he knew the struggles of making a living as a performer. He went on to explain that unless performing was the only possible career that could make me happy, I would be better off in a more financially stable profession.


Now I’m in college, and I’m not studying environmental science – but I am following my old director’s advice and pursuing a career path I can rely on rather than following my high-school dream of Broadway.


Of course, it’s possible to pursue the arts as a career; but getting used to life without a stable paycheck is a necessary part of going after that dream.



Irregular Income


One of the biggest challenges artists face is unpredictable income. Balancing a budget is hard enough with a traditional job, but artists don’t have the luxury of a steady and consistent paycheck. A wealth of commissions and bookings could be followed up by a dry spell lasting several weeks or more.


Amanda Clayman, a psychotherapist who focuses on financial health and counsels artists at The Actors Fund, recommends budgeting earnings based on expenses—a seemingly backwards way of budgeting. Artists should be aware of expected living expenses like utilities, food, rent, and what they spend on their work each month, be it paint supplies or dance classes. Calculating total monthly expenses can help them set goals for how much they need to earn each month. Sometimes during a dry spell of income, many artists turn to credit in order to fill the gaps. Unfortunately, this practice can quickly lead to debt and bad credit, which can take years to repair.


Instead of relying on plastic, there’s a smarter way to establish continuity from month to month. With two bank accounts and a little diligence, artists can establish a self-imposed “salary” on regular pay period. All income should go into a work account – the artist can then create a personal account and pay out a “salary” for personal expenses by withdrawing a set amount from the work account each month. The trick is to stick to a set payment and pay period, and to never dip into the work account for more. This will take extra income from successful months, and turn it into financial padding for unexpected tougher months.



Saving for Retirement


Another challenge for artists is saving for retirement, for a number of reasons. Many actors and artists (especially in the beginning of their careers) are simply trying to scrape by for next week, and can’t even wrap their heads around saving up for thirty years down the road. They don’t have the convenience of automatic contributions to a 401k or company matching plans. Additionally, some believe they’ll never retire; many actors, writers, painters, and other artists hope to work up until the day they die, since their art brings them so much joy.


Unfortunately, growing old gets expensive. It’s important to contribute to a fund for these expenses while artists are young and able to work. It takes a lot of diligence to invest in retirement, especially with short term expenses on the mind and without a company to do the saving for you. An IRA is a wise investment; it will grow even during tough times when artists can’t contribute, and will serve as additional padding for the costs of old age even if they never choose to stop working.



Resources for Artists


Artists should also be aware and take advantage of the many resources available, both locally and nationally. Actors should join the two biggest unions: Actors Equity Association (AEA)  and Screen Actors Guild — American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAGAFTRA). Both AEA and SAGAFTRA have strict qualifications for membership, but once a member, an actor is offered tremendous resources for financial assistance. The AEA not only holds employers to certain standards for salary and working conditions, but also assists members with 401K contributions, pension funds, health insurance, and even discounts on everything from hotels and restaurants to yoga classes and theme parks.


Another great resource for all performing arts professionals is The Actors Fund (AF), a non-profit that provides housing, emergency grants, substance abuse programs, and retirement aid. Through AF, beginning artists with income under $34,860 and over $21,770 can live in The Schermerhorn, a 217 unit apartment in Brooklyn, for as little as $635 a month.


The Artists’ Health Insurance Resource Center provides health insurance coverage for both visual and performing artists. Additionally, all fifty states have their own government funded arts agencies, great resources for grant funding for individual artists and art groups — check here to find each state’s art agency.


Individual artists and artistic groups are also taking to social media to find funding for projects. Kickstarter and IndieGoGo are funding platforms for artists seeking contributions from the online community for all sorts of creative projects: paintings, documentaries, music composition, app development, and more.



Balancing Money and Art


Money management can cause an artist much distress; even the most dedicated get discouraged, and young artists often define artistic success by monetary success. Mitchel Sommers, Executive Director of Community Theatre of Greensboro and professional New York City actor, has been very successful making a living in theatre, but he still worries about the future from time to time. “Even with all my theatre hats, you wonder if tomorrow it will all dry up and you will be waiting tables at 59!” he admits.


Similarly, Jeff Hein, an accomplished painter and teacher at his own Hein Academy of Art in Utah, has been through his own experience as a struggling artist.  “I still have fear. Although things have always been good for me, there is always this underlying worry that it will end and people will stop buying my work,” said Hein.


Hein has also seen many students in his studio who are unsure about supporting themselves after leaving school. He has advice for artists grappling with the challenges of making a living in the art world: “I always tell my students what I tell myself: ‘Always have integrity as an artist. Don’t take shortcuts. Never settle… It takes sacrifice to have integrity as an artist in the short term but ultimately pays off.  Live frugally now and work hard… Sacrificing whatever it takes to do your best work and reap the benefits down the road.’”



After straying from my original dream of Broadway, I face a balancing act of my own, inverse to that of artists. I’m decidedly devoting myself to a non-arts career, but I still have a deep need for the arts in my life. Participating in performance groups in college and acting in community theatre productions have given me that creative satisfaction. For those like me, who have given up a career in the arts, activities like performing with community theatres, blogging, or taking art classes can help fill that personal void while still maintaining a stable career.


Regardless of your profession—whether you’re an artist saving for retirement, or a businessperson spreading your creative wings, life is significantly richer with a balanced blend of art and money. Pursue your dreams – but do so with thoughtfulness for your future.


Author Christine Freschi was a myFICO intern and is currently pursuing her studies in Boston.

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