How to Survive on an Actor’s Budget

Actor's Budget

As actors we’ve all heard the clichés about starving artists. And especially if you’e planning or have already made the move to a city like New York or L.A. where the rents are clearly still Too Damn High, and especially the entry-level salaries wildly out of line with the cost of living, you know there’s some truth to it.

But as a working actor there is more to the difficulties of maintaining a sane budget than just not getting paid enough when you’re starting out. Another factor is the sporadic nature of the work, and therefore the pay. Even for actors who make great money for each project they work on, there are bound to be some dry spells in between jobs.

So how can a working actor at any income level learn to live within his or her means? Here’s a road map that can help you keep your head above water no matter your financial situation and goals.

The bottom line

First, figure out exactly what you need to get by every month and keep the business of you as an actor running smoothly. How much money do you really need to keep the machine functioning? This isn’t the time for guesstimates or a stab in the dark. Much like counting calories for weight loss, this is the time when you need to record every single penny you spend so you can figure out where it all goes. Every frappuccino and every movie ticket–no purchase is too small to be entered right now. Then, once you’ve recorded a month or two of your true spending, you can go back over the numbers and look at discretionary spending items that aren’t essential–nights out, vacations, concerts, etc.–and strip them out. Now you should be down to your critical needs: food, transportation, and rent, as well as the tools you need to keep the business of your acting going: internet and cell phone bills. Add it up on a monthly basis and you’ve got your necessities.

Now we add back in other costs you can’t avoid.

  • Buffer zone – Life throws us curve balls. As actors well-versed in the “Yes, and…” principles of improv, we perhaps know this better than most people. So to help you avoid having every little unexpected expense break your budget, right off the bat you should add a buffer of ten percent to your monthly expenses.
  • Debts – Here’s where we list the minimum student loan payments, credit card payments and other monthly debts like car and health insurance we have due. These should be treated as sacrosanct, as missing even one payment can affect your credit rating and your long term finances.
  • Savings – This is something that most of us don’t think about when we’re younger or just starting out, but it’s a good idea to treat as non-negotiable putting aside even a tiny amount each month as insurance against emergencies and for the long term. Check out budget guru Dave Ramsey’s Every Dollar app and his “Baby Steps” philosophy to budgeting. You’ll be surprised at how quickly putting aside even a little bit of money can become a habit, and how little you’ll miss it. What’s more, it adds up quicker than you think–future you will thank you!

So now that you’ve got these additional expenses factored back in, you’ve already prioritized the things you really have to pay for every month before you’ve even looked at discretionary spending–which is the only sane approach to living within your means. This number represents your Minimum Bottom Line. By approaching your expenses this way, you prioritize your financial security and future savings over your discretionary spending, walling these vital items off from the whims of daily life and preventing you from dealing with the stress of living paycheck to paycheck.

So if you find yourself having to choose between say, paying a credit card bill and paying for your internet, you’ve fallen below this critical minimum, and you’ve got to change something. Let’s look at that possibility.

Bottoming out

So you’ve fallen below this bottom line number you’ve assigned yourself–now what? Even if you’ve got several months’ worth of your monthly expenses built up in savings, it’s time for immediate action. You can’t live off your savings forever if you’re slipping further and further behind every month, and you can’t count on getting paid for some job that you’re auditioning for next week; you’ve got to make changes now.

Go back over your monthly expenses

Falling below your minimum bottom line number means it’s time to break out the fine-toothed comb and go back over your budget to see where you can squeeze out some more savings. Can you negotiate lower rent or a different split on utility bills with your roommate? Americans have incrementally been programmed to accept paying an obscene percentage of their income on housing, up to and beyond 50 percent for some. And while moving is a radical change, is your living situation really in line with your budget? If not, it might be time to consider going more minimal in the housing department. How about your cell phone plan or internet? Can you switch to a plan that consolidates the two? Also, cable and internet companies are well known for immediately offering lower-priced plans if customers call and threaten to drop them. Work those phone acting skills!

It’s all about the hustle

It’s nice when you have enough work in your beloved field of acting to make ends meet. But if you hit a rough patch where the money coming in just isn’t matching up with the money going out, it might be time to expand or take advantage of your skill set outside of acting. In this economically precarious day and age, to be limited to one revenue stream is asking for trouble. For starters, renegotiate your salary or ask for a raise at your day job. Or you might look for a part-time restaurant job, submit your resume to a temp agency, or look for weekend gigs doing promotions–easy money for an actor. If you’re a crafty person, there are tons of internet stores where you can sell your wares. If you play music, there are literally thousands of cafes and bars and restaurants in every city where you could play and earn a few extra bucks.

Apps like You Need A Budget and Every Dollar are a huge help for putting your budget in perspective. Budgeting is not easy, and it’s not sexy. But in order to make the actor’s life viable, it really is necessary. The bottom line is this: you can make it work, if you put in the work!

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