Artists and Debt

Alright guys. Here’s a meaty one.

So. I have a pretty hard stance on Artists and Debt. There’s a great Blog out there called Mr. Money Moustache (if you don’t know who he is, look him up, and read him, he’s terrific) that basically tells its readers to “get rid of debt like your hair is on fire”. While he’s pretty harsh, I tend to agree. I’m going to say, flat out, that eliminating any and all debt is one of the best ways to ensure that you can continue on in your chosen artistic field. Lower overhead will make your life easier, and will make it possible for you to work in a lower (or barely) paying field for a longer amount of time than you would be able to with lots of bills and debts hanging about.

But, okay. You’re barely making enough money to survive. You wait tables, take odd gigs, and sometimes get a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you think about paying the minimum monthly payment (yet again) on your credit card. How is it going to change? How can you ever get that ball rolling in the right direction, and pick up enough momentum to make any kind of difference? While it would be nice to just get the Broadway phone call, sign a $2,000 a week production contract, and kiss your money woes goodbye, I’m going to address this in a somewhat more realistic, maybe even somber manner. My friends- it’s rice and beans time.

No, seriously. It doesn’t have to be rice and beans. It could be sunflower seeds. Or Ramen. Or bulk bags of rice. Or frozen vegetables. I have a friend who spends $100 for AN ENTIRE MONTH of food. I know this is a little ridiculous. I tease him about it sometimes. But, we could all take a page out of his book from time to time. Sit down, look at your monthly food spending. And actually add up all the money you’ve spent on food. Grocery store. Random Chocolate Bar. Drinks at a Bar. Restaurants. Coffee Shop. And look at the number. Oooh, it’s a little bigger than you thought, isn’t it?

I’m not saying that you literally have to go down to eating rice and beans and peanuts from a ziplock bag EVERY day. I actually don’t think you should- I think that socializing with friends, and networking at bars, restaurants, etc, is a crucial thing. But- if there’s a day that you have some fruit and nuts and a yogurt in the middle of the day, rather than a stop at Chipotle, you’ve spent about $2.50 instead of $7. Do that 8 times, and you suddenly have an extra $44 to put towards your credit card’s minimum payment.

None of this is easy. Easy is quitting your artistic pursuits, working at an office doing something random for 40 hours a week, and suddenly having more money. And ultimately, you will eventually need more money to be able to support yourself long term- cutting corners is just the quick fix. But without the initial corner cutting, you’ll never be able to build the oh so necessary cushion- that extra $1,000 that makes you feel comfortable enough to take a week to work on a life changing gallery exhibit, or audition for that Off-Broadway show that might not cover your monthly living expenses, but could possibly launch your career.








Artists and Weddings

So, you’re trying to be more strategic with your money. You’ve stopped eating out as much, you managed not to splurge at Lululemon when that sports bra you’ve been eying went on sale, even though you really could use a new sports bra, you’ve made lots of little positive changes, and you’ve managed to save $200 this month. Congratulations! For someone not making that much money, that $200 is a big deal- and you’re proud.

Now, here’s the kicker. You wanted that $200 to go into an emergency fund. You’re an artist, and you don’t have one at all. But then you get a phone call…

“I’m getting married! I can’t wait to share this special day with you! Will you be my bridesmaid?!”…there goes your $200, and then some. Most likely, attending this wedding will not only negate your forward moving progress, but will maybe put you in debt again for three or four months. For someone with a day job, a $600-$800 wedding (let’s say your traveling somewhere, getting a gift, and buying a bridesmaid dress…maybe staying in a hotel for the night too, maybe attending a bachelorette party, maybe an engagement gift…my estimate is actually on the lower end) is expensive, but not prohibitively so. For you, well- it’s literally your entire fledgling savings account.

How do you deal? Admittedly, this is one of the things I’m the least savvy about. Over the years, weddings have caused me more grief than I ever imagined they could. Other personal finance writers often say that they simply stop maintaining friendships with people who make them spend uncomfortably or unnecessarily. But I’m not so sure this is an “unnecessary” expense- a close friend has a right to have a wedding, many people throw them in a relatively extravagant manner, and I don’t think my friends who want me to be in or at their weddings are in the wrong- on the contrary, they’re asking me because they want me to be part of their big day.

Throughout the years, I’ve had good wedding experiences and bad ones…and I think the thing that has differentiated them has usually been the amount of communication I’ve had with the bride or groom about my financial circumstances. I do think honesty does have to play a part in all of this. If your friend really cares about you, and they’ve seen you struggle to be a dancer/singer/painter/actor/writer for the last 10 or 15 years, they should theoretically have some idea about where you’re coming from. But, also, be prepared for a friend who simply can’t put themselves in your shoes, and only sees you not acting in a supportive manner.

All I can say is, there are definitely years where I saved nothing for retirement, but spent $1,500 on wedding paraphernalia. And that made me feel really, really uncomfortable. Yes, I want to celebrate you…but at what cost? My friendships are SO important to me. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t bother with any of this…but, I wonder, do my non-artistic friends really understand the spending pie I’m divvying up, and do they see how much of my non-existent discretionary income is going towards their events?

I’m not sure that there’s really a “right” answer for this post, in the way that I feel comfortable writing that having lots of credit card debt as an artist is in almost all circumstances “wrong”. But I do think it’s important to talk about these situations, as they do come up for all of us- even if they come up for you as a banker with an artistic friend. I know there are many artists and non-artists reading the blog at this point. What do you all think?