Do You Know This Scavenger?

Everyone loves her.

She’s your “creative, artsy” friend.  She came to New York to be an actor, and she pursues it with a passion.  In fact, she embodies the soul of an actor the same way your Uncle Larry insists that developing diabetes was inevitable: there may have been ways to avoid it (join the volleyball team instead of “The Thespian Threesome”/reach for a pear instead of that slice of buttercream cake followed by a rum and Coke) but there was no way to stop the train.

Because she’s an artist, the actor is always feeling something.  At any point in the day, she’s emotional, funny, sarcastic, emo, cray-cray, deep, snide or simpatico.  But mostly she’s emotional.

She wears all her thoughts and dreams and memories and feelings on her sleeve, and has the ability to draw on them at any moment.  One minute she’s exhilarated, twirling around in her vintage babydoll sundress and Jesus sandals, celebrating sunshine!  The next minute, she’s home on a Saturday night, picking at the leftover ration of hummus and celery sticks, too sad to go out because she watched one too many Humane Society commercials that day.

Although she’s thrilled to be in New York pursuing her dream, there is a downside to the actor’s life.  While she hustles for auditions, your artsy friend is also hustling jobs, going from her waitressing shift at a French bistro to teaching yoga at the gym, to offering Spanish tutoring lessons to kids.  She can’t get a “real” job with strict hours because she needs the flexibility to head to auditions at a moments’ notice.  Plus, let’s face it, the 9-5 jobs are soul-crushing and bruise an actors’ creative spirit.  Or something like that.

Your friend knows how to keep costs down, she packs her meals every day, avoids the big group dinners and keeps her life simple. She knows where to get deals, how to turn Trader Joe’s samples into lunch, how to stretch Chinese takeout into three full meals.  You know who I’m talking about: she’s your friend the “artiste,” but she’s also know as The  Scavenger.

Mind you, not all actors are Scavengers and not all Scavengers are actors.  Many actors, freelancers, non-profit professionals and small business owners successfully create a balance between pursuing their dreams, and making sure they earn enough money to pay their bills and save in the meantime.  They know that the biggest burden–and what could overwhelmingly keep them from being successful–is racking up debt and then not managing it properly.

The Scavenger’s day is very busy.  She huffs from rehearsal to audition to acting class to meditation.  Mid-morning, she meets up with friends, rolling into Starbucks with her laptop and her own environment-friendly thermos of green tea.  For lunch, she heads out with fellow castmates, and while they gorge on Chiptotle or pizza, she nibbles on her homemade almond butter-filled pita pocket while running lines. She snacks on carrots and dried apples she packs from home, and after her waitressing shift, she houses the family meal of pasta primavera.  Total food cost per day: about $6.00.

Was Julia a Scavenger before "Pretty Woman"?

At any point during the year, the Scavenger has between 2 and 5 roommates. She might live with 5 people in a six floor walk-up above a pizza place in the East Village, or she lives with two other roommates in a third-floor walk-up above a Chinese dry-cleaner in Sunnyside, Queens.  Either way, she pays $750 in rent.

Because she’s on a limited budget, the Scavenger shops at the Salvation Army, Goodwill and Beacon’s Closet.  If it’s an important audition or a theater party, she’ll spend a couple extra bucks for a cute top at H&M.  Her furniture is also second-hand. If she didn’t bring it with her from college she got it from Good Will.  On Thursday evenings, she and some friends “dumpster dive” in other peoples’ trash left out on the curb, pilfering swivel desk chairs, standing lamps, even futons, and bringing them home to refurbish.

The Scavenger knows where all the best happy hour deals are and what day of the week you can get a PBR and a shot of Jameson for $2 (Monday at a dive bar on Avenue B from 4-6 pm).  She’s on FreeWilliamsburg.com, trolling the listings for free, half-off, discount and 2-for-1 deals.  She attends art and theater openings for the snacks and has a knack for making  cheese and crackers, wine and crudites into a healthy and hearty dinner.

You love hanging out with the Scavenger.  She’s your “artsy” friend who makes you feel really really cool.  Her whimsical, carefree  approach to life, the way she sits in lotus position on her bar stool and adds a sprinkle of acai powder to her Yuelingling draft, singing over Adele any time she hears “Someone Like You”–it makes you feel like you too are soulful and creative.  (But you’re not. You’re a professional, maybe even a wannabe 1%-er.  Ain’t nothing wrong with health benefits and a 401k).

Nevertheless, you love being dragged around with your actor friend and her crowd, because, despite all of their whimsy and fairytale ways, you feel ALIVE when you’re among the artistes!  They drag you to karaoke where you belt out “Livin’ On A Prayer” like you were auditioning for “American Idol.”  You support you friends’ off-off-off-off Broadway show held in the basement of a Dominican take-out/strip joint in Washington Heights and invite all your banker friends to the performance.  You help your friends run lines, shouting “Less is more!” over and over.  You try mung beans for the first (and last) time. You even (secretly) like “Glee.”

But as fun as your scavengey friend and her crowd are, there is one humongous drawback.  They are broke.  For as long as you’ve known her, the Scavenger has complained about how poor she is, how she’s so sick of poverty, how being an actor sucks because you can’t even buy milk (yes you can).  Sure, she works several jobs and tries to keep expenses to a minimum, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she spends and saves wisely.

The problem with the Scavenger–whether she an artist or actor, works for a non-profit, or is pursuing another passion that doesn’t pay very well– is that she “thinks poor.”  Many Scavengers believe that in order to have a life in the arts, or any path they were born to follow, they have to suffer.   But this “poor man’s” mentality is just negative chitter-chatter, and it doesn’t have to be that way. No matter what you do or want to do in life, there are ways to pursue your passion and live well at the same time.  Here are some tips:

1. Know how much you spend and what you spend on. Many freelancers, artists and small business owners have sporadic income so it’s hard to get a handle on what’s coming in and what’s going out.  Spend a week and if possible a month writing down everything you spend money on so you know what your spending habits are, and how much you need to earn to cover bills every month.  Also, because income can fluctuate on a monthly basis, track your earnings over the course of 3-6 months.  Find the monthly income average based on your last six months of income and set savings goals so that you put extra money away on months that you have more work and income.  Most important, take note of unnecessary expenditures, the splurges, nights out, and spontaneous purchases that you can cut down-or out.

2.  Set a budget you can follow. Because an artist’s income can fluctuate on a monthly basis, it’s especially important to set a budget and stick to it. A budget can help you get organized and stay organized, even when it seems like life is chaotic and your schedule is all over the place. Find a budgeting system that works for you, whether it’s Mint.com, using an Excel spreadsheet or plain old pen and paper.  Decide on the budgeting program that fits your lifestyle and use it.  Make sure to budget and save for health insurance, renter’s insurance and minimum credit card payments.

3. Get a job.  While some artists and freelancers are jacks-of-all trades and work their tails off in order to pay rent and bills, many Scavengers don’t work enough, or they work the minimum in order to focus on their passion. Yes, the day job can be soul-crushing but so are creditors and bankruptcy.  And let’s not even mention the lack of a retirement plan. Don’t think that letting bills pile up, allowing saving accounts to be depleted and having no retirement plan is justifiable because you’re pursuing your passion. If you have the opportunity to make a few bucks, suck it up and work those hours–the screenplay can wait until after your shift.

4.  Get another job.  If you have a job but also have debt that you just can’t seem to get under control, consider adding a shift or finding another side job.  Ask your friends if anyone needs help moving, organizing their closets, doing errands or other personal projects.  If you happen to be a tech geek, offer web design or web maintenance services.  Put the money you earn from that extra shift or project towards a bill to pay down debt. You’ll find that without the burden of unmanageable debt, you can actually focus on what you really want to do, instead of stressing about how to pay rent.

5.  Make the right spending choices.  Sometimes the “poor mentality” comes not from lack of income, but from plain old bad spending habits.  It’s not the actor lifestyle and the sacrifices that come with it that makes you “poor” but the spending choices you make.  Do you stay up late stressing about rent and school loan payments, but then turn down an opportunity to add a shift at work because you might get a call-back audition and want to keep your schedule clear?   Do you barely scrape together enough cash to make the minimum payment on your credit card but then throw down that same card for a cute outfit for the non-profit board meeting or cast party?  Sure, there are tough choices to make, but rent and bills are obligations you have to meet.  Thinking of it that way, it’s not really a choice is it?

An actor or freelancer’s life can be as rich and fulfilling as a banker’s–maybe even better because you’re pursuing your passions instead of sitting there bored at a department meeting. Remember, it’s not about how much you make that makes you rich; it’s about making the right spending and saving choices.  Artists shouldn’t have to starve–or scavenge.  Or eat mung beans.

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