A recent New York Times article revealed that to be considered “middle class” in New York City, one has to make about $160,000 per year. In other areas of the country, that salary can get you farther–maybe a nice home with a pool, a car or two and a comfortable lifestyle–but in NYC, you’re lucky to be living in a doorman building in a decent part of town and possibly have a parking space. If people making six-figures are still struggling to afford certain essentials, what if you make a five-figure salary? How can you possibly maintain a decent lifestyle, have your needs met and maybe even afford a splurge or two? And more important, how can you save money while living in NYC on a not-so-hefty salary?
Jennifer Cole, a freelance graphic designer (www.jenncoledesign.com), learned the hard way that to save money as a small business owner, it takes organization, prioritization and thriftiness. Yet over the past 4-5 years, she managed to save $35,000 on a $50,000 a year salary–and can still afford to pursue her hobbies, travel and shop!
The Tough Early Days
Up until recently, Jennifer’s experience with money had seemed like a crazy a rollercoaster ride. Growing up, she witnessed her family wrestling with money problems and debt, and she had always had a tenuous relationship with money. In college, she trained herself to be thrifty, living on $50 a week, and became adept at using coupons at the grocery store, prioritizing splurges and being creative with her existing wardrobe. That frugality extended even down to her shampoo! Later, as a business owner, Jen struggled to abide by this philosophy, but eventually she found herself in a hole.
She started her graphic design business in San Francisco, then moved to New York City several years ago and struggled to balance the responsibility of her business with the financial demands of living in a big city. As an entrepreneur she knew that the key to success was managing her finances so that her business could sustain her lifestyle.
Her “aha” moment came one day when she was balancing her checkbook and realized she had spent $2000 in the past 2 weeks. She was mortified and disappointed with herself–because the bulk of that money was spent on frivolous things and not on necessary expenses. Soon after, she received a tax bill in the mail and didn’t have the money to pay it. She quickly realized that if she was to continue her freelance business, she would have to be more organized, and allocate portions of her paychecks to taxes and other expenses.
After some soul-searching and thanks to a loan from a family member to help her pay the tax bill, Jen got herself in gear. She dove into what she calls “spreadsheet land,” and set up a system that tracks her paychecks. So now when she gets a $6000 check, she knows it doesn’t all go directly into her checking account; rather, she allows herself to keep half for monthly living expenses, then portions the rest into tax payments, retirement account, savings and business equipment/expenses.
Once she set up her spreadsheet and started using it, saving was a cinch! By allocating her paychecks to savings and taxes, she didn’t have any lingering worries about missing payments or outstanding debt. She knew how much she had to spend each month on necessary and variable expenses, and was automatically putting money into savings because of the way the spreadsheet was set up. The more she saved the more peace of mind she had–and the easier it was for her to set priorities. With her spending money, she learned how to live on a budget and make the right decisions, and the most important concern for Jen was to be unencumbered with money problems.
Rules To Live By
Five years later, Jen has a thriving business and a healthy savings account, yet continues to live below her means. She says, “Whenever I make money, I don’t up my lifestyle. I have a hefty savings account but still live in a 300 square foot studio apartment.” What rules does she live by? “Set financial goals, live by your rules but don’t change your lifestyle if you get a raise or come into money.” She says the most important lesson she’s learned is to “align your values with your money; that helps you prioritize how you save and on what splurges.”
So even as she continues to grow and take her business to the next level, Jen also allows herself the occasional splurge, especially on her favorite hobby–traveling. She is a fan of airbnb.com and arifarewatchdog.com, sites that offer low-cost travel options for budget-minded consumers. Jen also does much of her wardrobe shopping online, and snags deals on sweaters, coats and boots all year-round by using coupons and specials advertised on the sites. In that way, she is always shopping and never “needs” anything.
And this year, she has been pursuing another goal. With her business and finances in order, Jen has been hitting open-houses and meeting with real estate brokers with the hopes of taking advantage of the low-moderate income housing opportunities available in New York City. These governent subsidies may help Jen buy her first home–a benefit for people at her income level–but, alas, not available to the six-figure ‘middle class.’
At Money Moxie, we provide non-coma-inducing workshops on personal finance. Education is important to understanding financial concepts, learning about the markets and knowing what questions to ask. But sometimes, people want professional advice on how to invest their money, which funds to pick and how to build a diversified portfolio.
Money Moxie has partnered with Conte Wealth Advisors, a boutique wealth management firm in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to provide an option for professional financial advice. Below is a conversation I recently had with Frank and Tony Conte, father and son team and Managing Partners at Conte Wealth Advisors.
How did Conte Wealth Advisors come about?
Frank: My father started in the financial planning business in the 1960’s and after college, I joined the business. I’ve been in the business for 40 years, with Prudential Financial first and then I started Conte Wealth Advisors in 2005. After 32 years with Prudential I decided I liked the idea of being completely independent and working for the client rather than working for the company.
Tony: Conte Wealth Advisors is a family business. Since I joined, we’ve switched our focus and now do some life insurance, but mostly investments and planning strategies.
What is your role in the firm?
Tony: When I started a few years ago, I was simply a financial advisor, gathering clients and managing assets; now it’s that plus recruiting, marketing and serving as a managing advisor. I look at the big picture and also explore opportunities to move our firm forward.
Frank: I bring in big clients and oversee the firm, kind of like the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz!
How would you describe your financial process at Conte Wealth Advisors?
Frank: It’s normally a three-interview process. The first appointment is ‘how you doing?’ and finding out if we have the right chemistry to work together. We gather a prospect’s basic information then. The second appointment is more involved; we drill down to what a client’s financial planning needs and goals are and figure out the right strategy. Then we go to work, come up with a plan and at the third meeting we review the plan and find out how often we should meet with the client.
Tony: We are constantly reviewing the investing and planning strategies we recommend to our clients. We meet with our clients at least every six months, sometimes quarterly, to review their financial picture. When we meet with them we look at the strategy in place and in reviewing what they have, we look at what they don’t have and what they might need. For example, whether the clients has alternative class assets.
Frank, you’ve been a financial advisor since you graduated college. Tony, what did you do before joining Conte Wealth Advisors?
Tony: I was a writer/producer for CNN in Atlanta and NY. I spent one year working on the ill-fated “Connie Chung Tonight.” I then moved on to Paula Zahn’s show then Anderson Cooper for a bit. I never would have expected that I would like doing this [wealth management]. One thing people don’t understand is how intriguing it is—you sit in front of different types of people who tell you everything and you get to share solutions and help them.
Tony, how do you think your past experience prepared you for a role in wealth management?
My experience with CNN really helped me in working with different types of people and tense situations. I worked the control room on Sept 12, 2001 and spent a month after that working nonstop and being exposed to some really graphic, traumatizing images and stories. That experience really affected me, and without that understanding I would not have been able to manage the role I’m in now and remain calm.
I guess the unique aspect of this job is the power we have to really get to know our clients. Not every profession lets you sit in front of someone and say, “What do you regret?” And then be able to give them something back.
What is the best part of your job?
Tony: Meeting with clients and learning about their situations but I also love the investment side of things. I love learning about companies and trading strategies.
Frank: I love the process of bringing on a new client and then actually becoming friends with them.
What is the worst part of your job?
Tony: Telling people that they’re not going to be fine in retirement. A lot of advisors don’t tell them. There were a few clients I had to sit them down and say ‘you either have to go back to work or you have to spend less.’
How does your firm work with clients and families that you believe sets you apart from other firms?
Frank: I guess the huge difference is that some other firms work in a vacuum. If they have a 20-person group, all the advisors work individually. But at our firm, we share information about our clients and have Monday meetings to discuss the various situations and possible solutions.
Tony: We bring a family-team approach to our practice. We share databases, all the information that we need to share about our clients so that if I’m out of the office, someone else can handle a client situation.
Do you have any advice for professional women and how they should approach financial planning?
Tony: Well the most important thing for anybody is if your company offers a 401(k) and matches a percentage of your contributions, you must at least save the matching amount because that’s free money. If you’re in your late 20’s you should start saving at least 10% for retirement and you’ll be on the right track.
Frank: In the past, I’ve seen women stand back and let their spouses make the financial decision. I think the woman needs to be involved in her family’s financial planning, even more than her spouse because she will likely be the one handling the money at the end of the day. She needs to educate herself as much as possible, go to seminars, learn about investing so that she’s prepared.
How do you see the coming election and how the elections will affect the market?
Tony: Well, I have a different view on the elections than my father. The stock market has historically been a forward-thinking instrument. There was a lot of talk a few months back that the markets have already priced in an Obama win. But looking at Romney’s platform and the changes that he plans to make—it’s easy for people to think these changes would be good for the economy. But Romney is still relatively unknown so that could lead to more uncertainty which would affect the market negatively. Whatever people think of Obama, at least his policies are known and that’s better for the market than dealing with the unknown.
Frank: I’m cautiously optimistic. I think the market will do very little for the rest of this year. If a Republican wins the election, the markets will do well. But if you look at this year overall, the market has done very well; even in the past three years we’ve had great returns.
If I had known I was going to spend my career in the financial industry, I would have paid attention in math class. Actually, I did pay attention in math and even turned to my father (algebra’s #1 fan) for additional “tutoring.” Unfortunately, he would first make me sit down and do my multiplication tables before even glancing at the math problem. Which meant that I would never get my math question answered since I had a hard time multiplying anything over seven; thus the stand-off would begin. The “tutoring” session usually lasted for five hours and ended in tears.
When I graduated from law school, I had a plan to work for the United Nations and utilize my sense of justice and the archaic international law I had learned to save refugees all over the world from sadistic dictators and occupiers. Then I got my first school loan statement and immediately got a job at a general practice law firm.
Working in a small but busy firm gave me the opportunity to try different types of law. I handled a few bankruptcy cases but found some of my clients a bit too shady for my taste, especially when one asked if he could use his credit card just one last time to buy his daughter a fancy watch for graduation.
Personal injury was out–one client who had been in an auto accident called me every day to ask when she was getting a check from the insurance company and would keep me on the phone whining about her whiplash. This only annoyed me; if I wanted to spend my day acting sympathetic and listening to someone say “oh Miss Lena, it hurts!” I would’ve gone into nursing.
For some reason, I had a real affinity for immigration law. It was the closest I would get to practicing “international law” and it kept me very busy. Every week, I visited clients being held for deportation in county jails, INS (now renamed Department of Homeland Security) deportation facilities, immigration court and law libraries. I learned a ton about administrative law and about the political and economic problems many countries faced at that time. I knew about Sierra Leone and Liberia waaaaaay before “Blood Diamond,” the sad situation in Rwanda before “Hotel Rwanda,” and learned firsthand about the terror of Bin Laden and the Taliban well before 9/11.
Most of all I enjoyed it because I felt my work was really making a difference. I’ll never forget my favorite client, a teeny 4 foot, 175 year-old toothless Afghani woman whose family had been taken by the Taliban. She had been warned by fellow villagers to leave, and having only a sister in Virginia and nowhere else to go, she escaped through the mountains of Afghanistan into Pakistan and was finally stuffed into the trunk of a car and smuggled over the Mexican border. When we won her political asylum case, she held my head in her bony hands and showered me with tearful ‘thank you’s’ in Urdu. Kinda broke my heart.
I had many clients who had escaped from Sierra Leone. They were always so jovial, loud, laughing, telling stories and always brought the whole family with them , even if the appointment was only for one person. But then the mood would turn somber as the family told me their stories, of what happened in their villages and showed me pictures of family members with arms and legs dismembered by the opposition. I would look at the photos and hear their stories in horror; they were always matter-of-fact, remembering the atrocities and talking through their memories. But as soon as the meeting was over, they were back to telling jokes.
One constant problem I faced was that my clients didn’t know who to trust, so they didn’t trust me and weren’t always completely forthcoming. This was unfortunate because at every court appearance the government lawyer (INS) would always have a damning piece of evidence that my client hadn’t told me about. It ALWAYS HAPPENED–even after I would plead with my client to tell me the truth–there was always some past arrest, not-yet-divorced wife, failure to appear, illegitimate child, bench warrant, prior deportation proceeding or domestic abuse violation that I didn’t know about.
So why did I leave such a seemingly rewarding career as an immigration lawyer? Let’s just say that after adding up the hours I spent working, I was making about $2.50 an hour, and I was getting increasingly frustrated with the “drive-bys” (the taxi driver clients who would stop by whenever they were in the area to drop off papers or just chat about their case); the genius clients (at a marriage interview, a Jamaican husband–and green card applicant–answered the INS officer honestly : “Yeah, I got high in the past. But I quit. It’s been like…what….almost two weeks.”); and the super-shady clients (the completely mismatched couple filing for a green card and after every meeting the foreign husband takes the American wife “shopping”).
Plus, by that time, I was dating my dream guy–a gweedo from Brooklyn complete with a pinky ring, wife beater, sweat pants, puffy high tops and champagne taste, who every night, would take his garden chair and go sit on the corner and chill with his boys. He was already a broker, working in a boiler room/trading floor on Wall Street. Every day, he would tell me all the crazy stories from work–the fist fights that broke out in the boiler room, the market highs and lows, skyrocketing tech stocks, cold calls to senior citizens at dinnertime, co-workers doing coke in the bathroom, crazy weekends in the Hamptons where he and his friends would jump into the pool with their lawn chairs, the money he would be making, the money being exchanged, the fancy lifestyle of the partners at his firm.
I was intrigued. I was turned on! This was sexy. This was different from immigration law and the sad, desperate stories of my clients. My boyfriend wasn’t facing a waiting room of clients from Ghana, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, all wearing their native garb, none of whom had made an actual appointment with me. He was sporting Armani, eating steak and drinking bourbon. I know this might make me a superficial person, but that’s what changed me. I wanted that lifestyle.
But while the swashbuckling ways of my boyfriend might have turned me onto the financial industry, what kept me there was its diversity. I was intrigued by the fast-moving markets, how politics, economics, war and even personnel changes can affect a company’s stock price; how companies are built from a simple idea or brain-storming session and turn into a multi-billion dollar global enterprise; how politics and tax laws affect investors, how investors shape businesses, how businesses determine industries and how it all fits into the greater scheme of the economy.
I started reading about the markets. Whenever I could, I would pick up The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, TheStreet.com, Bloomberg News, Forbes– and even though it looked like gobbledygook in the beginning, I forced myself to read the articles from cover to cover. Gobbledygook turned into Mandarin Chinese, Mandarin Chinese turned into Farsi, Farsi turned into Latin and eventually I began to understand what I was reading about. Things started to make sense and I learned how the different areas of finance related to each other.
A consulting job working for a top investment bank on Wall Street further taught me the inner workings of a bank, how the trading side is separated from the investment banking side by a “Chinese Wall;” how analysts study companies and sectors and deliver analysis and information that help get deals done; how diversified one financial institution could be.
But it was my job at an insurance company that reinforced my nerdy obsession with the financial industry and showed me what my true passion was–working with advisors and clients. Not only was I learning about the other areas of finance–about broker-dealers, wealth management and building relationships–but I was getting face time with financial advisors and their clients.
Most important, I learned that the more individuals understood their finances, the more empowered they would be to make the right decisions. Someone could have a good financial advisor and could make a lot of money, but without a basic understanding of the markets and what their financial goals are, they could be totally lead astray. My seventh grade English teacher had a motto she repeated every day: “Organization is the key to success.” I’ve always thought organization was a bit overrated, and I prefer this motto “Financial education is the key to success.” Once you get your finances in place, you can hire someone to organize your stuff.
I can’t say that I miss practicing immigration law, not that I ever completely stopped. Even though I’ve been in the financial industry for over twelve years, the stigma of being an immigration attorney has never disappeared-especially since I come from a family of immigrants who are always referring me to friends and extended family. I have been known to share a couple words of wisdom with my cab drivers around the city and friends still call with immigration questions. But none of this can compete with the crazy, tumultuous, ever-changing world of finance. And the kooky cast of characters that live in that world.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve received great feedback about the “shot-callers” I profiled on this blog. People loved reading about Sharon, Tea and Tamar–“real” women who built successful businesses, bought dream homes, planned their ideal weddings and traveled the world–and did it all using savvy financial wisdom. I want to send a special thanks to my favorite shot-callers–Sharon Richter, Tea M and Tamar Vezirian–for sharing their unique stories, for being so open and honest about the challenges they encountered along the way, and especially for offering simple but profound advice.
Sharon Richter, a NYC based nutritionist with a successful business (www.therichterreco.com) worked hard, saved her money and built her business from the ground up. Recently she bought and renovated her dream apartment near Central Park. Sharon isn’t a trust fund baby, nor did she have a ‘sugar daddy’ paying her bills and buying her mink stoles. Sharon relied on guts, hard work and discipline to get where she is today. Here are some great tips from Sharon:
– Make and pack your breakfast and lunch every day, even if you’re on the go.
– Once in a while, it’s OK to forego the big Friday night dinner with friends and just meet up after for drinks.
– If you are saving up for a big-ticket item or event like buying a home or planning/paying for a wedding, consider investing the money you’re saving to generate higher returns–like a short-term CD, high-yield savings account or mutual fund. So when you need the money down the road, you’ll have a little bit more!
– Never pay full price for designer stuff. Almost everything goes on sale so wait for the sale to make the purchase and in the meantime, figure out a way to save up for that big purchase—Sharon stuffs 10’s and 20’s into an envelope to save up for her shoes, boots, bags, etc.
– Come up with a system to save money that works for you. And then follow it!
Tea M, an architect and design consultant for financial systems, recently purchased her dream apartment in NYC with a million dollar view. Now she looks forward to designing her new home the way she has always imagined. While the road to homeowners-ville was tough and windy, Tea was able to save money and use some financial wisdom in the meantime to get there. She knew compromise was essential to take the next step, but there were some things that were not up for grabs–like traveling the world, skiing and hiking. She designed her life so that she was able to buy her dream apartment while still pursuing activities that she enjoyed. Here are some tips from Tea:
– If available, make sure to sign up for credit card rewards, collect airline miles and other credit card incentives–and use them to your advantage. This allowed Tea to travel on miles and saved her thousands of dollars on her skiing/hiking/touring trips around the world.
–Figure out a budgeting system that works for you. Tea keeps track of expenses by charging most things on one credit card. She keeps a specific amount of “street money” on hand for unexpected expenses.
– One way of keeping costs down since Tea’s apartment purchase is to cut down on unnecessary expenses. Tea now holds off on manicures, pedicures and haircuts until absolutely necessary and keeps frivolous expenses to a minimum.
Tamar Vezirian, founder of Gotham Glow (www.GothamGlow.com), originally came to NY to pursue an acting career. Instead, she found her calling as the owner of one of the top airbrush tanning salons in NYC. She admits that building her business was tough–demanding clients, the physical requirements of the job and the challenge of running a business alone–often wore her down. But with guts, persistence and determination, she built Gotham Glow into a high-end service demanded by socialites, celebs, executives, business moguls– and regular peeps too. Here are some money gems from Tamar:
– If you’re thinking of starting a business, it’s best to keep your day job while you’re starting up and make sure you have a substantial amount of money set aside in savings. I suggest (this is Lena’s opinion!) about nine months’ worth of savings.
– When starting a business, or if you’re saving up or trying to manage debt, make sure to keep living (and business) expenses low. When she moved to NYC, Tamar rented a room from a 75-year-old woman, not exactly the ideal living situation for a swingin’ 23-year old woman! And as a business-owner, Tamar was a one-woman show, doing the tans, bookings, correspondences, PR, bookkeeping and anything in between.
– Become an expert negotiator. It never hurts to negotiate a price (except maybe not at Macy’s) or barter/exchange services. Depending on your business, you can swap services for massages, beauty services, haircuts, PR, SEO, website help, legal advice and more.
While it’s true that we live in a ‘material world’, we have a choice about how to deal with it. We can live like ‘ballers’–and shop til we drop, spend hundreds on just the right tone of highlights and low-lights, go to fancy restaurants and live in luxury apartments–and then go broke in the meantime. Or we can be ‘shot-callers’– and exercise restraint and discipline when it comes to our expenses and savings. With a little prioritization, preparation and self-control, we can reach our financial dreams– and still look good, eat well and wear those Jimmy Choos.
There aren’t many things I liked about the ’80’s. Bad hair was prevalent then ( A Flock of Seagulls, bi-level bobs, rat-tails). It was a decade of bad fashion (braided headbands and leg warmers, Members Only jackets, pegged jeans, double-breasted suit jackets over wife-beaters a la Miami Vice, anything MC Hammer wore). And for some reason, everyone spoke “valley,” even in Maryland (“Like, gag me with a spoon!”).
But it wasn’t all bad; in fact, there was one person who singlehandedly saved the ’80’s from being the dorky decade. I’m talkin’ to you, Sylvester Stallone. Whether Stallone was starring in the “Rocky ” I-IV movies, “Tango & Cash,” or any of the many hammy movies of his career, there was an endearing similarity in all of the characters he played. While the storyline and circumstances varied in each film, Stallone always played a character with determination. Whether he was training for a fight, running up and down the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, battling the Viet Cong in “Rambo,” or even cracking jokes as a tough cabbie with a heart of gold in “Rhinestone,” we rooted for his characters because they were relatable, gutsy and determined.
Similarly, determination is what took Tamar Vezirian, founder of Goltham Glow in NYC, from the bomb shelters of Beirut, to the hills of San Francisco, to the filthy streets of New York City where she launched an air-brush tanning business that became a smashing success. It’s a story that says–like Tamar or Rocky Balboa– with enough guts, hard work and determination, we can reach our financial goals.
The Shot-Caller With Determination
For Tamar, the road to success was long, windy and filled with drag queens and trannies, late night house calls, drunk celebrities, angry cab drivers and tanning formula along the way. Growing up in San Francisco, Tamar dreamt of becoming a performer, just like her idol Cher. She studied acting and singing, and performed at local theaters before venturing on to NYC to seek theatrical fame and fortune.
In NY, Tamar started doing sketch comedy, musical theater and improv, went to tons of auditions and became heavily involved in the acting community. But while she was thrilled to be pursuing her passions, someone still had to pay the bills. While living in San Francisco, Tamar had worked as a makeup artist (that’s where she met all the drag queens!) so it was easy for her to find similar jobs in NY. Along with make-up gigs, she eventually landed a job at an air-brush spray tanning salon. Tamar quickly learned the tricks of the trade, and, with her bubbly personality, sense of humor and professionalism, clients loved her.
After a few years of tanning clients, Tamar knew she had found her calling, and she was ready to take the next step. Not only could she make clients look natural and sun-kissed, but she knew how to apply the solution in a way that enhances the appearance of her clients’ bodies. With a few strokes of her tanning gun, she can make a woman’s breasts appear larger, give a man’s gut definition and “abs,” and even reduce the appearance of cellulite around the thighs. In other words, she’s a magician!
While she was working at the salon, she also worked part-time for a high-end cosmetics line at a department store, worked several nights a week as a make-up artist at a strip club, and was also doing freelance makeup gigs on the side. “I was a Jamaican working seven days a week and had a show at the same time,” she remembers. Tamar finally saved enough money from her side jobs to quit the tanning salon, and focused on creating her own mobile airbrush tanning business. After months of fear and agonizing over starting her own venture, Gotham Glow was born (www.GothamGlow.com).
The early days of Gotham Glow were tough. Since it was primarily a mobile service, Tamar would take subways, buses, taxis and would hoof it all over town to meet clients with her pop-up tent and tanning machine in tow. When she started building her business, she took any and all appointments–whether it was a house-call for an Upper East Side socialite at 6 am, a D-List celebrity coming back from the club at 3:00 am or a busy executive returning home from a trip just to unpack, repack, get a spray tan and get back on the road. When she wasn’t traveling to and from her tanning appointments or spraying clients, Tamar did everything else: from the bookings, to the correspondences (apparently many New York women need A LOT of hand-holding) to the accounting to marketing to her own PR. When she could get away from all of the paperwork, Tamar would hit the public library for free business courses or just spend time doing online research on competitors and ideas.
After a few years, Tamar had built up a list of solid clients and had earned a reputation as one of the best air-brush tanners in the city. She worked around the clock, day and night, heading to appointments in sleet, snow, wind, hail, scorching sun and dark of night. She would leave parties, events with friends, and dates with her boyfriend just so she can make a scheduled appointment, and she rarely took a vacation.
Eventually, her services were so in-demand that she began offering in-studio tans and had men and women ringing her doorbell at all hours of the day and night. By that point, Gotham Glow was being written up in all the major beauty and health publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Details, Allure, Glamour, Time Out Magazine and many more. The press was great for business but since her business was in her home, it was difficult to get any peace or privacy. In 2011, Tamar finally opened the first Gotham Glow salon in the Flatiron District.
As a successful business owner, Tamar can now breathe a little easy, but she still maintains that hard-core work ethic. Still, she laughs when recalling some of her kookier clients and some of the antics she had to deal with in the early days of Gotham Glow. She recalls one client who was addicted to iced coffee and would always have several half-filled cups of iced coffee scattered throughout her apartment. This same client would keep her Bluetooth headset in her ear and would continue her conference calls while Tamar tanned her, despite having to talk over the hum of the tanning machine.
Another client had taken too many ‘muscle relaxers’ when Tamar tanned her. She fell asleep standing up under the tent, and when it was time for payment, she wrote Tamar a check for $14,000 (Tamar charges $125-175 for house calls). Still another client was naked in the tent, dancing by herself to no music while Tamar patiently tried to tan her.
Tips for Starting a Business or Reaching Your Financial Goal
Tamar shared some serious tips that helped her build her business from the ground-up:
– “I’m always one of those people who worries about money,” she admits. For that reason, Tamar thought long and hard before quitting her job at the salon and starting her own business. She also made sure to save a substantial amount of money so that she has emergency funds for living expenses. And even after she started Gotham Glow, she still held on to several gigs to make sure she was making money to cover her rent and living expenses and staying debt-free.
– Even before she started her business, Tamar made sure to keep her living expenses low. When she moved to NYC, she rented a room from a fellow Armenian woman who was 75 years old. The situation wasn’t exactly ideal for a 23-year-old woman newly arrived in NYC, but she knew that by keeping her rent payment low, she could save money.
– She kept her expenses to a minimum in her business as well. For many years, she was the only employee–giving the tans, doing the bookkeeping, using her apartment as a studio and anything in between. If she could do the work, she did it rather than hire someone. Eventually she got so busy that had to hire a few people but she was very careful about all the moves she made.
– Tamar is an expert negotiator. Whether she is at a flea market, in the flower district, at a hair salon or getting coffee, Tamar will negotiate the price. Sure, sometimes a vendor will say no to a discount, but very often they are charmed and say yes. It never hurts to ask.
– Because she is in the beauty industry, Tamar relies on bartering and swapping services. She will swap makeup and makeup applications, products and tans in exchange for haircuts, highlights, laser, facials, massages, legal services, PR, SEO services and more.
– Tamar even used her supreme negotiating tactics when she planned her wedding last year. Working within a specific budget, she and her husband planned a beautiful rustic wedding with a lot of attention to details. They relied on friends’ time and talents, their own skills and good old determination to plan and pay for the wedding of their dreams. While it required a lot of footwork (Tamar even went to the flower district herself to buy flowers, vases, table covers, etc), she insists it was all worth it. “Just because you’re spending a lot for your wedding doesn’t mean it will be special. It’s the personal touches and details that make it special.”
We all know the phrase, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Sometimes it’s the road we have to travel that provides the most valuable life lessons. Whether your goal is to start a business, get out of debt or save for a wedding or home, with a little determination, smarts and hustle, you can reach your goals and learn some valuable lessons along the way. Like how to tactfully return a $14,000 check to a customer.
There are some things in life that you can’t control. Like who you fall in love with, and when. Or the line at Trader Joe’s that sometimes begins in the produce department. Also traffic, weather patterns and flight delays. And how your face turns red whenever someone brings up the Spring Break “incident.”
On the other hand, there are things in life that you do have control over. Like wearing eye shadow to the gym–not really necessary, right? Or whether to accompany the 6 ounce petit filet with a baked potato instead of potatoes “three-ways” (you know what I’m talking about and it involves bacon bits). You also have control over not ordering that fourth margarita.
Similarly, some of the best ways to wrestle with your finances so that you have the upper hand and not the other way around –is to set specific goals and design your financial lifestyle. Once you have a handle on what you want in life, what you won’t compromise on and what you will, you can make better decisions for budgeting, saving and investing.
A Shot-Caller with Design: Tea M
Tea M, a NYC-based architect and design consultant for financial systems, shared with me her inspiring story about the windy road from her homeland of Croatia to an eight year pit-stop in Italy, to the US where she’s lived for the past 13 years. All along she has designed her financial future by focusing on what is most important to her, setting goals and following the path she set for herself.
It wasn’t easy. During the 1990’s when war broke out in her native Yugoslavia, Tea fled to Italy to find work. She was lucky to find a job in her field as an architect, but because her boss was responsible for filing paperwork and paying taxes on her as a non-native employee, he decided to file her under “housekeeper.” This would reduce his tax payment, but made life difficult for Tea.
At that time, there were many people fleeing to Italy from neighboring Eastern Europe and Africa. As a result, there was a sense of widespread discrimination and suspicion of the foreigners coming to Italy and “taking” jobs. Her fellow co-workers got wind of her “official” title, and she felt humiliated and was treated differently. Because she was an immigrant, though, she was afraid to speak up, so for eight years Tea toughed it out. She worked hard, saved her money, and when she had an opportunity to come to the US, she took it. Within the first seven years after coming to the US, Tea had her green card, a master’s degree and had paid off all her student loans!
From NY to Mt. Kilimanjaro to Machu Picchu…And Back…
Tea hit the jackpot when she moved to Manhattan and found a rent-stabilized apartment, paying below-market rent on her place. In a city with sky-high rents where someone can easily spend thousands of dollars to live in a dark shoebox-sized studio overlooking a shaftway filled with trash, Tea was thrilled to have found an affordable, cozy, sunny apartment. Most important to Tea was that she could live her life without having the burden of an outrageous rent every month.
Since she worked for a company with global clients and projects, Tea traveled the world. Traveling helped satiate Tea’s taste for adventure, culture and change, but more important, she got to collect points and miles on her credit cards and favorite airlines! As an avid hiker and mountaineer, Tea used these points to travel to the furthermost regions of the world to pursue her hobbies. She has climbed to the Mt. Everest base camp, Mt. Kilimanjaro and Machu Picchu, among others, and has traveled to countries all over the world.
This lifestyle served Tea well for a while, but as the years rolled by, she began to feel a pang in her gut. While she enjoyed her work, friends and traveling adventures, she wanted more out of life–like her own home and a family– and in NYC, it’s easy to let years roll by before finally realizing you’re ready to grow up!
At around the same time, Tea’s neighborhood was changing. A building with a 24-hour gym had been erected across from Tea’s building, blocking her view of the park. What’s worse was that during all hours of the day or night, Tea could look out the window and watch people working out on treadmills and lifting weights. While this might have caused some people to immediately cancel cable and invest in an expensive tripod and telescope, for Tea this gym situation put a big cramp in her style. In addition, the building itself was so high that it blocked any remaining sunlight she used to get in the apartment. As “cabin-fever” set in, Tea began to spend more time way from her apartment, and when she was home, she would keep the curtains drawn so she wouldn’t be subjected to the gym rats.
Change is Good..But Scary!
Finally, she realized a change was in order. While she didn’t set out as a serious buyer, she started attending open-houses to check out the Manhattan real estate market, mainly as a new hobby; at that time, it was fall/early winter– too cold to hike and too early to ski. Plus, going to open-houses was a great way to meet men!
The more she looked around, the more specific she got about what she wanted. In the years that Tea had lived in NYC, she dreamt of owning her own place, and more importantly, as an architect and design freak, Tea knew exactly how she wanted to furnish and design her home down to the fixtures and the faucets. “You know how little girls know how they want their wedding dress to look since they were twelve?” Tea laughs. “That’s how long I’ve known how my house should look.”
She had a substantial savings account from years of working and socking away money, but wanted to make sure she wouldn’t ever be tied to a particular job just because of a mortgage obligation. She considered apartments at different price points, determining how much she would have to work to meet the mortgage payment and how much time off she could take during the year to pursue her hobbies. She knew that becoming a home owner in NYC would require a huge financial responsibility, but she wanted to make sure that she still had control over her life, including having the freedom to travel.
She finally found the apartment. It had everything she wanted, including an oversized bedroom, comfortable kitchen and dining area, and a south-facing city view and balcony. From that point on, things began to fall into place, as she soon discovered that her friend was the seller’s broker.
Months after the purchase, Tea is eager to begin designing and furnishing her home exactly the way she dreamed, and has been doing research on possible renovations, furniture, fixtures and cabinets. But since she now has to pay a NYC-priced mortgage, she is nervous. “It was different before when I went to the bank and saw my savings and had security, ” she says. With the majority of her savings invested in her apartment, she says,”Now I’m an adult!” She knows that the first year of homeownership is an adjustment, and she is ready for this next phase of her life.
Survival Tips for Homeowners and Wannabe Homeowners
Here are some tips Tea used to help her save for her apartment and budgeting strategies that will help her get through the first year:
– Tea always makes sure to pack her breakfast and lunch for work. This allows her to save at least $10-20 everyday.
– While in the past, she would allow herself a couple nights out a week with friends for dinner and drinks, she has curbed her outings since becoming a homeowner. Now, she is perfectly content to go home after work and enjoy the view from her balcony, or have friends over. This saves her at least $75-100 per week.
– Because her job required frequent travel, Tea became a pro at signing up for rewards, collecting miles and using them to her advantage. She opened a credit card that awarded her 100,000 reward points for signing up. While the annual fee was $95 a year, it was worth it since she was able to cash in those reward miles and go home to Croatia twice a year. In fact, Tea has used her miles and bonuses to ski, hike and travel the world, and that has saved her thousands of dollars.
– Tea keeps track of expenses by charging most things on one credit card. She keeps a specific amount of “street money” on hand for unexpected expenses. Lately, though Tea has found that the “street money” that used to last her a week is being stretched and now lasts her almost 2 weeks, as she continues to set strict budgeting parameters for herself.
– One way of keeping costs down since her apartment purchase is to cut down on unnecessary expenses. Tea now holds off on manicures, pedicures and haircuts until absolutely necessary and keeps frivolous expenses to a minimum.
Whether you’re saving to buy a home, budgeting for your dream vacation or a wedding, or trying to get out of debt, the key is to take control and set goals you can meet. For Tea, cutting corners, staying in her small below-market apartment a few extra years, and being savvy about points and credit cards helped her to reach her goals. But while she has compromised on certain expenses and luxuries to stay within her budget, she’s got limits. Bottomline: she’s not giving up those ski trips.
We all know that the best way to save money is to set a budgeting plan and stick to it. But successful budgeting requires discipline.
Unfortunately when I think of discipline I imagine an evil drill sargent barking orders at a skinny recruit too petrified to wipe Sarge’s spittle from his face. Or I recall the monotonous “wipe on, wipe off” of the Karate Kid learning the right moves while washing Mr. Miyagi’s car. Or the crazy people who wake up at 5:30 am to work out with a trainer.
The truth is, discipline can be a real jerk. In many cases, having the right discipline means foregoing instant gratification. Discipline squashes the whiny voice in your head that says “But I DESERVE this!!!” It makes you wake up earlier than you really really want to, and sometimes makes you go to bed later in order to get everything done for the day. Discipline forces you to leave parties earlier, pass up offers to meet for a drink or a bite that might break your budget. Discipline makes you work out, fill your plate with veggies and (gasp!) forego dessert. Discipline makes you break up with that hot young guy because, although he’s A LOT of fun, you know it’s not going anywhere:(
Sharon Richter: The Shot-Caller with Discipline
While being disciplined may be tough and sometimes boring, setting goals and being vigilant about reaching them can be rewarding in the long run. Discipline is what took Sharon Richter from a pre-med major to becoming a certified nutritionist with a successful, diversified business, clients who love her and numerous TV spots under her belt. Discipline also helped Sharon fulfill her ultimate dream: to own a beautiful spacious apartment overlooking Central Park, with a shoe closet that rivals Carrie Bradshaw’s on “Sex and the City,” and a kitchen in which she can cook and entertain friends.
Sharon’s road to Carrie Bradshaw Shoe Closet was not easy though. It took Sharon many years, a lot of risk, strict budgeting and smart investing to get her to where she is today.
Grocery Store Tours, Nutrition for Kids and Equinox–All In A Day’s Work
While studying pre-med in college, Sharon found herself interested in health and nutrition and made the choice to switch to nutrition. After graduate school, she worked for doctor’s offices and then with Tiger Schulman’s Karate until she saved up enough money to quit and start her own business.
Now that she was on her own, Sharon knew there was a lot at stake, so she started networking like crazy, getting involved in different aspects of nutrition and working around the clock. Sharon focused on educating her clients to make better food and fitness choices. She worked with clients on their specific goals, often going food shopping with her clients and teaching them to read the labels on the back of products in grocery stores, and advising what foods and aisles to avoid. She aligned herself with doctors who would refer their patients to her as part of their treatment plans. She conducted seminars all over the city with companies like Tiger Karate and Nike World. She was involved in implementing a nutrition program for kids called “Days of Taste” that helps kids discover food, teaching them about taste, nutrition and creating their favorite meals.
In addition to education and consulting services, Sharon also worked with various companies like E Boost to help them develop supplements, and worked closely with fitness companies such as Equniox.
In the ten years since Sharon started her business, http://www.therichterreco.com/, she has seen it grow from an idea to a dream to reality. In the past few years, her specialized expertise, friendly and approachable personality, and no-nonsense attitude, coupled with amazing networking skills has landed her various television spots, including on NY1, the Today Show, Channel 11, the Dr. Steve Show and a recurring spot on the infamous “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”
Sharon’s “Aha!” Moment
All along, Sharon never let the success get to her head– or let it affect her wallet. While building her business, Sharon lived in a modest apartment she had purchased with money she saved from college graduation, her bat mitzvah, and past jobs. Her dream was to save enough money to own her dream apartment in New York City. Two years ago, she saw this dream realized when she bought and renovated two adjoining apartments in a charming building along Central Park. With money she earned from the sale of her first apartment, along with smart investing, saving and budgeting strategies, she was able to purchase the two apartments and convert them into one larger apartment.
As Sharon puts it, this was her “aha moment.” She recalls watching “Sex and the City” and being jealous of the characters’ fabulous New York apartments. When she finally was able to buy and build her own dream apartment, she remembers thinking, “Oh my God! I’m like living in it!” as a real-life “Sex and the City” character. Her coup de grace was the closet she had custom-built to house her shoe collection. She laughs, “You have your babies, SJP, these are mine!”
And with a spacious apartment comes a large, bright kitchen that allows Sharon another victory. As a nutritionist, Sharon focuses on creating and cooking delicious dishes that are healthy and yummy–check out her website and subscribe to her newsletter, “The Richter Reco,” to get some of these scrumptious and guilt-free recipes. She had always wanted a kitchen that would allow her the space to create these recipes and entertain her friends and family. Now she uses her kitchen every day, cooking for herself, her clients and friends who reap the benefits too!
Take Notes, Carrie Bradshaw!
But Sharon insists that building a successful business and buying your dream NYC apartment takes hard work and discipline. Here are some great budgeting habits from Sharon:
– Make and pack your breakfast and lunch every day. Even though Sharon is on the move everyday, meeting with clients in their homes, gym or her office, she continues to pack her meals and bring them along. It’s healthy and budget-friendly.
– Many times when she wants to keep costs down, Sharon will forego meeting friends for a full dinner and will come after for a drink. That way, she saves herself $40-80 but can still be social and connect with friends.
– When she was younger, Sharon had money saved from family and graduations so that may have helped her in the long-run. Instead of splurging on expensive blow-outs and manicures, she chose to save the money that allowed her to buy her first apartment.
– Later, when she was ready to renovate her second apartment, she spoke to the contractor to get an estimate of how much time the construction would take. Then she went to different banks and shopped for competitive CD rates; she found a bank with the best interest rate and invested the money she would be using to pay for renovations in a short-term CD. By the time she had to pay the contractor, the CD had allowed her money to grow and earned her more than enough for construction.
– Sharon’s weakness is expensive designer shoes. The great thing about Sharon though, is that while she has an impressive closet full of designer shoes, she has never paid full price for them. When something catches her eye, like a pair of Jimmy Choo boots, instead of grabbing them and plunking down her credit card immediately, Sharon backs slowly away, goes home, takes out an envelope and writes “Jimmy Choo Boots.” Then for the next few weeks, she watches for a sale all the while stuffing tens and twenty’s into the envelope. Usually, Sharon notes, by the time she has enough for the boots, they’re on sale and she can buy them, or she’s over them and can put that money into savings.
– Most important, Sharon has a created a system that works for her. She keeps a specific amount of cash in her wallet for the week but tries to charge everything and then enters all purchases and expenses into Quickbooks as personal or business expenses. And most important, she continues to stuff money into her savings and 401(k).
Sure , discipline can be an ugly hairy mole that you want to run away from. But if you can fight those initial instincts of giving in to every whim and weakness, you’ll see that, like Sharon, by taking control and playing by the rules you set for yourself, you can actually fulfill your dreams.
A few weeks ago, I posted a blog called “Don’t Be A Baller” http://bit.ly/wErnAW in which I discussed the mythical city girl dressed in designer threads, hitting the hot-spots every night of the week, and living in luxury. While there are many successful, savvy women (and men) who do have –and can afford–this lifestyle, there are a ton of ladies (and guys) who talk the talk but CAN’T walk the walk. And by walking the walk, I mean paying for their over-the-top lifestyle.
In fact, the more I talk about managing debt and minimizing unnecessary expenses with friends, colleagues and acquaintances, the more ballers I find who have been popping up all over the place–women who grab their paychecks and go shopping immediately– before putting the 10% minimum into savings. Women who slouch around in Seven For All Mankind dressing rooms squeezing into jeans, trying on dresses at Reiss, shopping for wrinkle cream and lip gloss in Sephora, snagging Frye boots at Bloomingdale’s–while their monthly bills sit unopened on their kitchen table. Women and men behind on their bills but hitting the clubs every Saturday and assuming their shrinking bonus check will cover up their spending sins.
I know life is hard, being single can be tough, work sucks, you just broke up with your boyfriend, yadda yadda yadda–and any other excuse we use to validate this outrageous behavior. But we need to get a grip! With a little focus and planning and a lot of self-control, we can change from being a baller to a shot–caller.
What’s a shot-caller? She’s a woman with a plan, focus and single-minded self-control. She sets goals for herself–maybe she wants to start a business, buy a home, start investing in ETFs or save for a wedding–sets up a plan to reach her goal, puts her head down and gets to work! Shot callers aren’t always out at the club, they often pack their own lunches, use Groupons and coupons, skip big group dinners and buy things on sale. It’s not that these ladies don’t have fun–they just pick and choose when and where to make an appearance, keeping their eyes on the ultimate prize–their financial goal.
Shot-callers are just that: they call the shots when it comes to their finances, and not the other way around. They have already determined what their priorities are, and anything else that comes up is not as important. So if a particular Shot-Caller’s goal is to accumulate six months’ worth of savings to start a business, she may bid adieu to Antonio her fabulous but needy hair dresser and head to Super-Cuts for the next few haircuts in order to save some money. Or she may skip the sushi dinner with friends and just meet them after for drinks. And, she might choose to stay in her small but affordable apartment while her peers ‘move on up to the east side’–just to allow her breathing room and freedom to save for a condo.
Rest assured, not all city-slickers and suburban-dwellers are ballers. Recently, I came across three shot-calling women who are large and in charge, and I wanted to share their stories. Each of their stories represents a significant D-word. Now D’s have always meant something bad to me, ever since I got a D in Algebra 2 and was informed I wouldn’t be allowed to move on to Trigonometry. This was good news to me since I would rather spend the night alone in a wax museum with a serial killer than do my multiplication tables, but my dad didn’t see it that way. That guy was a closet mathematician and took out his math obsession on his very confused daughter, Lena.
But I digress.
This week, I am going to profile three different Shot-Callers–women who have successfully taken control of their financial futures and have survived to tell their stories. They have graciously shared their personal experiences in their plight to reach their goals and determine their future. And along the way, they have some great tips we can all learn from.
Tune in tomorrow when I will profile a Shot-Caller with Discipline: Sharon Richter, a certified nutritionist and founder of the Richter Reco (http://www.therichterreco.com/), who built her business from the ground-up, bought and renovated her dream NYC apartment and–most importantly–built a closet to house her Carrie Bradshaw-inspired shoe collection.
Wednesday/Thurs I will profile a Shot-Caller with Design: Tea M, a Croatian-born architect who came from war-torn Yugoslavia by way of Italy then NYC-and climbed Mt. Everest, Kilimanjaro and Macchu Picchu along the way. While young girls dreamt of their dream wedding dress, Tea envisioned her dream home, down to the color and design of the fixtures–and now she’s living her dream!
Wrapping up the week will be a Shot-Caller with Determination: Tamar Vezirian, founder of Gotham Glow Tanning (http://gothamglow.com/) , who came to NYC from San Francisco to be a performer–and instead found herself spray-tanning celebrity clients, some of whom have greeted her at the door of their hotel rooms wearing nothing but a rhinestone necklace.
All of these ladies started with a dream, worked and saved for it and reached it. They have determined their lifestyle and financial future; if they can do it, so can you.
Hey guys–We all know someone who’s high fashion AND highly leveraged–she’s a BALLER! Tune in next week when I profile a couple REAL “shot callers”-women who have worked, saved & invested their way to success! “Are you a BALLER or a SHOT-CALLER?”
You know her.
She’s the successful independent professional New Yorker that every little girl from Milwaukee wants to be when she grows up.
She’s always dressed to the nines; Theory pantsuits by day, platform Manolo’s and some cleavage showcase from Intermix by night. She shows up to her hair appointments every six-weeks, heeding the directions of her hairdresser like the most loyal disciple, for her single process, low-lights and hi-lights, Keratin treatments and scalp massage.
Her nails: reverse French manicured, shellaqued, crackeled, and occasionally sporting a Swarovski-adorned manicure, especially around the holidays. She matches her Birkin to her Balenciaga without being too obvy. Her designer sunglass collection varies depending on her travel plans.
She lives in a trendy neighborhood, slightly gay, maybe a few strollers, and definitely a gallery on her street. The barista at the local French café knows how she prefers her soy latte and when she’ll be…
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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.
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.