Disclaimer: This topic is not new. It inundates our political chatter and rears its head every time we turn on the TV. There are no less than a million books on this topic, with everyone from your grandma to Oprah chiming in on how to keep yourself free of debt. But, more so than with other careers, being debtless is instrumental to the long-term success of the artist (I recently quit my job to become an actor). For many wayward adventurers of artistic pursuits, it is the monster in the closet, a constant reminder that constrains every move. This mindset isn’t helped by the high entry costs of most artistic industries. A truly successful artist is not just a master of his or her craft, but is also a marketing genius, a business guru and a networking machine. The product is you, and you are constantly on call. All these costs hit you hardest right when you are starting out, and keeping a tight leash on your expenditures becomes a crucial aspect of your day-to-day.
So how in the world do you keep it together enough to pursue your artistic fancy, live life and not have to consume Cheerios and instant ramen for the foreseeable future? The answer is there is no answer. What has worked for me may not work for you, and vice versa. The best I can do is provide insight into how I have stayed out of debt.
Before I go any further, here is disclaimer No. 2: I am not a financial expert. But I can offer you the following facts: I am 26 years old, I am an actor and I am in the black by a large, undisclosed sum of money — enough to buy a car. I do not say this to show off or flaunt my status; I am only providing it as an example of what is possible.
The path here can be summarized in two words: self-control. Though I’ve had some help in the last few years, in the end, finances are not someone else’s responsibility. Unless you’re a child or an addict, you are your own best gatekeeper.
The mantras I have followed these past few years are very straightforward:
1. If the money isn’t coming in, then spend only what you need to.
2. If the money is coming in, save what you can for emergencies.
3. Manage one and two to stay in the clear.
None of the above is possible without self-control, which means having a system in place to manage your spending. A system could be something as simple as not spending money on junk food or meticulously documenting every single expenditure. Whatever it is, having one is absolutely crucial. There is no way to control yourself if you have no idea where your money goes. Self-awareness is the first step to self control.
Here’s a way to do it: Put everything you spend on your credit card(s) and pay them off in full every two weeks. If you’re a financial expert, this is setting off all of your alarms, but with a proper system in place it can actually be a very effective way to manage your spending. It does, however, require an iron will.
Try the following: Set up a “needs” credit card and a “wants” credit card, thus, identifying mantras one and two. On the Needs Card go the things you have to buy to live your life: bills, home-related expenses (such as groceries, house tools and appliances), day- to-day needs (such as gas costs, mailing costs and clothes) and healthcare/insurance policies. Those costs will be very similar from month to month.
On the “wants” card goes to pretty much everything else: dates, happy hours, the newest Reeboks, that Xbox 360 game you have been eyeing, the flat-screen TV, packets of gum, condoms and on and on and on. Your wants make you happy, but those are the first purchases you start to second guess when you don’t have a salary.
Discipline is key in this system, especially since you are paying off your credit cards every two weeks. Doing this is an easy way to manage money and actually puts you ahead of your credit card payments. The great thing here is that although you have two credit cards, you really only have to manage one: your “wants.” Your “needs” should stay the same, so set aside those funds. Just make sure your total never goes beyond your income. Assuming you have a full-time job, this becomes a fairly simple exercise. Any extra money then goes into your savings, impulse buys and Jaegerbombs.
In a perfect world, you have savings before you start buying things you don’t need. But, realistically, this never happens. People are naturally social, and most of the time socializing costs money, and no one is going to religiously check their bank account every time they want a cup of coffee. So the trick is to manage the things you don’t need, pay off your cards and still put some money away for emergencies.
This is no easy task, as having to mitigate for emergencies is a tough pill to swallow. It literally requires you to let money sit somewhere. Watching it grow introduces a huge temptation to go on spending sprees, especially if you manage to cultivate it to several months’ worth of income. However, when your car breaks down (goodbye, $1,700) or you get smacked with a speeding ticket, you will be relieved it exists.
You will notice that up until this point, I have purposefully ignored the existence of cash. That is entirely because cash is the devil, the purveyor of wanton expenditures. Cash sitting in your wallet is begging to be spent, like an itch you can’t quite reach. It is easier to control your spending when it isn’t in cash form. Don’t believe me? Think about all the times you started your day with $60 in your wallet and ended it with zero, then can’t recall where it went. That’s pretty much all the time. Keep it to a bare minimum.
Paying off your credit cards and managing your cash is even more important when you have student loans, car loans, severe credit card debt and other legally binding obligations. That “wants” window starts to disappear, cash causes instantaneous financial explosions and your conscience turns into Gilbert Gottfried. Having a system of control helps you whittle away those debts, or at least keeps them from ballooning behind your back.
Juggling your money is a never-ending game, but the benefits of doing it successfully are numerous. Eventually that system becomes second nature, like putting on pants. Not only is being debt-free a huge stress reliever, but it builds amazing credit, which will open the doors to better financial packages for mortgages and car loans. Unless you are rich, marry rich or get lucky, the reality is that the potential for being in debt will plague you for life. This is even more so if you have foregone the benefits of a full-time job (ahem, yours truly). It will require an even tighter grip on your wanton expenditures. A system that works coupled with an iron will is the only way to avoid that maelstrom.