Pre-pandemic, many dancers' incomes were project-based, at best, and unpredictable at worst. Of course, once COVID-19 took hold, performance gigs dried up and artists' finances, consequently, took a huge hit. For many, that meant reconfiguring their budgets, not just once, but often. For choreographer Tariq Darrell O'Meally, budgeting over the last year has been an ever-morphing experience—and he's likely not alone. "It's kind of like building the plane as you're flying it," he says.
Whenever your income changes, it's an opportunity—maybe even a necessity—to take a fresh look at your budget, and adjust as needed. It's also a chance to figure out what your monetary-influenced priorities are and to reassess your opinion on how much you're worth as an artist.
Consider Your Biggest Line Item: Rent
If rent is your biggest monthly expense, moving cities can affect your budget significantly. Last summer, Rebecca Ferrell, a choreographer and Dance/USA's director of programs, moved with her husband from Alexandria, Virginia, to Winchester, a city about 60 miles outside of Washington, DC, in order to save money on rent during the pandemic. "We now have 2,000 square feet, and it costs half of what we paid in Alexandria," she says. "And we have a garage!"
When Kayt MacMaster moved from New York City to Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, to begin her MFA in dance, she found a one-bedroom apartment for $475 a month—$1,100 less in rent than she paid for the same setup in lower Manhattan. The amount of flexibility that such a low rent offers her monthly budget can't be overstated, says MacMaster. "Yes, I make a lot less money than I did in New York," she says, "but $475? Even if the worst happens, I could come up with that much."
Know What You Owe
"So many people don't want to know how much debt they owe," says Ferrell. "They're scared." When it came to examining her own student loans, she was admittedly nervous. Ferrell hired a financial advisor to assess her and her husband's collective debt and propose a reasonable plan for tackling it. "When I looked at how much I owed, I had to open up a bottle of wine," she remembers. "But then I rallied and thought: What is my plan here? And we wrote it all out." In their monthly budget, she and her husband tackle their debts according to the interest rates, paying off those with the highest rates first.
Find a Savings Plan That Works for You
MacMaster transfers at least $100 to her savings account on the day she's paid and will dump any periodic income from side gigs into savings, too. Ferrell and her husband have multiple savings accounts, which they name according to what they're saving for (like "Japan Trip"): "That way, when I want to dip into savings, I really have to think about it," she says.
Change the Way You Think About Money
O'Meally vividly remembers attending a panel at Gibney a few years ago, where MBDance artistic director Maria Bauman-Morales said something that stuck with him: "The money matters." "So much of dance is about doing it for the passion, the love, the body high," he says, "but then the footlights go down, and you think, Do I have money to get sushi? No. I need to eat ramen."
Now, as a guest curator for the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, he's become intimately familiar with artists' budgets and performance fees, and he can see that most early-career artists or those working without representation grossly underestimate their worth. "I look at budgets—what artists are asking for—and I think, You're not going to break even," says O'Meally. "Our culture has asked us to be happy with whatever we get."
MacMaster recommends asking mentors or other dancers who work consistently what their hourly rates are for rehearsal or workshops. She promotes transparency around how artists are paid: "I think dancers should talk to each other more openly about their fees," she says.
For a helpful comparison, Ferrell suggests checking out Dancers Alliance's online breakdown of minimum rates for live shows, industrials and nonunion music videos in a number of categories, like rehearsals, shoot days, per diems by city and travel days.
It ultimately comes down to breaking out of an "impoverished thinking" and learning to ask for what you deserve, O'Meally says: "As dancers, we can imagine worlds and universes and different dimensions, but when it comes to our own financial stability, we can't think past the hustle."
Tools to Try
Mint: This budgeting website and accompanying mobile app auto-categorizes your transactions into predefined expense types that you create, allowing you to religiously track how much you spend within a given category. "I saw how much I was really spending at Starbucks with Mint," says Rebecca Ferrell. "Now, I just put $50 on my Starbucks app, and when that's spent, I'm done going for that month."
You Need a Budget: This personal budgeting software follows a zero-based budgeting system, meaning you account for every dollar in your bank account, assigning each a purpose—rent, savings, toiletries, groceries, clothing, delivery, sundry items—with the goal of getting you to think intentionally about what your dollars go toward.
Digit: This financial tool not only texts you your daily account balance—a practice that Kayt MacMaster recommends—but also analyzes your income and expenses in order to slowly siphon dollars toward a Digit savings account that you can access or transfer back to your main account at any time.