At 22, Being a Starving Actor Was Romantic, But at 26, It’s Getting Old

When I first moved to New York City in pursuit of artistic aspirations, being a “starving actor” was sort of a romantic idea. There can be a sense of camaraderie between fellow struggling artists. It can be fun to playfully bemoan being too broke to go out to dinner when you’re a super hip wannabe actor in a glamorous city. PBR is trendy and everyone partakes in dollar pizza on the regular. But what’s cute when you’re 22 is less cute (or not cute at all) when you’re 26. Lessons need to be learned. At what point has being a “starving actor” jumped the shark?

I’ve now lived in New York for three years and am still having trouble making ends meet. I have days when I can’t afford to eat, or days when I need to beg my parents (usually fruitlessly because I’m an adult) to pay for some random expense I “didn’t anticipate.” Having little to no money is pretty awful any way you slice it. Being broke is terrible in terms of being a person, being a friend, and being an artist. How can you celebrate a good friend’s birthday when there’s no money in the bank? How can you expect to be on the pulse of what’s happening in the theater world if you can’t afford to see anything? How can you afford to trim your bangs, which are so long that they’re poking your eyeballs?

The city can often encourage this sort of lifestyle. While rents are exorbitantly high across the board, there are countless websites and apps that can be used to decrease costs. My friend always tells me to pay $30 for a month of unlimited yoga. This would be a FANTASTIC idea if I happened to have $30 when I remembered to actually do it. The tough thing about this city is that you can actually get by pretty cheaply, which can stunt your (my) financial development. On the flip side, there is also ample opportunity to blow your hard earned dollars on bourgie food or entertainment. Hey guys, it’s pay day! Let’s go spend $28 on a martini! Who cares if I don’t have money to eat next week?

I have been terrible with money since as long as I can remember. In college I was fortunate enough to have everything—besides food, social activities, and shopping—paid for by my parents, so I never really had to manage my money effectively until I moved out of my dad’s house six months after graduation. I quickly learned that I have a ways to go before becoming financially secure.

The first week I moved to New York, I put a $550 diamond bracelet on layaway at a boutique on the Upper West Side. Now, this may have been forgivable (in a Manic Pixie Dream Girl kind of way) if I was some fresh-faced 18-year-old who had yet to learn the value of a dollar, but I was a college educated GROWN ASS WOMAN making a terrible error in judgment. I’d laugh, but…it’s not funny.

All I know is that this can’t keep going on forever. I don’t need to live in a luxury high-rise, or dine at five-star restaurants. If I can manage to have a few hundred dollars in the bank after paying my rent, I’ll feel pretty damn successful. But how does one learn how to manage money when it doesn’t come naturally? Do I need to encounter real, unfixable struggle before I finally get it? ‘Cause it’s no longer/was never cute. I’d happily drop the “starving” from my title.


Sarah is an actor/writer/cat enthusiast living in Washington Heights.

Photo: Andy Roberts


13 Comments / Post A Comment

flickafly (#4,808)

See: Francis Ha

doubledutch (#4,670)

@flickafly Agreed! She already lives in Washington Heights.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

If you’re looking for a serious answer to this question, try reading either “I Will Teach You To Be Rich” by Ramit Sethi or “For The Young, Fabulous and Broke” by Suze Orman. Both books were written pre-recession so they are a little outdated. However, they do break down basic financial management for young people whose incomes just barely exceed their expenses.

@HelloTheFuture they really do need to write one for the post-recession financial struggler!

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@Jake Reinhardt Would it be called “Lower Your Expectations: How to Make The Most Out Of What You Have”

@HelloTheFuture “So You Didn’t Major in STEM: How to Prevent Your Totally Plausible Homelessness”

peutetre (#2,641)

Being terrible with money isn’t like being left-handed – just because you always have been, doesn’t mean it’s something that’s genetically a part of you. It is something you are choosing to do (or not do).

I would imagine that part of what might hold someone in this position back is the knowledge that, if they were to become “good at money,” they would genuinely have to adjust their lifestyle. No more $28 martini splurges. No more bracelets on layaway. No more Seamless every night of the week. Change is hard, and the hard thing about changing your habits with respect to money is knowing that – barring a better job, or a cheaper city – you have to change those habits permanently. It’s really tough! Good luck.

The only thing that pulled me out of “young, dumb, broke” was actually making more money. I heard a lot of old me (I’m not that much older than you but finally got my first decent job around 26, so I feel you) in this post – it’s really easy to say fuck it and charge a $100 birthday dinner or $200 new dress when you feel like you’re never going to have real money any way, so who cares? And you keep scraping by. It took actually making enough money to drastically pay down debt and build up savings to get me to stop with the splurges, because now I can see things moving forward and I can see what money can do, so I don’t want to spend it freely like I used to.

I should also say I had to transition out of a fun/glamorous industry into one where they paid you real money, and that helped a whole bunch.

This isn’t really helpful, but it’s not just you. I feel like most people in their early to mid twenties have this same boom and bust cycle before they get to financial maturity. The fact that you recognize that it’s a problem is a good step in the right direction.

LauraAlix (#6,799)

Oh, man. This was me in grad school. I’ll tell you one thing that really helped: Cooking at home. I practically lived on canned beans and vegetarian chili.

The biggest thing is recognizing what actual lifestyle your current earnings can give you. It’s hard in NYC (former New Yorker) with all the glitz and glamour everything is so fabulous in the city you want a fabulous life to match it. But it looks like you don’t make fabulous money. There are plenty of people in the city who survive on what you make. But you have to do the hard work of living a lifestyle that you can actually afford. It’s a hard thing to face but you have to let go of the 28$ martini’s so you can eat, save, and pay your rent. Once you actually have money in the bank and have saved for that friends birthday you won’t want to go back. Good luck!

la_di_da (#1,425)

@TheDoctorsCompanion To build on this, and keep in mind I’m moving for other reasons as well, do you have to live in New York? I mean, yes, there are lots and lots of opportunities here and “if you make it here you can make it anywhere” but…if you made it in say…Chicago or Austin or San Diego, could you come back when you’ve built up reputation and connections? This city has changed dramatically from the days when starving artists actually roamed the streets.

New York is fabulous, it really is, but its not kind. And it’s not the only city that has an arts scene. That’s my 2 cents. I think you might be able to save a bit more money in a different city, if you had the option or inclination–neither of which you necessarily have so good luck whatever you do!

Thanks for your ideas, guys! Trying to make this the year of becoming financially stable. Not quite ready to change paths or leave the city, but glad to hear you guys seem to have gotten over the hump!

Also, for the record, I only had a $28 martini once and have regretted it ever since. Damn expensive places without prices listed.

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