There is a lot that can be said about the economic state of the arts, both in general and in the United States in particular. While advocating for change both inside and outside of our field is vital, the reality is that we still must operate and survive within the present moment. One of the largest drawbacks of a dance career is the precarious financial circumstances we can often find ourselves in. Knowing how to budget finances is crucial for not only day-to-day survival but also for shaping a sustainable future for our older selves. With a little bit more financial awareness and a clear understanding of what your dance salary looks like, you can combat the anxiety and fear sparked by a lower bank account balance or a leaner month.

There have been moments in my past when checking my bank account was an anxiety-inducing experience. I knew that I had enough to live moment to moment, but I also knew that I wasn’t doing enough in the present to prepare for my future. I’d open my app, and brace myself for the familiar pit of dread in my stomach as I surveyed my bank balance. I was one sneeze away from financial ruin at any time, and I wasn’t the only one. A couple of different quotes have been thrown around over the years, but it’s estimated that more than half of American adults are living paycheck to paycheck. This means that one unplanned car repair, medical bill, or any other unforeseen financial circumstance can spell disaster for millions. 

The earlier you can begin to save for your future, the better off you will be.

As I began a long journey to repair my finances and dispel my fear around money, I found myself continually frustrated by the conventional wisdom parroted back to me. Anyone who has turned to Google for some quick money-managing tips can probably relate. Platitudes like “maximize your 401k!” “skip Starbucks and make coffee at home!” and “make sure you have a savings account!” were mostly meaningless to me, since I worked outside of the “normal” corporate landscape and was already cutting every financial corner that I thought I could. I made my meals (and coffee) at home and was working wall-to-wall, sometimes performing three different jobs in one day.  So why was my heart leaping into my throat every time I had to pay a bill? I soon realized traditional advice wasn’t going to help me. My issue wasn’t that I was bad with money, it was that my dancer’s salary wasn’t cutting it; I didn’t have enough, and I wasn’t maximizing what I had.

What Are(n’t) You Being Paid?

Money management and financial awareness can mean a lot of things to different people at different times. But for artists, what it comes down to is having a clear picture of what your finances are. How much are you actually making? Where is it going, and are you satisfied with that long-term trajectory? Start with your income. Take a look at the jobs you’re working yourself to the bone over.

I realized I had become trapped in this idea that I should be grateful for having any kind of dance job, regardless of pay. Many young dancers find themselves in this situation, so glad to finally have some kind of job, gig, or performance to look forward to that they overlook a massive problem: the payment, or lack thereof. I didn’t have enough trust or faith in my abilities and training to see that not every dance job I was offered was one worthy of taking merely for the “exposure”. I was committing to jobs that would require enormous amounts of my time and effort for a very small payday. I would rehearse for months without dancer pay and work without a contract in place, with only the choreographer’s word that we would get paid after the show. Most of the time they followed through, but I did get stiffed once or twice. 

Dancers need to realize that their time and talents are worthy of payment. They shouldn’t be considered just “lucky'' to be employed in the field they have dedicated their bodies, minds, and souls to for years. They deserve a fair payment, and they are not inappropriate for asking for it. Young dancers must look out for their financial interests because it is not guaranteed that your prospective employer will. They, like the rest of us, are too busy looking out for themselves. Do not work without a contract in place and without a full understanding of what your compensation will be. In any other field, money is one of the first discussions on the table. It has somehow become de rigueur in the dance field to leave conversations about payment to the very end, if they are had at all. We should politely demand that the financial dialogue is held upfront before anything is signed.

Many dancers become employers who continue the toxic cycle of low to no payment.

Calculate how much this job will cost you versus how much you will be paid. How much will mileage, gas, wear and tear to your vehicle, parking, bus, train, or rideshare fares cost you? How long are you being asked to rehearse? Do you have to buy any costume or makeup items? Will this require you to miss other paying work? Young dancers may find that some low-paying dance jobs actually cost them more money than they would make at the end of the day. I’m not saying you shouldn’t take these jobs, just that you should go in with your eyes wide open. Are there benefits there to you, other than just saying you have a “dance gig?”

Where’s It Going?

Once you have a clear picture of how much money you are actually earning from your countless jobs, take a close look at where your money is going. Assess what is actually necessary and what might just be nice to have. Aside from the necessities like food, shelter, and transportation costs, do not ignore your debt. Aim to pay off any debt you have as quickly as you can, especially if it is high-interest debt, like credit card debt. Then, see if there is any way for you to minimize your food, shelter, and transportation costs. The easiest place you’ll probably find fat to trim is in the food section of your spending. 

Nutrition is vitally important for dancers, and as a result, we can sometimes fall prey to schemes that play on our wishes to be as healthy as possible. Stay away from unproven nutrition fads that will probably break the bank before they make a noticeable difference in your health. Things like meal replacement shakes, designer meal delivery services, or fancy protein powders might be fun and make you feel healthy, but I’d steer clear and save your money. You can find nutritious food in your grocery store and plenty of recipes for free online. 

Lastly, take a good look at where your miscellaneous entertainment expenses go. These days, there is a subscription for everything, and the fees seem minimal, just $7.99 here, $12.99 there. When I took a look at my monthly spending, I caught myself with subscriptions to multiple streaming services and what seemed like low-fee subscriptions were (obviously, thanks to math) adding up. I ended up canceling all of my subscriptions except for any services that I used consistently for my work and training as a dance educator.

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The Road Ahead

One of the biggest lies I told myself while I was avoiding personal financial awareness was that I would have time to save for the future once I was older and making more money. This is simply not the case, and the earlier you can begin to save for your future, the better off you will be in the end, even if you can only stash away a couple of dollars at a time.

First of all, it is not guaranteed that you will make more money as you age. We have no idea what will happen in the future, whether it’s something personal like a career-altering injury or something more global, like a worldwide pandemic. The precarious nature of a dancer’s career and the often shaky support from employers means that one ill-fated misstep can steal your income. It is paramount that dancers develop some kind of small financial cushion. Depending on your risk tolerance, you could put that cushion in a savings account, a money-market account, or a brokerage account.

Once you’ve established your rainy-day fund, look beyond the present day. I know this is difficult for dancers because we are doing what we love and sometimes the thought of doing something else, even if it’s within the arts as well, can cause a bit of an identity crisis. However, we will not always live in this moment, and once again, the structure of our field does not encourage us to think about retirement savings the way the corporate sector does. Since many dancers operate as contractors or part-time employees, we are rarely eligible for 401k contributions, leading many to avoid the idea of a retirement account altogether. It is uncomfortable but prudent to face your mortality, and there are other options outside of the traditional 401k. You can set up a solo 401k, an IRA (either Traditional or Roth, depending on your tax preferences), or one of the lesser-known self-employed retirement savings plans. Whichever plan you choose, your main goal should be to set aside money for your future. Remember that you usually have to pay a penalty if you remove funds from your retirement accounts before you reach your retirement age.

Financial literacy is crucial for not only day-to-day survival but also for shaping a sustainable future for our older selves.

The Bottom Line

Money is stressful and it can feel overwhelming to acknowledge that you aren’t in a great financial spot. Dancers are frequently underpaid and overworked, and that is unacceptable. The arts, dance, in particular, is horrifically underfunded and ignored in the United States, but the problem extends from the wider public into our world. Many dancers become employers who continue the toxic cycle of low to no payment. Employers should take a good, hard look in the mirror and acknowledge how they are undermining the value of their own art form by grossly underpaying their employees. I don’t think any of us are asking to make six figures, we simply wish to be fairly compensated for our qualifications, skills, time, and labor.

In the meantime, we should remember that it is okay to turn down or walk away from jobs that are underpaying you, refusing to treat you humanely, or otherwise financially taking advantage of you. Remember that it is also okay to start small. Just because you don’t have $100 to drop into a retirement or savings account right now doesn’t mean you should wait until you do. So weigh the financial pros and cons of your jobs, know how to budget your money, see if there is room to trim your expenses, and consider what you want for your future. Then you can begin to take small, daily steps to increase your financial awareness and strengthen your money management skills. Lastly, I’d ask you to share your knowledge with the generation below you, and when you become a potential employer in the dance field, please pay your dancers. As more and more dancers become aware of their value, I’m hopeful that there’s a brighter tomorrow for future generations.