11 Pieces of an Actor’s Budget

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Actors frequently ask me, “How much money does it take to be an actor?” The short answer is every actor’s expenses will be different. However, use the list below as a guideline. Although I have tailored the costs for those pursuing the business in New York City, the general outline is applicable wherever you may be based.

1. Living expenses. This category includes rent, utilities, cable, telephone, and food. These may seem obvious, but I begin with this list because you cannot really pursue the business of acting if you cannot afford these things. Count on rent to be around $1000/month and up, depending on the neighborhood, building amenities—such as a doorman, elevator, gym, etc.—and whether or not you have a roommate. (For Manhattan, $1000/month is actually really cheap, and if you find an apartment for this rate, it will most likely be in a less accessible neighborhood). Utilities (gas, electric) are usually not included in the rent. These can average around $100-$150/month. For telephone service, you can get away with only having a cellphone, and this averages around $75/month. Cable averages around $100/month without the premium channels. You may want to forgo cable if you have Internet access, as you can watch many TV shows via Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, etc. Your job as an actor is to know what is going on in the world and also what shows are on the various channels. As for food, don't be lazy and rely on the fast food that is cheap and easily available. Many New Yorkers eat out a lot, and this zaps your income very quickly. Be smart, and eat at home. It is cheaper and healthier. Count on groceries costing you an average of $15-$20/day.

For the following expenses, consider opening a savings account where you deposit $20 a week, more or less. A separate savings account means “out of sight, out of mind,” and that is a good thing.

2. Headshots, including hair and makeup. Having your headshot photos taken and reproduced is generally the biggest expense you will incur. Good photographers run between $600-$1000. There is also hair and makeup, which is a separate expense. Yes, men, you may need makeup too! The camera lights play nasty tricks with your face, and makeup can help offset these unsightly occurrences. Be prepared to spend between $100-$150 for hair and makeup.

3. Headshot reproductions/retouching. When your pictures are finished and you have selected the ones you'd like to use, you may need to have them retouched. Perhaps there is a stray hair, a blemish, soft circles under eyes, etc. Generally, retouching will be approximately $25-$60 per photo. Reproducing your picture can cost almost a dollar a print. There are cheaper reproduction houses, but many use cheap paper that tends to lack the crispness that you get from good quality paper. And others may use a printing technique that makes them impossible to fax and/or scan. So be careful, and remember your picture may be in a pile with hundreds of others. You want yours to stand out, not fade away. If you start working with a representative, make sure you always have enough money to pay for more reproductions. There is no excuse for saying "I can't afford it" if a representative needs more photos of you, and you have no money to comply.

4. Resumes. First of all, don’t print them on the back of your pictures. Why? Because when you book a job and want to update your resume, you'd have to throw away these expensive prints or hand-write a credit in, which can look sloppy. Also, make sure your resumes fit your 8x10 photo. Most sheets of paper are 8.5"x11" and will need to be cut to fit and then stapled to your headshot. Resumes are generally about 5 cents to 8 cents a copy, unless you print them at home where the cost is minimal.

5. Classes. Prices for classes are hard to list here as there are too many and the price ranges are vast. Audit classes to get a feel for the instructor, what they are teaching, and see what the class is like. I tell people to look for a class you have to audition to get into. This generally weeds out the novice teacher or "experimenting" actor, and hopefully leaves you with a class that is full of working actors.

6. Online resources. This will vary but there are a number of worthwhile services out there. Some offer audition opportunities, some are resource oriented, and of course you don't want to forget Backstage, and The Actor’s Guide to Everything! You can get a subscription to Backstage for as little as $12/month.

7. Makeup and grooming. Yes, we must budget this in. Men, a barber runs around $20, and if you add a shave (one of my personal splurges) it would double the price. If you color your hair, just buy the home treatment kits and master the technique. This will save you a lot of money. Women, cuts usually start at around $60 and increase rapidly. Save some bucks by shampooing your hair at home before your salon visit. Also you might want to try in-home coloring if that is your thing, instead of having it done at a salon.

8. Clothing. It really is necessary to have your own business wardrobe for auditions. For several hundred dollars, you can achieve a lot of different looks that will help your auditions. You'll save money if you don't mix them with your personal clothes. They will stay fresher longer, and you'll have to launder them less frequently.

9. Postage and supplies. You'll need to do follow-up mailings, and mailings to agents, managers, and casting directors. This will be a minimal expense, but a very important one. Count on around $20 per month. This will increase drastically if you are in a show or film or have something of significance to share with the above-mentioned agents, managers, and casting directors on your mailing list.

10. Transportation. You can't afford to take taxis everywhere (at least not yet), but you will probably use transportation every day. One round-trip per day on the subway or bus, at the standard $2.50 fare each way, adds up quickly. A monthly Metrocard costs $112, and a weekly Metrocard costs $30.

11. Entertainment. You will need to set some money aside to see theater and go to the movies. This will depend upon how much you can afford. Some theaters offer standing-room tickets for as little as $20. Other theaters offer $25 tickets to a certain number of people on any given day. Offering to usher is a way for many people of modest means to see a show. A movie ticket runs about $12, but if you don’t mind going in the morning, you can go to a show before noon for $6 at some theaters. Count on $50 to $100 per month to see theater and film.

I hope this basic expense outline is helpful for those starting out as an actor. Break a leg!

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John Essay
John Essay has been a theatrical manager and producer for nearly 25 years. His company, Essay Management, represents actors, writers, and directors in all areas of the entertainment industry. He also created The Actor’s Guide To Everything, a website reflecting the culmination of all that he has learned in the last 25 years as a personal manager.
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