Stefanie O’Connell’s 5 Tips for Pursuing Big Acting Dreams on a Small Budget

Photo Source: Laura Rose

Stefanie O’Connell has built a career out of being broke. Her website, thebrokeandbeautifullife.com, has amassed a huge following of performers, freelancers, and artists following big dreams on a small budget. From new approaches to thinking about money to saving on your monthly cable bill, The Broke and Beautiful Life provides actors the kind of practical advice that can sustain a long-term career in the arts. That advice also comes directly from real-life struggle.

“I focus on my experience,” says O’Connell. “And because my experience is being an actor, I use that as a perspective. I think the actor’s perspective kind of encapsulates what it means to live the dream on a limited budget.” O’Connell started blogging after becoming frustrated with the challenges of living the artistic life in today’s New York. There were plenty of resources and financial advice online, she realized, but actors tended to remain blissfully ignorant. The Broke and Beautiful Life was born in order to make such information accessible to artists in cities everywhere.

“I wanted to share that it is possible to make a change, and rather than using finances or budgets and seeing them as restricting you, they can actually open up a lot of doors if you use them to empower yourself,” says O’Connell. Here are five pieces of advice every struggling actor can use to open those doors.

Do your financial research.
“I—like many—was a little bit disillusioned by the reality of the work consistency,” says O’Connell. “Even on bigger and higher profile gigs, I found that the pay still left something to be desired. I didn’t want to live my life constantly constricted by that. I wanted to have freedom both in my career and in my life to pursue the things that are important to me without being limited by actor income.

“To deal with that I decided to start really researching the best ways to make the little bit of money I did have from work, work for me to the best and highest degree.” O’Connell’s routine began to revolve around “how to maximize my limited income so I could have more freedom to do the things I want both in my career and in my personal life.”

Be realistic.
“The first thing you need to do is get really grounded in what your financial reality is,” O’Connell says, “because you can’t work a dream in the long term if you’re not grounded in financial reality.”

Artists setting up a budget should use what O’Connell calls a “make-or-break number,” the most basic cost of living in order to break even or make money. “So the first step for someone would be calculating what that cost of living is, reducing it as much as possible—either by getting roommates or living super cheaply, forgoing cable, things like that—and then getting a survival job while you’re in the audition process that’s going to more than cover that cost. What happens if you start out in a deficit is that deficit compounds itself and compounds itself.”

Make long-term plans.
“What actors tend to do is they have this short-term mentality,” says O’Connell. In her experience, her peers rely too much on the next contract to pay off any debt that has accumulated, which can be dangerous. “I think that’s why people burn out,” she says. “They’re not setting themselves up for long-term success because they’re not planning for their retirement when they’re 20. They’re really just focusing on getting to the next month. So rather than setting aside that money, that money goes to happy hour after rehearsal. And that’s fine every so often! But you kind of have to budget in all the things: short term, long term, wants and needs. You have to be a bit more balanced if you want to be viable long term.”

Develop specialized skills.
If she could go back in time and change one thing about her career, O’Connell would tell herself to develop a practical skill set. “When you’re trying to make income on the side and all you have available to you is the same skills everyone else has, you’re so limited. You can only babysit or wait tables or whatever. So because your skill set isn’t specialized, you can’t command a very high wage and you can’t command a flexible schedule. Whereas if I were a web designer or if I were a carpenter or some kind of skill for my survival job that was specialized, I could demand more. I would be able to have my audition schedule work a lot easier around those things because people would be a lot more willing to work with me.”

Connect with people in your community.
O’Connell admits point-blank that living in New York isn’t cheap. “The great thing about New York is, while it’s really expensive, there are so many resources here because it’s such a big city. There’s also a lot of programs to get things for free or for cheaply and there’s a lot of people in the same boat as you who are also looking to reduce costs. So if you can team up with those kinds of people who know how to find deals who are also interested in pursuing a similar lifestyle, there’s all these savings opportunities. It’s about being aware and finding like-minded people, even if it is in an expensive city.”

Many of those like-minded artists are following O’Connell’s blog. Check it out, and start setting up that budget!

Inspired by this post? Check out "3 Things Not To Pay Big For as an Actor."

Stefanie O’Connell
Stefanie O’Connell is a millennial finance writer, author of “The Broke and Beautiful Life: Small Town Budget, Big City Dreams,” and founder of the blog, The Broke and Beautiful Life. Her work has been featured on Forbes, USA Today, the Huffington Post, Yahoo! Finance, and Business Insider.
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