How to Translate an Actor's Salary into Financial Reality

It wasn’t more than a year or two ago that I was sifting through audition listings and making note of the upcoming projects I wanted to go in for and their respective pay rates. I remember thinking, Oh that’s good, any time I saw a contract minimum of $800/week or more. I even celebrated offers in which I received far less.

I had become so used to seeing salary minimums of $400/week or $100/day that my barometer for assessing compensation had become, in many ways, detached from financial reality. It’s a mindset I find unfortunately common among many of my fellow actors.

We operate in this world in which compensation is broken down by day or by week, such that we often fail to understand what those numbers look like in the context of a “true salary.”

For example, $800/week turns out to be just $40,000/year, before taxes, agent fees, and union dues—and only if you’re lucky enough to be working 50 weeks a year. And $400/week comes out to $20,000/year, while $100/day adds up to around $35,000/year.

If you’re anything like me, you may be somewhat shocked by these numbers. I had long been operating under the false assumption that I was making “good money” at $800/week, but as soon as I put the numbers into the context of a yearly salary, they suddenly didn’t seem so good anymore.

Others of you may be looking at these numbers and thinking, All fine by me, I’ll gladly take $40,000 a year. In which case I’ll advise you to remember that these numbers are based on a best-case scenario in which you are lucky enough to be on a contract year-round, not just a few weeks or days at a time.

I’d also recommend getting grounded in the reality of the numbers. Start by subtracting the taxes, agent fees, and union dues. Then take out what you need to pay your bills and make your student loan payments. Then subtract the remainder of your living expenses. You’ll probably find that you don’t have much, if anything, left over for personal expenses, financial goals, or family.

I’m afraid the model of daily and weekly pay rates, though necessary in an industry of short-term contracts, has served to create dangerous detachment from a comprehensive understanding of the financial realities of those salaries, making many actors, myself included, susceptible to accepting work we can’t always afford to take on. We operate in a world in which unpaid and low-paying work is such a norm that anything remotely within the realm of livable income gives us a false sense of financial security.

The purpose of this is not to say, “Don’t do the $800/week gig,” or even the $400 week/gig, but to urge you to be more mindful of how those numbers translate into your financial reality and if you can actually afford to work at those rates or not.

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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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