Artists' advice on living with a tight budget

Arwen Wilder
Choreographer Arwen Wilder and her daughter Ea Eckwall in their kitchen at home
MPR photo/Chris Roberts

What distinguishes artists from most people facing today's economic crisis is their attitude.

They know only a very small percentage of artists will ever make a good living but they decide pursuing their life's passion is more important than chasing a bigger paycheck. And because it's their choice, there's really no embarrassment involved in having less money.

Leah Cooper
Leah Cooper has worked many jobs in the Twin Cities including as a director, as the head of the Minnesota Fringe, and as Manager of Theater de la Jeune Lune. Along the way she has always looked for ways to save money here and there.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

Theater director Leah Cooper says, actually, it's the opposite.

"If anything, and here's the funny thing, if somebody does financially well, we're a little self-conscious about it because we know all of our friends are poor," Cooper says. "But yeah, there's certainly no shame and we sort of celebrate the ingenuity it takes to live a life that is frankly poor by choice."

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Cooper stands between two racks of sweaters at Savers, a deeply discounted used clothing and home goods store. She shops here not just for clothing, but for props and costumes for the plays she directs.

All of the furniture in her apartment came from the Salvation Army store in downtown Minneapolis. She repainted the tables and chairs to make them look new and she sewed her own curtains. She says artists often use their creative spirit to solve problems like "how am I going to pay the rent this month?" The answer? Rent Parties.

"When my kids would say 'What do you want for your birthday mom?' or 'What do you want for mother's day?' I would say 'A story, a poem or a letter' because that's something no one can buy me."

"It's sort of a way of putting a happy face on a pretty dire situation which is "Oh my gosh, I can't make my rent" and that's when you send an e-mail out saying 'Hey, I'm having a party and I'm hoping you can each bring $5 to contribute towards my rent and I'll make mac and cheese,'" explained Cooper. "It's a really nice way of asking for help from your friends without sounding desperate and remaining celebratory about life."

Cooper says she's learned over time that there a lot of things you think you need but don't really. She mainly cooks at home rather than going out, and if she does dine out she rarely ever buys alcohol. She and her husband share a car, but many of her friends don't own cars at all, and get to work by bus or by bike.

Dancer and choreographer Arwen Wilder cleans up around the house while her three year old takes a nap. She says fortunately young kids are pretty easy to entertain so rather than take her daughter to an expensive aquarium; they'll go for a ride on the bus, or walk around a marketplace.

"I go to the MIA a lot with my daughter," said Wilder. "She loves it and it's free! We go over to the Como Park to the conservatory and the zoo, it's a suggested donation of $2. The parks are great and there are so many of them and we go to different ones all the time, and unless it's really cold we ride a bike to get there."

Wilder trades babysitting with other parents - she says it's just one of the many services she gets by bartering.

"For instance as a dancer I feel like getting body work, like massage, is an important part of keeping my body in shape, and I always trade for that," said Wilder. "I give private sessions in Pilates and so I trade that, I've traded pies for legal work. I've traded all kinds of things."

Wilder says trying new things can be fun, so she recommends that people try out money saving techniques with a spirit of adventure.

Barbara Kingsley
Actor Barbara Kingsley has managed to raise two kids with her husband Stephen D'Ambrose (also an actor) by paring down their lifestyle and focussing on what's most important.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

Actor Barbara Kingsley sits in a Minneapolis coffee shop, something she rarely does unless someone else is treating her. In addition to acting, Kingsley teaches at the University of Minnesota, and has done voiceover work for commercials.

Kingsley and her husband, actor Stephen D'Ambrose, have raised two kids on their limited and highly inconsistent income. They made a point of keeping their children involved in managing the household budget.

If their daughter really wanted a nice dress, she had to come up with half the money herself and then they'd match it. In the fall the kids had to figure out how they were going to use a set amount of money to buy new clothes and necessary school supplies. And when it came to holidays, the family focused on giving gifts of time and talent rather than cash.

"So when my kids would say 'What do you want for your birthday mom?' or 'What do you want for mother's day?' I would say 'A story, a poem or a letter' because that's something no one can buy me," said Kingsley.

Evidently Kingsley and D'Ambrose didn't make the artists life look too bad because both their kids have gone on to pursue acting as well. And Kingsley says she's confident they have the financial skills necessary to deal with the undoubtedly bumpy road ahead.

N.M. Kelby
Nicole Kelby, aka N.M. Kelby, blends many of her own experiences, from working in a horror movie to performing with Heart of the Beast Puppet Theater in her murder mysteries. She says tight times can offer opportunities.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Writer N.M. Kelby says if you're feeling financially strapped, above all else don't panic.

"Money is about the human heart," says Kelby. "Money is just this device, just a way that we define ourselves. It's nothing more than that; it should have no more power than that. Because we manipulate currency."

Kelby's published four books in the last six years, but before that she had to do a lot of different jobs to cobble together a living. She says her co-workers called her "the slasher," because she was a reporter/editor/TV personality/writer. Kelby says while the economy may appear to be falling apart, this is also a great opportunity for people to take stock of what's really important in their lives, and to change their behaviors accordingly. "This is not a horrible thing," said Kelby. "We're getting back to the basics and we're building from the ground up again. We're starting something new and fresh and perhaps something deeper than before."

Venus deMars
Venus deMars, guitarist and vocalist for All the Pretty Horses for several years. She says it's important to be flexible and look for alternative ways of accomplishing things when money is tight.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Venus de Mars is the lead singer and creative force behind the glam rock band "All the Pretty Horses." She has taken on a renter at home, and lets out her studio to other bands to help pay the bills. Sometimes she plays a pared down concert with just her guitar to bring in a little more money. De Mars has had a 40-hour-a-week job in the past, but even though it offered financial stability, she much prefers her life as a struggling rock star.

"There is such a huge emotional pay with what I do," says de Mars. "And I think even for an accountant, they may be getting the money pay, but if they're not getting the emotional pay, they're going to feel like they're losing something. That emotional pay - even though it's invisible - is really valuable, and if you don't have that you're not making enough money."

De Mars says even when things are rough it's important to keep in mind the big picture. She notes things are a lot worse in other parts of the world.

"As individuals you just need to recognize and appreciate what you have and try to help people who don't have as much as you do, says De Mars. "We're all human, we're all doing this, we're all struggling. Part of the best things we can do as humans is to rally together and get through this. And we will - we'll get through it."

Comforting words and sage advice from people who've learned first-hand how to live through difficult times.