Five Tips for Getting Your Money Shit Together: Or, Lessons From a Middle-Aged, Middle Class Dance Artist

By Amy Smith



As artists, we need to stop asking people to work for free, and we need to stop working for free. And we all need to say “no” more often, when offered fake opportunities from fellow artists, presenters, festivals, etc.

“No” is the appropriate response to an opportunity that neither advances our career in a clear, measurable way, nor compensates us adequately.

Our time is valuable. We are highly skilled, highly trained professionals. Our culture undervalues the arts and artists. But our long-term sustainability in this field depends on not internalizing that undervaluation. The attitude of “I’m lucky to be doing this, so I don’t deserve to get paid” has caused so much damage in our ecosystem. The antidote is to know your hourly, daily, and weekly rates, and to ask for them. We all need to take responsibility for changing the unhealthy dynamics.

Of course, there are times when we will choose to work for free—when we are involved in the creation and have ownership over the process. Or when we have decided to donate our time to an organization whose mission aligns with our own mission. But we can all practice saying “no” more often. And if we hear “it’s exposure for your work!” as an explanation for lack of compensation, then we should just say no.

I want to live in a world where everyone can be an artist, not just people whose parents can pay for rent while they do unpaid internships. By negotiating for fair pay and saying “no” to fake opportunities, we are making the world a better place for ourselves, and for the next generation of artists. For women and artists of color, the undervaluation of our time is even more extreme, and we are not socialized to be good at negotiation. We have to be even more sanguine and strong-willed when responding to opportunities.


When swimming in the financial struggle, it’s really hard to think long term. I know. For a few years when I was in my early 20s, I worked a part-time day job and lived on about $12,000 a year. These were the Frozen Peas and Bulk Tofu years. The Cross My Fingers and Hope the Rent Check Doesn’t Bounce years. The Can I Figure Out A Costume Using Things in My Closet? years. Just paying the bills was hard enough. Luckily, I had committed collaborators, and we shared the cost of renting studio space and art-making. We made a lot of dances, and we made them cheaply. At that age, and in those conditions it felt impossible to think long term. But here’s the thing: the magic of compound interest is—if we can start saving/investing at a young age, our savings will grow and make our future selves much more secure. This can take the form of a savings account, investment account, or Roth IRA; it doesn’t matter. Start by putting away $10 or $20 a month. As debt gets paid off, start funneling some of the funds into savings/investing that were previously going towards debt each month.

Obviously compound interest won’t do much if money is in a savings account (usually rates are 1% or less). But consider investing in a low-cost index fund like the S&P 500 (historically, 10% annual return) – the compound interest can be significant. When investing, invest in something boring and low-cost. Don’t move it, don’t sell it, don’t even check on how it’s doing. It’s doing fine. Let it sit. Our future selves will be so pleased looking at that account years from now, seeing how it has grown.


In my late 20s I had a day job doing administrative work for a private investigations firm. Part of my job was calling clients who owed us money. This was a white-collar PI firm and the clients were mostly fancy law firms who had hired us for due diligence or records research in preparation for a lawsuit. These lawyers were very good at negotiating fees, and they knew how to wriggle out of paying a full bill. They’d say “Oh, I still owe you $10,000 for that work you did three months ago? Why don’t I write you a check for $7,000 and we’ll call it a day?” My job was to try to get them to pay the full $10,000, but I would often settle for $8,000 or $9,000. Why? Because most businesses know they will occasionally have to write off “bad debt.” They include that assumption in their business planning. They budget for it.

You know who else writes off bad debt? Credit card companies. Even student loan debt is negotiable. After having this experience at my day job, I decided to call my husband’s student loan lenders (granted, he hadn’t paid them a dime in years, so they were very happy to hear from us). I got them to write off a pretty big percentage of the loan. In general, lenders would rather have a chunk of the money now and write off the rest rather than having to chase you for it. Or, if you don’t have a chunk of money to offer them, just tell them you are struggling to pay. They will often renegotiate the rates and terms so that you can pay less monthly rather than not pay at all.

All debt is negotiable. This is something that rich people know (including a certain president who shall not be named). Artists need to know it, too. If you cannot pay down your debt, pick up the phone and call the lender. You can work something out. You’d be amazed at the number of artists I’ve met who have successfully done this.


Tax time can be tough. And budgeting is also tough, even for those of us who love Excel spreadsheets. That receipt from the hardware store, was it was for light bulbs for your apartment, or plywood for the set for your dance piece? That meal with your lighting designer—business meeting or a social event? After many years of confusion I finally got smart and started a separate checking account that I use for my artistic expenses. That way, the year’s 12 bank statements give me a good sense of what I spent last year on artistic expenses. This, in turn, helps me fill out my Schedule C at tax time. And when I’m creating a project budget for my next project, I also have a better sense of how much to budget for various categories. Here’s how I split them up:

Personal Account:
Income = Day job.
Expenses = Rent, utilities, phone, car or other transportation (a portion of these expenses will get written off on your Schedule C), groceries.

Art-Making Account:
Income = Grants, Teaching Fees, Performance Fees.
Expenses = Studio rent, paying performers or designers, project expenses, research expenses, travel, business meals, etc.

This is also a good way of treating your artistic practice as the business that it is. We may be self-employed “sole proprietor” artists, but we are still businesses, and the separate bank account can help remind us of that fact—and even dignify it to others.


For a long time I counted my pennies and never spent money on anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary. I bought my sweatshirts at the thrift store and never went to see shows if they cost more than $15. My computer was seven years old and about to die. But even as I started to achieve more financial stability, I was still in the frugal mindset, and because I spent so little, I always had a fairly significant net profit on my Schedule C. Which meant owing the IRS money each year for self-employment tax. I remember the moment I realized that I could spend money on deductible things that also made me happy. I was in a store, trying on a nice sweatshirt that cost a lot more than what I would normally spend, and thought to myself – “yeah, it probably is good for me to dress a little nicer now that I’m teaching college students.” And BOOM! I realized it would also mean owing less to the IRS on April 15. Double BOOM! Look good and owe less! Want to go to NYC to see an amazing artist whose work you love? Go! It’s deductible!

A lot of artists get flummoxed by how to track their expenses. Receipts? Excel spread- sheet? Quickbooks? My response is: use whatever system makes sense and is easiest to manage. From the IRS’ point of view, if it’s ‘ordinary’ in your line of work and ‘necessary’ to your work, it’s deductible. And if it makes us happy, even better.

AMY SMITH is a dance and theater artist and educator in Philadelphia, a Co-Director of Headlong Dance Theater and the Headlong Performance Institute. She also does tax preparation for many artists and teaches Financial Literacy for Artists through Creative Capital and other avenues. Her personal mission is to help other artists increase their financial literacy so they can have sustainable lives as artists.