Friday, February 15, 2008

New York Stories #12: Starving Artist

Here's a New York story that will definitely make you believe it's possible to get by on a low income in NYC. Meet "Starving Artist":

i am young- 24, female, and i freelance in the film industry. my income hovers somewhere around the poverty line ($10,000 or less per year), but i live extremely cheaply in a great 3-br apartment in an ungentrified brooklyn neighborhood. i attended an expensive private college with nearly no financial help from my parents and have lots of student loan debt, but very little credit card debt.

as a freelancer, my income varies wildly. i can expect to make anything from $500 to $2000 a month, depending on the time of the year and the jobs i get. during a good month, i save anything above my immediate expenses so that i'll be able to make rent and pay my bills in the leaner winter months. i also have a fallback job (substitute teaching) a few months out of the year, which i don't enjoy very much but it allows me to keep my schedule flexible. my monthly spending breaks roughly down as follows:

rent $330 (split with two roommates)
student loans $170
groceries $80
metrocard $76
cell phone/internet/netflix $75
entertainment (drinks, dinner, yoga) $60
clothes and books (thrift stores) $40
utilities $30

...but in the truly lean months i cut out the entertainment costs, clothes, and books.

my parents, who've both worked blue-collar jobs all their lives and struggle to make ends meet but are proud to own their home, taught me to be careful with money from a very early age. i was raised to be afraid of debt and to never pay retail!

it takes alot of work and some creativity to live cheaply in a city like new york, but i value my quality of life much more when i keep my expenses down so i'm not obligated to sell my every waking second. it's not that i'm lazy- film is hard, physically grueling work, and the hours START at 72 a week, with one day off. it's that i value my freedom to pursue creative projects and my ability to set my own schedule much more than new clothes, an apartment in a trendy neighborhood, or dinners out. every dollar that i don't spend on something unnecessary is a dollar i don't have to make at a day job i hate. (and believe me, i've had some jobs i really hated.) i'm committed to making most of what i need myself, whether it's clothing or lunch. i love to sew and cook, and i save money on groceries by foregoing processed foods and making my meals from scratch. my apartment is furnished with fantastic furniture, all from thrift stores or pulled from the trash. my biggest luxury is travel, which i've resolved to do more of in the coming year. travel for me means staying in hostels or crashing on the couches of friends who live in some of the world's exciting cities. i've been saving up for a plane ticket to visit my best friend in berlin in honor of our 25th birthdays.

my goals for the next 10 years include an apartment with a garden and extra space for a workshop (in a city, not necessarily new york), a dog (huge expense!), and the ability to do what i love year-round without worrying about where the rent's coming from. i would also like to have health insurance, but barring a huge change in national policy or admission to a trade guild i don't know how i'd do that.

I asked Starving Artist to talk a bit more about how her blue-collar parents felt about her choices, and how that might compare to the attitudes of her friends' parents:
my parents were very uncomfortable with the idea of me pursuing a career in the arts when i was in high school and college. they refused to let me apply to both the arts magnet high school in our town and the private college that i eventually secretly applied to anyway. the first month of my sophomore year of college, it became such an issue that my parents decreased their financial support of me by 90%, to the same amount they spent on my sister who lived at home and attended community college. i believe their thinking that it was tough love, that i would be forced to move home and learn to do something "realistic", and that i'd thank them later. i nearly had to drop out of school, but thanks to some friends with a cheap place in brooklyn i moved out of my dorm, got a 30-hr-a-week job on top of classes, and was able to take out enough loans to just barely cover my tuition.

i've been extremely jealous over the years of friends and significant others with parents who supported their artistic ambitions from an early age. most of these friends had parents who are photographers or opera singers or college professors, parents who would send their children to film camp or pay their children's rent so that they could do career-making unpaid internships. my parents, even though they wanted me to succeed, would never have been able to afford these things. i've often wondered where i'd be right now if i'd had some of these advantages, or even more of a financial safety net.

recently though, my mother has seen that i've made somewhat of a name and a living for myself, that i love what i do and have alot of personal freedom, and she's come around. she's said more than once that she wishes she had a job she actually liked doing, and i've even heard her bragging about me to relatives.

It all comes down to what you value, and the ability to recognize what makes you happy. I loved this line: "I value my quality of life much more when I keep my expenses down." I am sure all of us have had moments, as we make more money and allow ourselves more comforts, when we see our rising standards as a burden rather than a pleasure.
Starving Artist joked that the name she'd chosen for herself might be a bit of a cliché, but actually, I think she sounds rather satisfied and fulfilled, not starving! But boy is that a tight budget.
Thank you for submitting this great story, and I wish you the best in reaching your goals.

Other posts in this series:
New York Stories #1: Bronx Chica
New York Stories #2: Orange
New York Stories #3: Bama Babe
New York Stories #4: K
New York Stories #5: Frugal Female
New York Stories #6: SandyVoice
New York Stories #7: Escape Brooklyn
New York Stories #8: Comfortable Couple
New York Stories #9: Upper West Sider
New York Stories #10: Debt-Free in Harlem
New York Stories #11: Little Miss Moneybags


Serenity3-0 said...

I applaud and admire her for doing what she loves. I love to write and majored in journalism, but I always knew that I'd never feel comfortable writing for a living. I didn't want my passion to turn into a prison. If that makes sense to you. I would rather write for pleasure and not do it b/c I have to eat. Anyway, good luck Starving Artist with realizing your dreams.

Then Things said...

What a great story!

It does pain me to see so many people think that they will never be able to afford health insurance. I purchase my own health insurance for only $60/month. If you are young and healthy insurance is a reasonable expense. Granted my deductible is 5k but if I get in a serious accident or have a major illness it will be covered.

Anonymous said...

Good for Starving Artist, she's an inspiration. As a freelance writer and soon to be fiction grad student, I occasionally consider taking some crappy job just to be able to breathe a bit easier - afford dinners out, occasional shopping, and of course, travel - but then I resolve to drumming up gigs and I manage to squeak by. I've been able to pay my monthly bills so far, though lately I've had to dip into my savings to pay for an upcoming trip to Brooklyn to check out neighborhoods, and the last trip to NY for the AWP conference, which I charged. Ugh.

I admire Starving Artist's resolve, and am guessing that if at 24 she's already this disciplined, she's going to do just fine. Bravo!

Escape Brooklyn said...

Wow, I never had the guts to go all out with the freelance film stuff like she is. I guess health insurance and a steady paycheck (so I could pay my student loans) were too important to me. But that's great she's found a way to make it work!

Anonymous said...

Wow, how much I loved this story. I am in a similar boat although I make about twice what Starving Artist makes. I live in a cheap neighborhood of Brooklyn with a stupid day job that pays for my rent, food, student loans and entertainment.

I think the key to her story is that she is thinking ahead - considering the consequences and plotting goals.

She knows that she will not be able to have expensive dinners, buy trendy clothes or spend $50 at Strand every week, but shes okay with that because she gets to do what she wants and I love that.

I truly wish her the best and hope to read some similar stories on this blog, which I love.

Anonymous said...

Hopefully she'll be rewarded financially soon. Or else I don't see how she can manage without health insurance or a retirement plan in the long run.

L. Marie Joseph said...

Im not sure if I would have went to an expensive private college to make $20K a year.

Bottom line the income must come up even if it means to put the freelance on hold to work a 9-5 job just to pay off some debt.

Anonymous said...

I was a poor musician for a very long time, but never considered doing something else. It's not esy to be an artist, with money or without. Starving Artist, you have your priorities straight. If you hustle and work hard, you'll find work you like that pays well; your hard work will be appreciated, and the money will come. But I agree that health insurance is the first thing to add if you have anything at all above your current income, and the $60 insurance Then Things talks about should be investigated. Good luck!

A quote for us all:

"Perhaps the first question to address is: why do living artists NEED support? After all, the "starving artist" is a romantic image to everyone -- except for the artist who happens to be starving. The image has been fostered by artists, themselves, whose irrepressible creativity has even managed to glamorize deprivation. But I suspect that the world would benefit greatly if more artists were able to live "brush to canvas" or "fingers to keyboard" -- instead of "hand to mouth."

Willard C. Butcher
Chairman & CEO of
Chase Manhattan Corp. and
The Chase Manhattan Bank, NA
(quoted 1990 in Yellow Springs Review)

Anonymous said...

i am having a great deal of difficulty believing anyone can eat on $80 a month. i fail to see how it can be done especially if you are making food from scratch. i could believe it if she were living on kraft and ramen. Does this also include non food items that she buys in the grocery store? yikes.

non-new yorker

Anonymous said...

Just found in the NY Times online! Ask and it shall be given!

Anonymous said...


Sorry, the whole link didn't show up in the last post. Here it is -- I broke it up so the whole thing shows up, but as usual, it's actually one long "word". You'll have to put it together yourself. Or you can go to and look for Friday's Links.

Anonymous said...


"i am having a great deal of difficulty believing anyone can eat on $80 a month. i fail to see how it can be done especially if you are making food from scratch."

This statement makes no sense, as "from scratch" is cheaper than anything. No one knows what "from scratch" is anymore. A 10 lb. bag of flour, a dozen eggs and a stick of butter is much cheaper than buying processed food.

Shuchong said...

I am duly impressed. I lived in New York doing a job that I hated. I've often wondered what it would have been like had I done something like this instead. Kudos to Starving Artist!

tracyho said...

Wish you best of Luck,

Just from

tracy ho

Anonymous said...

I would LOVE to know what she eats on $80 a month and still remains healthy. I mean it would seem that health would be important to her considering she is into yoga. I'm always trying to cut down on my grocery bill, but with buying organics and special food for food's hard.

Anonymous said...

I have to call bullspit on this story as well. I bet this was written by some spoiled girl whose parents take care of everything and she's trying to convince herself that her peers who have to support themselves on meager incomes don't really have it that hard. A couple things, first she proves she is lying by her expenses which come out to $861 per month or over $10k per year - impossible to do when she says she is earning less than $10k per year. That is not even including any one-off unplanned for expenses which are going to happen to anyone.

So her budget and income are fake because they don't even make sense mathematically. The numbers she uses are also ridiculous on their own - $330 per month in rent means $1000 with her roommates for a 3-bedroom in Brooklyn? Even in crappy parts of Brooklyn that is hard to come by unless you are in Section 8 housing. Groceries for $80 month? Please - that means her grocery shopping is basically just the essentials like milk and bread and a couple other little things. That would be possible if she mostly ate out, but she says she spends only $60 per month on drinks, dinner, and yoga? Impossible. Even if she ate $5 dinners she would blow through $60 in much less than a month, and that is not including drinks and yoga. I have no idea what yoga costs, but even a few drinks per week will cost you more than $60 in a month at the crappiest of bars. Then utilities for $30 per month? Does that mean $100 along with her roommates? Its possible I guess if they barely use any electricity and never use the heat or air conditioning.

This girl just described living in poverty but there are big holes in her story which prove she is lying. And her attitude that all is rosey is such bull, she is simply trying to convince herself that people who live like that are fine and happy. Another dumb spoiled girl who needs some confirmation for her life.

MadameX, I would have thought you would screen these things and get rid of the ones that are so obviously false. Anyone who actually believes this story seriously needs to get their head examined.

Anonymous said...

Bronx Chica- wow 1 of many true NYers living in NYC! It is amazing what the city can do- either make or break you. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like living back in NYC...

Anonymous said...

Please, folks, let's not start accusing people of lying. I find the stories of people understanding money so well that at age 30 they have half a million dollars in the bank and no debt just as unbelievable, but I presume that's because I myself didn't undestand things at that age. I'm not sure I could live on Starving Artist's budget, and I'm sure it would be hard to do, but that doesn't mean she can't do it. I've lived on very little, and know there are many who live on about what SA does.

Actually, SA, it just occurred to me ... have you considered trying to get Food Stamps?

her every cent counts said...

As an artist myself, I certainly understand and respect the option of living so frugally to pursue one's dreams. I admire the strength to live so cheaply in order to do this. I tried for a while, but quickly gave up. I have too high of a living standard to be anywhere near a "starving" artist. So I work a full time job and do art/theater as my hobby. It works fine for me. Film is a different beast, though. Hopefully Starving Artist will be able to move up in the film world over the years. I think the worst thing a "Starving Artist" can do is get caught up in the romanticism of not making a lot of money, and continue to accept unpaid or low paid jobs once they've got enough experience to do better.

VixenOnABudget said...

By far, this has to be my favorite post on here. :-D

josie said...

first off, i apologize for not responding sooner. my laptop crapped out on me a few weeks ago, and so i haven't been online much. and seeing as i can't really work without a computer, i'm going to have to go into a little more debt to replace it. let me know if you hear of any electronics stores with a year or 18 months of interest-free financing!

to sandyvoice- i don't qualify for food stamps because you need to have a job of at least 20 hrs a week. some months i make over the required minimum amount of money, some months i don't work a full 20 hrs every week. my work is so erratic, and often when i'm working it's sort of under the table and not verifiable by the government. i thought for awhile not long ago that i could get food stamps, and i was very excited. turns out after all that i can't.

about my eating habits- i am a vegetarian and i eat very well, low fat, low sugar. this actually keeps my food costs down. i get my produce from a CSA, and it's all local and organic. split with two other people, this costs me about $15 per month. i eat a lot of beans, rice, whole grains and local produce. i cook almost everything from scratch, and a $2 bag of flour can make me meals for two months. when you're actually making things and not buying processed foods or crappy take-out, it is many, many times cheaper. it does take alot of time this way, a few hours a day to make my dinner and my lunch for the next day. and when you're working on a film production, two to three meals a day are provided for you, a month or two at a time.

i do in fact live in brooklyn with two roommates for $1025 total per month. a three-bedroom. it's in a neighborhood many of my friends refuse to visit at night, and there are no trendy bars or boutiques or thai restaurants, but i absolutely love my apartment. it's the only thing that makes my lifestyle sustainable. i was only able to afford to take the plunge into freelancing once i found this apartment.

please note that the figures i gave for my budget are very rough. these are my best guesses for a typical month. i probably have some added expenses most months and i may have left something out. but i absolutely made less than $10,000 this past year.

to those who are skeptical, i will admit it is a very difficult way to live, and much of the time i don't feel as "rosy" about the future as i was in this post. i've lost alot of sleep over my years in new york worrying about how i was going to pay the rent, and for awhile i had panic attacks over it. very recently i've considered taking a full-time job i didn't want to do for a little security and to get ahead on bills, but it fell through.

i find it suprising that so many people are shocked that i live the way i do. many, many people in new york live on what i make and not much more- people with full-time jobs and families to support. certainly more people live this way than live the more visible "new york" condo-martinis-designer clothes lifestyle. i count myself lucky that i'm young and unencumbered enough to make the CHOICE to live on very little.

i'll also admit that i have started thinking about leaving new york for somewhere cheaper. i've only been freelancing in film for two years now, so i'm still getting started, but if the work doesn't get steadier and more lucrative soon i may have to give it up. right now it's like a sprint...i just have to keep going as long as possible without falling...and hope it pays off, and i meet the right people to get high-paying work. it's not an ideal situation, but i'm trying to make it work. i don't know of any other way i could make the creative career i want happen.

Anonymous said...

I admire your choices. My wife is an artist and had plans to do the NY thing after college. We got married and she followed me so things change. However, your dedication to your dreams leads you to make choices that are not always easy but can be incredibly rewarding. I do worry about the health insurance factor. That is scary.


clear_water said...

Starving Artist -

This is a belated response (I've only recently discovered this blog during a slightly obsessional fit of dealing with personal finances) and wanted to throw in my words of support...

My first two years in New York (post very expensive graduate art school with no parental support) were very much like your current situation. I survived primarily on Goutrmet Garage's then $.40 whole wheat bagels! Alas, I also wrecked my credit (nearly in complete repair now), but when I met with a credit counselor and showed him my income, his disbelieving response echoed anonymous above "how are you LIVING on this?"

The truth is, one can, just b/c that poster may not have had that experience doesn't mean it isn't happening to you (or at one time, to me).

To echo another poster "sandyvoice", if you keep at it, the money and a certain stability will eventually come - in my own case, I am a visual artist with a well respected career inc. exhibits, residencies and grants and the requisite catalogs and reviews, as well as part time teaching (both college and private school).

So much of the artist's life is about sheer perserverance; I've certainly learned that it's not neceassrily the wildly talented that acheive success, but rather the people who have talent plus a never-give-up attitude... for some of us art-making isn't so much a choice but a neccessity and a given.

Now if we could only get good financial planning targeted specifically for artists - our financial lives are very, very, very different from full time, part time and even self-employed. For example, one can have a very successful career - all the things I mentioned above - but "operate at a loss" the entire time!

Roo said...

I can verify that it's possible to eat on $60-$75/month, in Washington DC which I think has worse food prices than in New York (where Chinatown etc. have cheap produce). It's about buying loss leaders, eating a lot of carbs (rice, bread, chips) and not much meat. Frozen veggies, too. It helps if you are small and if you have access to the occasional free food (I was often able to hoard leftovers from events where I volunteered).

I did this for years, literally. After a year and a half of making very good money and wondering "what am I supposed to do with it, other than save for retirement?" I bumped up my spending to $250/month; it didn't take very long, just a decision to buy meat, some fancy items, and as much fruits/veg as I will eat. I can't believe I spend as much on fruits every month as I used to spend on my entire budget. I don't know if my eating habits are healthier per se - it's been months since I had beans - but my choices are more varied. I'll eat a pound of strawberries every day in season now, instead of just having apples and bananas. I buy more fresh veggies, fancy lettuce, artichokes and asparagus, instead of just the frozen broccoli/ green beans/ spinach. I'll buy pre-made soups now.

I could probably double my food budget again, without much eating out, since I like fish, but the frugalista in me can't do it yet. I still buy almost everything on sale, but now I'll plonk down $60 on a biweekly Trader Joe's run, instead of sticking to the cheapest items.

Jeszlene Zhou said...

Don't give up! A career in film takes time, do a tad more substitute teaching if needed but don't give up!

I'm thinking of heading to NY for a couple of months in 2009, and I'm really encouraged by the tips on this site. I doubt I'm capable of being this frugal, so I'm saving up more. Thanks for providing an insight on what can be done though. Good luck!