Personal Finance for Singers

The information gathered here came from a sampling of singers who are just past the Young Artist Program level and could be labeled either emerging professional or professional singers. Generally, they are in their late 20s and early 30s. All have master’s degrees and have sung at companies throughout the country and abroad—companies at a variety of budget levels, including those at the very top bracket. About half are managed singers.

Talking with singers about money yields two responses: groaning about not having any or changing the subject. The financial realities of being a singer are grim: we make very little and our expenditures for audition fees, travel, voice lessons, and coachings are high—plus we have to eat and live indoors. Few singers are educated about finance, business or personal, which creates a sea of singers without a plan for their financial future. “While you may look successful,” noted one singer, “you are probably not making enough money to feel successful.”

In most majors in college, students are told the expected salary that they are likely to make with their degree. With music, it’s impossible to provide that information for students, as one’s financial success is contingent on so many subjective factors in the world of professional music. Soprano Donata Cucinotta remarked that in a session in college, a sample “young singer” budget in her opera workshop class showed that even with balancing many singing and teaching jobs, few singers broke even.

Generally, net income (after deductions) from singing ranged from $6,500-$30,000. Most of these singers reported additional income from other employment beyond singing. Singing income came from operatic engagements, concert engagements, church jobs, and teaching.

This low range is astonishing and depressing, given the number of hours the singers spent seeking singing employment, practicing and preparing, and rehearsing. The sums reflect what remains after paying for voice lessons, coachings, travel, temporary housing for audition tours and gigs, application fees, and other such business-related expenses. Even very successful singers find it a necessity to work additional, non-singing jobs, especially in the early stages of their careers. This additional employment provides a more predictable income for planning and budgeting.

Debt is an enormous problem for working singers, especially student loan debt. Paying back loans can seem daunting, especially when one’s yearly income as a singer is significantly lower than the total owed. Mezzo-soprano Suzanne Hendrix notes that it isn’t just student debt that plagues singers. “It is very easy to go into debt while auditioning . . . ,” she says. “It’s an expensive, vicious cycle.” Another singer, who wishes to remain anonymous, noted that her graduate education prepared her in no way for credit, loan management, and taxes. “My loan application was even modified by the financial aid department to include additional, nonsubsidized funds,” she confides. “When I confronted my advisor about the change, I was encouraged to keep the extra $9,000 and go ‘buy some jeans.’”

Most of the singers interviewed for this article did not have any savings. The few who did were married or in committed relationships and were in a dual-income household. An anonymous mezzo worries about her retirement. “I don’t take home enough every month to squirrel any money away . . . I need it all for bills, rent, and lessons! My colleagues and I prefer not to talk about it, as it would panic us all.”

So what is a singer to do? While personal finance for singers is a topic that is difficult to narrow down, it is possible to start somewhere. And that starting place is budgeting. My father was a financial planner for many years, and his influence and attitude toward planning has made an enormous difference in the way I handle my money, even in the lean months.

Start by tracking your spending for an entire month. Your goal is to see where your money goes. You can also use this test month to determine what costs can be cut out.

Creating a monthly budget when income flow is irregular is the constant complaint of the self-employed. Singing is not the only industry where this is common, and if others can stay afloat in the slow times, you can too with careful planning.

For example, I have what I call my “Oh, crap!” account. Unexpected expenses are not really unexpected. Cars wear down, and eventually you’ll need new brakes. If you don’t plan ahead to pay for the new brakes, it becomes an “Oh, crap!” expense. The same could be said of the myriad surprise expenses that shouldn’t really be surprises: clothes, audition expenses, haircuts, upper respiratory infections . . . the list goes on and on.

I added up all of my quarterly, yearly, and any other expenses that were not regular expenses, divided by 12, and came up with the amount that I needed on hand to pay for those “Oh, crap!” bills. I pay that amount into my “Oh, crap!” account as if it were a regular monthly bill. By continually doing this, I put fewer “emergencies” on credit cards and feel much more in control of my spending, because I have the money at hand.

It can be overwhelming to try to take control of your money, especially with looming debt. Four years out of school, however, I have paid off over half of my student loans and will be totally paid off in the next two years. I credit a big part of my success to my decision to tithe 10 percent of my income to my church. Donating to charity first, before any of the other expenses, including necessary ones like rent, has changed my outlook on my money. And I’ve always “made it through” the month’s necessary expenses by doing this. If 10 percent is overwhelming, try just 5 percent. It does help to take away the anxiety about money when you’ve given to those who are less fortunate than you.

Next, list out all of your expenses from the tally you made of the month. Split into two categories, living expenses and singing expenses. Round up to the nearest dollar of the most expensive bill of the month for utilities to allow wiggle room. Once everything is written out, it is easy to see where the money goes and what adjustments or eliminations can be made. You still need to eat and you need to pay for lessons and coachings.

You also need to save. Savings are not optional—and they are not only for those who make lots of money. My grandparents grew up on farms in the ‘Great’ Depression and they made getting by and saving for a rainy day a way of life. We can all learn from the example of our grandparents and great-grandparents.

If saving is difficult for you, start out with the $5 savings plan. This popular idea has gone viral on the Internet and is very simple. Any time you have a $5 bill, place it in a jar (preferably out of reach where you can’t see it and spend it!). After six months, you’ll be surprised how much you have. Take this money and open a savings account. Small amounts may not seem like much, but it is fun to watch miniscule savings grow to moderate savings, and then beyond that into a safety net that gets you through a thin patch with few gigs.

It can be difficult to reach the end of your budgeted money for something in the middle of the month. It is a hard choice, especially when it comes to applying for opportunities. But part of making a budget work is having the discipline to not spend more than what you have planned.

Saving in one area means having more to spend in other areas. “I do a lot of couchsurfing and eat a lot of oatmeal!” says Cucinotta. Her choice to save money on expenses such as travel and food allows her more room in her coaching and application budget.

Hendrix also feels that the frugal lifestyle she learned from her parents was very helpful in her financial choices as a singer. She notes that home ownership and other typical things for her friends aren’t really possible with her work situation. “You have to be prepared to watch other people do those things before you, if you are going to pursue opera. On the other hand, I got to sing in Seattle’s Ring.”

The financial sacrifices we make for our art aren’t easy. It isn’t easy to tell our friends we cannot go out to eat with them or to trade our secondary skills for services we need (like taking photos for someone who is an excellent Web designer). It also means balancing work in a secondary industry to pay for our singing endeavors, even for the more successful singers. The same creativity we apply to singing can help us to reach financial goals such as living debt free and growing a savings account.

Few singers can successfully make it on their own. Whether help comes from family, friends, or other singers, we’re in this boat together, and it makes sense to contribute to each other’s financial well being as we do to artistic well being. This means giving as well as taking—favors find a way of coming back in a positive way!

If you’re truly lost, there are nonprofit agencies that help with debt management and other financial problems. There are also hundreds of books on finance available at your local library. It’s worth it to read as many as you can to find the mix of plans and strategties that will work for you. I personally don’t believe that any one financial management plan works for everyone. Educate yourself. Negotiate as much as you can with creditors, loan management companies, even coaches and teachers. While I was a student, I traded babysitting for accompanying, which helped both my pianist and me.

There is hope for financial success as a singer with careful planning, with occasional sacrifice and frugality, and with emotional support from colleagues, friends, and family.

Joanie Brittingham

Joanie Brittingham is a soprano and writer living in New York City. She can be reached at joaniebrittingham@gmail.com. Visit her blog, Cure for the Common Crazy, at commoncrazy.blogspot.com or see her column, Big Apple Sauce, on the arts scene of New York, at the website JuicyHeads.com.