Tuesday, January 26, 2010

It's Time For The Money Talk (Part II)

My post about money a couple of weeks ago brought up many good comments from readers of this blog as well as a few questions. Desterado writes:

"Considering that the work is not always guaranteed, there are dry spells and such how do you do things such as...

Pay for health insurance? Do you have some sort of special group rate you get because your profession is listed as in the Film Industry?

Save for retirement? This is possible, but unfortunately there's no "company" to match your 401k, right?


I guess what I want to know is what do you film guys/gals plan on doing when you're 50 or 60 or older? Are you actually filing income taxes on all of your earnings? Do you plan on living on social security or are you trying to setup some sort of retirement?

This is the stuff that bothered me and was part of the reason I stopped trying.

I wanna know!"
To tell you the truth, Desterado, I wanna know too!

So when I first started in this biz, I asked a lot of questions, and while I'm in no way an expert, voice of reason, and/or reliable source of information on the topic, this is what I've come up with in my unofficial research: There's no one real plan.

Health insurance? Some of us have it, some of us don't. Most of us who have it pay for it ourselves, but I've run into a few kids just starting out who are still under their parents' employers health insurance (at least for a little bit longer) due to some technical finagling. I once worked with a juicer who went on and on about how great an HSA is... unless you got sick or injured a lot. While I never went that route, the guy had some pretty convincing points. And despite being a freelance worker, I've heard of one or two companies who will offer you free health insurance after you stick with them for a certain amount of shows (rare, but it happens).

As for retirement, sometimes, it doesn't really matter if you have an employer who matches your 401(k) if you're not going to contribute to it. As Michael Taylor puts it in his response to Desterado, "Being young and immortal, I didn't care." And that's not an industry specific response either. I've met many people my age (and older) in whatever industry you can imagine and most of them don't have a retirement plan. Even those who have employers who will match their contributions have an empty account. Truth is, most of us are too busy trying to make rent or planning trips to Vegas or getting our careers off the ground to be bothered with something that's 50 years down the road.

As for me? I have health insurance which I buy on my own. And while I don't have a 401(k), I have an IRA which I'll occasionally (though never as often as I should) add to when times are good. I also put money into a savings account when I have it for the times when I don't. All this is made possible because I was lucky/smart enough to build a large stash of cash before I moved out here, giving me somewhat of a head start on the "financial stability" side of things. Granted, no amount of piggy banks could have prepared me for the dry spell of the past couple years, but at least my head's still above water for now.

I learned a long time ago that in this industry, you either make a little money or you make a lot. There's no in between. So until we start landing those big-number jobs, how we live depends on our individual priorities. Some of us are happy still living the "college life" with four roommates in a two bedroom apartment, spending money on video games, DVDs and plane tickets whenever they have the cash. And some of us worry about the future and pinch pennies in order to build up our saving accounts.

For those of you who are in the latter category but don't necessarily know where to start, websites like Bankrate, TheSimpleDollar, GetRichSlowly and Consumerist.com (just to name a few) often have tips on things like insurance, savings, retirement funds, debt management, etc. None of those sites are specific to this industry, but they can be very helpful nonetheless. And if you went to college, check out your school's alumni association. I know mine offers discounts on things like car insurance and my friend's school even hooked her up with a retirement account. There's also the Freelancer's Union (which Mr. Taylor also mentioned) of which I'm a member of. While I definitely haven't been taking advantage of all they have to offer, they do offer plans on various types of insurance as well as a 401(k). Membership also gets you discounts at select places like Staples and Barnes and Noble and administrators are constantly trying to improve the life of freelancers (like advocating for fairer tax and unpaid wage laws). While the organization may not be for everyone, it's probably worth checking out.

So, sorry Desterado. I know it doesn't sound like the concrete answer you're looking for, but it's the best that I could come up with. There's no one real secret path that we're all following. There's no guidebook for this part of Hollywood. Rather, the truth is that we're making it up as we go along. Some of us have been lucky. Some of us have not. Some of us don't think about tomorrow, while some of us lose sleep over it. One thing is for sure though: we all want to be here. Whatever our end goal is in this Industry, to us, it's worth the sleepless nights, low bank accounts and unknown future. If none of that is for you, then you were smart to get out when you did.

Since I'm primarily in the non-union world, this post is geared more towards those "in the trenches" with me. Many of these concerns are figured out if/when you join the IA (aka: the Union) and more info on that can be found in Michael Taylor's response since I'm not even going to pretend I know any of the details about it. And as always, if anyone wants to chime in about any of this, comments are welcome.


D said...

I understand Desterado's position. But with all due respect it sounds like he lost a little bit of his nerve a little early. Although this business is feast or famine, most of the grips and electrics I work with (including myself) all have houses (some more than one) and families with children. They put their kids through college and have health insurance just like everyone else. It can be a little intimidating sometimes, especially starting out, but you stay at it long enough to earn a good rep and work your way up the ladder just like any business.

A.J. said...

D - Agreed. The pay and benefits (or lack of) when you start out in g/e isn't necessarily a preview of what your life will be ten years down the line. But there's also no guarantee that it will get better. I know guys in their 30's who are still working non-union with no retirement plan. Nothing in this business is guaranteed and some people just don't want to make that bet.

D said...

You are right about that. If you reach your 30's and still are slaving away with no retirement plan, living with two other guys, and no insurance, it's time to rethink either your choices or your plan of attack. Something is wrong somewhere. Your twenties, though, are a time for that stuff. Use them to have fun and learn, but don't let time get away from you. Know that you can have all the things people in other businesses have, it just takes a little different battle plan.

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