bills, bills, bills #10
A week in the life & wallet of a multi-hyphenate theater person on the Mid-Atlantic coast
Bills, Bills, Bills is a monthly series of anonymous money diaries from theatre workers curated and edited by Jenna Clark Embrey. The full archive is available here.
Editor’s Note: The yearly salary of this contributor is roughly $2,500 below the living wage for their area, and at the time that this column was written, $12.50/hour was the state’s minimum wage for tipped employees. The living wage is calculated at $17.99/hour.
This month’s columnist has a full-time administrative role in the arts, and yet their part-time hours as a bartender for a major regional theater is immediately what I zeroed in on when reading their money diary. While this person has a significant financial cushion thanks to their parents, that doesn’t cancel out the fact that their income is below the living wage, and it’s only because of their parental support that they can hold these positions.
Food service jobs and theater have always been intertwined in modern day America. As a former bartender myself, I was crushed to see the low tip amounts provided to this bartender during their show stints. Concessions can be an integral part of a theater’s cash flow, and the markup on those items are well-known among theater-goers. (I can still remember the horrific day that I stupidly ordered a double whiskey at a Broadway show a few years ago). The crucial difference in bartending at a theater versus many other live events or an actual bar is obvious: there are only a few set times that drinks are being purchased and not every patron is buying concessions. Coupling that with minimum wage and tipping culture is a recipe for severe underpayment. The flawed custom of tipping is well-documented (it doesn’t increase server job performance and puts servers at risk for experiencing racism, sexism, and a whole host of other vindictive customer behaviors). And while this contributor receives minimum wage (you can read more about the racist history of the sub-minimum wage here), they are still making below a living wage. If a theater is committed to income from concessions AND a comprehensive anti-racism/anti-bias plan, then their budget needs to be re-adjusted to allow for a livable hourly wage, regardless of tips.
Job/Position: I am an actor, writer, and director by training and I am trying to re-develop a regular creative practice. The last time I was in a production and working steadily as an actor was in 2019. Moving a few times and the pandemic put a big dent in my resume. For my day job, I am a development assistant at an arts council on the county level. I do a lot of different things, but in a typical week I run our membership program, manage our donor database, manage social media fundraising campaigns, help with in-house events, and table at community events. To make extra money, I bartend at a major regional theater nearby. Things are falling apart a bit with that job at the moment — there has been a big staff turnover and it’s just me and one other bartender for the run of this next show.
Yearly Income: At my day job I make $35,000 before taxes. I also get healthcare, dental, and retirement from this job. After taxes, my bi-weekly check is about $960. At my bartending job I make $12.50/hour plus tips. It’s hard to plan for how much I will actually make bartending because it depends on how long the show is running, whether or not it’s a one-act, and how many shifts I have. Tips also vary wildly so I don’t factor cash into my budget at all. During the run of a show (about four weeks) I can usually count on an extra $250. We are understaffed at the moment so I am working more than usual and anticipating making $500 for this show.
Student Loans: $0. I am lucky to not have any debt and considerable support from my parents in several aspects of my financial life. In addition to paying for my education, my parents let me live rent-free at home for two years so I could take miscellaneous acting and customer service jobs. I know that I couldn’t afford to take a low-paying job in the arts without this kind of support.
Credit Card: $1,863. It’s not usually this high but I just bought a coffee table for my apartment and signed up for a stage combat class which was $400. I’m also waiting on an Old Navy refund. With the amount of bartending I am doing this month, I’ll be able to pay this in a few weeks.
Retirement: About $7,200 between three accounts. $2000 of this I saved myself from previous jobs. The rest was a recent gift from my parents. I just recently became eligible for retirement at my day job so I will start seeing money in that account soon.
Savings: $1,228. I have my savings split up mostly because it helps me manage what I can and can’t spend. I have one high yield savings account that is my emergency fund, a personal savings account I use for big purchases like furniture, moving, general life savings ($525).
Investment Account: $39,228. This was gifted to me by my parents. Though I don’t factor in this account when thinking about money I have to spend or manage on a monthly basis, I know I could draw on it if I ever really needed to. This is a huge safety net and a huge privilege. I have been stubborn about supporting myself on just the income I can make, but I also know that the only reason I can be that stubborn is because I have support and can fall back on my parents.
Checking: $35. Because my paycheck is small, I put things on my credit card as I need them and then pay off the whole balance at the end of every month.
Rent: $900. It’s a one-bedroom which includes parking which is a steal!
Utilities: $80 on average, but it varies by season.
Voice Over Training and Career Coaching: $70
Gas: $60. This is an average. I get reimbursed by my job if I run errands for work so sometimes my gas expenses go over budget until I submit my receipts.
Subscriptions (Netflix, HBO, Spotify, and a cloud backup service): $32
Monthly Donations: $18. I am a Patreon member of a couple teachers and creators and use this service to redistribute some of my income.
Automatic Savings: $70. I put $20 in my emergency fund and $50 in my savings account every month.
Car: $0. I own my car and my car insurance is paid for by my parents.
Cell Phone: $0. This is paid for by my parents.
Healthcare: $50. My parents cover the rest which comes out to $66/month.
Total Monthly Expenses: $1,445
I very grudgingly wake up at 7:30am to have coffee with some friends. We usually go to the farmer’s market in our neighborhood on Sunday mornings to catch up and buy local produce, but my stage combat class starts today at 10 so we have coffee before I have to leave. I have a piece of quiche I made last week and a banana for breakfast. I walk about 30 minutes to class. It’s really nice to be back in a space with theater people and I think it was totally worth what I paid for this class even though it was painful to spend that much. Class ends at 1pm and I feel a blind rage that goes beyond hanger so I order a sandwich ($16.05) from a local coffee shop and pick it up on the way home.
After I eat my sandwich, I pass out hard on my couch for a couple hours. I got home at 11:30 last night after staying late at my bartending job for some extra training. Between that and three hours of stage combat, I am exhausted. I am supposed to meet some friends to pick up our bi-weekly Dungeons and Dragons game at 6pm, but we are missing some people and decide it’s not worth it to play without everyone. I use the rest of my evening to make stuffed peppers that I will eat throughout the week. I did a big grocery run last week so I can meal prep for the next month of bartending. The show that’s currently running has an intermission so I have to pack lunch and dinner during the week when I’m working and won’t have time to cook. Usually I go to the grocery store every 10 days or so to avoid carrying a lot of bags up the stairs (I live on the 4th floor). In addition to the peppers, I have half a quiche and a whole lasagna in my freezer. I pack my lunch for work and get ready for bed.
Total Spent: $16.05
I wake up at 7:30 for work. (It’s closer to 8am but I tell myself it’s 7:30 so I can feel more like I have my life organized). My office is in the suburbs and I commute from downtown because rent is too expensive out in the county. On a good day (or when I lie to myself) the morning drive is 30 minutes. A self-proclaimed coffee snob, I almost always make my coffee at home. I packed breakfast and lunch the night before — some yogurt with granola and blueberries for breakfast and a pepper stuffed with leftover rice for lunch. I end up throwing away the banana I packed because despite my insistence that I can eat a slightly squishy banana, the whole thing is basically brown. On my way home, I stop at the grocery store for a few things. My grocery day is usually Friday, but this is my only free night this week. I grab some yogurt and muffins for breakfast (I usually make muffins myself but after all my weekend meal prep, I am tired of being in the kitchen) some fruit, a few other snacks I am running low on, and a pre-made quesadilla for dinner because I am feeling lazy. The whole thing costs me $50.05. My internet ($74.83) and gym ($10) bills also come out of my account today. I spend my evening hanging out on my couch which I will miss dearly for the rest of the week.
Total Spent: $134.88
I again wake up at 7:30ish and think about how I lived the first 25 years of my life without road rage until I had to commute. I am bartending at the theater this evening so I pack breakfast, lunch, and dinner along with my bar t-shirt and a book to read during Act 1. Coffee in hand, I’m off to work. I have the same thing for breakfast every day, this time with one of the muffins I bought yesterday. Lunch is quiche from my freezer and newly acquired bananas (though I think I overshot and this one is a bit too green). I throw myself in the car right at 5pm to make it back downtown for my shift at 5:45pm. I live within walking distance of the theater so I park my car at home and walk over for my shift. Bar set-up and pre-show are pretty smooth, it’s actually a bit busier than expected for a Tuesday preview. During Act 1, I eat lasagna from my freezer for dinner and start my book which I was supposed to have read the first 10 chapters of last week (apologies to my book club whose texts I have been ignoring for a week while I catch up). Intermission is more of a trickle than a rush, then I break down the bar and walk home. I get home around 10:30pm and immediately throw myself in the shower and then pretend to throw myself in bed but secretly read a few more chapters because now I’m hooked.
Total Spent: $0
Cash Tips Earned: $36.25. $20 of this will go into a jar I have on my desk. I am saving up for a new phone as my 4 year old iPhone is on death’s door so I save every $20 bill I earn from bartending. The other $16.25 will go in my wallet to impulse buy coffee or spend recklessly at the farmer’s market.
I wake up a bit too late, especially after getting home late last night. I throw my usual breakfast and lunch in my lunchbox and I’m out the door with my coffee by 8:20(ish). I pay a copay from my last doctor’s appointment online during lunch ($10). Right at 5pm I sprint out of the office so I can make it home by 5:45 for therapy. I sprint up the stairs at 5:47 and spend the first five minutes of therapy ranting about how much I hate traffic (co-pay $40). After therapy I am supposed to have a writing group with a friend at 8pm. This is allegedly bi-weekly and allegedly something we are consistent about. I am working on research for a new play. We usually write for an hour in silence on Zoom. This evening I drag myself onto the Zoom at 8:07 where we both agree that we are too tired to write and reschedule for next week. I promise we don’t always do this…there’s just a lot going on and the worst part about being a writer is, you know, the writing. I finally make myself some dinner: frozen ravioli with frozen turkey meatballs and pumpkin sauce. Frozen meatballs on top of whatever pasta I have laying around is my go-to lazy meal. I spend the rest of the night on my couch catching up on The Bachelorette.
Total Spent: $50
I am already bracing for chaos when I wake up. It’s opening night at the theater so I know it’s going to be a long day. I put breakfast, lunch, and dinner in my lunchbox and optimistically put my book in my bag. I get my bartending check on Thursdays so I pay down $50 on my credit card. Again at 5pm I sprint out of the office to make a 5:45pm shift.
I get to work and immediately there are at least three crises that need to be solved. There is a separate event from the bar for the show and the other bartender is late and no one told the bar staff we needed to provide drinks for it. After five minutes of panicking, we start throwing ice into tubs and the other bartender shows up, thankfully. I go back to running the bar downstairs pre-show and it is absolutely nonstop for about an hour. By the time the show starts, I just want to take a nap under the bar. Sadly (or maybe luckily because it’s a bit sticky under there) I do not get to do that. We spend Act 1 restocking everything and cleaning up from the pre-show rush. I do not get to read my book either and at some point in there I inhale a piece of lasagna from my freezer that has been hanging out in my lunch bag all day (yes, my lunch bag is the size of a small cooler and I carry it EVERYWHERE). Intermission is less chaotic than pre-show, then we spend Act 2 restocking, again, and pouring wine for post-show drinks. When we hit the end of the show, I finally trudge home. I hop in the shower because bartending is gross and then write a quick email to a contact about a potential new bartending job.
Total Spent: $50
Cash Earned: $118.50. $100 of this goes to the phone fund and I pocket the other $18 to buy something fun with (probably takeout on Saturday).
This morning I am working at an event for my day job. As I am getting ready to leave, the lamp falls off my dresser and the lightbulb shatters which feels like an apt metaphor for this week. I am already late so I ignore it and plan on dealing with it when I get home. I drive straight to the event and even after two cups of coffee, I am having trouble summoning the energy to network this morning. I am running a table with brochures about our programming and an email sign-up list, but this event is more akin to that episode of Ugly Betty from early season where Michael and Amanda take Betty to a networking bar and everyone (except Nikki Blonksy, guest starring fresh off of Hairspray) just wants to trade cards. Despite that, I do get to tell a few people about our programming and they excitedly sign up for our email list. This is actually one of my favorite parts of my job. Plus, the event includes a free catered lunch. I head back to the office around 2:30pm and the afternoon is uneventful. When I get home, I remember that I have to deal with the lightbulb from this morning and subsequently get into a fight with my vacuum that ends with it in several pieces and a few tears because this has been a long week.
I get my check from my day job this week, but since it’s the end of the month, most of it goes to rent. I throw another $50 on my credit card balance for good measure. My HBO Max payment also comes out of my account today ($10.79). At 6:30pm I have a coaching call with an actor who I have been working on voiceover and career coach with ($35). We rehash the week and the self-tapes I have submitted recently. I have been stuck for a little while in this eternal theater paradox of trying to find a job that I don’t hate, that will pay enough, and will leave me time and energy to work on my art. It’s been hard. We spend most of the half hour brainstorming potential career moves. Dinner is some pasta with meatballs again and I spend the rest of the night watching the new season of the Great British Baking Show.
Total Spent: $95.79
I am working the matinee and the evening show today and I also have to be there two hours early for a pre-show event. I begrudgingly drag myself out of bed at 9:30am to be there at 10:15am. The event is slow and I spend most of the morning reading until the pre-show bar picks up around 1pm. Though it being slow is annoying, being paid to stand around and read is not all that painful. During Act 1, I do a deep restock of the walk-in and the liquor closet because things have gotten disorganized in the last two weeks. I quickly have another stuffed pepper I brought from home for lunch. After intermission, I break down about half the bar and walk to a local coffee shop. I have about two hours between shows so I order a pumpkin spice latte (no shame) and a muffin ($10.50, including tip) and sit outside and keep reading. Around 5:30pm I order takeout from my favorite Thai restaurant which is right next to the coffee shop: spicy drunken noodles with chicken ($19.08, including tip). I haul myself back to the theater for the evening show and spend Act 1 reading (I have made it another 250 pages into my book now) and eating my take out. I’m done at 10:30pm and I drag myself home and get in bed immediately because I have to get up early for stage combat tomorrow morning.
Total Spent: $29.58
Cash Earned: $75.00. This is honestly super low for a two show day and I am not too pleased about it. I put $60 in the phone fund and the other $15 goes in my wallet to spend on more pumpkin spice lattes.
Weekly Total: $376.30
Total Cash Tips Earned: $279.75
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Oof, this resonates. A quarter century on from my own experience of juggling a staff job with concession work, reading this brings back the exhaustion. I applaud the writer for continuing to make art in what little spare time they have. I wish I could throw out a platitude like "It gets better!" but it does what it does; systems don't just magically get better. This account is a reminder to people like me that we need to keep making it better for those artists and creators coming up behind us.
I read every word of this. I can tell the author is a writer because it is so simple and clear. This peek inside another person’s pocketbook (I don’t have a pocketbook I just can’t seem to avoid alliteration) was fascinating. Thanks!