Dance Health

Can starving artists save money, too?

James Stevko. Photo by Dirty Sugar.

NYC-based actor/dancer James Stevko was recently featured in Ramit Sethi’s book, I Will Teach You to be Rich, and learned how, yes, even artists can save for their futures.

Stevko is currently starring as Mendl in off-Broadway’s Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish and appearing as a soloist on the Original Cast Album to be released this summer. He teaches at Ballet and Body and has also performed with The Rockettes at Radio City, The Metropolitan Opera, The Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Met Gala with Katy Perry. Here, Dance Informa chats with Stevko on his financial tips for success.

Could you give our readers a little insight as to your involvement in I Will Teach You to be Rich, and what the book is about?

James Stevko. Photo courtesy of Stevko.

James Stevko. Photo courtesy of Stevko.

“As Ramit was gearing up for the release of the second edition, he crowdsourced on Instagram for testimonials from his readers. It wasn’t clear that we’d be appearing in the new book, but I got a letter from his executive assistant saying I was receiving an advance copy of the book because I was in it. Ramit’s goal is to crush your misconceptions about money and get you out of your own way about your finances. For artists, we’re taught that we chose a life that pays in passion and exposure, so this approach is especially important for changing their mindset.”

Have you ever considered yourself a ‘starving artist’? What’s your opinion on that term?

“I’ve definitely seen hard times through my career when I was scratching the bottom of the barrel. On unemployment, if I was lucky, using credit cards and searching for side jobs. My first job out of college at Milwaukee Ballet II, we earned $400 a month. Which is a good deal for trainees these days, but I was grateful for the offer since I had only started dancing in college. 

One time in particular, I had two conflicting job offers, both with renowned Broadway directors. I accepted the job offer of a new musical that was slated to transfer to Broadway after an out of town try-out. The production ended up being ‘postponed’ and then fell through completely. I was left unemployed.

When it comes to making it in the arts, there is a learning curve to your personal path to success. Periods of ‘starving’ might be inevitable, but you have to use those dismal moments to propel you forward. That’s why I stay educated outside of my industry on things like finance.”

Does Ramit approach artists’ financial success differently from that of people in other professions?

“His approach is applicable to artists, although he doesn’t address them specifically. Our yearly incomes may be historically lower than most entry-level job salaries, and we may go periods of time without work, but we still have the same tools available to us to invest and save.He does address the freelance lifestyle and the necessity to build a savings to hold you through periods of unemployment, allowing you to not just make it to the next job but also to keep contributing to your retirement.”

You’ve mentioned how Ramit’s advice has helped you save for the future. What was your biggest takeaway? 

“I came across his book when I was in a good place and wondering, ‘What’s next?’ I knew that retirement accounts existed, but I figured they were only available to people who worked office jobs. 

James Stevko in 'Fiddler on the Roof'. Photo courtesy of properpix.com.

James Stevko in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’. Photo courtesy of properpix.com.

Ramit lays out the timeline of investing to reap the benefits of compound interest early on. When you look at the numbers, you feel really stupid if you haven’t started investing as soon as possible. So I started. He provided a list of recommended retirement accounts, and I opened one then and there. This was so foreign to me (we didn’t talk about money at home), and I was a little nervous, but I’ve continued ever since. 

After starting an IRA and having it automatically deducted from my account, my confidence grew about saving. Once you notice you haven’t missed the money you’re investing, you’re inspired to start saving more.”

What are three things our readers can do right now to start saving money? 

“1) Automate a savings account. Start small. Have $5 deducted automatically to a separate savings account that you won’t touch. You won’t notice or miss the cash! It will start adding up, and then you’ll realize you can start to do even more. 2) Negotiate fees and interest rates. (Being a good customer with good credit helps this.) Negotiating is easier than you think, and sometimes all it takes is asking! You’d be shocked to hear that I all I have to do is ask to get a fee and interest removed. 3) Negotiate your job offers! Dancers are quiet people. We’re not taught to speak up and sometimes not business savvy. But when it comes to accepting a job offer, negotiation is expected and necessary. Often in concert dance, there really is no more money to give, but maybe there are other concessions that can be made, such as meals, transportation, less rehearsal, physical therapy. Even small concessions can pay off and help you acknowledge your own worth.”

You’ve raised $6,000 over the past two months for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS through Broadway Bares.

“I was stunned to cross the $6,000 mark! This was my second year, and I doubled my fundraising. I owe that to this year’s director, Laya Barak, and her speech about how she hounds people for donations every year. 

As donations come in, it’s inspiring to see that people are willing to give to great causes. The folks who run BC/EFA are some of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met. They are out there breaking their back to make this organization change the world, and I’m honored to be a part of that and give back to the community. My $6,000 is only a small portion of the $2 million raised this year, but it funds an entire grant! Because of the models they have created, I feel I’m able to use it for a much greater impact than if I were trying to give back to the community by myself. It’s also an opportunity for me to educate dancers and actors who don’t know about The Actors Fund and The Dancers’ Resource.

Find I Will Teach You To Be Rich (second edition) on Amazon and in stores today.

Follow James Stevko on Instagram at @jmstevko, or visit his website at jmstevko.com.

By Holly LaRoche of Dance Informa.

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