Saving Money – Musicians’ Survival Guide: Part II

A Penny Saved…

This installment in the Musician’s Survival Guide series has two meanings. The first is saving money in the financial sense of the word, and the second is to save money in the thrift sense of the word. Both are important if we are to survive the slow times.

The Proverbial Ant

Proverbs 6:6-8
Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summerand gathers its food at harvest.

A good internet friend once told me that he had been working as a freelance musician/composer for decades and learned the hard way to put part of his pay aside during the good times so some of it will be there for the slow times. At that stage of my life, I knew and understood the wisdom of what he was saying, but I wasn’t managing my finances well enough to put that wisdom into practice.

I also learned the hard way that in order to put money aside for the slow times, you must treat it like a tangible commodity. I know that may sound like I’m stating the obvious to a lot of people who read this, but there are a lot of other people who don’t get that part of finances. They treat money like the water that comes from a spring. When it dries up they just go without! That’s how I was in the beginning of my career. I spent money as it came in and when it was gone, it was gone.

In order to save for the slow times, you MUST do standard book keeping. You have to do some math. Look at previous years’ income and divide that by twelve to see what you should be spending and saving each month. Then create a saving schedule based on your math. In the month of January, put $x aside. In February put $y aside. If you do this correctly, there should not be any money issues when you get to the so called “dog days.”

Thrifty Living

When you get to the slow times, that’s when you should also become more thrifty in your spending. Save money by doing more things yourself. One of the reasons I have been so successful as a musician is because I can do a lot of my own repair work. I have always fixed my own cars (everything under the hood – I don’t like doing body work). I do minor repairs on the house. Things like that.

Just this past week I rented a rooter from Homedepot to clear some roots out of our main drain. This is something that I paid someone to do for me the first time and he charged over $200. Now I do it myself for $60.

Yes, I would much rather spend my time writing books, composing, practicing, and doing other things that are directly related to our business, but you have to weigh the future income from those sorts of investments against the money saved by doing some of that work yourself.

Learning What to Do Yourself

Deciding what you should do yourself is not straight forward. You have to first determine what your time is worth. If you don’t know that, then I encourage you to try to figure it out. Your business as a musician depends on it. Then, when you know what your time is worth, you must determine, on a case by case basis, how important it is to have an expert to do the job. Something that requires the work of an experienced expert will cost you more in mistakes than what you would save by doing the work yourself. So don’t even try it. Then the next step is to determine how good you are at doing the job. If you have never worked on a car before, I don’t recommend tackling a valve job just yet. But if you have twenty years of experience, then you may save hundreds of dollars if you do it yourself. Lastly, you need to evaluate the urgency of the job against the urgency of the musical work you would be doing if you weren’t doing that job. If the urgency of the job (like a clogged drain) is high and your musical work is low, then consider all of these factors before you make your decision.

I chose to clear the roots myself because it is so expensive to have a pro do it, the job does not require an expert, I have the skills (I’ve done it a few times already) and the job was very urgent.

Now, in case you are thinking that physical repairs are the only jobs you can do yourself, they’re not. You can do lots of different kinds of necessary jobs yourself; taxes, some legal stuff, cleaning, yard work (I’m surprised how many people pay to have their lawns mowed today – as a matter of course), refinishing furniture, anything you pay other people to do, you may be able to save some money if you do those things yourself.

Of course, if you have done well enough with putting money aside during the good times, then you won’t have to do much of the other stuff yourself. I personally don’t enjoy working on cars. I never have. It’s something I do simply because I was taught by one of the best (my father) and because I don’t like to pay mechanics what they charge today. But I am at a point in my career when I feel like I can do less of that work myself. That should be our goal, but it always helps to know that hiring a mechanic is a luxury and that I never HAVE to pay someone else to do that work for me.

Across the Board

When most people think about being more thrifty, they typically think about taking advantage of “coupons” and “sales.” The way I look at this part of saving is to apply percentages for each item to my entire expense account for the year. If I’m about to buy an apple for $1.00 or a less pricy one for $0.60, I see that as a 40% savings that can be applied to my entire income. If my income for the year is $100,000 (it’s not – yet – but this is a good number to demonstrate my concept), then buying the less pricy apple represents a savings of $40,000 for the entire year.  With that attitude, I will gladly choose the $0.60 apple over the $1.00 apple.

Does this concept make sense to you? Jesus said that those who are trusted with small things will then be trusted with big ones. If my attitude about thrifty living applies all the way down to the lowest level, then most likely I will also very easily save 40% on everything else I purchase. If instead my attitude is that it’s just an apple, and it’s only 40 cents, then that 40 cents will multiply into a loss of hundreds if not thousands of dollars across the board. We as American consumers purchase more than enough small items every year that when you add them all up the 40% savings ends up being quite significant.

So yes, clip the coupons, hit the sales, and don’t be afraid to shop and the stores where other people would be ashamed to be seen. We live this way now so we won’t have to later.


As I sit hear looking at the furniture in my studio (and also throughout the house for that matter),  I see very few items that I purchased new. Some of the furniture, like my desk and the blue sofa behind me, were purchased at a resale store for a fraction of what it would have cost me to buy similar items new. I paid $60 for my big, sturdy, wood desk and I think $35 for the sofa.

Other items in this room didn’t cost me a penny because we “freecycled” them off the streets. The students’ chair, two big metal file cabinets, another small file cabinet that doubles as my printer stand, the end table with the books in it, these and a lot of other items throughout our house were abandoned by people in my neighborhood. No one would know it because we put effort into fixing and cleaning the items before we use them.

This is a very popular practice in other parts of the world but I don’t think it has caught on very well here in Houston. That’s why I don’t tell people much about it. But for a musician who is trying to save money, this is certainly a good way to do it.

Avoid Monthly Bills

One last money saving tip before I end this post…

One thing I’ve done that I believe has made a big difference in my ability to survive the slow times is to avoid committing to anything that requires me to send regular monthly payments. Of course, some of these cannot be avoided. But luxuries like cable tv, gym memberships, club subscriptions, and large loans typically require monthly payments so I avoid them. (Actually, I try to avoid any kind of credit at all.) I rent movies when I want to watch a movie or watch them for free on Hulu. I exercise at home or run in my neighborhood. I use the library. Most monthly payments can be avoided if you just get creative.


I could see how some people would read this post and think, “wow, musicians are a pathetic lot.” What you may find interesting is that I did not learn these things from musicians. I learned them from various businessmen from a variety of different sources. Saving money is not a poor people thing, it is a major part of building wealth. Unfortunately, this kind of wealth building is not widely taught in our society where anyone can use credit cards to get what they want, when they want it. But the idea of saving money to build wealth is an age old concept.

Ha! It’s just that some of us have less choice in the matter than others. :-|

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