10 Tips To Survive The Starving Artist Lifestyle

I’ve been living the life of a starving artist for a decade and a half. I’ve never had a steady salary job. I don’t have a trust fund. My average income is $20,000/year. Basically, I work just enough to get by and spend the rest of my time writing. Which will pay off. It already did once when I used this approach to write spec scripts, go back to school and break into the TV screenwriting biz. This time, I’m writing a novel and breaking into the publishing biz. The question everyone has for me is, “How do you survive in downtown Toronto on such a small amount of money?” Here’s the answer…

10 Tips To Survive The Starving Artist Lifestyle

1. Get Comfortable Below the Poverty Line

Learning to live without excess is an invaluable skill. As an artist, your income will fluctuate, so get an affordable apartment near a discount grocer and a Goodwill, and settle in to the penny-pinching life that will allow you to weather the financial ups and downs of your creative dream.

2. Eat Carbs

Because you don’t want to literally starve. You cannot afford the Atkins Diet or the Paleo Diet or any other fad that cuts out cheap but nutritious food such as potatoes, rice, pasta and oatmeal. That stuff is affordable and filling! Eat it! Of course, eat vegetables too, but you’d go broke trying to get full on nothing but salad.

3. Save Your Pennies

After years of struggling to pay the rent, one year you make decent money. You feel rich! What should you buy? Nothing. It’s one decent year. Put that money in a savings account. You’ll need it next year when your laptop dies or some other unforeseen expense hits. Don’t blow cash on frivolous crap.

4. Forget Your Credit Card

In North America, we have a culture that views credit card debt as necessary. Screw that. If you don’t have the money to buy something, don’t buy it. Unless it’s food or shelter, you don’t need it to survive. More to the point, you don’t need those new boots or that Xbox to be happy. Know what will make you happy? Not stressing about credit card debt and having time to write/paint/sculpt.

5. Track Your Spending

Make a list of everything you buy in a month, even coffee and bus tokens. Now comb the list for places to save. Do you spend $100/month at Starbucks? Time to get a second-hand coffee maker and a travel mug. Could you walk or bike to work instead of driving or taking transit? What if you make dinner instead of eating out? The goal: curb your spending so you need less money to live and can move on to step 6…

6. Work Part-Time

Artists need time to create, and practice, because your first attempts at brilliance will suck. Of course, full time jobs don’t leave much time for creative projects, but if you’ve mastered steps 1 through 5, you should be able to survive off a part-time job.

7. Family Planning

Kids are expensive. One of the reasons I’m able to live the starving artist life is because I don’t have anyone to support except myself. Of course, lots of artists are parents so it can be done, but I don’t know how. You’ll have to ask them.

8. Host Clothing Swaps

With all this penny-pinching, you can’t afford to shop. So how’s a starving artist to acquire new clothes? Invite your friends over, tell them to bring stuff they don’t wear anymore, and swap away! Almost everything I wear comes from Clothing Swaps. If it wasn’t for my fashionable, generous, gainfully-employed pals, I’d be shuffling around in ill-fitting flannels from my chubby college days.

9. Quit Drinking

I just heard you all gasp a collective, “WTF?!” I know, I’m a writer; isn’t half my fluid intake supposed to be alcohol? Well, it’s not, and that’s because over a decade ago I did Tip #5 and discovered I was spending hundreds of dollars a month on alcohol. Not getting hammered; just being social. Drinking is incredibly expensive, so I quit.

10. Have Fun

Just because you can’t spend a lot of money doesn’t mean you have to stay home moping. There are lots of free things to do in the world. Go outside, enjoy life, and dream about how this will all pay off in the future when you win the Booker Prize.

These 10 Tips To Survive The Starving Artist Lifestyle are how I live, but obviously there are things on the list that not everyone is willing to do, and things I may have omitted. If anyone has other tips and tricks for surviving as an artist, please share!

Next Up from Heather… 3 Simple Tips for Finding Your Story.

Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

21 thoughts on “10 Tips To Survive The Starving Artist Lifestyle”

  1. You’re right, it is still relevant today. Thankfully, I already follow these steps. No choice really, since I write full-time and live off my husband’s earnings. 😉 Why didn’t I marry rich? I’m kidding, of course. This was a such a fun post, Heather! Sorry for the late reply. I’m buried, too.

  2. Wow, you think like me! I thought I was the only one who gave up alcohol to save a buck (or many). I’ve gone as far now as moving into the apartment in my parent’s place to write without having to work for a year. Love those free Sunday dinners!
    We do what we gotta do.

    p.s. thanks for the RT earlier

      1. Yeah next time I’m in Toronto we should have a glass of tap water together 🙂 I’ll splurge on some lemon slices!
        Good luck with your writing, too!

  3. hi, picked this post up via Twitter #archiveday and think it’s great as an example what can be done. I stopped work a while ago – I live in London – and am working at pulling in the purse strings, though nothing like you have acieved (I’m lucky that I don’t have to but I want to because I hate wasting what could be better use). The one thing I totally endorse is maxing out on the free stuff this city gives us both indoors and out. That and the beauty of home cooking and proving that there’s another meal in what seems like an empty fridge and cupboard.

    1. Hi Geoff! Glad you found us through #ArchiveDay. And that’s a great point about urban living – though the rent is more expensive, the sheer amount of free festivals, events and facilities make it worthwhile. Plus, one doesn’t need a car! Selling my car was the best savings plan ever.

    1. Thanks, Josh! And I’d love to hear your students’ reactions. I know teenage me was not impressed with the financial restraints my parents put on me, yet adult me is grateful because the experience taught me how to survive the artist’s life.

  4. Alright, this is awesome! I love hearing what you’re doing to cut costs. I’m so in the same boat, and you’re right–it will pay off, one way or another!! I loved your point about not buying frivolous crap when you do have some kind of cash windfall. Writing is such a long-term game for most of us that spazzing out and purchasing junk just isn’t going to get us there! Fabulous post.

  5. Beauty entry! Alongside your advice, I’d like to add: Where it’s possible, encourage this among friends as well. When friends have similar financial needs and habits, it makes it so much easier to have an inexpensive but wonderful social time–just having tea together, or making dinner for one another (and sharing the leftovers!).

    You’re a good influence 🙂

    1. Absolutely! I’m lucky to have friends who want to have tea and homemade dinners with me. But don’t forget dancing at local bars with no cover! Free dancing for the win!

  6. Wow, that’s a brilliant post. I think you’re that rare breed of person these days; one not saddled with debt and maxed-out credit cards. Don’t forget to mention the Toronto public library. A fantastic yet free bastion of entertainment and research for the starving artist.

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