Why I Lived out of a Suitcase for a Year (And Why You Should Too!)
It hasn’t been easy writing a blog about filmmaking without having a project of my own to show since my 2007 fly-by-night production of The West Side. The main reason for this? I tried to get something made in the studio system. 200 pages of screenplay and twenty-something meetings later, I arrived at the conclusion that I should’ve stuck to the DIY route. However, there’s another reason you haven’t seen a new project from me in a while: I haven’t had access to a camera, to actors, or to much of anything, because I’ve been living out of a suitcase for a year. Why did I decide to do this — and why do I recommend others do the same?
I did it because I knew I had to tear myself away from the daily grind in order to figure out what kinds of projects I wanted to make, and more importantly, what makes me me. This is a far more important question than what we usually talk about on this blog: cameras, technology, new means of distribution. There are a lot of people out there who know how to use a camera, how to edit, how to record sound. But there aren’t many who know how to effectively communicate their perspective on the world through film. I don’t know if I’m there yet, but I can say that getting myself out of my day job and going through a “lean time” has given me a much firmer grasp of who I am — and the confidence to pursue my next project, independent of whether anyone else “gets” it.
Some Native American and Eskimo cultures have a rite of passage they refer to as a “vision quest.” To paraphrase Wikipedia, a vision quest is “a turning point in life taken to find oneself and an intended spiritual and life direction.” I’m not going to suggest that quitting your day job and living minimally for a period of time is the same thing as going on a vision quest, but I do know the antonym of “vision quest” is “day job.” Showing up to work every day and performing wage labor is the opposite of discovering what makes you unique. You have to change your priorities in order to assign importance to the tasks placed in front of you. Once these priorities change, you’re spending most of your waking hours working for someone else, and by the time you get home at the end of the day the majority of your energy is spent. This environment makes it nearly impossible to “find yourself,” because by definition you’re part of someone else’s system.
I recently received an email from a reader asking, “how have you been supporting yourself?” It’s a good question, as I haven’t had a day job since December of 2008. Yet in that time I’ve lived in Manhattan, Queens, North Carolina, Florida, and Costa Rica, and traveled to California and London. How is this possible? I’ve been living out of a suitcase for a year. It wasn’t glamorous. But for the most part I loved living minimally, because it caused me to question what I actually needed — and by extension, what I really cared about — and also because I ended up consuming less resources sans discretionary income. Here are the real-world economics of this decision.
First, let me just say that one of my goals in working entirely independently is to be able to talk transparently about money, which you don’t find people doing in the working world. Oftentimes the guy sitting in the next cubicle or office has the same title as you, yet neither of you know what the other guy makes. If you dutifully perform your job for a year and then find out the other guy makes 40% more for doing the same thing, you’d feel devalued. Transparency is a good thing, so to that end let’s look at what I (used to) make.
Day Job Economics
As a Senior Designer at MTV (a job I lied my way into), my salary was apparently $74,849 (my tax return is above). If you divide this annual wage of $75k by 2,000 hours (40 hours/week X 50 weeks), I made roughly $38/hour. As with any modern day job, however, if you subtract hours spent surfing the web, socializing, being hungover and/or generally useless, and arriving late and/or leaving early, your True Hourly Rate actually goes up. Way up. I’d say for myself — and for corporate America in general — you could realistically double my rate to account for general inefficiency and/or apathy. Let’s say I got 4 hours of real work done every day at MTV, making my True Hourly Rate $80 — more than double my “official” rate.
Day jobs pay the bills; this is why most people work them. It’s not like I was a lawyer making $200k or a hedge-funder making $4 billion, but in the scheme of things, $75k places one in the top 0.82% of the Global Rich List. However, as a friend once said to me, “work is so bad, they pay you to do it.” With full-time day jobs, Zack and I only managed to get through four episodes of The West Side in a year. It was time to go. Thankfully, MTV felt the same about our entire division.
Without a day job, my annual income went from $75k to $18k. I made less than a quarter of what I made the previous year.1 Quite the pay cut. For some perspective, however, this is still in the top 12% of the world — but as New York City is the one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in, $18k is not going to get it done. Knowing this, I put my worldly possessions in storage at the beginning of the year and packed a suitcase. Instead of waking up every day and commuting to the same building in Times Square, I did things like live in Costa Rica for two months. You can’t do that with a day job!
Unfortunately, since returning to NYC, I’ve found over the past several months that freelancing is not all that different from having a day job. Yes, you have the right to say “no” to jobs you don’t want to do, but you also often work nights and weekends, and the resulting True Hourly Rate (inclusive of soliciting work, taking meetings for jobs that don’t result in anything, incurring unreimbursable travel time and expenses, and spending time on business administration) ends up being much lower than the Quoted Hourly Rate. For example: my Quoted Hourly Rate for graphic design varied, but averaged roughly $60/hour. This is fairly average for web design, but over the past several months of freelance work — during which I’ve been paid to design, shoot, edit, write, and direct — my True Hourly Rate actually worked out to be $27/hour, once you include unbillable hours and expenses. To put that in perspective: a full-time job at my QHR of $60/hour works out to be $120k/year. But at my THR of $27/hour, my full-time annual salary would work out to be $54k. Big difference.
Of course, there’s also a big difference between $54k and $18k. So what was I doing with the rest of the time, when I wasn’t freelancing? This is where the “vision quest” part comes in. I co-wrote six drafts of a screenplay and wrote half of another on my own. I conceptualized a project that I’ll soon be shooting a trailer for in order to mount a crowdfunding campaign. I designed and relaunched this site (more on that in a second). But the key thing to quitting a day job and living minimally is it really makes you think about what’s important to you. Is it living a full life? Is it feeling creatively fulfilled? Is it spending time with friends? Is it traveling a lot? Is it having nice things? All of these things can be achieved even during a lean time — except for “having nice things.” That’s really the only one you have to sacrifice.
If you want to quit your day job, the first thing to realize is this: it’s less about how much you make as it is about how much you spend. Most of us aren’t independently wealthy and so no matter what we choose for a career, income generation is a necessary part of our lives. Many people who have families and dependents can’t do what I did. But if you’re young and unmarried, I think if you take an honest look at your finances you’ll find a lot of fat can be cut out. For me, this fat was rent (see the next section for more on how to not pay rent for a year).
Taking an honest look at your finances requires objective analytics. Many people work day jobs so they don’t have to consciously think about money — this is how I used to operate, too. But in this situation, what we imagine and what is actually fact are two different things. Ignorance is not bliss. To analyze my finances, I used Mint, a great free financial web site/mobile app. I kept track of exactly how much I had in the bank and how much money I was spending (and on what I was spending it). At left is the money I’d saved up while working at MTV — it wasn’t much, basically enough to buy a used car. If you look at the timeline along the bottom of the graph, you can see that I spent very little money since leaving the day job behind. I basically just bought food and the occasional plane ticket — no expensive clothes, no expensive drinks, no expensive toys. By far my largest expense was in fact my Canon 5D, which I only bought after much deliberation via a combination of selling my old camera and moving out of my apartment (for which I got back my security deposit). In fact, looking at this graphic, the only reason February and March of this year show more spending is because I had surgery,2 and not all of the operation was covered by my health insurance (which I wouldn’t have at all without COBRA). If you can find a way to cut out your largest expenses, you can cut out your largest sources of revenue too.
Taking your own Vision Quest/Sabbatical/Hiatus/Lean Time
If you think you might want to do this yourself, the most important asset you have is your friends. These friends hopefully understand that creative pursuits are more difficult to get off the ground than more “traditional” careers. Some of these friends also have couches or futons or guest rooms or a place that you can stay. If you’re sick of your day job and you have a creative itch you want to scratch, figure out with whom you can crash — what about that college buddy who now lives several states away? Do you have a significant other you stay with often as it is? Would your parents love to have you back on the homestead for a bit? What about people you haven’t seen in a while? Comb through your facebook contacts. This isn’t a time to be bashful. Have you thought of couch surfing with strangers? What about living in another country where the dollar goes farther? I went from paying $1,650/month in Manhattan to paying $450/month in ludicrously nice Costa Rica, and that can be cut down even further given Costa Rica is far from the cheapest country out there (it does, however, have very inexpensive airfare — my roundtrip ticket was less than $300). Take stock of all these options, and combine them — it’s not about settling on one ideal option, it’s about stringing together several opportunities. Before you know it, it will add up.
While you’re on the road, you’ll be surprised at how productive you can be. If you’re staying at a friend’s place, they’re probably gone all day at their own day job — a perfect time to work on your own creative pursuits. When I was in Florida I managed to re-launch this site (which has been successful so far), while also doing a few freelance writing and design gigs. Meanwhile I was going for a run and/or swim in the sun almost every day — while it was thirty degrees colder in New York. When we were in Costa Rica we wrote three drafts of a 145-page script that got us meetings with twenty studios (fate TBD) — and went to the beach every day, too. When it comes down to it, reclaiming the 8-10 hours a day you used to spend at your day job gives you the ability to:
During this lean time I’ve worked not only on “products” (meaning, movies), but also on “byproducts” (meaning this website, for which you can see the traffic at left). In fact, I ended up unexpectedly spending more time on the latter, because going on an extended hiatus doesn’t do anyone much good if they have to return to the rat race (right back where they started) when their eye-opening sabbatical is over. In this case, the byproduct — a website — can have a much shorter route to profitability than the product, simply because a film requires a lot more time and resources.
So — what was the result of my eleven transient months?3 I built something that replaced my day job. I’m happy to say that the apartment I’m moving into tomorrow rents for less than this blog generated last month. This is partially because I’m moving into an apartment in Brooklyn that is cheaper than my old place in Manhattan, and I’m by no means saying that I can live solely off NoFilmSchool income. I’ll still be freelancing for a while and my need to crowdfund is even more important without a larger, steady stream of income. But in terms of building a website that pays the rent, I managed to go from (re)launch to that goal in 6 months — because I quit my day job and lived out of a suitcase. This site is making more than it did a couple months ago, but more important than the amount of revenue is the amount of debt this “startup” incurred while I launched it from a suitcase: none.
The fact that this site is generating a small amount of revenue, however, is not my point in writing this. My point is this possibility never would’ve even occurred to me if I were still sitting at a day job. When I packed a suitcase I didn’t know what I was going to do, only that I was going to try to stick to a promise that MTV would be my last day job. You don’t have to have a concrete plan to leave. Only the desire to find something better. If you’re reading this at a creatively unfulfilling day job, I strongly urge you to consider packing a bag and embarking on your own “lean time.” Imagine the possibilities!
[Suitcase photo by Flickr user Phineas H (CC)]
- I was collecting unemployment for a period in 2009, though I have long been off the government teat. I cut out a serious chunk of this post (which was on unemployment) — I will add it as a separate post. [↩]
- Personal note: I had my third sinus surgery, which I’m happy to report was successful — for the first time in 11 years, I can adequately breathe out of my nose, and I cannot tell you how big of a difference this makes! Seriously. I’m like a kid in a breathing store. [↩]
- Originally I thought it was only ten months, but when I looked back over my calendar I realized it was eleven and change… thus the title change to a “a year.” [↩]
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