- “Look the part.”
- “Appearances matter. Don’t worry if you can’t afford it right now.”
- “Look good, work hard, and someday you’ll be able to pay for it.”
This is the idea Hollywood sells, with its super agents and high-level executives in the latest The Hollywood Reporter cover piece, wearing three-piece Hugo Boss suits. The photo spread screams: “this is what you aspire to be! Dress like us, talk like us, act like us… then you’ll know you made it.”
“Look the part,” is the mantra in every assistant’s handbook. It’s a guiding principle in the Buzz Feed article about assistants (right next to “sleep your way to the top.”)
It’s so seductive and mind-numbingly pervasive, that when viewed in the limited context of Los Angeles, it gets buy-in from everyone in the game. That includes yours truly, Ming. All of us, we’re shaped by our context, and in entertainment, we’re whittled and sanded and carved by what we drive, who we wear, and what year Belle Epoque we’re sipping — regardless of whether or not we can afford it!
The logical part of our brain looks at these toys and fancy thangs, and she’s like, “Bitch, puhleeze, that whip is leased, them clothes are bought on credit, and that bottle of champagne was a gift from a client. You’re still broke as shit!”
But the evolutionary part of our brain, the animalistic side dubbed the “lizard brain” which is a physical lump near your brain stem, recognizes high status automatically. It’s a measure of survival, and when it sees all the glamour you can’t afford, it shouts, “I WANT THAT SHIT, TOO!” What it lacks in vocabulary, it makes up in volume.
Of course, we don’t actually hear a lizard voice in our ear (which would be super sweet, by the way.) Our intelligent, logical brain translates the message back into language we understand, called justification:
- “How I dress is important. I have to project success to be successful. Plus I could really use an updated wardrobe.”
- “It was a hard week. I deserve to treat myself to something new.”
- “We just wrapped pilot season and I nearly killed myself. I deserve it.”
- “If you think about it, it’s an investment.” (My personal favorite.)
Um, are there Harry Potter house elves hiding up those pressed sleeves, printing out paper money? No? So sorry, then it’s not a fucking investment.
The Challenge is in the Context
It’s difficult to inoculate yourself against your context. Only a couple years ago, I was content to alternate between the same three t-shirts, everyday. Today, I love a nice Michael Kors watch and my Ray-Ban Aviators and a fitted Armani shirt because yes, appearances matter, as super model Cameron Russell so eloquently explains in her Ted talk:
We can argue about whether that’s fair or unfair, except (one) we’re not in the fifth grade anymore and (two) the fact is, this is what we signed up for. Appearances matter in our profession.
Which makes it really, really hard to apply lessons from personal finance and frugality sites that gently remind us, “start saving money, asshole. You’re going to need it.” For example, I know that I’d save me a fistfull of dollars if I cut my own hair, as a lot bloggers suggest. Maintaining my luxurious locks costs $50 every six weeks. A one-time purchase of a hair trimmer at the same $50 (a cost that we can amortize to $0 over the lifetime of the trimmer) would save me $433 a year, or ultimately $25,067 in 10 years (with compounding).
Unfortunately, not everyone is as versatile as Brad Pitt, who looks lean and dangerous in Fight-Club-Shaved-Head Brad Pitt, yet also sagely and wise in Chanel No. 5-Long-Hair Brad Pitt. With any closely cropped haircut I look like a starved Ethiopian child, so I’ll keep paying for my haircuts, thank you much.
Do You Want to be a Slave to the Paycheck?
So where do we draw the line? $50 haircuts? $100 fitted Armani shirts? $1,000 tailored Italian suits? These are personal decisions. You want to feel confident, and nice clothes go a long way towards that. But eventually you’ll glance beneath the shiny veneer and fresh coat of people project, and notice the financial rot many Hollywood executives built their lifestyles upon. These are intelligent people who put themselves in a position (with their cars, and houses, and clothes) where they’re slaves to the Almighty Paycheck. It’s a very personal decision, but it is a decision: Do you want that lifestyle? Do you want to be chained to a paycheck? Meanwhile, you contend with more noise than a chainsaw at 4 a.m. about how to spend your money, what qualifies as an investment, and to accept any shitty wage because the money “will come” and “be grateful you have a job, because there’s an abundance of free interns who don’t.”
If you want financial independence, you can’t wait till the money comes. You can’t be grateful for scraps. Nor can you buy into the idea that just because you’re in your 20’s, you don’t need to worry about things like investing, health insurance, or a 401K — which is exactly what one Boss tried convincing me (ideas they truly believed, which explains why they weren’t financially independent, either). The best time to build true wealth and independence (very different from “having a lot of shit and zero net worth”) was five years ago. The second best time is today.
This was a higher level post but I want to end with some tactical ideas. Let’s look at networking costs: while technically not an investment, it’s closer in definition than, say, buying a new wardrobe (you know, to look the part)? The cliché is that entertainment is a business of relationships is true. In my opinion, relationships are best created while breaking bread and partaking in libations. Building relationships is a significant time investment; does it have to be a huge financial investment as well?
How to Save $1,200 on Drinks
When I started, I allocated $20 per networking drinks, and I’d schedule 3 drinks a week, which inevitably reduced to 2, as last minute rescheduling is a masturbatory pastime in Hollywood. This allotted for two drinks in the evening, and depending on where you went, could include tax and tip. If whomever I was meeting was doing me a favor, I bought their first drink. Let’s say, conservatively, that happened half the time, then networking drinks cost $50 a week (or $200 a month, or $2,400 a year.) After 10 years, with compounding, you’ve spent $34,600 on drinks.
(Dammmmnn… that’s a lot of Appletinis.)
What if I invested a portion of that money — let’s say, half? That’s $1,200 a year, and after 10 years, $17,300. At a conservative 6% annual return, if I never saved another cent, that money would throw off $1,038 a year, or almost half my networking drinks in a year.
How else could you put $1,200 to work for you? I max out my Roth IRA every year, but for many of my constituents, retirement accounts take second position to, say, paying rent. If you knew nothing about investing, you could easily put this extra $1,200 you saved from networking drinks into a Roth IRA, which is more than a quarter of the maximum contribution ($5,500 at the time of this post) which is a huge head start.
Now that we see the amazing upside to cutting your networking drinks by half (“free cash money, bitches! Let it rain!”) tactically, what actions could you take?
Have one drink less
This is the easiest way to immediately cut drinking costs in half and to start saving $1,200 a year. When I first started doing drinks, two drinks met my weekday drinking rule (which coincidentally, is the same as my morning-drink rule and work-drinking rule): buzzed, not sloshed. I reasoned, “Ming, you work so hard, you definitely deserve to have a couple drinks at the end of a day.”
Except I was going out to meet people, not to get a buzz. The latter I could do perfectly well alone, in a corner in my room. Having one drink accomplished the former goal. Also after two drinks, while my motor skills were sound, there was definitely a loss in motivation. When I got home, all I wanted to do was plop on the couch and watch HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER. After cutting back to one drink, I’d get home, workout, do some reading, and squeeze in writing.
Have a game plan
Know your order, know you’re only ordering one.* This is easiest if you have “your” drink: (whiskey, rocks, splash of soda and a lime). Having the decision made takes the pressure off. Order a glass of water (AKA “a water back,” if you’re in the know) so when you’ve finished, you don’t look like a little flirt playing with your straw… unless that’s exactly what you’re projecting. If so, knock ‘em dead, tiger!
Try out as many bars as possible. Once you’re about a year in, you realize there are some very affordable options… and other not so affordable (eh-hem, SoHo House). Steer your drinks to the former. Pick places with reasonable prices or an awesome happy hour. Also, suggest locations that are as close to your work or apartment. This isn’t always possible, but since everyone’s always a little bitch about suggestion a place first, it doesn’t hurt to throw it out there. In the long run this saves you some dough (the IRS estimates the cost of wear, tear, and fuel for an automobile at $.51 per mile). More importantly, it’ll leave your sanity intact by reducing the already immeasurable number of hours you spend in LA traffic.
As we continue on our journey to Fight Broke, we’ll cover tons of tactical material, but it all traces back to that simple principle: if you want to build wealth and financial independence (not just a shiny car on the driveway and a brand name on your back) start now.
*You can take this further and not buy any alcohol at all. I know some people who go to drinks and get a water, or a coke, for health or financial reasons. Personally this approach doesn’t jive with me because: 1. I like to drink, 2. it feels awkward when the bill gets pushed in front of you and you didn’t order anything and 3. it’s uncomfortable to buy someone a drink when you’re not drinking yourself.
Photo Credit: Vinoth Chandar