Real stories about money from real people. Money Confessions, a SingSaver series, will excite you, inspire you, and leave you wishing to get financially woke.
I’m 30 years old this year, and I work as an artist and actor. Here’s how I make money from my artwork and manage my finances.
Creatives, musicians, painters and other types of artists usually get the short end of the stick when it comes to things like job security, especially in Singapore.
With the recent announcement of the establishment of Singapore’s first arts university in an alliance between the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) and LASALLE College of the Arts, there have been negative comments floating around social media about how it will be “churning out more jobless grads in Singapore”.
However, I beg to differ — I believe that making a decent living out of the arts is possible, you just have to put in the effort and manage your finances well.
Here’s how I do it.
Actor with side hustle in the arts
I’ve been an actor for the past four years and I’ve been selling my artwork for three years now.
To save you from Googling, I’ll start with a short introduction about myself: I graduated from the Nanyang Technological University’s School Of Art, Design and Media, in which I specialised in animation.
After that, I worked as an illustrator at a Japanese gaming company for a year. However, I couldn't get used to the long hours.
Since there was an opportunity in acting, I decided to give it a shot and eventually signed onto Mediacorp as a full-time artiste.
But my love for arts and design never diminished, so I decided to continue pursuing it on the side.
Are actors paid well in general?
It depends on the project, hence finance management is crucial.
There’s a difference between being rich and being wealthy.
Celebrities can look rich, wear rich, but being wealthy is how you control and manage your own finances along with the power of using it properly.
Supplement monthly income with side hustle
Society has conditioned you to think that you can only do one job, but seeing how my dad, Edmund Chen, wore multiple hats (he’s had a design company, was an actor, once dabbled in theatre and wrote childrens’ books, among many others), I was inspired to do the same.
My father has allowed me to open my horizons and realise the importance of having multiple sources of income and develop more skillsets.
As of now, 50% of my monthly income is from acting and up to 50% is from my side hustle in the arts. I also have some money stashed away in various investments, which I will touch on later.
My side hustles consist of holding art workshops, doing commissioned pieces, selling my work online, taking up freelance design works and illustrations, and doing sponsored posts on social media, among other projects that come my way.
How much do I earn from outside engagements and projects?
A single sponsored post on Instagram can range from a couple of hundreds to thousands, depending on the deliverables so there is no exact amount I can give you.
Selling my artwork, however, is the most lucrative. I specialise in watercolour and illustration, and can sell one artwork for $700. But that price is considered low-range — I do know of people who sell their artwork for $20,000.
If you think I’m rolling in cash just because I sell these $700 art pieces, you’re wrong. I can probably only do one of these high-cost artwork once a month, because of time constraints and my filming schedule.
More frequently, I sell smaller prints that range from $25 to $80. Again, there is no exact figure because how well it sells depends on what is being launched. Some series fly off the shelves, while others take more time to get sold.
How I manage my time
Having two jobs can get very busy and confusing. That’s why I prefer to make full use of my time by drawing up and sticking to a daily schedule. It’s always a challenge to do it but I think it’s an enjoyable process!
I believe that everyone should take out some time in their lives to pursue their interests because you’ll never know when it will come in handy.
A lot of an artwork’s financial success lies in marketing
Aspiring artists should tap into the creative potential that they use in their artwork and apply it in a financial or business sense in order to get their work sold.
I’ve seen people who have talent but cannot sell themselves, and those who can't draw to save their lives but can market themselves well, so they are the ones earning money.
Being an artist is not just simply being an artist. It is also about the entrepreneurial spirit, connections and learning how to work with people.
Hidden costs of being an artist
One thing people don’t understand is how much time and effort it takes to finish an art piece. Not only are you paying for the artist’s skillset (that takes years to hone), but also material costs like brushes, canvas, water colour.
Paint can be very costly — it’s around $12 for a small tube of good quality paint. And then you’ll also need to factor in the time spent travelling to pass items to clients and money for postage.
Problems of being an artist
Chasing for payment
There have been instances where clients take a long time to pay me after the completion of a job. Unfortunately, that’s a prevalent practice here in Singapore.
I once had to chase a company for six months for $600. It may not be a big amount, but it shows the integrity of the company.
Copy cat, chase the rat
The arts scene in Singapore needs mutual respect, and sadly, sometimes it can be lacking.
There’s also a huge problem of people copying my concepts. People would steal ideas, but it's a common thing throughout all industries.
It’s like going for a job interview and they ask you for ideas on how to solve this problem. You give your suggestions and go about your day. A week later, you receive a rejection letter but see your idea getting executed on their platforms.
It is unfair, so you’ve got to work smart, keep your descriptions vague and don't draw out your entire idea conception.
But despite these difficulties, the sense of satisfaction in seeing my work getting recognised keeps me going.
Working for exposure
Many companies like to take advantage of budding artists and request for free art to be done in the name of exposure, or even the promise of more opportunities in the future.
Know your worth, don’t do it. There will always be another company who is fair and will properly compensate you for your art.
“It sucks” was one of the worst comments I’ve gotten on my artwork. Like what sucks? Art is subjective. Some people may like it, while some don't. The best thing anyone can do to help a struggling artist is to give constructive feedback so that we can work better.
Fortunately, I have supportive parents
Thankfully, my parents let me do whatever I want. They have never pressured me to be a doctor/lawyer/engineer or hold jobs that the older generation perceive as “being successful”.
In the future, I will also let my kids pursue anything they’d like to do, as long as it’s honest money. I don’t care as long as they’re happy.
Personally, the rule after getting my monthly payments is to immediately put aside 50% into my savings account. The other 30% is for my expenditure and 20% goes into investments.
I put most of my money into stocks, but I’ve recently been dabbling in cryptocurrency and exploring NFTs (Non-fungible token). I only allocate 5% of my portfolio into crypto and NFTs as I find them too volatile.
You can be rich, but if you spend it badly, then you are as good as a poor person.
I believe that living humbly is very important and I am very cautious over my money because you’ll never know what might happen in the future.
A lot of people around me, especially peers around my age, spend whatever they earn, so they have no savings of their own. I totally understand that there’s always the temptation of renting your own place, buying a car and living lavishly but ask yourself, is this really necessary? Can I live without this thing?
The only reason why I’m financially comfortable is because my money is well-managed, not because I’m well-paid.
Tips on saving money:
- A lot of people assume that I, as an actor, would take private hire transport. However, I usually take public transport, unless my parents are not using the car. So if you ever see me on the bus or MRT, do say hi! I used to cycle to the MRT station but now I stop because my bike got stolen. Twice. But that’s another story for another day.
- I enjoy going to hawker centres and finding delicious and healthy meals on a budget. I don’t feel the need to dine at cafes — they’re really just a waste of money. A coffee at a cafe is $6 to $7, while it’s $1+ at the kopitiam and they both work the same (sorry to coffee connoisseurs).
- Don't rent out, just stay with your parents. There’s nothing wrong with it.
- Get a cheap sim-only mobile plan. And stop changing your phone to the latest model all the time.
- There’s no need to chase current trends. The easiest trap to fall into is signing up for packages and buying bundled items that you don’t need. Yes, they may be on discount, but you’re still spending unnecessary money.
See the importance of $100,000 by 30 but don’t chase it
Health is also very important. If you want to trade your health just to chase that whole $100,000 by 30 years old, it’s not worth it.
I have friends who blindly chase this dream and neglect themselves. They work extra jobs and take on more shifts, so much so that they don't have time to sleep and workout.
As a result, their mental and physical health suffered. I personally know of people who are like that and they are only 30 years old with health issues. If you are unhealthy, your hard-earned money will be spent on therapy and medicine, so what's the use?
I used to have that goal and hustled a lot until my back suffered. I ended up spending $2,600 on doctor appointments, scans, MRIs and medicine for my back pain which didn’t improve.
Turns out, all I had to do was to practice squats everyday for six months to develop my core and now I'm fine. So moral of the story, just work out a bit.
Health is as important as wealth. If you don't have the ability to enjoy that wealth, then there’s no use even being the richest man in the world.
As told to Kendra Tan
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