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Once, playing poker with Lewie Palter, a teacher of actors at Cal Arts, I remarked that actors had all the character traits of entrepreneurs:  they didn’t follow the usual path, they had deep confidence in their own talent, and they would abandon a conventional life to build the life and self-expression they envisioned.  In fact, I said, they should build little back-bedroom businesses to support their erratic schedules of auditions, out-of-town 6-week tours, and other disruptions to a regular working life.

So, for the last 20 years, I go to Cal Arts to guest lecture in The Artists’ Survival Course, to teach the graduating actors some ideas about building their own businesses while they build their acting careers. 

This year, I arrived with a small piece of paper from my Chase MasterCard statement.  In tiny print, it promised it would never charge me more than 29.9% interest on my outstanding balance.  The young actors, never having lived without credit cards, and going out into the world with no work, no clear career path, and a significant school debt, were aghast when I explained they could easily be charged 30 cents for every dollar they didn’t pay within 30 days, especially if they missed a payment and triggered the higher interest rate.  Lewie taught them an old word, “usury.”

The student actors went beyond aghast when I suggested they put their credit cards away and never use them unless they needed to rent a car.  To most people, that little plastic card is money, when in fact it isn’t anything of the sort.

I know it is not easy to live without debt in the current economy, particularly in expensive Los Angeles, where I live.  And you may think the idea of savings is a joke.  But no debt, and some savings for a buffer, is the secret to financial freedom.  

I don’t mean you should be inconvenienced:  there are acceptable kinds of debt in the modern world.  These include credit cards that are always paid off completely when due, and a mortgage, as long as nothing prevents you from paying it every month.

Not long ago, less than one generation ago, our culture supported these values and folks lived by them.  A debtor was a scofflaw.  Being behind on your payment to a local merchant was an embarrassment.  

How do we begin?  At the larger view and the smaller view:

At the larger scale, there are disciplines we can use to help us – learning more about managing our money, signing up for a program that saves a small percentage from our paychecks before we see it, putting money aside into savings vehicles on a weekly or monthly basis, investing our tax return money, using a trusted money manager to advise us on our investments and on our tax-deferred savings for retirement, kids’ college, and so on.

On the smaller scale, we need to think how tiny disciplines can make a difference:  using your library for books and audio books; exploring your closet for those neat clothes you have forgotten about; having friends in for dinner (everyone can bring something) rather than eating out so often; avoiding buying thoughtlessly what we don’t need, and paying nearly 10% more in tax on every purchase, as we do in California.

You know, if you gave yourself cash to spend for the month, and didn’t touch your credit card, you would start to look at the real cost of real things — $12 movie tickets; $5 coffees; 9.75% tax.  Even as an experiment, this would teach you something.

The priorities of course are yours.  That $5 coffee may be the treat of your day.  Movies on a big screen may be your passion.  So indulge.  But also create your own awareness about what you care about, and spend your money on that, and do not spend money on what does not matter to you. Your awareness of your priorities can manage your spending.  Try it.  You may find you have the same life with the same pleasures, and some cash left over.