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How to cover your living costs if you follow an alternative career path

Covering your living costs if you follow an alternative career path

Thinking of starting your own business or entering a career where you’re unlikely to get a full-time, permanent job as a fresh graduate? Get our advice on ways to cover your living costs and take inspiration from our case study of actor Lily Maryon.

If your chosen career path won’t pay all the bills from day one, such as working in the arts or launching your own business, you’ll need to think carefully about how best to cover your costs of living. Portfolio working is often the solution.

A portfolio career is where your work is split between different types of job across the working week – for example, teaching for four hours a week, supporting elderly people for eight hours, doing freelance market research for six hours and scriptwriting for 12 hours. Most portfolio workers have a ‘calling’ (eg scriptwriting or dancing) and need other work to pay the bills and to give them the time to devote to their chosen vocations.

Entrepreneurs and creatives start in the same boat

Entrepreneurs are often portfolio workers during the start-up phase of their businesses. They might choose a secondary job that’s allied to their ambitions – for example, working in retail to learn more about the industry and launch their own retail business. Their portfolio careers ought to be reasonably short-lived.

For others, such as artists, a portfolio career may last a lifetime. Their work is insecure – one path open to them is to try to keep their costs down (for example by moving in with friends or family), but they should also have a strategy for how they’ll earn the extra cash they’ll need.

Finding a part-time job

You might be able to find a part-time job that would allow you time to develop your other interests. Alternatively, you could pick up temp work through an agency. For example, some agencies specialise in offering temp work to actors. Whatever type of work you're looking for, building a positive relationship with the employer or agency will be helpful, especially if you're looking for flexibility. You can find out more from our advice on part-time workers' rights and zero-hours contracts.

Here are some types of work you could consider that might fit in alongside developing a career in another area:

  • mail sorting
  • warehouse picking
  • being a room attendant
  • driving/courier work/delivering
  • events work
  • animal keeping/pet-sitting
  • valeting
  • gardening
  • cleaning
  • casual bar work
  • bid writing – writing funding proposals
  • shopping for a client
  • beauty work.

You'll find some more ideas in our advice about ways to make extra cash as a student, which is potentially relevant to graduates too.

Support work and tutoring

Support work – eg supporting service users who have learning difficulties, mental health issues, brain injuries or dementia – can be done on a casual basis, and there’s a reasonable amount of it available.

Working as a freelance tutor is also worth considering and pays more than the jobs listed above. It’s also possible to get work as a freelance trainer, such as being hired to deliver occasional drink-driving awareness sessions. But for many jobs involving group training you need a training qualification at level 3 or above, which would cost you around £300 in fees.

Case study – attitude is key

Making a genuine success of portfolio working means looking at the long term.

Lily Maryon graduated in 2017 with a BA in American Theatre Arts from Rose Bruford College of Theatre & Performance in London. As part of her degree, she also spent six months at Clemson University, South Carolina, USA.

Her acting credentials include performances with Bristol Old Vic and Bristol Old Vic Young Company, appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe and performing in both traditional and experimental roles, in settings from Salisbury Playhouse to a working cemetery where she played Elizabeth Frankenstein.

Work to support your passions

Lily has done her share of part-time jobs that simply pay a wage. But she has also worked hard to create a portfolio of paid work that is either very closely related to acting or which draws upon the skills of being an actor.

Lily’s day jobs and temporary jobs have included:

  • barista
  • bartender
  • retail in a vintage clothes shop
  • dialect coach, standing in for a professional coach teaching American actors to speak Cockney and received pronunciation for a Joe Orton play
  • children’s entertainer – no acting involved but amusing and motivating kids to play classic games at themed parties
  • puppeteer
  • fashion show organising
  • hair modelling for a photoshoot to promote the opening of a cousin’s salons
  • events work: explaining health and safety to members of the public who attend an escape room, escorting them to the room and liaising with control room staff
  • sewing: before studying for her degree, Lily studied for a fashion BTEC. Since then she’s been paid to assist fashion and set designers.

Recently, Lily has enjoyed being a workshop leader involved in improvisation and drama clubs for children. Some of these events have been run in association with Crime Stoppers; others are simply a thank you to children who have worked hard at school. Lily has got some of this work through Acting Out, a company hired by schools for projects ranging from children’s productions of The Tempest to pupils taking part in theatrically based anti-bullying or e-safety initiatives. Other of Lily’s schools work has come through the Pauline Quirke Academy.

Better paid

‘I really like doing the workshops,’ says Lily. ‘I’ve tried supply teaching and I’m not comfortable with it, but with smaller groups you can bring real freshness and excitement to school kids’ lives and help give them a voice.'

The workshops are among Lily’s better paying jobs, but her most lucrative day job has been for a law school paying around £150 a day pretending to be a witness who is then interviewed and cross-examined by student lawyers. ‘I learned about how sentencing works,’ says Lily, ‘and about GBH.' Similar work is available from medical schools, which pay actors to play patients in training sessions for junior doctors.

At the time of writing, actors in Lily’s home town of Bristol were being hired at £150 per day to play Father Christmas in local garden centres.

The keys to portfolio job success

The absolute key to making portfolio working successful is to be very proactive. Certainly, there are lots of agencies and websites through which you can find temporary and zero-hours work in all sorts of roles, from warehouse work to GCSE tuition. But it’s unlikely that any such source will provide all the income you need. This means that as well as growing the opportunities for your calling – more paid hours on stage, playing gigs and so on – you need to grow the opportunities for the other work that makes your calling feasible.

For someone in Lily’s position this means networking – and lots of it. ‘Whenever I meet an actor, I ask them what their day job is, and then – if I like the sound of what they do – I ask them if they wouldn’t mind me contacting their employer and dropping their name into the conversation.’

An upwardly curving portfolio career

It is also possible to increase what you get paid per hour. For example:

  1. Finding odd hours of tuition work via a tutors’ job board at – say – £12 to £14 per hour, or at an equivalent rate through an after-school learning club such as STEMkids.
  2. Then contacting a tuition agency and being taken on at £20 an hour.
  3. Then getting some shifts teaching adult education classes with the local council at £23 to £25 an hour.
  4. Then – if you really want to – set up your own tutoring agency and charging £30 and over per hour for your services.

Nurture the whole of your work portfolio

For some portfolio workers, when they get to stage four they may find that they have a new favourite job – the ‘calling’ has a rival. For example, an actor might decide they enjoy their work as a freelance voice coach so much it becomes their main work or a permanent equal. For others, the day job will always come second.

Even so, if you’re a musician or an actor, it’s best to treat your non-acting/singing/playing work as if it’s an incredibly important part of your career – that is, have ambitions for it. This is because, for the rest of your working life, you’re likely to face gaps between times hired as a performer. Make filling those gaps as satisfying as possible. As Lily says, ‘I’ve got to the point that I don’t want to do the likes of shop work. How I earn a living outside of acting has to feel good for me.’ The temptation for portfolio workers is to love your true vocation and stuff the rest of the week with low-commitment jobs, but that can be very demoralising over the long term.

If you’re launching a business selling products or services, the situation is different. Your other jobs are unlikely to be for life – either your business will take off and you’ll go full time or you’ll realise its potential is limited and move on to something else.

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