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Careers Clinic: How can I maintain my acting career and pay off my debts?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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I’ve had a busy year with a variety of enjoyable and challenging work. Unfortunately, most of it has been low paid, which was also the case the year before. My best wage as a working actor so far was for a stint in an overseas theme park that I did not long after graduating, but that was nearly three years ago. The money I saved has been disappearing day by day.

What has been building up instead is my pile of bills, including HMRC letters. They are the ones that really scare me, as each new one has more interest on top. I’m afraid to contact them until I know I can pay at least a respectable chunk, but an acting job to allow me to do that hasn’t come in, and I can’t find a day job that would bring that amount of money without cutting me off from acting altogether. The last letter I opened (by accident) threatened a home visit, and, as I’m also behind on rent, that’s the last thing I need.

JOHN BYRNE’S ADVICE I once worked with an actor who was playing a guest role in a well-known soap that meant photos of his character were appearing on the front page of almost every TV magazine – a career first for him. However, as with many series, his episode block had been shot several months ahead of broadcast. By the time it aired, he had not only spent all of the fee trying to clear debts but had barely enough left for groceries, let alone the price of the cheapest magazine that he was appearing on.

He’s not alone and neither are you. Wildly fluctuating income is a phenomenon of acting life and, coupled with the fact that many actors’ day jobs are relatively low paid in exchange for flexibility, there are a lot of us who can empathise with your situation. I know that the traditional advice to ‘save something during the good times to help during the leaner times’ can be much easier said than done in our business, but it is a habit well worth getting into.

Human nature being what it is, probably the most effective way is to set up an automatic system where your tax money and any ‘rainy day’ money gets skimmed off incoming funds as soon as they hit your account and transferred to a separate one, preferably one that is not too easy to access until it is needed. Although it can be hard to focus on the future when the present seems so overwhelming, getting that system started as soon as possible is a good idea.

You probably don’t want to hear this, but it really is important to contact HMRC sooner rather than later. Until you do it will escalate its chasing and eventually move to more drastic methods. While the interest on the debt may keep growing until it is cleared, it is often the late fees that turn relatively small debts into unmanageable ones.

Tax: what you need to know as a working self-employed actor

If you do take the initiative and make that difficult call, one distinction HMRC will look at is whether you are a ‘can’t pay’ or a ‘won’t pay’. A ‘can’t pay’ who demonstrates they are making efforts to get back on track will usually get a more sympathetic hearing. If you are an Equity member there is a tax and welfare advice helpline, so do make use of it.

If you are really in dire straits, don’t be shy about sounding out industry charities, and, if you approach an accountant choose one who specialises in working with actors. Not only will they know what expenses you can claim, but they should also be used to working with actors with messed up finances and can help to negotiate with the taxman to get you back on track.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne

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