Saturday, June 25, 2011

"Plan B"

As I've mentioned before, changes in the free-for-all we call the animation business come fast and furious, and artists have to constantly train themselves, push themselves and sell themselves to stay in the game. But there comes a time, usually somewhere in late middle age or early geezerhood, where work grows scanty and individuals start thinking:

"I can't really make it working three to five months a year, so what the hell am I going to do?" ...

This is where "Plan B" comes in, and it's good to be thinking about it and constructing it before the work dries up.

Some years ago, a middle-aged assistant animator, single and female, came to the office and said that after twenty-two years of regular employment nothing was happening, and she didn't know where to turn. I knew she had a house with equity in it, and I suggested that she think out of the box, that she consider selling her residence, taking the money and moving to Costa Rica.

She looked at me like I was nuts. "I can't do that! I've got six cats! I can't leave them!!"

Okay. Maybe my advice sounds radical, but when survival is the issue it's useful to think as creatively as possible: Could I move to another state? Another country? Could I get by with one car? With no car?

One of my heroes is Paul Terhorst, a man who got out of the 9-5 routine when he was thirty-five and has been traveling the world with his wife Vicki ever since. Here's what he says on the subject:

... [W]hat we spend day-to-day -- dinners out, gas for the car, parties with friends, ice cream cones, gifts, conferences--makes every day better. I'd argue that what we spend on housing, cars, and taxes makes much less of a difference.

"Yet on average we spend roughly 85% of our incomes on just that--housing, cars, and taxes.

"In my mind, that 85% represents a place to cut. Why not live in a place--Thailand, India, Nicaragua, Colombia--with reasonable housing costs? Or structure your life so that your tax liabilities are limited? ...

Figure it out. If you were to bail out of your house and the accompanying payments, pool your savings and 401(k), take early retirement money and Social Security, how much of a monthly nut would you have to live on? Two grand? Three? More than that? Now figure out how much you really need to live comfortably. (Do you sail over the bar? Or have to keep working?). If you don't do some steely-eyed calculating, and figure out what your "Plan B" would cost if you needed to implement it, you'll likely continue thrashing along from paycheck to paycheck, worried about next month's rent instead of life next year.

Mr. Terhorst is an interesting role model. He walked away from a high-flying job in his middle thirties with a net worth of $500,000. And today he has around $1,000,000, after decades of globe-trotting (and building a house out on the Argentine pampas.) Paul T. mastered the art of living well on a few thousand dollars a month because he envisioned a "Plan B" and implemented it. There's no reason that artists who make it their job to imagine and create worlds that never were can't do the same.

Add On: Thomas Geoghegan, one of my favorite labor writers, offers a solution to the retirement dilemna:

What's Your Retirement Plan? Social Security Benefits Should Expand ... Under the current system, we have elderly people living on less than $10,000 a year.

... Right now Social Security pays out 39 percent of the average worker's preretirement earnings. While jaws may drop inside the Beltway, we could raise that to 50 percent. We'd still be near the bottom of the league of the world's richest countries -- but at least it would be a basement with some food and air. We have elderly people living on less than $10,000 a year. ...

Not likely to happen, methinks, but it would be simple enough to cover the post 2036 SS deficit: lift the income cap on Social Security taxes.

Upcoming 401(k) Enrollment Meetings:

Disney Features -- Monday, June 27th, 10 a.m. -- conf. rm 1300

Disney TV Animation -- Tuesday, June 28th, 10 a.m. Rm 1173 -- Frank Wells Building*

Thursday, June 30th, 2 p.m. -- Main Conference -- Nick Studios


Anonymous said...

I think your friend needs to consider not whether she can get along with only one car, but rather, whether she can get along with only one CAT.

Anonymous said...

What's "Plan C?"

Anonymous said...

A .357 bullet.

Bob Foster said...

Plan C - Plan on not doing nothing.

Before you decide to retire and you choose where you want to live and how you want to live and and how much money you'll need to afford it, think about doing something else you've always wanted to do. That thing you always set aside while you made a career. That childhood dream.

Many of us, myself included, have often been too busy to do what we always wanted to do. That's a good thing, because whatever it is you always really wanted to do will probably still be there, waiting for you to come home. And after squirreling away what you can over the years, you'll have the means to subsidize it.

When I started plein air painting about fifteen years ago, I enjoyed the hell out of it. Outdoors, scenery, fresh air, cows, barns, trees, mountains, meadows. I couldn't wait to do it more, but unfortunately I was lucky. I usually managed to find work. As a result, between the Motion Picture Industry pension, the Individual Account Plan (IAP), Social Security and a 401(k) I should be able to paint without selling anything for quite awhile.

As I approach retirement, I don't want to ooze into a rocker or vegetate in front of the TV. I want to do something, and it might as well be something I thoroughly enjoy. If I make money at it, great. If not, I'm still going to enjoy it.

A career in the animation business has made all that possible, and I started thinking about it 35 years ago. Pretty soon I'm going to see if it works. I'll let you know how it turns out.

But not yet. Still got a board to get out.

Meanwhile, if you don't yet have a 401(k), what are you waiting for?

stevenem said...

Plan A, B and C. How neat wise and reasonable if you happen to be Bob Foster or own a nice house free and clear. Doesn't everybody?

Anything, but actually fight age discrimination in the business. Many more of us want to work and need to work or have financial pressures that are beyond the reach of the remedy of simply "economizing."

Meanwhile, the Koch brothers and their minions,front organizations, surrogates and bought-and-paid-for politicians are campaigning hard to raise the retirement age, assuming everyone who is unemployed is unemployed by choice and is able to choose to remain employed indefinitely.

I know you don't agree with that point of view, but I believe that coping with the situation with "clever" planning is way too passive and inadequate for the urgent realities that we are facing.

Anonymous said...

...Uh-huh. Extrapolating that to the general population, you expect the millions of un- and underemployed out there to just put up their stakes and leave their families, friends and everything they've ever known and move to another country not to live the 'high life,' but simply to be able to survive into old age?! That's not what's going to happen as the economy gets worse. The relative few that can may become expats, but the rest of the people will live out their lives in squalor - or starve. I'm sure you're aware of various protest movements forming all over the world. When Americans who can't find gainful employment have their fear turned into anger - and I think that'll happen soon - they're going to take to the streets. I know you're trying to give honest advice

Anonymous said...

do you know anyone who actually retired at 35, or works a 4 hour work week, who isn't also supplemented by a book they wrote about doing that?

Steve Hulett said...

Know a few people who retired in their 40s. But you're right. There are not many. It's difficult to do. You not only need a stash, you need to have the right circumstances and mind-set to pull up stakes and move to a new geographic location.

FYI, Terhorst stopped working way before he wrote a book on the subject.

Floyd Norman said...

I was lucky to have suffered unemployment early on and that wised me up. Never again did I take having a job for granted. During the so called “animation boom” when my pals were buying million dollar homes and BMWs I was preparing for the worse. That worst, eventually came, and luckily this time around I was ready for it.

My advice. Always prepare for the worst - because it will come.

Anonymous said...

When a studio says to you "welcome to the family" it is wise to know you are playing a serious game and a "plan B" is in order. You should know that your animation skills are very specific and can be studio dependent. Your future self will thank you if you begin the process of looking into the beyond by expanding yourself and finding footholds in other places and interests.
---If you are already there and are watching your old studio family celebrating Christmas every day while you sit in the blizzard on the front lawn you need to stop crying and get busy with the new you.
If you survive the ordeal and trudge on towards something new and exciting -you will have gained much respect from your old studio family members and the repetitive studio Christmas will seem stale.

Anonymous said...

I can understand the anger and resentment of those who might be suffering from age discrimination, and who see what Steve and Bob wrote as too passive and accommodating. But there are people who need to hear this message. I've seen too many friends try to hold on to an animation career and burn through their savings before they finally admit that it was a futile effort. This can be a brutal industry, and if you read enough historical accounts from the 'golden age' you'll see it always has been.

Having a Plan B when times are good is great for your mental health, and it'll make you a better negotiator with the producers. Having a Plan B when times turn ugly can be the difference between living life on your own terms, and having poverty and rejection define how you'll live.

Anonymous said...

Anybody who has checked property prices in Costa Rica will soon realize that a lot of properties are as expensive, if not more than in the USA. You can find deals, of course, but you can also find deals in Arizona. Just sayin'...

Meredith said...

Why not grab some friends and start your own studio? Or write/illustrate a book? Or look into fine art? There's so much possibility out there...

Anonymous said...

"I can understand the anger and resentment of those who might be suffering from age discrimination,"

"Why not grab some friends and start your own studio? Or write/illustrate a book? Or look into fine art? There's so much possibility out there..."

I love being patronized. It's not a psychological problem. We don't need to be "understood." We don't need inspirational advice on how to spend unwelcome "free time" creatively.

It's a logistical problem. It's not just age discrimination. It's also runaway production, boutique studio outsourcing and deliberate, exploitive under-staffing. If all the work that could or should be available, was available, we would all be happily employed, building UI, SSI and retirement accounts, qualifying for benefits and grants and otherwise leading normal lives.

Meanwhile, someone has to explain to me how Disney qualified for a California tax incentive after sending half of the jobs on Winnie the Pooh out of the country. Perhaps, I should ask my business rep.

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