How to manage your variable income and expenses this opera season

I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that September is the start of a new year.

Sure, I’ve been out of school for *mumbles a number* years now, but when September stopped being the dawn of a new school year… it started being the dawn of a new opera season. 

This week I start back up with my first contract of the season, and in addition to being thrilled to be working with a great company on a really fun project… I’m also really happy to be making some money.

In fact, over the 5 weeks I will make more money than I made during the four first months of 2016.

Such is the crazy variable nature of this job. 

And while making money is mostly a good thing, there are also some huge traps that go along with getting it in one big shot like this. 

For one… it can make you feel like you’re rich. So it’s tempting to spend a little more on just about everything when those paycheques are coming in…. which would be fine, if I didn’t have a few very slow months ahead of me this winter. 

So what’s a tenor to do? 

It’s really hard to make a plan when your income comes in fits and spurts. Add to that the crazy up and down expenses of a business like opera and … it’s no wonder people think managing your money as an opera singer is impossible. 

What I’m doing this year that’s changing the way I look at my season…

Over the summer I started playing around with spreadsheets (ya… I’m super cool). And I made a series of sheets that lets me enter my income, takes off my tax and commission, and then compares it to all of my variable expenses. 

It’s not perfect, but I’ve loved using it, and it’s finally given me a way to visualize my income and expenses and how they work together. 

It’s a hard thing to explain, so I’m going to show you. 

This post is all about how to make a real money plan for this opera season. To see when you’re making money, and when you’re not, and to see when those big expenses need to be paid for.


It’s a big picture planning tool that’s made specifically for opera singers (although any variable income earner would probably find it useful).  

And you can have it for free! Just click on the fancy button below and I’ll send you a copy of your very own. We opera singers have to stick together! 

How to plan out your money this opera season:

STEP 1: Let’s talk about income

The first step in making your plan for the year is to look at the income that you’re pulling in. 

That income might come in a few different ways: 

  1. Big opera/concert contracts: These are the contracts that are already scheduled. The big payers that you’ve blocked off in your schedule.
  • Smaller gigs: You might have some of these on the schedule already, and more might come up throughout the year.
  • Side Income/Day job: Most of us have one (or two, or three) so of course they’re going to be an important part of your income plan. This income will be handled a little differently than the other lump sums mentioned above… more on that later. 

Here are a few things to remember when you’re looking at your income for the year: 

1. Take Off Taxes:

Make sure that you’re taking a big chunk of that cheque off for the government. I always recommend you overestimate. I know lots of singers who take off a huge percentage, and use it as a forced savings tool.

In the spreadsheet there’s a place for you to enter a tax amount for the whole year. If you usually take off 15 or 20 percent, just enter it there and it’ll be applied to everything. If there are a few gigs you want to raise or lower that amount for you can change the number in the ‘tax’ column.

2. Don’t Forget About Commission

Do you have an agent? If so make sure you’re not thinking of their cut as income. It’s got to come right off the top. Make sure you know how much commission your agent charges per type of gig. Another thing to plan for is whether your commission has tax added to it – I know in Canada there’s usually GST/HST applied – If you know you can plan for it.

In the spreadsheet there are a few options for commission. You can change the numbers or the titles and they’ll be reflected in the chart below. If you don’t have commission charged on an income amount… just leave it blank.

3. Underestimate Side Income:
Most of us have a few side jobs that we work when we’re not on a gig. If that’s regular income for you… it’s easy to plan for. But usually it ends up being hard to guess at. Plan for the lowest dependable amount. Always underestimate income and overestimate expenses. That way if you’re wrong… you have more money than you planned for. Which is way better than the alternative!
4.Timing Is Everything:

When it comes to variable income planning, it’s super important to think about when you’re actually getting the cheque. If you’re doing an opera contract, often you don’t get paid until you actually perform. Or in some parts of the world maybe you won’t get paid until a few weeks after the end of the gig. Don’t enter the income into your plan at the beginning of the contract. Mark it where you expect to actually have it in your account.

In the spreadsheet there’s a column where you can make a note about when the money comes in. That’s just for you. Maybe if you’ll be paid on the second-last day of October, you should actually think about it coming in in November, as that’s when the money will actually be available to spend.

What about unconfirmed gigs? 

The great thing about using this sheet as a plan, is that you can adjust it as you go. For now, just add the income that you know about. If new contracts come in, you can add them at that time. Don’t guess at what might happen. Only plan for income that you know is coming in for sure. 

The not so hidden benefit of going through your season’s income this way is to confirm how much actual spendable money you’re making (after tax and commission). It’s easy to get excited about the ‘sticker’ value of an opera contract… 

“I just made $10,000!”

But after tax and commission that number could be thousands less.

Good plans are based on real numbers

In the spreadsheet you’ll see your ‘gross’ income (which is the total pre tax/commission) as compared to your ‘net’ income (the money you actually have to spend on, say, prenatal vitamins and pogo sticks). 

STEP 2: Let’s start spending that money

So now comes the fun part. We have money. Let’s spend it. 

Usually when we think about spending that money we jump right to the stuff we really want to do.

Maybe it’s paying down your credit card, or treating yourself to some new clothes or maybe even a vacation…

But here’s the bad news (and you’re going to hate me for this)… we’re not ready for that yet… because there’s a bunch of that money that’s already spoken for.

The super boring cost of maintaining your life…

Most of the spending you do isn’t life changing…. in fact most of the spending you do is to keep your life exactly the same as it is right now. 

That kind of spending can be broken up into two categories:

  1. Regular maintenance: living costs, healthcare, transportation costs… that kind of stuff
  2. Irregular maintenance: the stuff that happens every year, but you forget to plan for it… like holidays, dental checkups, and renewing your driver’s license.

Maintenance isn’t just what you need to provide the basic needs of life, it’s what you need to provide the needs of YOUR life. Everyone’s maintenance will be different. So this is about being honest about what your life really costs. 

I really can’t overstate the importance of knowing how much it costs to maintain your life ESPECIALLY when you’re a variable income earner.

Those numbers are going to help you figure out how much you actually have extra to pay down debt, go on a vacation, or put away for long term savings. 

Here are a few things to think about when you’re figuring it out: 

1.Things that seem variable are sometimes pretty regular:

It can seem like certain things such as food costs change a ton from month to month. But, in my experience, they really don’t… not nearly as much as it might feel like they do.

If you have no idea what you spend on food, it’s worth taking a trip back into your credit/bank statements. Look back over one (or if you’re ambitious… two) months and find a number that makes sense. 

2.If you’re not sure…overestimate:

This plan isn’t about having a bogus surplus left over at the end to make you feel good about your life. It’s to put in real numbers so that you have an idea of what your year looks like.

If you’re not sure, say “I know *THIS* will be enough”… then, worst case scenario you have extra money left over

3. Start with reality, then trim the fat:

It’s easy to be ‘optimistic’ when you’re filling in numbers. Start with what you think you actually spend or with your overestimate.

You can go back later and make deliberate choices about where you can cut back a bit if you see a gap between your earning and your spending.

4. The difference between regular and irregular: 

There are some costs that are caught in between the worlds of regular and irregular maintenance. In the end it really doesn’t matter where you enter them, as long as you only enter them once.

For me, I think about regular expenses being ones that I schedule all the time. A weekly voice lesson is a regular business expense. Audition season is an irregular expense. $40 on vitamins and saline rinse is a regular healthcare cost (even if I might spend more or less from month to month… it averages out to around 40), but dental checkups are irregular… even though they happen a few times a year.

It’s not a science. If you’re struggling with how to enter a few expenses, shoot me an email ( and I’ll help you out.

5. Entering the irregular expenses:

Irregular expenses are the things that destroy more financial plans than anything else. They’re the worst.

You’re budgeting perfectly well and all of a sudden… audition season cleans you out…

It’s true that some things really do come out of the blue, but a lot of stuff you get surprised by EVERY YEAR. That… is on you.

The more you can identify both the expense AND when you need to have the money the more you can plan for it.

So think hard, and if you want to be really thorough, dig through those credit/bank statements again and just circle everything over a few hundred dollars. Is that expense going to happen again this year? Put it in the chart!!!

Bringing it all together (and blowing your freaking mind)

So maybe you’ve thought of these things before. Maybe you’ve sketched it all out on the back of a Rossini score…

But the thing about variable income and expenses is that it’s hard to really wrap your mind around how they’re all going to play out in the big picture. 

 When you use the handy chart that I’ve been screenshot-ing, you end up with something that looks like this:

This chart shows you how your income matches up with your expenses for the season. 

You see the months where you have big surpluses. And you also see the months where you’re not making enough to cover your expenses (both the regular and the variable ones).

This tool shows you whether you actually have any extra money to throw around… or whether you need it just to cover the expenses that you already plan on making.

Because if there’s no money to make those maintenance purchases… they’re probably going on the credit card.

Why I love this chart

Looking at my season this year I see some big peaks and some pretty low valleys.

I mentioned that I’m just about to start a gig that will provide a good amount of income. It would be tempting to say… I’m going to treat myself to a life-size model of Big Ben, or if I were virtuous…. maybe tuck that into my retirement savings account. 

But for the months of December – March, at least currently, there’s not enough income to cover my expenses. If I spend it now, I’m going to end up in a real panic this winter trying to keep myself in sandwiches. 

So… I keep it in my account. 

Because that money isn’t extra, even though it feels like it. It’s already spent a few months from now. 

Hopefully, I’ll book some gigs for the winter, and when I do… I can revisit the money that I’m holding on to. 

Maybe it really will become ‘extra’. 

But by watching these numbers I feel like I’m finally able to plan my money for the year. When I need to save. When I need to find some more work. It also can help me play around with what effect cutting down on some expenses would have (it’s amazing how much just trimming 50 bucks off your regular expenses can free up some cash). 

It’s easy to believe that it’s impossible to manage your money when you live a crazy variable life like we do… 

It’s not impossible. 

It’s just really hard. 

And hopefully… it just got a bit easier. 

Want to start getting control of your money? How can I help?

Chris Enns

Chris Enns

Financial Planner/Opera Singer

Money never came naturally to me. In fact… I was a bit of a disaster. I remember (very clearly) what it feels like to be ‘financially out of control’.

And honestly, I still get stressed about money… that doesn’t stop… the difference is that now I have the tools to deal with that stress.

And those tools are what’s made it possible for me to build a life full of the things I want: art, creativity, travel, family and more.

If you want to start getting control of your money I’d love to help. You can start with THIS QUIZ, visiting my GETTING STARTED PAGE or by checking out my SERVICES page.