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Making Harmony with Money

Wealth Advisor Tad Gray, CFP®, penned the following article, an open letter to his children. Tad’s daughter, Erika, is a violist and a student at the Curtis Institute of Music. His son, Johannes, is a cellist pursuing an artist diploma at the Barenboim-Said Academy in Berlin.

Dear Erika and Johannes,

There’s a saying that goes, “The cobbler’s children have no shoes.” It means that we parents don’t always share our professional know-how with our own children. But now that you’re on the cusp of your careers, I would be remiss not to provide you with some financial guidance.

Over the years I’ve been proud to watch you two grow to a remarkable level of artistry, and it has reminded me of all the joy I got from making music when I was younger. I’ve loved watching you from the audience just as I’ve loved the opportunities we’ve had to make music as a family. You’ve each demonstrated so much discipline in the pursuit of your craft. And I want you to know that that same discipline is all you need to manage the more practical sides of your artistic careers.

As you know, I stopped pursuing music professionally when I was 23 – not much older than you are now – in favor of focusing on business. While I don’t regret that decision, financial concerns were an important part of it, so I’m sensitive to the challenges you’ll face. And since your mom continued her own musical career, I have remained connected to the economic reality of a musician’s life.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my career in finance, it’s that your mindset is one of your most important tools. You know this is true for music, too. Just as our performance improves when we become more aware of our full selves, so does our relationship with money. With the right mindset, we can develop habits that make for better financial outcomes and sustainable artistic careers.

How so? Consider this situation: You’ve just finished an enjoyable, well-paying gig. Your fellow musicians want to grab some dinner before heading home. Someone suggests an expensive restaurant and, before you know it, the bill is way over budget. “Oh well,” you tell yourself. “The gig paid nicely, so why not?”

How can we avoid traps like this, or even turn them to our advantage? This common situation outlines some of the most important aspects of the mental game between you and your money. Luckily, if you internalize the following lessons, you’ll be able to navigate not just tempting dinners, but a host of tricky financial situations.


We live in a consumerist society – I get that. We’re under a lot of pressure to appear successful, and money is one way we try to do that. But remember that the appearance of wealth is just that. Someone you may envy for all the things they have could be miserably in debt. And if that dinner was too expensive for you, it was probably too expensive for others as well. Luckily, by acknowledging your feelings around finances, you can manage your money in the way that benefits you most.

Now that we’ve considered the importance of mindset, we need to know how to apply good money habits.

Let’s begin with budgeting. A budget is just a plan, and you know my “dad quote” on this: “People don’t plan to fail, they fail to plan.” Eye-rolling aside, you already know this to be true. How else could you have become the accomplished musicians you are today? When we plan, we become empowered by holding ourselves accountable.

Let’s look at a budgeting guideline called the 20/50/30 rule, which describes a good way to allocate income.

To get started, note that you should always pay yourself first. At least 20 percent of your income should be set aside for long-term financial goals, like paying off debt, building an emergency fund or saving for your future.

Then, don’t exceed 50 percent for fixed expenses. These are things that must be paid on time and without fail, including rent, insurance, utilities and more. This leaves the remaining 30 percent for discretionary spending. These are items you have control over: food, clothing, “fun” shopping and so forth.

Now, be mindful of needs versus wants. I may want a new BMW, but my pre-owned Honda fulfills my needs just fine. This applies to many things we spend money on, from clothing to eating out to where we live. We get in trouble when the things we want but can’t afford become fixed expenses in the form of credit card debt, rent or installment payments.

When you’re starting out, these 20/50/30 proportions may not seem achievable. Take them for guidelines until you can get there. After that, beware of “lifestyle creep.” As your career progresses, you might be tempted to use your increased income to upgrade your lifestyle. Instead, reassess those long-term goals. Is your emergency fund where it should be? Are your debt reduction plans on track? If not, fix these first, and stay within the 20/50/30 guidelines.

Building a career in the arts is challenging, and it’s easy to fall prey to negative moods about money. Many feel resigned to their financial struggles and come to believe that they have no influence over their situation. But that’s a toxic outlook for any artist to have. What you do matters – whether it’s making wise spending decisions or creating meaningful work.

I’m certain that musicians today can earn enough money for both a sustainable career and a satisfying life. And just as with music, your journey toward financial well-being is a lifelong one. You’ll make mistakes – we all do – but with the right mindset you don’t have to say, “I’m not good with money.” You can say, “I’m not good yet – and I’m still learning.”

You can do it.


Tad Gray is a wealth advisor with the BAM Alliance.

This commentary originally appeared September 6 on 21CM.org

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