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Hollywood freelancer seeks strategies to make sporadic earnings last

Location manager Dale Dreher must figure out how to support his family and, a financial planner urges, build up an emergency fund despite long spells between work.

December 20, 2009|By Kelly Barron >>>

Like many people who work on the less-than-glamorous fringes of the entertainment business, Hollywood location manager Dale Dreher does really well some of the time.

The trouble is he doesn't always have a job.

And that has made providing a reliable income for his wife, Ronnie, and two boys something of a struggle -- particularly over the last year.

"I'm not sleeping well, that's for sure," said Dreher, 44, a freelancer like many people in his line of work. "Even when I'm making money, I'm still stressed because I have no plan for the future."

So far this year, Dreher has earned $70,000. But he hasn't worked much since August, straining cash flow and forcing the couple into debt.

The Drehers pay $6,600 a year for their 5-year-old son to attend a private Christian school, and they hope to send his 3-year-old brother there when he is old enough. The couple also aim to donate as much as 10% of their income to their church. In the last 12 months they've contributed $6,100.

The Drehers turned to a professional planner to help them figure out how a family with sporadic income from freelance projects can smooth out its financial life.

Brentwood planner Dirk Huybrechts told them that freelancers have to budget more carefully than people who have regular incomes. They must anticipate the slow spells and plan for them.

"They need a dry-period strategy so they don't get into debt when he isn't working," Huybrechts said.

The Drehers owe $12,000 on their credit cards. They have a $341,000 first mortgage and an $83,000 second. They owe $10,500 on their car. The couple have no emergency savings and Dale Dreher has just $2,000 in an Individual Retirement Account.

They also fell prey to a common error that can shake up any freelancer's budget: They had too little income tax withheld last year and wound up with a $4,300 IRS bill.

The Drehers bought their home in the Vermont Vista neighborhood of South Los Angeles four years ago with no money down. But the value has dropped by roughly $75,000 and they now owe more on it than it's worth.

With help from their attorney, the Drehers reduced their monthly payments on the first mortgage to $1,700 from $2,200. They're still paying $700 on the second mortgage.

Looking for more nickels and dimes, Dreher combed through his cable, phone and insurance bills and found about $1,650 in annual savings. The couple took their 3-year-old out of preschool, saving an additional $4,200 a year. And, if Ronnie has her way, Dale will quit smoking, shaving about $1,500 from their annual budget.

"There's not a lot of fluff in there," Huybrechts said.

But, while Huybrechts gives the Drehers kudos for fine-tuning their budget, the planner said that in the end it was about managing the bottom line. And to do that, Huybrechts said, Dale and Ronnie need to either boost their income to maintain their lifestyle or reevaluate other costs, such as how much they give to their church and whether the boys can go to private school.

The Drehers don't feel confident in the public school in their neighborhood. One option would be to move to a community with better schools, Huybrechts said, even if that means selling the house for less than they owe. (Their lender would have to agree to take less.)

To further rein in their costs, Huybrechts encouraged the Drehers to consult with their minister about the amount they pledge.

Dale needs to spend less time passively marketing himself through websites, Huybrechts said. A friendly and humorous guy, Dreher makes a good first impression. But he's uncomfortable pressing the flesh and selling himself.

"He needs to have in-person meetings with whomever he can meet with," said Susan Miller, owner of California Career Services in Los Angeles.

When he's not on a job, Miller said, Dreher should be spending at least half a day, every day, sending e-mail blasts and mailers and making follow-up phone calls to set up meetings with producers.

As for a long-term plan, Miller suggests Dreher develop skills that could provide earning potential in other fields. One possibility is property management, which requires organizational know-how similar to his current career.

Dreher also has an idea for another business: location scouting in the South Bay.

"This is the life raft I want to get on to float into my future," he said.

Miller said that when Dreher was not marketing himself he could research his concept and develop a business plan, tapping nonprofit resources such as the Valley Economic Development Center.

As for Ronnie, she has to realize that Dale can't support the family on just his income, Huybrechts said.

"She needs to contribute more," he said.

Ronnie trains dogs part time and could boost her income by working more. Huybrechts also suggested she follow up on her desire to pass a high school equivalency exam and study to become a nurse.

The couple could then put some money aside for an emergency fund and for retirement.

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