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Performer with a volatile income yearns to own a house

Singer and actress Gwen Stewart wants to become a homeowner, but her employment is unpredictable and she's uncertain how long she can last in her chosen career.

May 08, 2011|By Kelly Barron
  • Gwen Stewart, best known as the soloist in the Rent song Seasons of Love, has rented a Van Nuys apartment for the last 11 years.
Gwen Stewart, best known as the soloist in the Rent song Seasons of Love,… (Katie Falkenberg, For The…)

As an original cast member of the Broadway musical "Rent" and performer in numerous other shows, Gwen Stewart has traveled the world singing and acting. In some years, she was on the road so much that she barely inhabited her Van Nuys apartment.

"Out of the 11 years I've lived here, I've probably spent five in the apartment," said Stewart, 48, sitting on her couch across from moving boxes that have long lined a wall.

But Stewart — who is best known as the soloist in the "Rent" song "Seasons of Love" — has decided she has reached the season of her life to put down roots and buy a house.

"I feel like a nomad," she said. "I don't feel like I have a place to call home."

She said she yearned to have a house where she could have "summer barbecues in the backyard and green grass."

But can she afford it, or should she continue to, well, rent?

Stewart's income, like that of many performers, has been volatile. In addition to her stage work that has

included four Broadway shows, she has had parts in

a few movies and in some television shows, such as "Law & Order" and "24."

In a good year, Stewart made as much as $83,000, but in lean years it fell to about $5,000.

She said she wanted to sing and act until "they have to carry me off the stage." But given that she's in a business that is often youth-oriented, she wondered how long she could count on her current career for income. That has further clouded her decision to commit to a home.

Last year, Stewart made about $40,000. She has nearly $117,000 in cash accounts, $31,400 in a retirement account and about $1,900 in stocks. She has no debt.

"You've managed the swings in your income really well," certified financial planner Lara Lamb told Stewart during a two-hour meeting. "One of the great things you have going for you is that you have no debt."

But before Lamb, whose office is in Encino, was ready to talk about buying a house, she had a more immediate concern: health insurance.

Because Stewart's employment has been unpredictable, she sometimes hasn't worked enough to qualify for her union's health insurance plan. One year, she worked just a week less than needed to be covered.

"That's too risky," Lamb told Stewart. "If you don't have insurance and land in the hospital for a week, all your savings could be wiped out."

A top cause of bankruptcy is medical costs, Lamb told her. And because of a preexisting condition (Stewart will eventually need knee replacement surgery), it could be difficult for her to get healthcare on her own.

Lamb suggested that Stewart consider getting a steady job, with benefits, that allows her to use some of her talents. Doing so probably would cut back on her chances to perform in shows, but it would greatly add financial security.

"Her need for healthcare insurance is driving the need for a career change," Lamb said. "It's time for a transition."

Stewart had been pondering starting her own business as a vocal coach. If she had a business and hired one employee she could obtain healthcare through a group plan that Lamb estimated would cost her about $380 a month.

Then, on to the house.

The news on that front was not good. Lamb said that although Stewart has money to make a down payment on a house — thanks to an inheritance received after her mother died — she doesn't have the steady income to support a mortgage.

Lamb estimated that Stewart would need to make at least $86,000 annually to afford a mortgage, property taxes, insurance and maintenance on a $250,000 home.

"Oh, geez," Stewart said, sorely disappointed.

Renting a house, Lamb said, would be better. The monthly rent might be higher than what Stewart is paying for her apartment, but the increase would be partly offset by getting her furniture out of storage. Currently, she pays about $420 a month for storage space.

Alternatively, Stewart could find an apartment she likes much more than her present one.

"It sounds as though she's using her apartment as a motel room between jobs," Lamb said. "She's struggling to keep her expenses low, but she's not having the quality of life she wants in terms of living arrangements."

Other expenses will probably come up soon. Stewart's 15-year-old Mazda 626 is on its way out. Before driving to the appointment with Lamb, Stewart had to turn the key seven times before the engine started.

Lamb advised her to make buying a car a financial priority. She recommended that Stewart pick an inexpensive used one.

As for Stewart's retirement, there was unexpected good news. She had mistakenly thought her 401(k) retirement account was her union pension. When Lamb informed her it wasn't, she checked with the Actors' Equity Assn. and learned that at age 65, she'll receive a $1,900 monthly pension. Additionally, she'll get $1,850 a month in Social Security payments.

That would give her an annual income of $45,000 in retirement, not to mention her savings. Factoring in inflation and assuming her budget stays roughly the same, Lamb said she could live comfortably.

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