Interview with a Savings Expert: Stefanie O'Connell

As a professional actress living in New York City, Stefanie O’Connell has had to learn to effectively budget her money. Her blog, The Broke and Beautiful Life, details her journey towards financial security. Check out our interview with this savings expert for tips on saving money while still leading a fun, fulfilling life!

Your blog, The Broke and Beautiful Life, offers readers advice on how to live a great life while living on a budget. What gave you the inspiration to start the site?

I’m a professional theatre actress, which true to the stereotype, means constant un- and under-employment. The only way to continue “living the dream” in the long term without hating life at a soul-sucking survival job is to be hyper aware and responsible with your finances.  

The one huge perk about acting for a living is the free travel. I’ve been everywhere from China to Chile for work, completely free of charge. Capitalizing on those opportunities through work is what got me realizing how full life can be, even when income is limited. It’s all about doing the research and looking for the next adventure using your current circumstances as a guide.

How has your career as an actress impacted the way you view your finances?

The less money I spend on day to day expenses, the more time I have to audition and improve my craft, rather than waiting tables or babysitting just to get by. That’s a huge motivator.  

If anything, I have to credit my pitiful salaries and long periods of unemployment for making me hyper aware of my finances. The fact is, I can’t afford NOT to be financially savvy.

New York can be a super expensive place to live. What are a few ways you keep your everyday expenses low while living in the city?

People always say that, but it’s surprisingly not as expensive as you might think. I actually wrote this post about it. The only thing that’s really expensive in NYC is rent. But, if you’re smart about it, and you’re willing to live with roommates, you can easily get a place for well under $1k per month. I’ve been living in New York for ten years now, so I know where to go to get things good and cheap.  :)

You’ve come up with some great ideas for activities to do that won’t cut into your budget. What would you recommend for a day of fun that won’t break the bank that readers can do where they live?

I personally love the outdoors and being active, so regardless of where I am, if I can go for a run or a walk or a bike ride, and discover a new place or park or part of town, I’m happy. Like I said, I’ve been in NYC for ten years, and I’m still stumbling upon new gems - community gardens, new cultural neighborhoods, art installations - there’s just SO much to discover.

My other favorite thing to do is check the community calendar. If you’re in a small town, check the library or town hall website, and be sure to follow the social media channels. The amount of free and affordable programming never ceases to amaze me: concerts, readings, fitness classes, professional seminars. I saw Mariah Carey in concert last year in Central Park for free; I got $30 tickets to see “Book of Mormon” on Broadway through a Twitter promotion; I just went kayaking on the Hudson River for free a couple of weeks ago - keep your eyes and ears open, the deals are out there!  

You’ve shared your financial advice on many different sites including US News, Yahoo Finance, and See Debt Run. Since you’ve written about traveling on a budget, what are some surefire ways to save on airfare or hotel costs?

I recently discovered travel hacking, which pretty much changed my life when it comes to purchasing airfare (you can read my post about how I traveled to Europe for $25).

As for other costs, I’m a huge fan of sites like Couchsurfing.org and Airbnb to save on accommodations. I also use deal sites like Groupon to search for discounted local attractions and activities.  

The key to saving, be it travel, eating out, shopping, or otherwise, is to “know before you go.” The more research you do, the more you’ll be able to make informed spending decisions. For instance, if you research the public transit system of your destination, you can save a ton of money taking the train or bus rather than splurging on a cab. It seems so simple, but it never ceases to amaze me how many people default to paying $40 for a trip from the airport rather than taking the train for $2.50 or even a shared shuttle for $15. Get informed, know your options, and you’ll find opportunities for savings are everywhere.

You have over 2,000 followers on Twitter. Do you ever get helpful money-saving ideas from your readers? If so, can you share one of your favorites?

Everything I know about money and savings strategies came from somebody somewhere, my readers and followers included - it’s a process that never stops. While at this point, most savings tips and tricks are familiar to me, I always find the stories of my readers and fellow bloggers inspiring, motivating me to stay on track. I actually wrote about the value of this kind of repetition of core financial principles in a post for See Debt Run.

We loved your post, “Couponing Like a New Yorker.” What are your favorite strategies for couponing that readers may not have tried before?

If you’re not maximizing the resources and capabilities of your smartphone yet, get on it. Apps like RetailMeNot and Price Grabber make couponing and comparison shopping so simple. You don’t have to spend hours searching through circulars; it’s all available in the palm of your hand.

Learning how to live on a budget can sometimes be a little bit of a trial and error process. What one piece of advice would you give yourself back when you were starting to become financially independent?

This advice may be cliche, but it is the single most important step you can take in the right direction when trying to take control of your finances…“Track your spending”. Every penny of it.  You can use a program like Mint.com or an app or just paper and pencil, but the sooner you see where your money is going, the sooner you can hold yourself accountable to your budget and make adjustments where necessary.

The Extra Income section of your site gives readers some suggestions for adding to their income. What factors should someone consider when determining the best way to make extra money?

As much as I love making extra money, I think it’s crucial to be mindful of whether or not that extra work is really worth it. Don’t discredit the value of your time. For example, I won’t take a babysitting gig unless I’m guaranteed a minimum of 4 hours. It takes me an hour to commute each way and costs $5, so I need to hit a certain threshold of earnings before that investment becomes worthwhile.

We really appreciate you taking the time to answer our questions! Any last words of advice for our CouponPal readers?

Have fun! Money is not something to be afraid of or intimidated by. It’s a tool that will afford you the freedom to do everything you want, so start using it effectively!

Like this interview? Check out the rest of our Interview with a Savings Expert series. Have a question for an expert or someone you want to see interviewed? Tweet your suggestions with #SavingsExperts to @CouponPal!

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