PrimeTime: How Much Money Should I Save to Move to L.A.?

You'll probably be moving out here without a job, so you'll want a nest egg to help you survive. Here are some major expenses you can expect to encounter for various L.A. lifestyles.
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As many of you know, I'm a huge proponent of the idea that if you want to be a television writer, you must MUST MUST live in Los Angeles. (If you haven't heard me pounding this home, click HERE and HERE.) So this week's email comes from Kevin, who asks an interesting and important question…

My question is: How much would one have to save up in order to safely make the jump when you factor in the necessity for rent, travel, car insurance (seeing as L.A. is the lawsuit capital of the world, with some of the worst drivers) … and then there’s that whole eating thing we all have to do; because, it will take at least some time to find a job once out there.

Well, Kevin, I'm not an accountant or financial adviser ... and I'm terrible at math and numbers -- so take anything in this column with a grain of salt-- but I do do a lot of work with interns and college students, so I get a pretty decent idea of what young people and newcomers spend when they first arrive in L.A. (FYI, this info is not from any official study … but I think it's still pretty close.) Here are some of the major expenses you can expect to encounter …

Moving to L.A.

How much you spend on your move to L.A. depends on many factors. How far are you traveling? Are you staying in hotels or with friends? Hiring movers are doing it all yourself? Buying supplies and eating in the car, or stopping at restaurants along the way?

I think $1000-$1500 seems like a good ballpark to move cross-country to L.A. One student I recently worked with estimated she spent about $1400 for an 1800-mile drive over three or four days. This includes $730 on food, gas, and hotels, and an additional $630 on car maintenance: oil changes, brakes, tire rotation, etc. Another student traveled 2100 miles and spent $1200.

Rent

Rents in L.A. can vary wildly depending on the size of an apartment and location. Here's a general range for average apartment rents:

  • 1 bedroom - $800 - $1995
  • 2 bedroom - $1250 - $2000
  • 3 bedroom - $2000 - $3100

Location is probably the biggest factor in determining rent costs. Centrally located, busy areas like West L.A. or West Hollywood are most expensive, but you can find much cheaper places if you go further into the Valley.

You'll obviously also need to pay utilities, and I'd plan on spending about $35-$45/month on gas, and about $75/month on electricity.

Many people also cut down on rent (and utilities) by having roommates; have two or three roommates, and you may reduce your monthly rent to around $800.00. (FYI, the best L.A. apartment-hunting resources are Craigslist, which is free, and WestsideRentals.com, which is a subscription service.)

Food & Supplies

Most newcomers and students seem to spend about $180-$200 per person per month on groceries and about $135 per month on toilet paper, soap, shampoo, laundry, etc.

Also, while eating out can get to be expensive quickly, it tends to be something people to do a lot. Maybe it's because there's such a huge social aspect to networking in the entertainment industry … maybe it's because everything is so spread out, and homes are far from work … maybe it's because there are so many restaurants (although frankly, I think Chicago is a better restaurant town).

Most students seem to average about $170-$210/month on eating at restaurants (not counting bars, clubs, etc.), but you can easily spend much more that; I had lunch today with a talent manager who says he spends about $500/month on lunches alone.

Your Car

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Sadly, having a car is a necessity in Los Angeles. Not only is our public transportation system not-so-great, but the entertainment industry is spread out all over the city. Some offices are in Studio City, others are in Hollywood, others are in Manhattan Beach.

You'll not only need a car to get to meetings and interviews, but many entry-level jobs (like runners and P.A.'s) require you to go on errands — buying supplies, delivering packages, etc. — and a prerequisite of getting the job is being able to drive yourself around. (Some jobs will reimburse you for mileage, but not all.)

Also, writers, directors, actors, etc. are freelance … so they're never working in the same place. Even writers who are on the same job for a while eventually switch shows, so one month you may be working in Burbank, the next in Culver City … and you won't be able to rely on public transportation to get you to and from all these places.

Your monthly car and insurance payments depend on what you drive, but for the sake of this blog, let's average most car payments between $300-$450 (assuming you buy, not lease), and we'll put car insurance at $80-$100/month.

Gas can be a killer in L.A., especially because cheaper rents are found further away from main locations, which means you have to drive more to get to work. I live fairly centrally … and close to my current job … so I spend about $100/month. But I've talked to people who spend over $300/month on gas.

You'll also pay a lot of parking. A) You'll need to valet your car a lot, B) You'll pay a lot of meters, and C) Because — trust me — when you first get here, you'll get a few parking tickets (L.A. parking signs can be notoriously hard to decipher). One student I talked to averaged $100/month in parking tickets over her first three months!

Parking tickets aside, I'd estimate about $60/month for parking (although some jobs may also require you to pay a monthly parking fee).

Going Out, Having Fun

The costs of funding an L.A. social life can vary wildly, but entertainment is a highly social industry … and legitimate business is done over dinner, drinks, or rounds of golf. As you know from reading this blog, I'm a big proponent of taking colleagues and contacts to lunch, drinks, or coffee; casual business lunches are a great way to nurture relationships that could eventually pay off in a job, a sale, a collaboration, or project. (Also, as a freelancer working in entertainment, you can occasionally itemize and deduct some of these expenses at tax time: certain business meals, movie tickets, books you might use for research and development, etc. Talk to your accountant, but if you're spending money on career-related expenses, you can possibly write them off.)

One student recently averaged about $300/month on "fun money"; another estimated $600. These seem to me like smart estimates … although I'm sure many people spend much more.

So, to sum this all up, here's a breakdown of the major expenses you can expect to encounter.

ONE-TIME MOVING EXPENSES

  • Moving to L.A.: $1000 - $1500 (from within the continental U.S.)

MONTHLY LIVING EXPENSES

  • Rent(for 1 person): $800 - $2000
  • Gas utility: $35 - $45
  • Electricity: $75
  • Groceries: $200
  • Supplies: $135
  • Restaurants: $200 - $500
  • Car payment: $300 - $450
  • Car insurance: $80 - $100
  • Gas: $100 - $300
  • Parking: $60
  • Social money: $300 - $600

TOTAL: $2285 - $4465/month

This is clearly a broad range, but it should give you a sense of the costs you'll find for various lifestyles. There are also probably some invisible expenses I'm not covering: You may need to provide first and last month's rent, or buy health insurance, or new clothes, or hook-up the home phone and Internet, or support a family, etc. But I'll leave these details up to you.

As you said, Kevin — you'll probably be moving out here without a job, so you'll want a little nest egg to help you survive awhile. I'd be conservative and come out with at least three to four months' survival money, maybe more.

Many people also get part-time jobs to help stay afloat. One of the interns in my current office graduated from college in May; she works full-time in production (for free, since it's an internship), then goes to her part-time job at the mall after work. It's a long day, but it's what people do to as they're trying to break in.

Anyway — I hope this is helpful, Kevin. Again, remember: I am NOT a financial adviser, I'm terrible with math and numbers, and this is a very cursory report ... so do your own homework and take all this with a grain of salt.

Having said that, I hope to see you out here soon!

And until then, if you or anyone else has other questions, please feel free to post them in the comment section below, email me at chad@chadgervich.com, Tweet me @chadgervich, or find me at Facebook.com/chadgervich.

And to close out ...