Reader Case Study: Inside A Financial Circus (No, Really, The Finances Of An Actual Circus!)
IT’S A DOG CIRCUS! I could not possibly be more excited about this month’s Case Study if I tried. We are headed under the big top to chat with Jana and Dextre, a married couple who run their very own circus along with their adorable rescue dogs!!!! Jana is a longtime Frugalwoods reader and she very sweetly mailed me a Christmas card last year featuring a photo of her family circus and I was in love! When she approached me to serve as a Case Study I about rolled off my exercise ball (which is what I sit on to read email, in case you were wondering) with excitement. The opportunity to help a circus out with their finances is just about the coolest thing ever, I hope you’ll agree. And this is not just any circus–it’s a rescue dog circus!!!
Case Studies are financial and life dilemmas that a reader of Frugalwoods sends to me requesting that Frugalwoods nation weigh in. Then, Frugalwoods nation (that’s you!), reads through their situation and provides advice, encouragement, insight, and feedback in the comments section. For an example, check out last month’s case study.
I provide updates from our Case Study subjects at the bottom of each Case Study several months after a Case is featured. You all have requested an easier way to track Case Study updates and I have heard your pleas :)! Here’s list of all the Case Studies that currently have an update provided at the end of the post (and a hint that if you’re a past Case Study participant who hasn’t sent me your update yet, send it on over–your fans want to hear from you!):
- Reader Case Study: Earn More, Spend Less, Or Both? (Julie’s story, published October 2016)
- Reader Case Study: Stay Home With Baby or Return To Work? (Kelly’s story, published November 2016)
- Reader Case Study: The Case Of The Over-gifting In-Laws! (Grace’s story, published December 2016)
- Reader Case Study: Renovations and Vacations (Audrey’s story, published January 2017)
- Reader Case Study: Help Me Decide How To Pay Off $185K In Student Loans (Bridget’s story, published February 2017)
- Reader Case Study: The Grad School Dilemma (Emily’s story, published March 2017)
- Reader Case Study: Can We Buy Our Dream Home? (Jack & Elizabeth’s story, published April 2017)
- Reader Case Study: We Have A Van, Now We Need A Plan! (Florence & Anna’s story, published May 2017)
- Reader Case Study: To Buy Or Not To Buy In Sydney, Australia? (Jemma & Greg’s story, published June 2017)
- Reader Case Study: Starting From Scratch In Canada; Where Do I Go From Here? (Alison’s story, published July 2017)
- Reader Case Study: Should We Stay (In San Francisco) Or Should We Go Now? (Melanie & Kurt’s story, published September 2017)
- Reader Case Study: Having A Quarter-Life Crisis in Nashville, TN! (Steph & Zach’s story, published October 2017)
- Reader Case Study: At Age 57, It’s Not Over Yet! (Lucy’s story, published January 2018)
I probably don’t need to say the following because you all are the kindest, most polite commenters on the internet, but, please note that Frugalwoods is a judgement-free zone where we endeavor to help one another, not to condemn.
With that I’ll let Jana, this month’s Case Study subject, take it from here!
Hi frugal friends! I’m Jana (age 36) and I’m excited to participate in Mrs. Frugalwoods’ Case Study series. My husband Dextre (age 52) and I have a small family circus called Circus Stella. By “small,” I mean it’s just the two of us along with our five rescued dogs: Stella, Louise, Adrian, Mabel, and Clarice. We definitely need your advice!
We live in a giant tiny house (884 square feet) just outside of Charlotte’s suburbia in North Carolina where subdivisions give way to farms. Purchased in 2007, right at the peak of the market, it is just now valued at what I paid for it! We live here for six months of the year because the other six months are spent on the road at county fairs, campgrounds, and renaissance events as we tour the circus show in our 5th wheel trailer.
I’m sure by now you’re wondering: How did you guys get into circus? This is our most frequently asked question and I’m glad to tell you that the answer is: juggling! Juggling is the gateway to circus. Want to join a circus? Learn to juggle. Don’t want your kid to run away with the circus? By all means, ban juggling. In addition to juggling, Dextre performs rope-walking and balancing and I perform acrobatics on trapeze and aerial silk.
Dextre and I started dating when I was still in college and he was already an established touring act. Seven years later, in 2008, we got married. Our methods for handling money were at two different extremes, so we maintained separate finances into our marriage. Even now, although we’re more on the same page and have been married for ten years, the majority of our finances are still separate. We do have joint checking and joint savings accounts for mutual bills, expenses, and goals, but the rest of our money is divided into his and hers and we’re both happy with that arrangement. There aren’t any secrets, we can see each other’s accounts, and we prefer it this way.
Our income varies wildly month to month. Generally, we make no money from January to March. Most of our income comes from April to October, with some additional income over the holidays. We have a few side hustles beyond the circus that we’d like to develop further. Dextre is working on becoming a certified dog trainer to pick up additional work and I became certified as a personal trainer three years ago and make a little extra money working at a local gym in our off-season. I help with the gym’s social media accounts year round, but I haven’t been paid for that. Each winter I open an online store to sell my knitting, matching scarves and dog sweaters, but our main source of income is our circus show.
It may seem like we have a lot of extra time in the winter, and while that’s a little bit true, it’s not enough time to pursue traditional jobs as the circus requires A TON of labor in the off-season. Dextre spends long hours working on the maintenance and creation of props while I handle promotions, media, and contracting. We both have to practice and keep the dogs exercised and happy.
The circus itself is very expensive to maintain. I feel like we make a solid income, but the majority of that income is spent in service of keeping the show on the road. In calculating our finances for this Case Study, I was blown away by just how much we spend in order to work. I mean, I knew it was a lot, because we can deduct most of these expenses on our taxes, but I’d never really focused on it before, and I’m boggled by how much we spend in order to work.
The Vehicle Situation
We recently purchased a brand new Nissan NV 3500 hightop cargo van. I know, brand new was not very frugal of us, but research indicated it was our best option. This is the only van in its class with the tow capacity we needed, and used models were all commercial fleet vehicles, which we studiously learned to avoid. This vehicle is our first step towards downsizing the circus. Our current set-up involves a one ton diesel truck and a huge 5th wheel toy hauler trailer plus a smaller truck and a cargo trailer. Eventually, we won’t need any of that, as this van will tow a smaller house trailer and has enough cargo capacity that we won’t need the second trailer.
The other enormous benefit of this van is that it will allow us to bring more dogs into the family. We travel with our dogs safely crated in crash-tested Ruff Tough Kennels, and only five of these kennels can fit in our truck. So we were maxed out, but now, we easily have more space to safely transport more rescued dogs! We hope to hold onto this van for 10+ years and eventually have more dogs.
Here are the vehicles we own to make our circus travels possible:
- Diesel Chevy: hauls our big trailer.
- New Nissan Van: this will tow the cargo trailer, but it won’t tow the big trailer. We can spend the night in this van while on the road.
- Big trailer: we live in this while on the road and want to replace it with a smaller trailer that our new Nissan van can tow.
- Cargo trailer: small trailer with no living quarters. This only hauls circus materials (we never take both trailers, it’s one or the other depending on the distance).
The Chevy is a big one ton diesel dual rear wheel monster of a truck capable of hauling any trailer on the market. It does, indeed, tow our current trailer; an antique 2007 5th wheel toy hauler, which is a HUGE trailer. You may think I’m joking about antique, but really, trailers age so fast when you’re living in them full time (and by full time I really only mean part time, but even dragging it around for 6 months of the year is more than what the manufacturer had in mind for these units).
This trailer has been the best we’ve ever had in terms of holding up under harsh conditions, but it will need to be traded in and replaced with something newer soon. Until we trade this trailer in, we cannot sell the truck. When we trade in this trailer, we can sell the truck, but then we will need a second vehicle for when we’re not on the road. We can share one car just fine while on tour, but when we’re home I go to the gym nearly every day and I don’t want to feel like I’m trapping Dextre to my gym schedule.
The new Nissan Cargo Van is capable of hauling a trailer but not the trailer we currently have. We knew our next vehicle would be a cargo van, and we bought it when we did because the old second vehicle (a gas engine chevy truck) had 260,000+ miles on it and the check engine light came on. I realized it could be worthless at any moment, so we fixed it and then traded it in while it still had some value. I think that was a good move because it definitely helped us in negotiating for the new van. The new van will pull the next trailer, which we’ve already picked out, we’re just not sure if it would be wise to make that move right now (we could) or to pay off the van first, then trade out trailers. It’s a risk, because our trailer could literally fall apart at any moment and be worth nothing as a trade. Or it could hold up another 5 years, who knows? My best estimate is that we should be able to get $8,000-$10,000 out of it as a trade in if we do it soon. Trading in the trailer will set off a chain reaction that’ll cause us to sell the Chevy truck and buy a less expensive, smaller vehicle with better miles per gallon to use at home.
You’ll see that hotels are listed on our expense report because last year, we didn’t own the van and I used 2016 and 2017 data to compile my budget for this Case Study. Without the van, we often needed hotels. Campgrounds cost just as much (and sometimes more) for a trailer of our size and are hard to get into and out of, plus we don’t really have the time to set up the trailer for one night when we’re trying to get from point A to point B quickly, so we stayed in hotels with semi truck parking (which is what we needed when hauling the big rig to an event). When hauling the little rig (the cargo trailer with the old gas truck) we needed hotels because the cargo trailer is an uninsulated box on wheels full of circus equipment and not conducive to sleeping in overnight. Now, when we have closer gigs that we don’t haul the big trailer to, we take the little trailer with the van and sleep overnight in the van. YAY! All in all, the cargo van should reduce our on-the-road expenses.
We haven’t paid for a single hotel room yet this tour season! Was that confusing? I hope not. The logistics of moving 2 people, 5 dogs, and an entire circus is kind of ridiculous. We really are trying to simplify.
Our hobbies include spending time walking with each other and the dogs. We’re both avid readers and go through lots of Kindle books. I admit I’m a gym rat and attend five workouts/week during our off-season and try for three/week while we’re touring. I generally start a garden every year and then abandon it to its fate each summer.
Dextre likes to go to the local juggling clubs and ride his motorcycle. I like to write. We find plenty to do, but should probably shift our focus toward the hobbies we enjoy that happen to be free.
Where Jana and Dextre Want To Be in Ten Years:
Lifestyle and Career:
- We still see ourselves performing Circus Stella in ten years, as we both love what we do, but it would be ideal to be in a position where we could afford to turn down events we don’t enjoy. Dextre will be 62 in ten years, and I’ll be 46. I dream of the day I won’t need to wear a leotard to work, so in ten years, I hope that day will have arrived because…
- The plan is to eventually retire our own (human) acts and become exclusively a dog show (a route not uncommon for aging acrobat dog lovers!). This would be great, because then we can rescue MORE DOGS! You really need more than five dogs to carry a 30 minute dog show, and some of our friends have 15-20 dogs in their shows. We plan on maxing out at 8-10 dogs and adopting every 3-4 years so that their ages will vary. We adopt mixes of high energy working breeds who desperately want to have a job and thrive in our weird lifestyle. We have the dog’s best interests at heart at all times.
- We also want to move! Much like the Frugalwoods, we’d like to have our own woods. We love hiking with the dogs, and our goal is to have acreage of our own to create trails and enjoy. Also like the Frugalwoods, we’d love to be in New England. It’s too hot for us in North Carolina and Dextre misses the Minnesota winters. If not New England, then we’d at least like to be in the mountains of North Carolina at a higher elevation.
- Ideally we’d hold onto our house in North Carolina as a rental, although with only two beds and one bath, its rent will be modest.
- We’d love to buy our next property in cash. We won’t qualify for a mortgage because despite perfect credit scores, our taxable income is quite low. We spend so much of our income on the circus, it’s all deductible, and we’ve been deducting it. I considered buying a second house in North Carolina to use as a rental in the fall of 2016 and couldn’t qualify for a mortgage, even with a 30% down payment.
- Our goal is to ramp up our savings and increase our earnings. I’d like for Dextre to be able to retire at 65, and I’d like to semi-retire with him (I’ll be 49). This is wildly ambitious considering our current savings, but we have 13 years to work towards this goal, so I’m hopeful.
- Dextre has finished paying off some old debts and we’re on the same page about saving for these goals. Our cost of living should dramatically decrease when we’re no longer working since so much of what we spend directly supports the circus. Speaking of that, we’d like to “frugalize” the circus as much as possible without sacrificing the show’s quality so that we can save a higher percentage of our income.
Jana and Dextre’s Finances
Side note: Neither of us has ever used a spreadsheet, so after I compiled all the necessary information, my father was kind enough to teach me how to enter it all. Here is a photo of my record keeping through the years, and this isn’t even all of my notebooks!
|Circus Stella LLC||$93,275||After-tax income|
|Personal Training||$1,500||After-tax income|
|Credit Card Churning||$1,500||After-tax income|
|Side Hustles||$600||After-tax income|
|Circus Stella Supplies and household items||$649||This category blew my mind! Just a sampling of what’s in this category: ring curb, paint, microphones, cloths, props, cables, wire, aerial fabric, hoses, lumber, clamps, ribbon, straps, winches, poles, lions and tigers and bears, oh my!|
|Nissan Cargo Van payment||$575||That’s the minimum. We plan to pay it down aggressively. It’s at a 2.36% interest rate.|
|Home Improvement||$541||Average from the last 3 years, which is so frustrating! 2015: new roof, 2016: moisture issues in crawl space requiring replacement of a large section of subfloor and the addition of gutters, 2017: Surprise! You need to drill a brand new well. Ugh.|
|Mortgage||$540||The interest rate is 5.75% and the actual minimum payment is $363, but we choose to pay more every month.|
|Diesel Fuel||$353||Truck gets 16 mpg hwy and about 10 mpg towing. When we move the circus, we weigh close to 30,000lbs. Yikes.|
|Dog Vet Bills and Medications||$330||Includes annual check-ups and vaccinations plus dental cleanings, heart worm preventative, and flea and tick control.|
|Food: Dextre||$304||Might be a little higher, Dextre doesn’t track this as accurately as I do, so this is an estimate. Includes groceries and eating out.|
|Savings: Jana||$300||My longterm savings account has a 1.5% interest rate|
|Hotels and Campgrounds while on tour (see notes above under “The Vehicle Situation” for a detailed explanation)||$298||Not all of our gigs provide the hookups we need to make the trailer livable. Some do, which is great, but for those that don’t, we’ll set up in a nearby campground for the duration of the gig. I currently type to you from Lake Anna State Park campground which we are in while working at the Virginia Renaissance Faire. I just got bit on the butt by some bug on our morning hike, so hopefully that’s not fatal. Time will tell.|
|Food: Jana||$293||Includes all groceries, supplements, protein powders, and eating out.|
|Cell Phones/Internet||$242||Verizon, the only provider that offers unlimited data and has service at all of our old locations. Now that we don’t work in several of those spotty locations, we may be able to find another provider. Please recommend!|
|Dog Food||$220||We have been feeding Blue Buffalo Wilderness using 12-18% off gift cards purchased from online resellers, but too many recalls have lead us to switch to Taste of the Wild.|
|Roth IRA contribution: Jana||$200||Goes into money market and sits there because I’m afraid to invest it.|
|Circus Stella Payments to Crew||$188||Payments to people who help us set up and tear down the circus, also sometimes we hire additional talent when we have shows going on in two places at the same time. We’ve decided not to split the show anymore, so this expense should go down.|
|Auto Insurance||$178||Paid in a lump sum annually for the discount. Our vehicles have to be insured commercially. This also covers the trailer.|
|Office Supplies/Circus Stella Promotion Materials||$143||Includes the phone Dextre bought last year that represents $54 of the monthly total though it was paid all at once. Also includes all of our shipping supplies and actual shipping. We send about 60 press kits out each year to potential events.|
|Medical Insurance: Jana||$142||Through the ACA with a subsidy. Terrified of what will happen if the ACA/subsidies are repealed.|
|Electric Bill||$139||This was high because we didn’t realize the well pump was running ALL THE TIME for months. Apparently we should have drilled a new well much sooner. (We chose to drill a new well rather than fix the old one because the old well wasn’t on our property and would make resale of the house difficult.)|
|Truck repair/maintenance||$108||Everything costs more on the big diesel trucks.|
|Roth IRA Contribution: Dextre||$83||Usually $1,000 annually, would like to increase this.|
|Gasoline||$74||For the old gas truck. Might go up with the new Nissan.|
|CrossFit Jana||$56||How I workout when we’re on the road. At home I work at a gym so I train there for free, but on the road I pay to attend class with other people. Sacred Cow. I LOVE exercising with a group and HATE exercising alone. Someone ask me how much I can bench!|
|Gifts||$51||Average of Christmas/birthday/wedding spending from the last 3 years.|
|Public Liability Insurance||$48||Required for the Circus|
|Entertainment: Dextre||$47||Kindle books, Audible, movie tickets|
|Medical||$46||Prescriptions, chiropractors, massage therapy and over the counter drugs|
|Entertainment (DVDs from Amazon)||$37||WOW, didn’t realize this. We don’t have cable/netflix/hulu or anything so what we watch is whatever I buy from Amazon. Now that we have unlimited internet, I should cut this.|
|Research||$36||Tickets to other circuses. We sat front row for Ringling’s last tour for both blue and red units. Met the first and only woman ringmaster.|
|XM Radio||$30||We’re on the road a lot. Loosing stations every 30 minutes sucks.|
|Term Life Insurance||$27||Dextre’s policy for Jana, expires soon and will be expensive to get a new one.|
|Laundromats while on tour||$27||No washer or dryer when we’re touring.|
|Tolls||$27||Unavoidable, we need access to truck stops, the trailer is huge and hard to turn around.|
|Term Life Insurance||$20||Jana’s policy for Dextre, good for another 25 years!|
|Acorns||$20||My only “aggressive” savings account.|
|AAA||$12||Additional towing insurance as regular insurance doesn’t cover vehicles as heavy as ours.|
|Entertainment: Jana||$10||Jana’s Kindle Books|
|Medical Insurance: Dextre||$10||He is a resident of Minnesota and their ACA exchanges are better than the policy I have access to in North Carolina|
|Jana Savings||$39,347||Online bank savings account at 1.5% APY|
|Roth IRA Jana||$18,672||$6,000 in CD Ladders, $3,000 cash, $9,675 ETFs|
|Joint Savings||$9,126||Online bank savings account at 1.5% APY|
|Jana Savings||$8,063||In CD Ladders from 1.6-2.4%|
|Roth IRA Dextre||$5,062||Mostly VTI (Vanguard’s total stock market ETF)|
|Jana Investments||$4,749||Investment Account, mostly VTI (Vanguard’s total stock market ETF)|
|2007 Chevy 3500||$15,500||own|
|5th Wheel Toy Hauler||$12,500||own|
|2017 Nissan NV 3500||$11,000||Still owe $23,575 at 2.36% (Vehicle valued at $37,000)|
|2001 Toyota Tacoma||$5,000||Own outright. Dextre’s son has been driving this but doesn’t need it anymore so we will be selling it.|
|1998 Suzuki Bandit 600||$1500||Own. This is Dextre’s motorcycle.|
|Equity||$50,050||Still owe $38,950 at 5.75% (house valued at $89,000)|
Jana’s Questions For You:
- Is 13 years a reasonable timeframe for us to retire and how do we best use this time to set ourselves up for a frugal retirement? I’m wary of the stock market. Would rental properties in the affordable southern markets be a good strategy for us? Dextre has big ideas about possible business ventures like a touring big top circus tent, a training facility for both dogs and people, or moving the circus to indoor theaters. Are our goals attainable by continuing what we’re already doing, or do we have to make big changes?
- Do you have any ideas for how the circus could generate more income? We’re paid a daily rate to perform at events and make a little extra by selling souvenirs. We’d love to expand our show season by working indoors, but we don’t know how to pursue this without an agent. Other dog acts have sponsorships and we’d like to know more about that, but have been too shy to ask. We have a decent social media presence and perform for thousands of people each year. We would be thrilled to promote some of the products we espouse like Ruff Tough Kennels, Kong, Sport Dog, or Taste of the Wild. I don’t know how to approach companies with what we could offer them.
- When should we downsize our vehicles? We have a heavy 5th wheel trailer and a one ton truck (both of which are paid off). Now that we have the new cargo van, we could get by with a smaller house trailer and a car. If we sold/traded in our current vehicles, we’d likely make enough to buy either the next trailer or the car outright, but we’d need a loan for the other. Or, we could wait to make this transition until we’d saved enough to pay cash for both. I’m all for waiting, but I’m curious if it’s truly the best financial decision as our travel costs would decrease significantly with the lighter fleet (10,000 pounds lighter). Trailers are not made for full time living and moving every week, so they tend to wear out. We cannot keep our current model indefinitely–it will fall apart, that’s inevitable. So should we trade it in now while it still has value, or hold onto it and hope for the best?
- What should I be thinking about that I’m not thinking about? I’m open to all advice on this front as I feel like we need to make some changes and I want to make sure we make good decisions for our future. Thank you!
Mrs. Frugalwoods’ Recommendations
Oh wow, this is just too cool! Not only are Jana and Dextre living the life they want to live, they’re also in really good financial shape!!! Too often, these two things do not go together, but in their case, they’ve found a way to pursue a very unusual dream career path AND be financially stable. I’m not gonna lie, I was terrified that their finances might be a literal circus, but they’re not! Jana and Dextre are doing an awesome job of living within their means and being strategic about how they deploy their resources. They are dog circus rockstars!! Very few people can say they do their dream job and have retirement savings and minimal debt and own their own home. It’s a rare thing and I am so thrilled to hold Jana and Dextre up as shining examples of making it work!
Big Top Big Picture
I want to start with the big picture (as I see it) of Jana and Dextre’s situation. They have undeniably awesome day jobs and they are making it work financially. However, as Jana sagely noted, they spend a lot of money in service of keeping Circus Stella up and running. Almost ALL of their expenses are geared towards the care and maintence of the circus and their dogs. This is not a bad thing by any stretch, but it does mean that as long as they’re running the Circus, their spending will be higher. This is very similar to the decision Mr. Frugalwoods and I made to spend more money in order to live the life of our dreams–which happens to be on a homestead in Vermont. We spent less living in the city, but it wasn’t our dream life. Similarly for Jana and Dextre, they spend more in order to facilitate their passion of running Circus Stella. Jana is already fully aware of this, but I just wanted to mention it at the outset.
Retiring In 13 Years?
What I’m mostly wondering about here is Jana’s mention of their desire to retire in 13 years. I want to dig into what they mean by retire. At this point, it won’t be possible for them to fully retire with no revenue-generating jobs in 13 years. However, I think it’s likely very possible for them to retire Circus Stella and instead augment their current side hustles into more full-time income. Jana also wrote that they’re interested in scaling back the human acts of their show and advancing the dog portions of the show and, while I totally get that from an aging human body perspective, I wonder if more dogs would, in fact, mean that Circus Stella’s expenses would be higher? I don’t know exactly how to do this, but if Jana could calculate how much each additional dog will cost them (in terms of food, medication, and vet care), that might be very illuminating. I LOVE that Jana and Dextre are so mindful of only having the number of dogs that they can manage and afford. And I ADORE that these are all rescue dogs who are obviously enjoying circus life and are so deeply loved and well cared for. Given that, I am certain that Jana and Dextre won’t scale up the number of dogs without first considering the expense ramifications.
I think this is going to boil down to a question of whether Jana and Dextre want to continue touring Circus Stella or want to scale back to a non-touring, non-circus lifestyle, which would equal dramatically lower expenses. However, there also might be a way for them to have it both ways if they can focus on…
Goal #1: Increase Circus Stella’s Income
I think Jana and Dextre’s real opportunity is in the arena of increasing the revenue that Circus Stella generates. We’ll review their expenses in a minute, but there honestly isn’t much for them to cut. The growth area for Jana and Dextre is on the revenue side of things.
Goal #1 should be securing sponsorships. Jana mentioned that they’d be delighted to promote brands that they use and believe in and I wholeheartedly encourage her to do this. She said she’s been too shy to approach colleagues about their sponsorships, but she needs to. In fact, she must! And, I’m happy to tell her that it’s very likely her colleagues will be thrilled to introduce her to their sponsors because, often times, there’s a finder’s fee associated with bringing in new business. In other words, if another circus introduces Circus Stella to their sponsor, it’s highly likely they’ll get a bonus payment for doing so. Thus, it’s in the best interest of everyone! This isn’t always the case, but it often is. Approaching sponsors directly could be another avenue, but in my experience, if Jana can secure an email introduction to a sponsor from a colleague, that’ll be the best route to success. There are many formats that a sponsorship could take, from sponsored Instagram/Facebook posts to branding at the Circus itself to ads featuring Circus Stella’s adorable pups (and probably a lot of other stuff I’m not thinking of!). I’m obviously NOT an expert on dog circuses, but these types of sponsorships are common these days as advertisers are looking for native branding and marketing.
Since, as Jana noted, there’s a cap on how many events they can do a year and how much they’re paid for each event, I see sponsorship as their real growth opportunity. I cannot encourage her strongly enough to pursue this. The opening conversation with a circus colleague can be as simple as: “I noticed that you’re sponsored by Taste Of The Wild. That’s what we feed our dogs too and I love that stuff. I’d love to promote them through Circus Stella. Would you be willing to introduce me to your contact at Taste Of The Wild?” That’s all she needs to say to get the ball rolling.
Collaborating with her colleagues on how they’re securing sponsorships is vitally important and I also encourage her to discuss with colleague what else they’re doing to make their circuses more profitable. They’re all in the same boat and so they’ll be the best sources of information for each other. Jana will share her expertise and her colleagues will share theirs and it’s highly likely they’ll all come out of it earning more income and with new ideas. I know it’s awkward to talk about money, but people are usually SO excited to share what strategies have worked for them. Over the years, I’ve been in several different mastermind groups for writers/bloggers, which have helped me tremendously with my work here on Frugalwoods and in writing my book. My mastermind groups met by Skype for a hour every few weeks and we’d share stores, swap best practices, and more. This might be something Jana could strike up with her colleagues as well, which would open the door for even more ideas on how to increase Circus Stella’s income.
What I’ve found in working for myself is that I’m very grateful for the broader community of writers/bloggers that I’m part of. We have Facebook groups, we have conferences, we talk by phone… all of this collaboration is really key for people who are running a solo show. Unlike in a traditional office, we have to seek out our mentors and colleagues and it is so richly rewarding when we do. I get the sense that Jana is already very well connected in the circus circuit, so I imagine starting these conversations and relationships won’t be too difficult.
Jana also noted that they might be interested in booking more events by working indoors. Here again is an area where her network of colleagues should be able to offer her excellent advice. She should ask folks who’ve already done this if an agent is necessary and if so, how much they should expect to pay their agent and finally, for recommendations of agents to speak with. Again, I highly recommend asking for introductions to people in the business who book indoor acts as perhaps all it takes is a word-of-mouth recommendation from existing indoor acts. Networking is important here as Jana can (and should) get the inside scoop on how these bookings transpire from colleagues. Then, she and Dextre can make an informed decision about whether or not an agent is needed. And if they do need an agent, that very well may be an excellent business expense if it means they’ll be able to generate more income. No harm in spending money to make more money!
Bottom line: making Circus Stella more profitable should be a top goal for Jana and Dextre.
Circus On Wheels (aka The Vehicle Situation)
I’d never before considered the tremendous logistics of a dog circus moving around the country and I am blown away at how organized and efficient Jana and Dextre are at maneuvering their operation around. I love that they own most of their vehicles outright and I agree with Jana that simplifying sounds like a great plan at this stage now that they’ve purchased a new cargo van.
Jana is wondering if they should hang onto their current vehicle line-up or downsize now and my inclination is that they should go ahead and downsize now. As Jana wisely notes, all that vehicles do is depreciate. Unlike a fine wine, cars do NOT get better with age. The longer Jana and Dextre hold onto these vehicles, the less valuable they’ll be. Plus, the economy is in a good place right now for consumers, which means it’s a good time to sell cars. Translation: don’t try to sell your cars during a recession because people have less disposable income. Sell when the economy is good!
I suggest that Jana first price out trade-in versus private sale prices for each of the vehicles they want to get rid of. Sometimes a trade-in is a better deal, but more often, you’ll get more money if you sell a vehicle yourself through Craigslist. Jana should start tracking what similar vehicles are selling for on the used market and an easy way to do that is to set up a few saved searches on Craigslist. She should also speak with a dealer and see what sort of trade-in deals they’d be able to offer her. Ideally Jana and Dextre can translate the money from the sale of their extraneous vehicles into a new-to-them fleet. As far as I understand it, Jana and Dextre are looking to sell:
- 5th wheel trailer
This would leave them with: the new Nissan cargo van, the smaller trailer, and Dextre’s motorcycle. Then, they’d replace the vehicles they sold with a smaller house trailer and a car. Jana mentioned that they need two cars while they’re at home (not on tour), but I’m wondering if Dextre’s motorcycle could serve as their second car? If not, then I recommend they look into a small, fuel-efficient car (which is what Jana mentioned getting) such as a used Honda Fit or used Toyota Prius. I highly recommend they buy this car used and in cash if at all possible (see my posts on used cars here and here for more details). Also, if they don’t need the second car until this coming winter 2019, they could focus on saving up to purchase it until that time comes.
Bottom line: consolidate and sell the extraneous vehicles now before they lose any more value.
Retirement, The Stock Market, And Rentals! Oh My!!
I commend Jana and Dextre for thinking broadly about how to increase their income. Let’s address each idea in turn.
Idea #1: Southern Rental Properties
Jana illuminated an excellent point that all non-W2 income people know: it’s hard to qualify for a mortgage on self-employed income. It just is. Given this, I’m not sure how profitable it would be for Jana and Dextre to pursue owning more houses. Jana and Dextre don’t have enough cash to swing buying a bunch of properties outright and, I also don’t think it would be a great use of their liquid assets to tie them all up in rentals that might not see a profit for years.
Jana mentioned the possibility of renting out their current home and that might be a good idea, but I don’t know the market where she is well enough to offer advice. Rentals do NOT always generate a profit and it’s important to do your due diligence before diving in. Jana could start researching what similar homes rent for in her neighborhood and looking into landlord/tenant laws and property managers in her area. I recommend the site BiggerPockets for more information on real estate investing.
Idea #2: Circus Expansion or Dog Training Facility
I think this is largely a question of whether or not Jana and Dextre want to continue life on the road. The dog training facility idea might be great if they’re interested in no longer touring. Conversely, the circus expansion ideas could work if they do desire to continue touring. My best advice here is to speak to friends and colleagues who’ve done similar projects. I don’t know anything about the margins for these businesses, but someone does–likely someone Jana and Dextre already know! The dog training facility does strike me as something that would be a capital-heavy expenditure with loads of overhead: renting the space, insurance (!!!), and trainers to help with the dogs.
Other Revenue Generating Ideas
Jana should be getting paid to manage the social media for her gym.
Do not do this for free, Jana! Depending on how many hours per week she’s putting into this, I’d work up a proposal with her hourly rates as a freelance social media manager. Jana’s time is too valuable to be giving this away!
Invest more aggressively in the stock market.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I totally get that Jana is wary of the market because it does–by its very nature–fluctuate up and down and yes, you can 100% lose money in the market. However, the key is to remain invested for decades since historically speaking, the market has–historically, mind you–returned around 7% annually. I recommend the book The Simple Path To Wealth for an excellent overview and intro to investing.
Jana, despite her protestations, is already more savvy about investing than your average bear as she’s already invested at Vanguard. I recommend she move her money into more aggressive, and potentially higher yield, index funds. One of the only ways to steadfastly grow your wealth is to invest it. Money sitting on its own in a low-interest rate checking/savings account isn’t doing anything for you. Conversely, money invested in the market has the potential to return many times its original amount. Check out this compounding interest calculator to understand this potential.
Jana has a gigantic amount of money in cash (she said in an email to me that she knows she hoards cash like a dragon and I have to agree–also it’s hilarious to picture a dragon standing atop a pile of coins…). At any rate, Jana already knows what I’m going to say about all this cash.
Between their various savings and checking accounts, Jana and Dextre have a whopping $63,536 in cash. Whoa buddy! That’s a lot of cash. The only reason they might want to keep so much cash on hand is if they’re planning on buying a car for cash or putting a down payment on a house in the near future. Since they are likely to purchase a car soon, it makes sense to keep liquid the amount they’ll need for their car. However, beyond that, I recommend Jana invest the rest. Jana’s already on the right track with investing in VTI through Vanguard as this is a low-fee index fund. I recommend she add to this account and perhaps translate the whole thing into Vanguard’s VTSAX, which has a minimum investment of $10K, which she can easily meet.
How much cash does she need on hand? On top of the amount for their new-to-them car, Jana and Dextre should ensure they have an emergency fund held in cash. An emergency fund is typically three to six months’ worth of expenses, which you hold in an easily-accessible checking or savings account. At their current rate of spending, Jana and Dextre should target $19,431 (three months’ worth) to $38,862 (six months’ worth).
Rent out their home while on the road.
I’m not sure if Jana and Dextre have already explored this, but, since their house sits empty for half of the year, I wonder if there’s an opportunity to rent it out? Since it’s such a consistent and long period of time, I wonder if they might be able to find long-term renters. Alternately, I’d explore serving as a corporate rental. Another option could be renting it out through AirBnB. What might make the most sense is a managed AirBnB situation whereby they pay someone else to clean and manage the property while they’re on the road.
Start a dog training side hustle!
I think Jana and Dextre should leverage their tremendous expertise in dog training by working as dog trainers when they’re home during the off-season. I like that they’re diversified in the side hustles they’re pursuing, but this might be a time to lean into their strengths. Jana and Dextre have five incredibly well-behaved, well-trained rescue dogs, so this is clearly a strength of theirs.
Hiring out as personal dog trainers, or perhaps starting a dog training class in a park, strikes me as a potentially very rewarding (and financially rewarding) avenue for them, especially if they’re interested in possibly opening a dog training facility. This would allow them to dip their toes in this field to help inform whether this is something they’d enjoy doing on a full-time basis post-Circus.
They pretty much already have the marketing materials assembled since they share pictures and videos of their well-behaved pack through Circus Stella’s social media channels. Just a bit of writing to explain their credentials, and how they could help you with your hound, should be all they need. Jana is a superb writer and so I have to imagine this would play well into how she might approach clients for this business. I’m thinking of something where Jana and Dextre go to people’s homes to help them out with their dogs on a one-on-one consulting basis since this would avoid the overhead of needing to own their own facility for training. I believe they could potentially charge A LOT per hour for this type of training since they are experts with dogs and people are often desperate to learn how to communicate with, and manage, their dogs. I would price their hourly rate quite high and see what the market will bear. Especially if they’re able to travel to the extremely affluent Charlotte suburbs, I think they’d have quite the market to work with! Sidenote: I do not know what type of insurance is needed for this type of business, so that’s something they should research ahead of time.
No Frugalwoods Case Study is complete without a perusal of expenses. Although I will go through Jana and Dextre’s expenses, as I already noted, almost all of their spending is related to the operation of Circus Stella and there’s not much discretionary spending for them to cut.
In every single Case Study, I like to point out that what you choose to save or not save is a very personal decision. Cutting every last expense is NOT the right answer for everyone and I am NOT an advocate for making yourself miserable in the process of achieving financial stability. I AM an advocate for values-based, goal-oriented spending. I think it’s important to assess whether all of your expenses bring you fulfillment and a good return on your investment.
Savings Accounts Side Note
One of the easiest ways to optimize your money is to keep it in a high-interest savings account. With these accounts, interest works in YOUR favor (as opposed to the interest rates on debt, which work against you). Having money in a no (or low) interest savings account is a waste of resources because your money is sitting there doing nothing. Don’t let your money be lazy! Make it work for you! And now, enjoy some explanatory math:
- Let’s say you have $5,000 in a savings account that earns 0% interest. In a year’s time, your $5,000 will still be… $5,000.
- Let’s say you instead put that $5,000 into an American Express Personal Savings account that–as of this writing–earns 1.70% in interest. In one year, your $5,000 will have increased to $5,085.67. That means you earned $85.67 just by having your money in a high-interest account.
And you didn’t have to do anything! I’m a big fan of earning money while doing nothing. I mean, is anybody not a fan of that? Apparently so, because anyone who uses a low (or no) interest savings account is NOT making money while doing nothing. Don’t be that person. Be the person who earns money while sleeping. Rack up the interest and prosper. More about high-interest savings accounts, as well as the ones I recommend, here: The Best High Interest Rate Online Savings Accounts.
I think it’s also important to question if your rate of savings will help you to achieve your long-term goals. But what you spend on? That’s a very personal choice and one that you have to make for yourself. My job is to point out areas where you might be able to save, but only you can decide if that level of savings is right for you. If you’re struggling with where to save more and how to map out a longterm financial plan, I encourage you to take my free 31-day Uber Frugal Month Challenge.
Here are some areas where Jana and Dextre might be able to reduce their spending:
- Food: at a total of $597 per month for both of them, this isn’t a terribly high total, especially since Jana and Dextre are on the road for much of the year. That being said, it’s possible there might be some opportunities for reducing this category.
- Cell phones/internet: at $242, this is the one category that I do strongly encourage them to find cheaper alternatives. Jana already mentioned that they’re interested in reducing this line item and I concur. Jana and Dextre will want to find an MVNO cell phone service reseller that’s compatible with their phones and their current provider. A few low-cost carriers: BOOM Mobile, Ting, and Republic Wireless. I know our readers can recommend more!
- Dog Food: I noted that they’re feeding their pups Taste Of The Wild and when our sweet Frugal Hound was with us, we fed her a generic version of Taste Of The Wild, called Nature’s Domain, from Costco. It was a lot cheaper than Taste Of The Wild and, from our research, had the same ingredients. Jana should check out the ingredients to make sure, but figured I’d pass this along in case it might help them save on doggie food.
- DVDs from Amazon: not a terribly expensive category at $37/month, but not nothing either.
- Entertainment: Dextre’s $47/month and Jana’s $10/month are, again, not major expenses but are some of the few discretionary expenses that could be reduced. In particular, I wonder if Jana and Dextre could get Kindle books from their library for free? I know that many libraries offer e-books for check-out, so certainly worth exploring.
All in all, Jana and Dextre are super duper frugal and there just aren’t many areas to cut from since so much of their spending is in relation to Circus Stella. As discussed earlier, I see increasing revenue as the area for them to focus on.
Here’s the quick rundown of what I advise Jana and Dextre do:
- Have a frank conversation about their wishes for the future of Circus Stella. Do Jana and Dextre want to continue touring for the long term? How much will it cost to add additional dogs to the act?
- Increase Circus Stella’s income. Pursue sponsorships and explore the possibility of doing indoor acts.
- Explore augmenting their side hustle income, possibly through starting a dog training business in the off-season, particularly if they’re truly interested in opening a dog training facility in the future. I’d start by doing in-home consultations so as to avoid the overhead of owning a facility.
- Investigate renting their home out while they’re on the road every year.
- If they’re serious about moving, I recommend they begin exploring how much their current home would rent and sell for. Additionally, it’s time to start researching home prices in the areas they’re interested in moving to.
- Consolidate the vehicle situation as soon as possible.
- Move their extra cash into low-fee index funds.
- Continue bringing people happiness and joy through their adorable dog circus!
Ok Frugalwoods nation, what advice would you give to Jana? She and I will both reply to comments, so please feel free to ask any clarifying questions!
Would you like your own case study to appear here on Frugalwoods? Email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) your brief story and we’ll talk.
Update from Jana on 1/3/2018:
Guys! I have so many updates for you! First of all, it was such an honor and absolute blast to be a Reader Case Study on Frugalwoods. I simply can’t thank you all enough, especially you Mrs. Frugalwoods, for all the the encouragement and advice. If anyone ever needs a circus, remember, I owe you one!
Let’s dive in. The jumble of vehicles had been sorted! We sold the big diesel truck that we didn’t need for more than expected and used the proceeds to pay down the van, bolster Dextre’s retirement savings, put in a gravel driveway AND buy a new car. Of course by “new” car, I mean a sturdy 2003 Honda CRV from my father-in-law that we got at a special family discount. Thanks family! I appreciate the many of you who suggested we try to get by with one car (which, let me remind you, is a cumbersome hightop 8 cylinder commercial cargo van) but it’s not a practical daily driver. We lead very separate lives when we’re home for 6 months of the year, and I don’t want Dextre to be a slave to my gym schedule, so we both needed wheels.
But wait, didn’t you guys have another other car? Um… okay yes. There’s also the 2000 Toyota Tacoma that we’d been letting Dextre’s adult son use. But that son moved to NYC and no longer needs it, so we kept that too. Wait, so you still have 3 cars? I’m embarrassed to admit it, but we totally do. Here’s the thing though, the old truck is paid for and practically worthless in terms of resale, so for the cost of insurance we can drive it around instead of the van, thus preserving the van for circus related transportation only. See? It’s useful. Only I can’t drive it, just Dextre. It’s a stick, which I never learned to drive. I’d be a crap zombie apocalypse partner, I know, I’m suitably ashamed.
Moving on. We traded in the giant cumbersome fifth wheel trailer for a smaller tow-behind unit the van can haul. We paid for the new trailer in cash and I feel so much safer in it. I swear the old one was going to fall apart on us in the middle of the highway. The new trailer is so pretty and the interior living space manages, in true Tardis fashion, to feel enormous, even though—get this—it’s 10 feet shorter and 10,000 lbs lighter. That’s right, 10,000 lbs! How’s that for downsizing? We’re so happy.
We aren’t finished yet folks because please let me introduce you to our new puppy, Heidi! We’re very serious about expanding and improving our dog act, because our dogs are ambassadors for shelter dogs everywhere, so we adopted Heidi from Mommy & Me Rescue in Mt. Carmel, PA. They specialize in pulling pregnant dogs from shelters then fostering the mother and the whole litter until everyone is ready for adoption. Heidi was the only puppy in the litter unspoken for and we’re very lucky to have her. She’s a cattle dog mix that looks a lot like our older dog Mabel. Heidi is our first deaf dog, so we’re teaching her hand signals. I’ve never seen a puppy sleep so good; being deaf has some advantages.
But wait, there’s more! Several of you were kind enough to compliment my writing which melts me into a goopy puddle of feelings. Thank you! I secretly wrote a novel I didn’t tell you or anyone else about back in 2017.
It got picked up by a publisher in my little niche genre and it’s gonna be a legit book you guys. A BOOK. Holy crap. It’s scheduled for release August 19 of 2019 under the pen name Lee Colgin. So if you’re into queer paranormal romance—I know, you’re not, lol—I’m your girl. I read Anne Rice’s super queer vampires as an impressionable youth and haven’t strayed from the genre since. So there’s that. It’s both crazy exciting and kind of embarrassing and none of my friends even know, but strangers on the internet? That’s totally fine, you guys can know.
Okay still with me team? Good job, that’s all of it! Thank you kindly for every single comment and all the well wishes you sent. You are the neatest tribe of people and I’m honored to be among you. Thanks Mrs. Frugalwoods, for everything, but especially for the pickles*!
*Note from Mrs. Frugalwoods: Jana and Dextre came to visit us on the homestead this summer and I sent them home with pickles!!! That’s what I do when people visit me: throw homemade pickles into their car when they’re not looking.
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