Sarah Wayne Callies is a television, film, and stage actress, as well as a producer, director and writer. With star turns on Colony, Prison Break, and The Walking Dead, as well as multiple feature films under her belt, she still doesn’t feel she has the power to negotiate equal pay for every role she takes. But when she does have that power, she holds firm. Ahead, a strong plea from her to talk more openly about money — plus some of the hard-won financial wisdom she’s picked up over the course of her career.
Real women need to start talking about money the way fake women in rom-coms talk about wine, shopping and dating. Those things are all great, but men didn’t take charge of the world giggling over Appletinis about the sample sale at Fred Segal. If you ask me, the next step in this beautiful women’s movement could be talking more openly about money: how to make it, how to save it, how to invest it, and how to need it from no one else but yourself. That’s freedom.
I’ve been financially independent since I finished college — because I had to be. I put myself through grad school on a full scholarship with a stipend, then worked my way from being a broke bartender into acting and now single-handedly support a family of four. I’ve even got a couple of investment properties and my own retirement saving plan. Am I a financial expert? Nope. But I got here by listening to smart, educated and successful people share what worked for them.
Men didn’t take charge of the world giggling over Appletinis about the sample sale at Fred Segal.
So, in the spirit of paying it forward — to get this conversation about women and money going — here are five things that work for me.
The First Month’s Rent Rule
Early in my career, I was thumbing through a magazine crushing on a pair of Gucci boots. The woman I was with said, “Oh honey you deserve those, you should buy them.” They were $2,000 boots. No one deserves two thousand dollar boots. Moreover, the list of things you can do with $2,000 is pretty real: You could spend $500 on boots (still very nice boots), drop $1K in a tax-deferred retirement savings account, add $200 to your student loan payment (or mortgage, credit card bill, etc.) to pay down your principal, get your mom a mani/pedi, and still have a hundred or so left over.
My point: I realized that it’s easy to lose perspective on what kinds of purchases makes sense. So I made a rule for myself — I don’t buy clothing, handbags or shoes worth more than my first month’s rent in my first apartment in New York City: $550. (It was Washington Heights in 2002 — I don’t know that you can rent for that anymore). For the record, I’ve never carried credit card debt — and this rule is part of why.
The first TV show I led was called Tarzan. You’ve never heard of it; that’s OK. The gift of that show was Miguel A. Nunez Jr., a gem of an actor who introduced me to the concept of tithing: giving 10% of your income to charity. There are obvious benefits to tithing, like gratitude and the good manners of giving back. But over the years I’ve also found it to be dignifying.
Shortly after I left The Walking Dead, I did a play and then took a maternity leave to adopt my son. That year after taxes and commissions — still supporting a family of four — I made roughly $13,500 and lost my health insurance (didn’t make enough to qualify in my union). It was a terrifying year. But I still wrote a check for 10% of my income to the International Rescue Committee. It wasn’t an amount that changed their bottom line, but the act of choosing to give made me feel like less of a financial failure.
In good years, I’ve been able to donate more than my mother’s salary teaching at a public university. Those years, it’s an honor to make a substantive difference in the work of great nonprofits. But since the day Miguel told me about tithing, the concept has enriched my life no matter the amount I’ve ultimately given.
Negotiate When You Can
Money isn’t just about numbers. It’s about dignity, respect, and independence. When you’re in a strong position to negotiate, don’t sell yourself short, and don’t settle for less than equality. I’ve walked away from a million dollars because the guys who did the same work were making a million and a half. At the end of the day, I was able to look myself in the face, and know that being paid a million dollars to eat shit isn’t dignity and it isn’t wealth. It’s eating shit. (Holding my ground on that negotiation worked — after six months of walking away I finally achieved the salary the male actors were making.)
Granted, being in a position to turn that money down is rooted in a combination of being in a job that often pays well and being frugal AF. I try not to spend money I don’t have to so that I don’t have to take jobs I don’t like. And some of the jobs Idolike don’t pay well for anyone — I’ve worked for union minimum because the guys were making that too, and we were all in it for the art. When you’re in a position to make a stand for pay equality, it strengthens the case for all women who ask for it.
Live To Fight Another Day
What was it Kenny said? Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.We aren’t always in a strong position to negotiate: I was in contract talks a few years ago where I was asking for pay equity with my leading man and was told — unapologetically—that if I used the word parity again they would give the job to someone else. They weren’t bluffing. And not only do I have a family to support, but it was also a great role. A role that brought to life a fully-formed sense of female power, complexity and femininity that I was excited to play. So I took the job, and did it for significantly less than the male co-star with whom I did equal work. We don’t always have the power to win the battle. Stay alive and keep fighting the war.
Cast A Vote With Every Dollar
We spend money every day. We can hand it over to Walmart or we can hand it to the woman at the farmer’s market who raises her own chickens. We can support businesses with fair labor practices toward women — who pay their employees equally and have 50% women in positions of real power—or we can chuck it at corporations who spend their advertising dollars hiring sick-looking models to tell us we need to buy their products so we can be attractive to dudes. It’s our choice, every day.
Our choices matter. And it’s our choice to talk with our girlfriends about money — to lovingly remind your broke friend that she might be less likely to be late on her rent if she buys a coffee maker instead of $10 a day worth of oat-milk-half-caff coffee concoctions. (That’s $300 a month — $3,600 a year!). Just like it’s our choice to open savings accounts with our daughters and talk our moms out of reverse mortgages. And look, if you disagree with any of this, please say so: Start a conversation, debate, share alternative suggestions. You don’t have to think I’m right, but if we talk about it, we’ll all learn. And we’ll all be richer Girlbosses for it.
Love you dogs.