A side hustle that 'feels like a paid vacation': These 20-somethings make money ice skating through Europe and Asia
When Lila Werner quit her job to become a professional ice skater, she didn't do it for cash. She did it for a paid trip to Saudi Arabia.
This winter, the 27-year-old — who previously worked as an experiential coordinator for companies like Dell in Austin, Texas — was paid 5,000 euros (roughly equivalent to $5,450) for seven weeks of skating, according to documents reviewed by CNBC Make It.
Werner spent four of those weeks training in Belgium, before performing 22 shows over three weeks in Saudi Arabia and returning to the U.S. in early January. The tour was a priceless opportunity, she says.
But there's a downside to being an international ice skater: Werner says she'll return with very little remaining from her paycheck. She's not alone. Other contracted ice skaters who quit their jobs and performed abroad during the holiday didn't earn much money — but they got to travel essentially for free.
"I had to take money out of my savings account in order to pay my rent and car payments on time," Werner says. But, she adds, the tour covered her housing, plane tickets and stipends for food.
"This almost feels like a paid vacation," Werner says.
Getting paid in experiences
Since hanging up her skates in high school, Lily Samuels-Shragg — who works contract box office jobs at New York music venues — skated for fun.
But after sending her skating videos to a touring company, she landed a role in a traveling ice show and was asked to join a four-week tour from Paris to the South of France between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
She was paid 1,800 euros (roughly $1,965), according to documents reviewed by CNBC Make It. That's about half what she would've made by staying in New York, she says — but the travel is worth it.
"I don't want to limit myself in terms of experiences," Samuels-Shragg says. "If I can break even or get paid to do my favorite things when I'm young and have the stamina to live a chaotic life, that's the perfect storm for now."
Traipsing around Nice and Paris appeased her wanderlust during the holidays, and performing for Monaco's royal family was the cherry on top, she says. Similarly, Werner says that when she didn't have shows scheduled, she went on excursions like desert camel rides and scenic overlook hikes.
Those experiences cost money, but both women say they saved a chunk of their paychecks — Samuels-Shragg says she ultimately pocketed about $900 — while still enjoying the travel.
Launching a career
For other skaters, globetrotting isn't the point. Experience and exposure matter more.
In October 2015, Toronto-based skater Victoria Smith was asked to help coach a synchronized skating team in Australia for a month. Fresh off a win at the 2015 World Synchronized Skating Championships, Smith saw the opportunity as a career-extending lifeline.
"Honestly, I'm not sure if I broke even on that contract," Smith, now 29, says. "I just wanted coaching experience."
The gig led to more coaching and choreography experiences abroad. Those jobs are often more lucrative than shows, Smith says. And while many performers simply accept the terms they're offered, prioritizing travel over money, Smith negotiates with her employers.
The more hats you can wear, the more irreplaceable you become.Victoria SmithToronto-based skater
In summers and falls, she brings in roughly $80 per hour — a minimum of eight hours per day, for at least six days per gig — doing choreography for skating teams in the U.S., Canada, Turkey and France.
In the winters, she skates in Busch Garden's annual Christmas show in Williamsburg, Virginia. Because she's performed for eight years, she earns more: Last December, she made $8,000 for four weeks of work.
The rest of the year, she helps the teams she coaches on an as-needed basis, individually tutors skaters and picks up short-term teaching contracts in Canada to make ends meet.
"It takes years to establish back-to-back contracts, but once you do, you can rely on that infrastructure," Smith says. "The more hats you can wear, the more irreplaceable you become."
The cost of international performing
For many skaters, these trips have a hidden cost. The monthly bills at home don't stop just because you're overseas.
Werner, for example, still paid rent on her one-bedroom apartment while she traveled. And it's not cheap: An average one-bedroom in Austin costs $1,594 per month, according to Rent.com.
Samuels-Shragg evades Manhattan's hefty rent prices — $4,550 on average for a one-bedroom — with short-term subleases. The frequent moves are inconvenient, and not knowing where you'll sleep next month is stressful, but it's cheaper to only pay rent when you're actually in town, she says.
Subleases can also feature steep discounts, with absent renters desperate to recoup any amount of their rents. The result: Samuels-Shragg says she pays an average of $1,000 in rent per month while in New York.
Health insurance also factors in, especially for those under age 26. Werner's health insurance fees came directly out of her paychecks, amounting to roughly $280 over the course of her tour, she says. Samuels-Shragg is still on her parents' health insurance plan, helping her pocket more of each paycheck.
Perhaps predictably, Samuels-Shragg says she'd love to continue skating abroad. Werner, on the other hand, says she likely won't pick up another contract, especially one keeping her away from home for months.
"This has been an experience of a lifetime," Werner says. "But I also like my home. I like being in my space with my routine."
CNBC Make It converted Euros to USD on February 1, 2023.
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