This story is part of CNBC Make It's Millennial Money series, which details how people around the world earn, spend and save their money.
Dennis Kim remembers the exact moment he fell in love with magic.
He was around 10 years old, laying in his bedroom in Long Island, New York, when his older brother Thomas burst in with a couple of $1 bills. As Kim watched, his brother let go of the bills; instead of floating to the ground, they remained suspended in mid-air.
"I remember as a kid, distinctly, it was a feeling I had never felt before," Kim tells CNBC Make It. "Of being fooled and really fascinated, astonished that something like that could happen in front of my eyes... It instantly became the hobby that took most of my time."
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He's been hooked on magic ever since. Fast forward a decade and a half, and, despite the seeming impracticality of pursuing magic as a profession, he's made a career as a full-time magician in New York City, earning $78,000 pre-tax last year.
What was a hobby for his brother took on a much larger presence in Kim's life. A shy kid, magic helped him break out of his shell.
He decided to try to make a living off of his passion in 2018, a year after he graduated from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he studied nutrition. For around 10 months, he had been working in insurance sales, earning a yearly salary of around $35,000.
As a first generation Korean American, it was important to Kim to succeed for his mother, Miseon Kim, which is why he took that more traditional route when he first graduated. But he was bored crunching numbers all day, he says, and could feel his creativity draining away.
He didn't even earn enough to move out of his mother's Queens, New York, apartment. If this was success, it wasn't all it was cracked up to be, he thought.
"I thought that was the right thing to do. You know, find a job full time, go the corporate approach," he says. "I would just look around and I'd realize that I don't think that I really belong in this kind of environment, even though I thought this was what I was supposed to do."
Magic was his saving grace. Kim had been a counselor for a children's magic workshop the summer after he graduated from college and still remembered the passion he felt then. He decided to quit his insurance job and pursue magic full time. Despite her initial misgivings, his mother saw how unhappy he was at the insurance job and gave her blessing.
Kim began "grinding," he says, creating a social media presence, working on tricks and networking with other magicians online. Soon he was performing one-man shows on the streets of New York and at one-off pop-up events in the city.
In April 2019, he landed a recurring gig with a company called Theory11, working on the productions of six shows a week at the Nomad Hotel in lower Manhattan. That consistency has enabled him to flourish.
"I've always wanted to share this with as many people as I possibly can, ever since I was a kid," he says. " I remind myself of this, and it's surreal to me sometimes [that] I'm a magician. That's crazy."
A mother's support
Kim didn't initially pursue magic because he wanted to make his mother proud, and he also didn't want to upset her. His father left the family when he was around 12; he had a gambling addiction, according to Kim. Seeing her son pick up a deck of playing cards worried Kim's mother that he'd follow in his father's footsteps.
But like any other supportive mother, she also wanted to see her son happy, and Kim did all he could to reassure her that he would be OK. It was after seeing one of his shows in person at the Nomad Hotel that Kim says she finally got what he was doing.
"She told me that she was really proud of me," he says. "That's when I realized I'm not making her disappointed anymore."
When Covid-19 hit, Kim lost all of his gigs seemingly overnight. He still lived with his mom, so luckily he didn't need to make a rent payment. He began collecting unemployment benefits and helped his mom in the deli she owns, but knew he needed to come up with another way to make money.
"It was traumatic," he says. "I remember thinking I had a good two-year run."
Kim began creating tricks specifically for social media and computers, as opposed to a live performance environment. By November 2020, he was able to earn income via a virtual show with Theory11 again.
Now, he's back to his weekly in-person shows at the Nomad Hotel, which he supplements by working private events like birthdays, weddings and corporate outings. He also earns income by creating original magic tricks. He records them, and if other magicians want to learn, they pay him a fee to access the instructional video.
Kim often feels guilty if he's not working in some capacity: booking shows, practicing his craft, refining his social media brand or networking with other magicians.
"I'm always thinking about what I could possibly be doing to do more," he says. "But that gets balanced with the fact that I absolutely love my job and my career and my lifestyle and the fact that I'm doing this."
How he budgets his money
Here's a look at how Kim budgeted and spent his money in January 2022.
- Investments: $1,450 ($500 in a Roth IRA; $500 toward an indexed universal life insurance policy; $450 in cryptocurrency via Coinbase)
- Rent: $1,150
- Savings: $1,000
- Business expenses: $540 (Rough estimate for business software, home office supplies, magic supplies and props, etc.)
- Transportation: $450 ($280 for gas; $155 for insurance; $15 for public transportation)
- Discretionary: $356 (Rough estimate for entertainment, gifts, shopping, skincare, travel, etc.)
- Food: $255 ($190 for groceries; $65 for dining out)
- Utilities: $185 ($57 for electricity; $59 for his Wi-Fi; $69 for his mom's Wi-Fi)
- Subscriptions: $43 ($11 for Amazon Prime; $8 for credit card fees; $10 for Spotify; $12 for website hosting; $1 for Apple iCloud storage; $1 for Bear Notes)
Because Kim's earnings can vary so much month to month, his savings and investments also fluctuate. The figures above reflect the monthly average of those lump sums from 2021.
Additionally, part of Kim's savings goes toward tax payments, as he is technically a freelancer. Taxes, too, can be difficult to estimate, so he tries to save as much as he can to cover them each quarter.
Kim moved out of his mother's apartment in October 2020. Now, he lives with another magician in a three-bedroom apartment a few blocks away from her in Queens. He pays for her Wi-Fi, and tries to help out at the deli whenever he can.
Other than that, Kim doesn't need much: His car is paid off and he doesn't have any debt. He tracks his expenses each month and prioritizes investing and saving. He doesn't eat out often, and is currently learning how to make his favorite Korean dishes at home.
His frugality comes from his mother, he says, who sent three kids to college on her own. His brother, a freelance music producer, has given him advice for managing his freelance income through the years.
"I'm pretty diligent with money. I'm not this big spender," he says. "I do believe there's still a lot for me to learn to be more financially literate."
Aside from magic, Kim is interested in nutrition and physical fitness. He has also played the piano and the violin for most of his life, and enjoys practicing still.
But magic is his focus. His goal is to keep building his income every year as a magician, and he hopes to hit six figures in the next two to three years.
"I think that my income is directly correlated with how well I'm doing my job ... how good my art and craft in magic is," he says. "If I'm making $100,000 and up, I must be doing something right, right?"
Money and career success go hand-in-hand in his mind. If he gets bigger and bigger gigs, then he makes more money. But he doesn't have the future all planned out: He believes opportunities he hasn't imagined yet will present themselves when he's ready for them, if he keeps working at his craft.
What he does know is that he wants to earn enough to ensure his mom is comfortable in the years to come. The deli took a financial hit through Covid, and inflation hurts her income, too, he says. The more money he earns, the more confident he feels in his ability to help his mom retire.
"It's been pretty difficult in the past few years, and she's worried about money," he says. "I want to make sure that I can make enough to tell her, 'Don't worry, I got you.'"
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