Lucas and Yana Bononi left their $600-a-month apartment in Aspen, Colorado, just days after their wedding in pursuit of their creative ambitions in New York City. Six years later, Lucas, 31, is a full-time painter represented by a gallery in Chelsea, Manhattan’s art district, while Yana, 29, is a fashion influencer with 111,000 followers on Instagram. Together, they brought in more than $123,000 in 2022 and more than $154,000 in 2021.
“I always was very ambitious and saw this as the place for me,” Yana tells CNBC Make It. “I always dreamed of being in New York because it felt like the top of the world.”
Pursuing Dreams on a Budget
The couple, introduced by a mutual friend in 2015, were used to living frugally. Lucas frequently visited food pantries while studying for a bachelor’s degree in fine art at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, and their Aspen apartment had cost very little to rent.
Even so, making ends meet was a challenge. Yana, who first came to the U.S. in 2015 on a student visa, was not able to legally work when they moved to New York. “I was basically just sitting home and stressed about how to make money,” she says.
Lucas, on the other hand, was already selling paintings for thousands of dollars a piece through his Instagram account. He had $188,000 in savings from painting sales when they arrived in New York and invested all of it in a rental property in North Bergen, New Jersey, across the river from Manhattan.
The condo was listed for $215,000, but he negotiated a deal to buy it for $184,000: “The owner really wanted to move back to his country and I was a cash buyer.”
While the investment provided the couple with stable, passive income, they were still struggling to make ends meet. In 2017, they made roughly $75,000 and lived off a $40-a-week grocery budget.
During this time, they “moved to Koreatown, then to the Upper East Side, and, oh my gosh, that place was a nightmare,” says Lucas. “We had all the New York stereotypes — mice, cockroaches, black mold. I felt like I was living in a subway station.”
Investing in Themselves
While Yana was looking for work in 2017, she started an Instagram account about her immigrant experience for a mostly Eastern European audience. Realizing that she “wasn’t going back to Russia,” she changed her focus and started writing her posts in English.
She wanted to do something different than what she already saw: “It’s glamorous girls living in New York; everything is minimalistic and beige — I was never that glamorous girl.”
To set herself apart, Yana made increasingly intricate fashion videos she describes as “risky and creative,” featuring brightly colored bodysuits, elaborate motion effects and kaleidoscopic lenses.
Her work steadily gained a following on Instagram, which led to representation by an agency that negotiates paid sponsorships on her behalf. She was able to quit her part-time job building window displays at Tiffany and Co. in September 2022 and now makes as much as $5,000 per Instagram post.
She made about $20,000 in the three months after leaving her job, which was about half of her total income for 2022.
Lucas continued selling paintings, as well as teaching part-time both independently and at Grand Central Atelier.
While the couple's income has grown substantially over the years, they still maintain a frugal mindset. They attribute their financial success to investing in themselves, whether that means purchasing art supplies for Lucas or equipment for Yana's videos.
"We've learned to invest in ourselves and take risks," says Yana. "But we also know when it's time to pull back and reassess."
They also invest in experiences that they find valuable, like travel. In 2019, they traveled to Japan for two weeks, something they describe as a "life-changing experience." They've also traveled to Europe and plan to travel more in the future.
But perhaps their biggest investment is the North Bergen rental property that Lucas purchased in 2017. The condo generates about $2,200 a month in passive income, which covers their expenses and allows them to pursue their creative ambitions without the stress of financial instability.
"We're not living paycheck to paycheck," says Lucas. "We don't have to worry about making rent."
Their advice to others pursuing creative careers? "Invest in yourself," says Yana. "And don't give up, even when it gets tough."
Lucas echoes her sentiment: "Believe in yourself and invest in your craft. Do whatever it takes to get where you want to go."
Their hard work and dedication to their craft have paid off, and they continue to push themselves to new heights in their respective careers.
This story was originally published on CNBC.