So You Want to Attend a Harry Potter Convention: Budgeting

So you want to attend a Harry Potter convention but the costs just sound outrageous. “How do people do this yearly?” you might ask. The answer is simple: budgeting. While the costs may not be much for some attendees, many are creating budgets months or even years ahead of time in order to attend conventions.

Now that you have chosen the con for you, it’s time to set your budget.

1. Make a List. Write down a list of all expenses associated with the con, when they are due, and when you can pay them. Here is an example for a con that is scheduled for May 2017. The prices are estimates based on a combination of past conventions I’ve attended and do not reflect actual prices:

Registration – $150 (Kickstarter, September 2015) or $125 (earlybird, January 2016 through May 2016)
Hotel – $99/night for 2 occupants, $129/night for four occupants, for four or five nights (September 2015-May 2017)
Rental car – approximately $200, split between X number of people (May 2017)
Fuel – approximately $50 (May 2017)
Flight – approximately $250 (February 2017)
Airport Shuttle – $32 round trip (or find a friend that is off and can pick you up) (February-May 2017)
Food – $75 (May 2017)
Fun/Souvenirs – $50 (May 2017)
Parking – $6/day at the airport, $25/day at the hotel (May 2017)
Parties – Do you drink? Throw your alcohol budget in here. Take into consideration if you will visit a liquor store, local bar, and/or if the convention has themed drinks offered at some of their evening events. (May 2017)

Make sure to factor tipping when calculating costs. If the con is in America, typically you will tip at sit-down restaurants, bars, for anyone who carries your baggage at the hotel or airport, cab drivers, housekeepers, etc. Trip Advisor has a great guide to tipping that you can read if you’re unsure of American tipping customs or simply do not travel often.

2. Pay expenses as soon as possible. If you keep hold of the money, you will be tempted to spend it. Something WILL come up, whether it’s larger issues such as a car breaking down or smaller ones like an amazing sale on Harry Potter merch at Hot Topic. As you slowly pull the money together, throw it at your con expenses before you are tempted to spend it elsewhere.

Early bird registrations and/or Kickstarters are the cheapest ways to purchase your registration.
You can get these generally one to two years out, depending on the convention, and save a TON of money in the process.

As for hotels, most hotels will let you call and make payments ahead of time. The smaller, non-chain hotels are the best about this, as they are not bound to rigid corporate policies. For MISTI-con this year, one of my roommates called and made $10 payments every couple of weeks or so until her portion of the room was paid off. The larger chain hotels will do this for you as well, but you may need to speak to a manager or fill out some paperwork in order to process payment.

Stephanie and Melissa's #mistieverywhere Pic

Stephanie and Melissa pose on the airplane with a MISTI-con card #MISTIeverywhere

If you are flying to the convention, the least expensive days to fly are Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The best days to purchase your flights are also Tuesdays and Wednesdays. If you’re flying domestic within the U.S., purchase your tickets two months before the convention; for international flights, check about three months before the convention.

Most discount flight websites now have the option for you to track ticket prices in order to help get the best price. At the same time though, some of them are set up to artificially raise prices for people they notice keep coming back to check the website for the lowest price. Doing this helps create a false sense of urgency on purchasing the tickets. Use a private tab (Ctrl or Cmd + Shift + N on Chrome) or delete your cookies after searching to make sure you get the best price offer available when you return to the website.

For those on-site expenses that can’t be paid until the convention occurs, I recommend setting up a bank account that is harder for you to access. I personally recommend using Smartypig.com.* It is Smarty Pig Logoa free high-yield savings account with no minimum balance. In order to maintain an account with them, you must attach it to a checking account and set up an automatic withdrawal at least monthly. You set a goal on the website that includes an end date and how much you want to save. Set the end date at least a month before your travel date; your money will be mailed back to you as a check or a gift card, depending on which option you choose. You want to leave the bank plenty of time to process it and get you your money before you leave for the convention. The process to get your money back does take time (which is part of what makes this easier for saving money – you can’t just say “Oh, I really need to withdraw money for X expense.”) For more information on setting up a SmartyPig account and how it works, click here.*

3. Overestimate expenses. It is better to plan for the higher number and have money left over than to be stranded somewhere. You may laugh, but I have seen desperate fundraisers set up by people who attended a con only to get through a day or two and realize they don’t have enough money to cover their con expenses and/or their everyday expenses for the rest of the month. That is not a situation you want to be in. Not only does it put unfair pressure on your friends and family who don’t want to see you in trouble, but it puts a lot of unnecessary stress on yourself. It is a lot more difficult to enjoy yourself at a convention if you are worried about your online fundraiser to help you get home or buy food for the next couple of days.

4. Lower Your Expenses
Before the Convention
There are some articles that that will tell you that the key to budgeting is to eliminate your weekly Starbucks coffee habit. This is not one of them (though if you ARE struggling to budget and drink coffee at Starbucks weekly, then yes, do that.) But let’s be real – that’s not the case for many of us. If you want to be able to afford the convention, it is time to look at your everyday budget.
– Eat less expensive food. Replace a couple of carnivore meals with vegetarian meals. Shop at Aldi’s or the equivalent discount grocery store in your area. Check out the local farmer’s market for some lower-cost local produce. Considering using foods such as brown rice as a cheap way to help fill you up. Pick up frozen vegetables whenever they are on sale – they are a very inexpensive way to eat healthy without the risk of your food going bad in a week. (Just remember though – DO NOT SACRIFICE YOUR HEALTH TO ATTEND A CONVENTION.)
– Carpool more often. Reduce your carbon footprint and fuel expenses.
– Cut the cord. Do you still use cable TV? It is time to cut the cord. Switch to just Internet and Netflix, Amazon Prime, and/or Hulu. Redirect your monthly savings to your travel/convention budget.
– Just before the convention, stop buying groceries unless absolutely necessary. Seriously. Fresh foods are just going to go bad while you are gone anyway. This is the time to challenge your cooking skills and find ways to make meals with the items currently in your pantry, freezer, and refrigerator.

Ascendio 2012 Slytherins and Umbridge

Ascendio 2012 – Roommate bonding time (notice the cosplay? No more than four people in a room when cosplay is involved unless you love a hotel room that is an utter disaster)

On the trip:
– Flight. As mentioned earlier, the ideal time to book a flight is two to three months ahead of time. Try to book in the middle of the week (particularly Tuesday afternoons) after a holiday, if possible. Rates drop just after major holidays. For your actual travel dates, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the cheapest days to fly.
– Hotel. Split a hotel room. The less money you have, the more people you should shove into that
hotel room. (You won’t be the first to have eight people in a four person hotel room, and you certainly won’t be the last.) That said, if you and your roommates are cosplaying, I do not recommend more than four people to a room due to space/comfort concerns.
– Rental Car. Do you have AAA? Most rental car companies have AAA discounts. Check AAA’s site or a local office for more details. Just remember – rental car companies in the U.S. charge a premium for drivers that are under 25.
– Groceries. Work with your hotel roommates to get a con grocery list going for shared expenses vs personal expenses. This helps lower incidents of overspending and helps you split these expenses. Let’s face it – no room needs four loaves of bread or four bags of Lays potato chips. You’ll thank yourself later when you are not tossing out uneaten food. Check the upcoming sales flyer before leaving to help finalize the list.
– Coupon, coupon, coupon. There are discount codes online for many of your expenses – rental car, airport shuttle, airport parking… Use them. Also, print out some for those groceries. Talk with your roommate about using alternatives when necessary (“I see you have pretzels on the list, but I found a coupon for Doritos. Do you like them? Maybe we should get those instead and save a couple of dollars?”) Every little bit helps.

5. Be realistic on what you can afford. If you have already cut all of your expenses down, have to scrape money together just to afford the basics (and possibly foregoing some of these), and can’t take on any additional work, then attending a con may not be in your best interests, particularly if travel is involved. Don’t give up though! When you can, throw aside some additional money until eventually you reach the amount you need to attend and keep an eye out locally for events in your area.

Central Florida Slug Club and Tampa Bay's Portkey to Magic at MISTI-con 2015

Central Florida Slug Club and Tampa Bay’s Portkey to Magic members at the MISTI-con 2015 Masquerade Ball

Pulling together your budget, particularly the first time, can be difficult. Once you get through your first convention though, you’ll have a better idea of how much money to spend and can get much more accurate estimates ahead of time (particularly if you begin to attend the same convention in the same city year after year.) Overall though, it helps create a fun, stress-free atmosphere and improves your convention experience.

Have any further convention budgeting tips? Let us know in the comments!

*I received no compensation for this endorsement, nor do I have any affiliation with SmartyPig beyond being a standard customer.

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