budgeting · Game Dev

How I attended GDC for 7 days for less than $1000

The 2020 Game Developer’s Conference begins March 16th! There are many hot topic articles on why and how you should attend the conference (or even if you should), and I’m gonna add my experience with budgeting for the trip to your list of helpful reads as you prep yourself for an exciting and stressful week. Attending GDC is a L.U.X.U.R.Y. and just because I did it for less than $1,000 doesn’t mean I think everyone can. But I hope you can figure out how to have a better GDC budget by reading about how I saved and spent my GDC Fund.

The past couple years, I’ve seen more and more devs be disgusted by the cost to attend GDC. It’s not just the badge, of which the cheapest worth buying (the regular Expo badge) at Early pricing was $149 for the 2019 conference and then went up to $249 after January 30th. The All-Access badge? Minimum $1,999. And hotels? And then travelling there? There’s some overwhelmingly expensive costs in San Francisco that don’t have anything to do with the conference itself.

Today I’m going to show you some screenshots of my original budget for attending GDC in 2019 and what I actually spent. Additionally, I want to preface that I have been practicing budgeting each month since the beginning of 2018 (and is the reason I didn’t attend GDC 2018). And my budget is not “oh I spent $22 at Target, gonna log that.” Nope I mean like at the grocery store I have a damn spreadsheet on my phone that I input all the prices of things as I put them in my cart and I won’t put something in my cart, even if it’s potentially something I need, if it doesn’t fit what I’m planning to spend. I’m talking about that kind of budgeting.

The badge: As mentioned previously, a badge to get in to GDC quite the expense. However, there are ways to get it for free: scholarships, become a speaker, or work as a volunteer via the Conference Associate program. My college even did a raffle for an Expo Pass. In order to attend GDC for the experience that is most worth it to me, I was sacrificing putting money in my savings and towards my student loans, so there had to be a limit; a boundary that I wouldn’t break because it would be irrational to spend more. I decided I wouldn’t attend GDC unless I acquired a badge through one of these aforementioned opportunities. I would apply for them as they came up.

The budget: To decide on what my budget should even be for GDC 2019, I looked through my bank statements and email receipts from March 2017, and what I could remember from my attendance in 2016 and 2015. I researched hotels and flights and food to get an estimate on what I would likely spend in 2019. I concluded that $1700 was my magic number, and I started saving in August 2018.

With six months until I’d need to start spending the month, I calculated I’d need to save $283 a month to reach my goal. August 9th, I transferred my first $300 in my fund.

Above are screenshots of my GDC Fund August, September, October, November, and December. In the latter months, I got really excited and saved quicker than predicted.

Travel & Hotel: In January, I found out I had been accepted to the CA program (takes care of the most important expense: the badge!), so I needed to purchase my plane ticket. I realize I’m pretty lucky to live only a 4-hour flight away from SF. This can be a big cost blocker for any trip; so as you make your budget, know the approximate price to get to SF from wherever you are by whichever mode of transportation you pick. I chose to fly in Sunday morning on Alaska Airlines, Non-stop, SEA -> SFO. I also arranged to have a hotel room a friend had reserved (and no longer needed) transferred to me, so I knew at this time my hotel total without roommates was going to cost $1,190.40. This hotel was right by the Dragon’s Gate in SF, a 15-20 minute walk to Moscone Center. I chose a hotel room over a hostel or AirBnb just because of my personal comfort level with SF, but I know these other options can be cheaper.

In February, I had new business cards printer via Staples. I designed them myself in Illustrator, and they looked good enough for who they were for. I even did double-sided printing because I have a puzzle on the other side. This isn’t an “every year” expense for most of us and sometimes your company will even get you business cards so you may or may not have this cost. Additionally, I’m chair of the IGDA Jewish Developers SIG so I have to keep my membership with the IGDA valid. I was coming up on the expiration and they had sent an email with a discount code, so I took care of that.

Below is where the spending really happens!

I wanted a couple new clothing items to make me feel professional. I bought a super cute blazer and some shirts from the thrift store and I looked professional AF. Right before the trip, I also lost my sunglasses and discovered my watch didn’t work; I didn’t have enough time to get the battery changed so I got some cheapo piece from Claire’s that appears nice (but would likely break by the time I got back). Preemptively, I refilled my Starbucks card through the app, giving myself a budget of $20 of Starbucks while in SF. However, the Seattle airport has a really good Dilettante place right after security and I hadn’t budgeted time for breakfast. There are the four items that I could have done without, but that just means a little less while in SF.

I took the BART to my hotel from the airport, which I HAD NEVER done before and public transportation in Seattle is apparently terrible and I’ve never experienced anything else. So, I was freaked out, but I’m a big kid and I know krav maga… and I saw some underclassmen from my alma mater so I asked for help. A BART card filled with $19.30 was the perfect amount to get to my hotel and also to get back to the airport later in the week.

You can also see that two of my hotel-mates paid their share of the room before the conference (which was equal to my share). At this point, I had to be a bit careful because my fund showed an excess amount when the hotel had not yet charged me. Using Venmo, I was able to transfer the money to bank account easily, and separate it from the fund until the end of the week.

Above is the week of the conference. (Our other hotel-mate was not staying with us quite the whole week so I charged her less.)

Food: You may notice the lack of money spent on food; this is because CAs also get a food stipend of $75 to use during the conference on con food and sometimes there’s free breakfast/coffee in the CA Lounge in the mornings. I additionally had the speaker stipend, also $75, because my SIG was hosting a roundtable (I only had one badge though). I used up the CA stipend by Thursday, and I spent around $10 on the speaker stipend card before handing that off to my friend on Friday (a couple hours before it would expire anyway). If I didn’t have this stipend, I would likely have gone to Trader Joe’s (as I did two times, one mislabeled as just “food”) and spent less of my own money, since con food is like minimum $10. Also I love TJs grab n’go meals, especially the salads. I still ate at restaurants/food trucks with my friends, but it wasn’t every meal or even every day. Obviously that way is more costly, but I had budgeted for more eating out than I ended up doing.

A few nights during the week, I went to mixers that had free food. I didn’t pay to get into these mixers, so it wasn’t like I was paying a $30 ticket fee and then getting a few appetizers. These mixers had open buffets and trays of food laying around, so I could eat and mingle as much as I want. I’m not shy about taking advantage of free food, and how upset would the organizers be if they paid for all the food and had too many leftovers, hmm?

Souvenirs: The biggest mistake I made was purchasing some books at the GDC bookstore and I learned my lesson. Let’s not talk about that.

On the 23rd, I left SF. On the 24th, I took the money I had leftover and put it on my debt.

I started with $1,700 in my fund and had $766.26 leftover, which means I spent $933.74. Less than $1,000, but that’s still a lot of money! I definitely consider $1k trip to be an expensive vacation, especially with all the amenities I was fortunate enough to have.

A few months ago, I was pumped and excited to start saving for it. I submitted my first talk to GDC’s main conference; I got my conference associate essay drafted; I started planning up my SIG’s roundtable submission; I was even emailing back and forth with some other groups about hosting a joint party.

This was in August and September. Now, in November, I’m second-guessing going. I haven’t managed to save any money in my GDC fund. When I’m putting my money into my funds every month, I think “Do I really need to aside this money for GDC yet? Nah, bulking my emergency fund is where my heart is.” It’s a luxury to go.

My advice for financially planning this trip would be to financially plan it. If you can’t make it work, there’s always next year. The conference parties and talks are kind of the same after you’ve gone a couple times. Think about why you are attending GDC and how can you plan to use your money to help you achieve those goals. Everyone’s situation is different and I don’t know if anyone could attend GDC for much less than I have (but if you have, please share your tips), or if I could attend GDC for the same cost again.

4 thoughts on “How I attended GDC for 7 days for less than $1000

  1. Re: the stipend cards… I actually used my 2018 speaker food credit at the 2019 event. I am sure they wi close this up at some point… But until they do it is worth knowing 🙂

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    1. That’s something I didn’t think of! They are just like gift cards, so I doubt they are for each event. I think the CA stipend cards do stop working after GDC is over, but I guess the speaker ones have the same restriction.

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