On Conferences and Compromises

When to spend and when to cut back.

Photo credit: Ed Webster, CC BY 2.0.

I recently went to a writing conference that people complain is expensive. It is. My compromise: I don’t go every year, I take Megabus or Bolt Bus whenever possible, and I sometimes eat leftovers in the hotel room instead of eating $15 lunch with all the cool poets.

This year, my compromise included one luxury: I stayed in the conference hotel.

The last time I went to the conference, I stayed in three different places in one week in an attempt to save money. It was foolish, and I wasted a lot of time that I could have spent going to panels and readings, or meeting other writers and people who work in publishing. My decision to stay in inexpensive Airbnbs located far from the conference also meant that I had no place to retreat to in the middle of the day, and I quickly felt like a hyperstimulated gerbil from the constant interaction with hordes of people. I didn’t even end up saving money from my cobbled-together lodging, since my would-be conference roommate ended up dropping out.

So I decided that I would do things differently the next time I went. As soon as the conference hotel was announced in the fall, I immediately reserved a room from Wednesday through Sunday. I’d never been to DC, and I planned to treat it like a vacation. Maybe I could even tour the White House! (In November, that plan quickly lost its appeal.)

I felt a little sheepish when friends asked me about my lodging plans. Sure, I was sharing my room with another person, but I was still paying more than $100 per night for the privilege of being able to go up to a hotel room and steal some downtime during the conference.

But I have no regrets. I loved being able to leave for a morning panel without feeling like I was packing for a whole day. If I got overwhelmed, I could take some time to eat lunch in my room or listen to a podcast before heading back out into civilization. If I sold a couple chapbooks and needed to grab another stack, it was easy. If I bought too many books and didn’t want to carry them all day, I didn’t have to.

Although I felt self-conscious about my luxury, I began to notice that most other people were choosing their own compromises and luxuries. While walking to an event, a new friend commented, “Wow, all of you are staying overnight on the last night? That’s so expensive.” She was rushing to catch an Amtrak train back to New York City.

I love taking trains and had checked out Amtrak as a travel option between New York and DC. The round-trip tickets that I found were over $100; closer to $150 for the times that I wanted. I could get round-trip tickets on Bolt Bus for $37.50, and the pickup location was closer to my apartment.

So I was feeling good about my frugal choice. But a few days before the conference, I learned that a colleague had been able to get me a ticket to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which was sold out for months. In order to visit the museum, I’d have to change my bus. After doing some research, I realized it would be less expensive to book an earlier ticket on Megabus than change my BoltBus reservation, which was literally $3.75 (not a typo). I gave my BoltBus ticket to a friend attending the same conference.

As I waited in the cold to board my Megabus, I checked Instagram and saw a very glamorous selfie of a poet on the train wearing sunglasses and a silk scarf. I considered taking my own photo of bus life, but decided against it. (I’m always making weird faces in photos that I take of myself, but I’m fine with being bad at self-photography. My best work was before we had the word “selfie” and instead called them “MySpace photos.”)

The bus was very pleasant. No one sat next to me, and there was wireless. (These two factors may be my secret to happiness.) The museum was incredible, and I wish I’d had even more time there.

At the conference, I ran into a friend outside the book fair. She’d also traveled from another city to be there, but she wasn’t wearing the lanyard that would’ve allowed her to walk inside.

“The coolest events happen off-site anyway,” she said. “Why pay the money to go to panels when you’ll see the people you want to see at readings?” She had found a way to get what she wanted out of the conference without needing to pay to register for it.

I had paid $145 to register for the conference — the early bird member price, right before my membership had lapsed. In order to feel like I got as much as possible out of the event, I had a list of highlighted panels to attend and people that I wanted to meet. (I find that if I loved someone’s book, a good opening line is, “I loved your book.”)

We all have our own luxuries that we’re willing to pay for, and it can be trial and error to find out what’s worth it. I’m still figuring out what makes me happy, and what I find to be worth the money. I appreciate Sarah Von Bargen’s thoughts on this topic, and periodically re-read her advice on money and happiness:

Figure out what brings you joy and then buy it. Skimp on the other stuff. It’s that simple!

What frugal moves make you feel like you’re missing out, and which ones make you feel like you’ve successfully gamed the system? Which luxuries do you love enough to spend money on? By paying attention to the ways that other people navigate luxury and frugality, I find my own choices are clarified. For me, I’ve learned that a few minutes alone at a conference are worth the price tag.

Abigail Welhouse is the author of the poetry chapbooks Too Many Humans of New York (Bottlecap Press), Bad Baby (Dancing Girl Press), and Memento Mori (a poem/comic collaboration with Evan Johnston). Subscribe to the Secret Poems of Abigail Welhouse at tinyletter.com/welhouse.

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