If you’re at all familiar with the international LARP scene, you know that blockbuster LARPs are a big deal. You also know that due to insurance, high production value, and fair wage, they can also get really pricey – and that’s been a big point of discussion recently. I’ve been the underemployed Starbucks worker wondering if I’d ever afford a vacation, and now I make a wage that would be comfortable – except for the rising cost of healthcare here in the U.S., which can easily surpass my monthly car payment and even my rent.

But LARP is important to me. It’s social, it’s fun, and it helps me develop storytelling skills I use in my career. Here’s how I budget to make it happen.

Cap Healthcare Spending

I was recently diagnosed with three chronic illnesses. In the last two years, I’ve seen over twenty doctors and have tried ten different medications under doctors’ care. In desperation and a promise to myself (and others) to put my health first, I was spending $700+ per month on healthcare (not including the premium). That’s more than my car payment, and some months, it was more than my rent. On this budget, I found that I was:

  • Sometimes skipping meals to afford healthcare.
  • Isolated and depressed because I couldn’t afford to go anywhere.
  • Stressed about money 24/7.

Where does this money go? In addition to the $118 monthly premium I pay (which is cheap), I spend $500 on:

  • Copays (including 2x/week physical therapy)
  • Prescriptions (including glasses and contacts)
  • Bloodwork (needed every six weeks for hypothyroidism)
magically medical

To get the care I really need in the U.S., I would need to spend about half of my gross income. So I don’t, and life’s short, and I LARP.

Soon I will be on Affordable Care Act (ACA) insurance and my expenses will increase, but my cap will remain the same.

A broken body isn’t cheap, and on top of already feeling crappy and never 100%, the expense and the overall guilt are hard to bear. (When your body costs more than your living expenses, your mind can go to dark places pretty quickly.)

Since then, I’ve realized that spending more than $500/month is going to be detrimental to my mental health. I set this budget and stick to it. I let my doctors know about it, which forces them to prioritize instead of handing me 5-7 referrals at a time. (This also reduces my risk of overwhelm.)

Shouldn’t health be the most important thing ever? Yeah. But if you’re going into debt to be healthy, what are you living for? I focus on smaller goals like being active (today), eating healthier (today), etc.

To the outsider (particularly the non-LARPer) in the U.S., this sounds a bit irresponsible – but what’s actually irresponsible is hating or self-harming yourself for every kind thing you do for yourself, from a massage (not covered by insurance, but medically necessary for people like me) to a $3 coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts (I had a boss who guilted me about that every day).

I’m done with letting myself feel guilty for being good to myself on occasion, and that’s done wonders for my mental health. Plus, LARP is a great motivation for me to stay healthy and active.

Know the Value of My Time

Sometimes I’m short on money. Sometimes I’m short on time. I know the hourly value of my services, so I look at tasks and favors in terms of that. If I’m busy because I’m already committed to working 60 hours that week, I’ve become much less stingy about paying others to do menial tasks for me, such as write short articles for this website.

This also translates to services and tools. For example, I use CoSchedule, a marketing calendar and social media scheduling tool that has a monthly fee. I manage this site’s brand and my personal brand. If I added up how much time it would take for me to schedule social media on other sites individually, CoSchedule clearly worth the cost.

Cut Down on Other LARPs

What I used to spend on attending a monthly boffer LARP goes to my blockbuster and salon LARP budget. Here’s the math:

I used to spend about $80/month on my campaign game. I had a major discount due to being a former staff member (much appreciated), but I would still spend on gas, meals on the way to and from the event, and the dog sitter to check in on my dog on Saturday. The game runs 11 months out of the year, which means I was spending $880/year on attendance.

Let’s compare that to the blockbuster LARP I will attend this year. My ticket was about $575 and it’ll cost me about $120 to drive there and back (about five hours each way). On this journey, I’ll have one or more passengers, so I’m going to assume they’ll be kind enough to buy me food and coffee if I cover the whole trip. That comes to $695 for me to attend the event.

Of course, costs will vary greatly for any LARP style if it is far away, and choosing a blockbuster LARP over a monthly game means less in-person play time. Which leads to my next solution…

magical gothic larper

Farewell, other LARPs. I miss you </3

Write and Play Salon LARPs

Salon LARPs are awesome. Many of them are available for free, and I also enjoy learning about game design as I create salon LARPs. For “She’s Got a Gun,” my first complete LARP, I ran the alpha test in my apartment. The beta test was at a friend’s. We did pot luck for food and drink. My cost for each of these events was about $30.

I also LARP my face off at Double Exposure events, which are local to me and very affordable.

Get a Roommate

This one’s pretty simple. I’m moving from a studio apartment to a two bedroom with a roommate. Savings = $200/month, plus my roommate will occasionally dog sit for less than the sitter would charge.

Borrow and Return Money

Sometimes that blockbuster LARP event comes up fast. Some events announce less than a month before they start crowdfunding, which means you have 6-8 weeks to get the money together. Ouch. That’s a bummer when all your friends want you to go. However, by reliably paying back any money borrowed in the past, I have good ‘credit’ with some more financially stable LARPers, and if I’m short just a small amount or I need to wait a few more days until a bonus comes in, they know I’m good for it.

Despite being House Stark, I can be a bit Lannister-y when it comes to money. 🙂

Note: I typically avoid this strategy, but if it’s a small thing like ‘I’m waiting for the check I’ve deposited to clear’ or ‘that last $50 is really a dealbreaker,’ I just ask a LARPer or non-LARPer for some help.

Barter Services

Like most people, I do or make stuff that has value. When time allows, I try to barter my services rather than pay. I often find that I have more time than money and/or I can make time to accommodate the right barter. This isn’t really something I do directly with LARP organizers, but with others so I can cut costs. I’ve traded a blog post for another blog post; I’ve also traded editing, writing, and marketing consultations, brand endorsement (if I like the product) for swag and costuming.

Since I went from a job with a commute to working at home, I’ve also been able to put in extra hours working or bartering.

Get a Press or GM Pass to Conventions

When I’m very active, I put about 20 hours/month into maintaining this website, which means I’m investing in it (not to mention a financial investment which sometimes occurs). That means I take full advantage of everything I can do with it, which includes getting press passes to conventions like NYCC. I also GM at conventions and organize panels, which cuts down greatly on expenses.

I typically only stay in a hotel for one convention (Gen Con); otherwise I hit up local cons, only go for one day, or stay with a friend in the area – and I’m usually willing to host friends in turn for Philly cons.

About half the conventions I go to include a LARP component.

Buy Costuming in Advance – and Compromise on Ethics

When you order from China, it’s riskier, cheaper, and you may be ordering from a company that pays low wages and offers sweatshop conditions. While I do order from local crafters and Etsy sellers in the U.S. and beyond, I do what most people do – order from sites like Wish. I’ve tried to justify it a hundred different ways. “Maybe if healthcare wasn’t so expensive, I could be more ethical about my buying decisions,” and “I know a lot of social justice oriented LARPers who do this,” etc. But ultimately, those are excuses.

Tara at Magischola - blockbuster LARP

Here I am as a character who is all about justice, but part of my costume was likely made in unethical work conditions. Still not optimal, but I am slowly doing better.

Whether ordering online from Wish or elsewhere (including domestic and international items from Etsy), I make sure to allow plenty of time for my item to arrive. It’s just not possible to order internationally without doing this, and I prefer to avoid rush fees for domestic shipping.

Note: I’m also a big fan of Holy Clothing. They pay 60% above minimum wage in India and provide new clothes (often LARP-friendly) at a good price point. This is an especially useful option if you’re looking for dresses or skirts and really want to support the workers (mostly women) who make the clothes.

In the pictured costume, I’m wearing:

  • Dress from Holy Clothing (India)
  • Bodice, cloak, compass necklace, and hood from Wish.com (China)
  • Maison Du Bois pendant from Etsy (LiselleMade, Denmark)
  • Wand holster from Etsy (TheMagicalFox, U.S.)
  • Belt from Torrid (Taiwan; U.S. retailer)
  • Wand purchased at convention (Vendor from U.S., wand of unknown manufacture)
  • Hat from Amazon / stars from craft store (unknown manufacture)
  • Boots from Payless (Taiwan)
  • Leggings from LuLaRoe (Independent Consultant in U.S.; made in China)

Additionally, I’ve mixed high-end items (like a jacket from Volante Designs) with many of the items on the above list, as well as a women’s doublet from GarbGeek.

Borrow Costuming

I have lots of friends for lots of different LARPs. One friend’s signature item in a LARP I’ll never go to can easily become my signature item for a game she’ll never attend and vice versa. For an upcoming game about fae, I’m borrowing a fancy bracer from TGI Editor Callie, who will also play the LARP. Meanwhile, my friend Sharon is in Poland LARPing as a witchard in a piece I usually wear for a wizard game in the States!

Unicorn Clothing = IRL Acceptable, LARP Acceptable

The best clothing of all is like my solid color leggings. I wear them to bed. I wear them to LARP. I wear them under skirts. The same with my boots. Admittedly, this is typically a lot easier for women than men (if you’re conforming to establishment gender standards), but there are tons of items I have that both myself and my LARP characters have worn. Talk about a win-win.

Determine Weekly Survival Budget

I’ve had some weeks with a tiny bank account balance, like those times I was spending hundreds per week on healthcare. Even though my budget is working better now, I picked up a great lesson from those weeks. If I have gas in the tank, food in the fridge, enough food for the dog, and prescriptions for myself and the dog, I can get by on $50/week for incidentals. That includes hanging out with friends. (I do have the privilege of working at home, so my commuting costs are nil unless I am working at Starbucks for the day.)

Now that I know that, it’s like a game. If I want to save money for that LARP, I’d better survive on my minimum budget. This has all the fun of a game and none of the stress of not actually having money, since the rest goes into savings.

magical wizard

The bright side: For some, it’s possible to manifest a blockbuster LARP budget.

Lastly, all sorts of LARPs contain hidden expenses (or savings). While New World Magischola is inaccessible for some due to ticket cost, there’s also a low barrier to entry when it comes to costuming. At regular semester games, you get a robe to borrow and a tie to keep. You are required to bring a wand, but you can even use a stick (many do!) and you’ll find many mages with extra wands to lend.

Update: New World Magischola announced scholarships. Apply here!

Beyond all these considerations, I have been better with other general cost-saving measures. I eat at home a lot (which has been easier since I’ve been working at home), saving about $15/weekday, have a rainy day fund change jar, brew coffee at home, use Amazon Prime, choose Netflix over going to the theater, etc.

Similarly, some fantasy boffer combat games even rent or loan tabards and boffer weapons to new players, and a basic tee shirt tunic is relatively easy to make. Here’s a handy guide from Amtgard.

Got more suggestions? Please leave your comments below!