5 Tips for Surviving the Marathon Expo Without Maxxing Your Credit Card

Image via good old Microsoft Clipart.

Normally one of the more prosaic and emotional Salties, I’m taking a  break this week to write a bit more analytically.  But worry not, as I’m sticking to a topic close to the heart:  money.  Though marathoners and triathletes tend to be generalized as “upper middle class,” and though demographic studies have shown that “we” tend to have more discretionary income than the average American, the response to our posts on both rising race fees and running on a shoestring (nice pun, right?) confirm that we Salties are not rolling in dough – and that we’re very discriminating about how we spend it.

But rich or poor, tightwad or spendthrift, clothes-horse or minimalist, there is one area of this whole racing thing – particularly the marathon – that I have seen reduce men and women alike to careless millionaires.  I’ve watched them throw caution to the wind, pick money from trees, melt plastic like it’s butter.  And oh, how I remember the first time I did it.  The glee.  The gluttony.  The sheer adrenaline rush.  That’s right, Salties – the scariest part of racing for your wallet isn’t the entry fees, the airfares and the hotels, even the five new pairs of shoes every year.  Oh no – it’s the marathon EXPO.

In my last post, I shared with our readers that it took me 17 marathons to qualify for my first Boston.  Those 17 were early in professional career and my first several years out of college; I was making little, spending less, and trying desperately to pay off my student loans early.  In those days, it wasn’t hard to behave; buying more than a single souvenir shirt (if that) meant not eating or paying a bill.  But that first Boston – it was special.  Not only was it special because it was MY FIRST BOSTON, but also because I had recently moved in with DB as well as gotten a promotion.  I was in the best financial shape of my (young) life, and I decided upon leaving on the trip that NOTHING was off-limits.  I was going on a day-after-Christmas kind of shopping spree at that Expo, and I was going to love every minute of it.

Entering Boston – and bankruptcy?

And I did.  At first.  But by the end of it, I actually felt kind of sick.  And bored.  And worst of all, I made some horrible discoveries once I got home.

I had spent almost twice what I had ever even expected.  I had things that didn’t fit.  I had things I didn’t even like.  And worst of all … I had things I didn’t even remember buying!!!  My suitcase and dresser drawers were replete with the BAA logo – and all too soon, so were my throwaway and donation bins.

This is certainly an extreme instance of marathon-mania and Expo-gluttony, but I learned a lot from that little shopping spree, and it’s stuck with me through several more Bostons, seven New York City’s, and some Chicago’s, Marine Corps, and LA’s.  So, as fall marathon season approaches, allow me to share with you six quick tips for getting out of the Expo with your financial future intact – and choice souvenirs that you will truly use and treasure.

1. Have a budget.  Depending on the race, the season, or the event’s importance to me, I use one of two budgets:  a cash budget or a “clothing budget.”  A cash budget is simply that:  you have this much to spend, and when it’s gone, you’re done.  A “clothing budget” (which is what I typically use at Boston or New York) is when I tell myself I’m allowed one jacket OR one long-sleeve and one short-sleeve shirt, etc.  Regardless, the point is to always set your limit PRIOR TO LEAVING FOR THE EVENT – and to stick to it.  I was challenged hard at New York last year – I chose the jacket and had to pass up several cute shirts instead.  But having made the choice ahead of time definitely helped.  I have no regrets, and wear the jacket over a tank or camisole regularly in the spring and fall, as well as on winter runs.

2. Do a lap.  My girlfriends and I always used to do this at the mall in high school, and it’s stuck with me as a great tool for Expos.  I never buy a single piece until I’ve done an entire lap of the Expo.  The shirt that looks so AMAZING the minute you walk in the door might be the least exciting piece there – yet you end up keeping it because you don’t want to wait the 30 minutes in that long line to return it.  Remember, most Expo stores are designed by PROFESSIONALS – and they’re designed to make all that stuff look like you really need it.  Do a lap, identify and price the pieces you’re truly interested in, and then make your purchasing decisions according to your budget.  Last year at New York, I had less regrets about those shirts I left behind because I still didn’t “feel them” as much as I did that hot little running jacket.

3. Get your official race shirt first.  This year’s Big Sur Marathon shirt was AWESOME.  It was a women’s specific cut, I was there in time to secure my size, and it was a beautiful corral color with a graphic that I liked.  I don’t always buy souvenir pieces at Big Sur, but seeing that shirt, I knew I didn’t need one.  But this sword cuts both ways – for example, when I’m at a goal race and find the race shirt to be a hideously designed unisex nightgown, I know that I’m likely spending part of my budget on a souvenir race shirt that I’ll be able to wear proudly – and that also fits.

4. Try it on.  I know, the annoying part.  But please, whatever you do, no matter how well you know a brand or your size, try the piece on before you buy it.  There’s nothing like getting back to your hotel and finding the arms on a half-zip are tight enough to be tourniquets, or that those shorts could masquerade as bikini bottoms on your next beach vacation.  I’ve learned to always wear a tiny tank or camisole under my shirt when I’m going to an Expo; that way, I can try tops and jackets on right in the store or area without having to go to the bathroom or trust a friend’s opinion.  Bottoms and pants definitely require the trip to the bathroom, but better an inconvenience than getting home with a $60 pair of pants that are droopy in the bottom.  And you know exactly what I mean.

5. Work in cash or a single credit card.  For me, cash was always best; it was a finite form of payment, and when it was gone, it was gone.  As life and career have progressed, I’ve become a little obsessed with those “mileage cards,” – after all, three years of hard work and plastic melting just paid for our flights and hotels to the Olympics!  But even when working in credit, I’ve learned to take ONE CARD ONLY to the Expo, and to leave the others at home or in the hotel.  The more you have with you, the easier is it to start “spreading it around” – and to forget that it’s still money you owe when you get home.  Take only what you need and only what you can afford with you – cut your ability to splurge or make irrational decisions off at the knees.

None of this, ladies, none of this. Image via Photobucket.

BONUS! You don’t need it all. I’ll typically use my regular weekly spending allowance (remember, I’m a master of the budget) for any smaller things, like mugs, headbands or pint glasses. Don’t forget those little things when you make your budget – some friends that I’ve shared my technique with have a small “flex” budget for those items. At the same time, try to remember: YOU DON’T NEED IT ALL. Unless you’ve really been meaning to get a roll of K-T tape, or a Phiten necklace, or that weird glowing bracelet that’s going to magically latch onto your free-radicals and convert them to anti-oxidants or something, you probably don’t need it. And I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s probably not going to make you miraculously faster at your race the next day. Stocking up on your favorite socks, gels or chews at race: makes sense. Buying magic beans: poor use of budget. Remember, these are professionals, and they’re there to get your money. Let’s repeat that – they may truly believe in their product, but their goal is not to make you faster, it is to GET YOUR MONEY.

So spend it wisely, and happy shopping!

What’s the craziest thing you ever bought at a marathon expo?

Trail and adventure enthusiast. Girl who swears like a sailor but not when she's teaching Sunday School. Survived infertility without a successful pregnancy. Self-employed, primarily working for Clif Bar and Company. Thirteen 100-mile race finishes with seven top 3 placements. An original Saltine.

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  1. So am I the only one who has the opposite problem? I’ve always been one to avoid the souvenir shops and such when traveling and I just really kinda hate someone trying to sell me stuff. So when I go to the expo I head for my t-shirt, race number, maybe grab a free snack and book it out of there! I even did this in Boston and have always regretted not getting a jacket or something, especially considering the race shirt in 2007 was a huge faded black mess. Last year at C’bus I felt all cray-cray dropping $10 on a pair of sunglasses (that are now broken, of course!) I think I need to head to my next expo with a pre-established non-tightwad attitude and treat myself to something for once 🙂

    1. You’re not crazy at all! My favorite tip is the bonus tip! I don’t actually need anything new 99% of the time, but I have so much fun shopping for stuff that I forget all the time. I actually find myself going into shopping situations (and think about it, I live in NEW YORK CITY) having to tell myself I don’t need anything before I enter! If I do that I’m pretty good about keeping my wallet in my pocket. Otherwise it’s all over! Think about me at the Cleveland Expo…a pair of shoes, a 3 pack of socks (shared with you), two stickers…and I wanted so much more, especially thinking that it could be my only marathon ever! If I hadn’t been there with you and Mom I bet I would have splurged much worse.

  2. Tip #1 is perfect. I absolutely have the problem of being able barely able to afford entry fees let along drop 75-100 at the expo. Last year I had a good round at the Austin marathon expo. I got a few stickers/magnets that I wanted for under $3 apiece. But I also bought 2 bright orange long sleeve technical shirts for $5 each. It’s a great price and they were highly visable but they were way too big for me. I wore one of them once and then put them in the charity bin. I was just overcome with the excitement of the crowds and such a good deal.

    I also got burned by tip #2 although I’m a big believer. On my first lap I saw some floruscent arm sleeves for $10. Great price. After the lap I wanted to go back for them and it took me about 45 minutes to find them again. I kept finding other arm sleeves for $15 or $20 but at that point, I knew that there was a pair of $10 sleeves and I was going to find it! (which I did).

  3. Oh, tip #4 is so important. I have a pair of Moving Comfort shorts that I love. I ran 3 marathons in them and wore them for almost all my long runs. Love love love. When I found them at a marathon expo for 1/2 price, I was stoked. However, they eventually ended up in the garbage because while the shorts were size small, the liner was like a XL. Seriously uncomfortable.

    I’ve managed to behave myself pretty well at the expo. I always buy the $3 cotton gloves, and usually go for a souvenir shirt. The last one I was at was almost overwhelming and I couldn’t get myself to pull the trigger to buy much. There was a jacket that I waffled on, and I did regret later not having bought it.

  4. All great tips! I am kind of a Scrooge when it comes to expos, honestly. At my last big race, my BRF and I went back to the hotel to nap while our friends trolled the aisles!

    I have found that sometimes you can find race swag on the web site after the fact for discounted prices – sometimes majorly discounted! But this can also misfire. In Houston, I missed out on the shirt I really wanted because they sold out while I was hemming and hawing over it.