Triathlete on a Budget

I don’t know if you know this, but triathlon is expensive.  Like, stupid expensive.  And I’m kind of stingy frugal.  Not only that, but while I am forever thankful that I make enough money to live, save, and have a little fun, I’m hardly raking in the dough with my two literature degrees.  In fact, I’ve yet to break into the middle-class according to Business Insider.  These factors merge to create a situation where I am unable (or, rather, unwilling) to pay for some of the finer aspects of being a triathlete.  In other words, I’m a triathlete on a budget.

Currently, I fund my triathlon hobby on $100 a month (and then some).  The “and then some” refers to extra income that I often split between fun expenses and practical expenses.  For instance, I put some of the money in my tax return this year into my fun savings account and some of it into my emergency savings account.  Or if I have some extra money at the end of the month because gas prices were low or I didn’t burn through my spending money and if my other accounts are looking well-stocked, I can put that extra money into my fun savings account.

While you don't need to know the details of my budget, I thought a visual representation of the amount of money I spend on triathlon vs. my total income might be useful.
While you don’t need to know the details of my budget, I thought a visual representation of the amount of money I spend on triathlon vs. my total income might be useful.

Essentially, I’ve had to set my priorities.  First, I try to remember that triathlons are not the most important thing.  Seriously.  As big of a role as they play in my life, I need to remember that they are just a hobby.  It would be great to get a TT bike, but my 401k needs to be more important right now (much to my chagrin!). And I’m not in the financial position right now to choose both of those.  However, I also recognize that I do need to prioritize the hobbies that are important to me, and triathlons are important to me.  I looked through the withdrawals from my fun savings account, and with a few exceptions (birthday and Christmas presents, mostly), every single transaction for the past year is for triathlon stuff.  This isn’t to say that triathlon is the only fun thing I will ever spend money on, but it sure has been recently.  And that’s okay.  If I tried to spend money on travel, triathlon, gourmet food, and the trendiest clothes, I would be the kind of person that rode to an artisan coffee shop once a week (in a cute little hipster outfit) and spend the weekend in St. George once a month.  In other words, I might be more interesting, but I wouldn’t be able to devote much to any of my hobbies.

Setting my priorities gives me my baseline budget, but it doesn’t help me get all the stuff I need want on that budget.  So for anyone who might be reading this blog who is also an underfunded triathlete (or even just an underfunded participant in another hobby), here are some techniques that I’ve either used or considered using to help keep the spending under control.  (I feel obligated to mention that Rob works for an online outdoor recreation retailer.  I get pretty good deals through him for larger-ticket items, so certain tips below like buying used aren’t really all that applicable to me anymore because I can get things cheaper there than used.)

1. Think about buying used. Now, this isn’t always possible. You won’t ever get me into used bike shorts, for instance.  But for some of the bigger purchases (your bike and wetsuit, for instance), it’s pretty practical.  A lot of this is common sense, and you’ve read it about a million topics in a million places.  Buying used is fairly simply if you know what you are looking for.  If you know bikes, you can pick out a good deal when you see it on Craigslist or eBay.  It’s a little more difficult when you don’t really know the gear (like me).  You don’t want to get screwed and end up wasting money by spending it on something that turns out to be crappy.  So try to find a reliable source for the equipment.  Most shops that rent out wetsuits will periodically sell off their stock and buy new ones so that they have really high quality wetsuits that are in excellent shape.  These sales are a great opportunity to pick up a good used wetsuit for a good price.  When it comes to bikes, see if there is a local bike shop that sells used bikes.  I know that the Boise Bicycle Project is in that business in Boise and the Flynn’s Cyclery does it here in Salt Lake.  I suspect that there are shops like this in most cities.  If you tell them what you are looking for, they may even keep an eye out for you and let you know if something comes in.  If those options aren’t applicable for you, try to enlist the help of someone you know who is knowledgeable about the gear in question.  They can help you differentiate between the wheat and the chaff and find a great bike/wetsuit/whatever you’re looking for.

2. Race smart (financially). Racing can be expensive, and races can eat away at a limited budget.  See what you can do to minimize the cost of your races in a season.  Sign up for a 10k and a local sprint tri instead of two Olympic tris during your training cycle.  Or do whatever you can to lower your racing budget—local races, discount codes, etc.  If the sole purpose of a race is to practice racing or transitions, see if you can mimic that with a race-effort workout or transition practice in your garage.  I know, I know.  Nothing completely simulates race day.  But nothing can completely simulate money in your bank account when you have a leaky radiator, either.

3. Enlist family and friends. Not through GoFundMe, but through Christmas presents and birthday presents. I’m pretty difficult to buy for, so my family is always asking me what I want for my birthday or for Christmas.  So I give them ideas for triathlon stuff.  For instance, this year, my parents offered to get me new running shoes for my birthday (and I’m counting down the days because my current shoes are in bad shape).  I may ask for some cycling socks or elastic laces this year for Christmas.  Or a few more water bottles.  There are plenty of relatively inexpensive things that add up when you are purchasing them all yourself, and Christmas and birthdays can put a dent into those.  (And yeah, yeah, yeah.  Asking for water bottles and shoe laces for Christmas may be the most boring thing in the world, but I’ve never pretended to be interesting.)

These shoes have, like, 1,000 miles on them. I have no idea how I'm not injured. This is not recommended.
These shoes have  over 1,000 miles on them. I have no idea how I’m not injured. This is not recommended.  Sometimes, I am irresponsibly stingy.

4. Shop at discount store. This is only if comfort allows it. Cheap shoes are not worth shin splints and a cheap swimsuit is not worth chafing.  But if you don’t need to worry about chafing or foot injuries from decent-but-not-great shoes, check out Ross, Marshall’s and TJ Maxx.  For instance, I’ve never struggled with chafing while running.  So I get cheap running clothes as much as possible.  However, I do splurge for a high-quality swimsuit because they are more comfortable and last so much longer.  Of course, this bit of advice can apply to life and not just triathlons.  I love buying stuff at Ross and feeling like I’m getting an amazing deal.

I got these shorts at Ross for cheap, and they've become some of my favorite running shorts.
I got these shorts at Ross for cheap, and they’ve become some of my favorite running shorts.

5. Cut non-triathlon expenses. I find it far too easy to waste money due to laziness. Researching and deciding on a new cell phone plan can be an arduous process.  Meal-planning is really easy to put off until it’s too late for that week (I’m terrible at meal-planning, by the way).  But I know that giving myself permission to put any extra money from budget categories towards triathlon often motivates me to make the financially responsible decision because the thought of being that much closer to aero bars is way more fun than the prospect of putting $50 in my savings account.

6. Make difficult (but wise) decisions. This is the part that isn’t fun. Sometimes, you just have to say no, even to things you’d like to do.  I had to make a tough call this year.  When I did the Emmett’s Most Excellent Olympic Triathlon last year, there was a lackluster field and I ended up winning my age group.  I was taken aback when, a few months later, I received an invitation to the Age Group National Championships for the Olympic distance.  Competing in that race honestly sounded like a lot of fun, and for someone of my caliber, it really might have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  I liked the idea of traveling there and having an experience that I would be able to look back on forever.  But… I wanted to do an Ironman in 2016 and knew that meant signing up in 2015.  I knew that Ironman races are expensive.  I knew that flying halfway across the country with my bike and staying in a hotel would also be expensive.  So I had to choose, and I wanted to do an Ironman more.  Signing up for my Ironman recently took my triathlon fund down to under $100, so I definitely wouldn’t have had enough money to do both.

I know (from experience) that skipping out on races, asking for socks for Christmas, and saying “no” to that really great thermal jersey you’ve seen on sale three times can be tough.  It’s frustrating to see people whizz by you on TT bikes and wonder just how much free speed you’re missing out on because you don’t have one (and probably never will).  However, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of either spending way too much money on triathlons or feeling like you are missing out because you don’t have unlimited funds.  And that’s not entirely true.  Money helps in triathlon, just like it helps in life.  And being a triathlete involves some measure of financial privilege.  But it’s not as much as people make it out to be.  Despite my modest job and modest earnings, when it comes down to it, I’ve been able to get everything I need for triathlon.  I’ve got a solid bike that will last for years, a wetsuit, a spot in Ironman Couer d’Alene, and I’ll have a brand new pair of shoes once my birthday rolls around.

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8 thoughts on “Triathlete on a Budget

  1. My problem is that I hate saying no!! I know I spend way too much on fitness in general. It’s terrible! But I go through running shoes like crazy – almost a pair a month (almost). Then the gym in my area that has a pool is crazy expensive but how do you do tris if you can’t swim? Ugh. Add that to race registration fees, and its ridiculous. Being healthy should not cost us so much! We should be able to deduct it from our taxes because we will be less of a burden on the healthcare system since we are taking care of our bodies. Haha. Now I’m ranting. But your tips are really awesome! I like your race smart tip especially, and I need to work on saying no!

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    1. I’m so bad about running shoes! And I know I’m going to start getting hurt if I don’t start being more responsible. I maybe should have mentioned this in my post too (because it’s a big triathlon budget item), but I crazy lucked out for my swimming pool. The system of city recreation centers is pretty good in Salt Lake, and there’s one that is basically *just* an aquatic center, and a year’s membership there (if paid all at once) comes out to $12 (!) a month. In the past, I’ve considered renewing my lifeguarding certification and working at a pool 5-10 hours a week just for the free membership because they cost so much. One thing you might try is bargaining. I know my ex once got a pretty big discount by doing that once. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but sometimes, gyms would rather lock in $40 a month than insist of the full price of $60 a month and end up getting nothing.

      It would be awesome if some portion of what we spent on fitness were tax-deductible! At my old job, they had a policy where they would comp you up to $50 for a registration fee after you completed the event… buuuuuut then they got into trouble with regulations/tax code/something and had to get rid of the policy. Lame.

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  2. I actually buy some stuff on eBay which helps. I’ve bought tops, bottoms, and sports bras (and work clothes now lol) I wouldn’t buy something you’d probably wear underwearless but I don’t mind this. Often times things are actually not used and just wrong sizes etc. In fact, I just got a whole bunch of new stuff that came to me free and I sold a bunch of old stuff that was the “reject” workout clothes to make room. I ended up making $50 on four pairs of shorts I hardly wore.

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    1. Oh, that’s a great idea! Do you stick with brands you know to avoid ending up with the wrong size or something that isn’t quite comfortable? That’s always my biggest fear when buying clothes or shoes online.

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      1. I tend to stick to brands I already know, but I’m the same size in most things. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some lemons that were samples with defects that I didn’t know (one with a neck hole that an adult head certainly couldn’t fit through!) but that’s why if I’m not sure, I don’t spend more than $5 or so. I can always re-list it and sell it again anyways 🙂 I don’t buy sneakers unless it’s one I already wear. I’ve found the sneakers that work well for me and I don’t do anything else now!

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