You're a foreign AIR. How much is the $1.500 stipend in San Francisco? Answered
So you want to be the next Instructables Artist in Residence? That’s awesome! Being on Instructables was one of the best experiences of my life (if you read my final blog post, you already know that). The only bad part is when you have to say goodbye. But, even if you manage to get over the after-Instructables broken heart (good luck with that), you have to be careful about the risks of a broken wallet, too.
Yesterday, a fantastic author from another country asked me if the $1.500 stipend was enough for living in such an expensive city as San Francisco. Honestly, I’m not the best money adviser, but as a Colombian who was living five and a half months in the Bay, I want to share with you my experience with the economical part. Despite I had an awesome AIR program coordinator (Noah Weinstein), the help of my friends Alisson Sombredero and Jennifer Hansen, and all the Internet for investigating, there are some things you can only learn by yourself, at your risk.
So, let’s suppose you are a foreign artist, from the middle class of your country, with a normal job, who wants to travel to the amazing Pier 9. What kind of things you have to keep in mind?
NOTE: I’m not an official spokesman from Autodesk. And some things can change from now until you read this post. So, if you have any doubt about the AIR program or need some help, ask the Instructables AIR Program Coordinator.
1. Plan ahead: The AIR program is a very tempting opportunity, and probably you want to be in Pier 9 RIGHT NOW! But think: what is the best moment for you to be in San Francisco? How much time will you stay? Do you have any savings? Will your parents support this amazing opportunity? Do you have any responsibilities that affect your decision (a steady job, girlfriend, spouse, children)? What will you do when the AIR ends and you have to return to your country? Do you have any debts? How is your English? Do you have emergency contacts on the city?
When I took the decision of being part of the AIR program, it was October of 2012, for starting March 2013, with a duration of three months (at the beginning) so I had 5 months to prepare myself for the travel. So, you have to think: how much time do you need for preparing your travel?
2. Your stipend: You will receive US$1.500 monthly. With good planning and some restrictions, you can have a good time with that money. Autodesk pays the materials and tools for your projects. But remember: the AIR program doesn’t cover air tickets, visa paperwork, health insurance, taxes and other extraordinary expenses. It’s all on you. Besides, it’s a stipend, not a salary. Be careful with those words when you talk with a migratory authority. A salary implies a work contract and work visa, and you aren’t an employee, but a vendor who probably will enter to the United States using a B1 Visa (Business/Tourism), with a stipend for covering housing, food and transportation expenses. So, don’t use the words “salary” and “work”. Use “stipend”, “invited”, and “artist in residence”. Instructables helped me with an invitation letter explaining to Migration what kind of activities I would do on the AIR.
Autodesk is very prompt with stipend payments, but there is not an exact date for paydays. It’s between the first and second week of every month, but it can varies. So, at least the first two or three weeks of your time in SF are on you. And you have to eat, transport, pay your rent and deposit, and so on. Think between $2.000 and $2.500.
3. Housing: You will need to rent a room and to share the house with somebody else. And getting an economic and good room is a very complicated mission in San Francisco. Especially if you will stay only for 1 to 3 months (landlords prefer long term tenants). The best site to find a room is Craiglist. However, everybody can post on that site, so be prepared to find some bizarre stuff…
Before you go, Google Maps is a mandatory tab in your browser. It’s a good idea to know the area. Every time you see a room offer, look how far is from Pier 9 in San Francisco. Keep in mind something: San Francisco is just a city from a big area named “San Francisco Bay Area”. In the Bay Area you will find a lot of cities and towns like Oakland, Berkeley, San Jose, South San Francisco, San Mateo, Redwood City, Concord, San Leandro, etc. A lot of people live on the nearest towns and take public transportation to San Francisco.
Don’t forget to investigate if the neighborhood of the room offer is a good area to stay.
If you can’t get a room before you arrive to San Francisco, think about a hostel for the first days, meanwhile you find one. (But just for the first days). Or you can try couchsurfing. Don’t trust in the $80/night hotels on Mission, because you can find a very creepy experience.
Back to the room for rent: Try to get a furnished room, or you will have to buy at least, a mattress (and you can’t take it home at the end). If you are good cooking, having a kitchen will help you to save money.
When you get the room, most of the landlords ask you to pay the first month plus the deposit. The deposit is some kind of backup money for the landlord, in case you break something, damage something or don’t pay your rent. At the end, the landlord must return your money. Consider it some kind of saving. But be careful: try to have a written contract, always ask for a receipt of every money you give, show to your landlord the fails of your room (take pictures just in case), and don’t break anything.
My experience: my first three months, I lived in Treasure Island (in the middle of the Bay Bridge. Believe it or not, it’s part of the city of San Francisco). Good neighborhood, old room, furnished, $625/month, $600 deposit (so, my first payment when I moved was $1.225), creepy landlord (if somebody named Israel offers you a room on Treasure Island, it doesn’t matter how nice he sounds, basically… RUN!)
Next two months: I lived in Oakland (passing the Bay Bridge). Beautiful house, fantastic landlords, good neighborhood. $600/month, $500 deposit.
The farther the house is from San Francisco, the better and cheaper will be the room.
My recommendation: try to get something in San Francisco. All the fun is in that city! I loved Treasure Island, but probably you can find a better neighborhood. If you get a room in another town, you will have always to think how you can return to home if you are going to have some night fun. Maybe it’s more expensive, but you have to consider carefully the next point.
4. Transport: You will find these ways for commuting:
• MUNI: This bus and metro system are exclusive for the city of San Francisco. $2 per ticket, but you can use the same ticket in the lapse described on it, or all night long. It works 24 hours.
• BART: Bay Area Rapid Transport. This metro communicates San Francisco with the nearest cities and the SFO Airport, and it’s a quick way to travel inside the city. According to the distance, you will have to pay. If you get a room in the east bay area, think in more or less $3.65 per ride. And it doesn’t work in the middle of the night.
• AC Transport: Bus in the East Bay Area. $2.10 if you are travelling inside Oakland, $4.20 if you need to cross the Bay Bridge to go to San Francisco.
• FERRY: I never used it. I leave you that mystery.
• CALTRAIN: This train communicates San Francisco with the farthest towns in the Bay Area. More expensive. Think in $8 per ride.
• CARPOOLING: It works only at week mornings. In a marked point, a driver picks up two or three passengers for using the Fastrak (more economic toll to pay). Most of the time is free, but the driver can ask you for one dollar tip. Very economic and fast, only if you din't mind to take up a strange car with other two or three strangers.
You can manage all of the public transportation options using something called Clipper Card.
Avoid the taxi cabs. They are very expensive!
My recommendation: If you live in San Francisco, MUNI is the cheapest, safest and best way to travel. You can get an Adult Muni-only Pass for only $66 and for that month, you can travel all you want inside San Francisco. You can get it in any Walgreens. Or you can try getting a bike.
Living in another city implies you have to organize a logistic plan for your transportation, including: BART, MUNI, bike, AC bus, carpooling, Caltrain, Ferry, free shuttles, and thinking like Cinderella every time you are invited to a party in San Francisco. I prefer to pay an $800 room in San Francisco and $66 in transport, than a $600 room in Oakland and $300 in transport.
Here is a recommendation from Canida: There is a bike share in SF. For $88/year, you can borrow a bike for as many 30-minute trips as you like. Exists a bike stand directly across the street from Pier 9. More info here.
5. Food: If you can buy groceries and make your own food, awesome! You can find microwaves on Pier 9. In my case, it was cereal with milk and fruit at morning, sandwiches at night, and lunch on the food trucks near Pier 9. Think in an average of $11 per lunch or dinner, depending of the place and if you want to add a soda or a dessert. McDonald’s and Burger King aren’t good options. You can find some good Chinese lunches and Safeway’s specials for less than $8. Remember: the prices showed on the menu don't include the tax.
My weekly budget for groceries (for breakfast and dinner) was $30.
6. Cash: Ok, there’s some delicate point in this talk, and probably one of the only things for improving in the awesome AIR program: your monthly stipend probably will be paid in a $1.500 Rewards Card. The good news: a rewards card is very useful! You can buy on Internet, you can carry a lot of money on this single card, you can use it as a debit/credit card, and you can pay with the card in most of restaurants, food trucks and stores. The bad news: you still need cash for some things (especially for paying the rent). And there is no simple way for changing your electronic money for cash. You can’t do withdrawals in an ATM or bank, you can’t consign that money to an account, you can’t do international transfers, you can’t pay debts and you can’t get cash back when you buy stuff.
Besides, some places require a minimal bought if you want to use the card, or charge an extra amount. And probably you will have to spend all the rewards card money before returning to your home country. So, be prepared. Luckily, I found an awesome person (I won’t say her name because everybody will ask her for that kind of help) who changed some of my cards for cash, so I could defend myself.
7. Shopping: You will need (or want) to buy extra stuff: personal care, towels, blankets, clothes, gifts, etc. The best places are Target (Mission St. at 4th) and Ross (Market St. at 4th). You will find some good sales, but remember: the excess baggage can be a headache when you have to return to your hometown, and airlines charges for that, $200 at least.
8. Communications: I got a good plan for my smartphone on T-Mobile: for $50/month, unlimited minutes, messages and data. Maybe you can get a better plan in another cellphones company. You will need specially the data. Believe me, in U.S., nobody does anything without consulting Internet first.
9. Tips: Tipping is very important in U.S. I’m not telling you have to give a tip in every place (you are in a personal “war economy”, after all), but there are a lot of situations where you definitively have to leave a tip, between 15% and 20% of the bill.
And don't forget: you are in San Francisco, so you have to visit some cool places! Some attractions are free. Others, (like Alcatraz) are between $20 and $30. Maybe more, if you want the star treatment. Don't take a guided tour into the city. With enough planning, you can go to the best places with less money.
Maybe it looks like too many troubles and considerations, but we are talking about moving to another country for at least one month. And remember, this awesome company will pay you for making whatever you want to build, using their out-of-this-world tools like 3D printers, lasercutters, waterjets and CNC machines, and giving you the materials. It's a fantastic opportunity you will love forever!!!!