How much does attending Burning Man cost? These Burners shared their budgets.
Burning Man is a radically "commerce-free" event, meaning all goods and services must be bartered for or gifted. But before you arrive on the dusty plains of Black Rock City, you'll have to shell out some greenbacks.
Just how much money you must spend to survive for nine days in the middle of the Nevada desert varies. The median spending for participants for the week was $1,500 in 2018, according to the annual Black Rock City Census. But some Burners spent as little as $250 last year, assisted by Burning Man's low-income ticketing options and artist grants. On the other side of the spectrum, about 8 percent were high rollers, spending more than $5,000.
We asked a handful of regulars to disclose their Burning Man budgets and provide tips for stretching funds and supplies on the playa. Everyone we interviewed spends between $1,000 to $2,000 on the nine-day sojourn.
"I didn't have any expenses the first time, at the beach," said Scooter Marriner, who has attended 14 "burns" in his 56 years. Marriner was present at the first Burning Man ever, held at San Francisco's Baker Beach in 1986. Things have changed since then, but Marriner finds ways to keep the week cheap.
The first expense to budget for is the ticket, which started at $425 this year, not including a $100 parking pass. Limited low-income tickets are available for $210. (You can view a breakdown of how the ticket money is used here).
Here's Marriner's thrifty Burning Man budget:
- Travel: $50 to the desert from Oakland, using carpools to split costs
- Accommodations: $90 for a room the day after the burn to take a shower and get a good night's sleep
- Food: Marriner doesn't budget for food, since he eats the same on the playa as he does at home. He cooks his meals ahead of time and freezes them.
- Costumes: Around $100 per year. Most costumes are recycled during the year, including Marriner's Harry Potter bathrobe, which "will become my at-home bathrobe," he says.
- Gear: $100 to replace a tarp and some cords, and to purchase a small cooler for snacks
- Theme camp expenses: $250 for materials to create decorative art pieces and camp event signs. Marriner contributes these art pieces in lieu of contributing the same amount as cash for camp dues.
In total, this year's burn will cost Marriner about $1,015, which is on the lower-end of a typical Burning Man budget. His money-saving tips include buying gear at thrift stores, borrowing things and "making do."
"More 'things' will not make a better experience," he said.
It's not always possible to keep the price that low. Holly Baxter, 25, will be traveling to Burning Man from Cornwall, England, this year. At her first burn, in 2017, she spent around $1,630, including a low-income ticket. Her biggest expense was the flight: about $660 roundtrip.
She stressed to budget for unexpected expenses. In 2017, her and her traveling companions' car broke down on the side of the road on their way out of Black Rock, resulting in a single-night hotel stay in Reno and towing fees.
That said, "I think Burning Man is very possible on a tight budget."
According to Zachary Reiss-Davis, a four-time burner, "There are two major ways to spend potentially a lot more money on the playa: personal comfort and gifts to the community."
Air-conditioned yurts and RVs are much more costly than sleeping in a tent, "but also unnecessary for most people," Reiss-Davis said. Of note: The playa can reach upwards of 100 degrees in late-August, when Burning Man is held. Those temperatures can plummet at night.
Large art and music installations can be costly, as well, though these are often crowd-funded.
Generally, the average Burning Man attendee doesn't spend much — if any — money on the playa. Baxter said she spent only $4 at Burning Man in 2017, to buy an iced coffee. (There are only two things you can purchase in Black Rock City: coffee and ice.)
Of course, for some Burners, the week can become a lavish affair. Let us consider the lobsters. In 2017, Google employees reportedly spent $140 to have fresh lobsters shipped to their offices from Maine, which they then transported to the playa.
There have also been rumors of lavish camps being set up along what's known as "Billionaire's Row" — "with all the luxuries of the Ritz, including private chefs," the New York Post reported. The tabloid said some attendees spend as much as $50,000 to "camp in style with seated dinners and toothsome tasting menus."
That's hardly in keeping with the ethos of the event, organizers say, who have taken steps to address the commodification and exploitation of Burner culture. In February, Burning Man CEO Marian Goodell published a post on the official event blog decrying the proliferation of posts by Instagram influencers advertising products on the playa and showing off their luxury amenities.
"Black Rock City requires significant investments of time, energy, and resourcefulness," she wrote. "Part of what makes Burning Man unique and powerful is that everyone has to work hard to be there. Planning, securing a ticket, packing, building, organizing, contributing, and engaging are part of the journey everyone should experience."
To address the commodification of the event, Burning Man organizers made changes to the ticketing process this year, including expanding low-income ticket allocation by 18 percent and growing the "Directed Group Sale, which targets "collaborative groups" like art installation groups, by 10 percent.
Though it isn't always a cheap affair, all of the Burning Man attendees we interviewed agreed it's worth the price.
"It's a magical community filled with great people trying to create really unique experiences for each other," said Reiss-Davis. "When you compare it to a week-long vacation anywhere else...the cost seems very reasonable."
Michelle Robertson is a freelance writer. She can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter at @mrobertsonsf.