Every once in a while I get asked what attending the Recurse Center is like, either because people read about it on my blog or it comes up in conversation with my programming-affiliated friends. I always speak very highly of it, and often people are very excited about the idea, but invariably the question of time and money comes up. Most people would like to commit to a full batch of 12 weeks to get into the right headspace for creative exploration—six or single-week batches feel much more constrained, which can lead to productivity, but also make it harder to enjoy the freedom of doing what you want.
In this blog post I want to address some of the practical aspects of attending the Recurse Center. Some very useful information can be found on the internal wiki, but it is only open to you once you have already been admitted, so it doesn’t really help clear up any doubts you may have beforehand.
I also want to share some financial and tax advice that is especially interesting for Germans like me, because it can truly make a difference.
All of this information is based on personal experience, and probably not all of it is generally applicable.
Finding the time
Many Recursers are between jobs or even quit their jobs to be able to come to the Recurse Center. This is especially true for 12-week batchlings. It wasn’t, however, true for me, although I attended RC for 12 weeks as well. I have a pretty good relationship with my company, and we’re small enough to plan together, so I was able to throw the idea at my boss and ask him whether he’d be open to letting me go on unpaid leave for three months, and, if so, when might be a good time. He was in fact open to it, and in fact very excited about the idea! Chances are that you can talk to your boss as well, especially if you don’t work in a very big company. This was important for me, because it removed at least some of the uncertainty of moving halfway across the world for three months for some me-time. It also meant that I didn’t have to go through the hassle of going on unemployment, which would mean dealing with German bureaucracy and my insurance and employee benefits were not going to have to take a hit1.
If you are not as fortunate, you might want to think about spending some time at RC between jobs. It might help you figure out what you want to do next, and RC offers excellent recruiting services, which I can report both as an applicant interviewing through RC and as an employer hiring from them!
I will not tell you to quit your job to go, of course. RC was one of the most transformative experiences that I have had in my life as a developer, but it might not be worth giving up your livelihood for, even temporarily.
Before we dive into the financials I’d like to express that I’m by no means an accountant. I’m not even particularly good with money. So you might take all of my advice with the appropriate amount of salt.
First of all, you need to determine what your budget is. I paid about $4,500 in rent for a three month lease (one bedroom, shared living space with roommates). For NYC standards, I understand that that’s neither terribly cheap nor expensive. In my search I optimized for a short commute (RC has since moved locations), and ended up commuting about 17 minutes door-to-door, which was pretty great. It’s more than twice what I spend on my nice flat in Berlin, though, for about a fourth of the room, and I expect most international people might be intimidated by that number.
I also wanted to optimize for being productive most often, which meant that I had to set aside enough money to not have to worry about it. All in all, that meant that I budgeted around $10,000, which turned out to be pretty accurate. But, as with time budgets, my spending seems to always fill up however much I allocate, so I could’ve been able to sustain myself on much less than that. I wanted to enjoy myself, though, and so I erred on the side of having a little too much money set aside. Just keep in mind that if you are not able to invest that kind of money in what might feel like planning a three-month vacation, you can live on a much tighter budget. The Recurse Center wiki has a lot of information on good food options, and you could aim for a daily budget of $12-16, which would amount to $1100-1500 over three months.
Another important expense that you shouldn’t forget to budget in is the MTA subway pass. The monthly pass costs $121, which means that you’ll probably spend at least $364 on that as well. Christian Ternus also kindly pointed out that it takes 46.8 rides in one month to make this ticket cheaper than a regular subway pass or an auto-refilling Metro card; it’s likely that you’ll hit this limit, but if you plan your rides carefully, you might be able to shave off a few extra bucks by doing that instead!
There are also a few social outings, some of which include food and drinks provided by RC, some of which are bring-your-own-stuff. Depending on your preferred level of liquid libations, this can be quite costly. Bars are usually at least twice as expensive as in Berlin, for instance, and grocery store beer can easily be three to four times as expensive. The same is true for cigarettes, which I have an unfortunate habit of smoking. They are a staggering $13-17 per pack in NYC, and don’t even come in hand-chiseled packaging.
The bottom line is that if you are on a tighter budget, you might need to look at your lifestyle and habits and see what you can do to minimize hidden costs. I was lucky enough to not have to do that, though, and won’t tell you what to do. If you have a more generous budget, you might want to think about what’s important to you: do you want a short commute? Close to any particular landmark? Do you want to live in Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Jersey, or elsewhere? And are you interested in trying out some of the best restaurants that the city has to offer, some of which might be expensive2, or do you prefer homecooked meals?
Bonus: advice for Germans
I have a bit of extra advice for my German readers who are interested in going to RC: there might be some tax-related info that I have that makes you budget unexpectedly higher.
If you don’t cancel your lease back home, you are essentially paying for two households—in tax lingo, “doppelte Haushaltsführung”. If you ask nicely after attending RC, the faculty will sign a letter saying you attended RC, together with a little blurb about what RC is and is not. My accountant argued that this was a business-related expense, because it is beneficial to my career as a programmer, and I essentially got refunded my entire three months of rent when I declared my taxes for that year. That means that it took almost 1.5 years to get that money back, of course, but it does mean that it’s not completely gone! This took me by surprise and is worth considering when planning your budget.
The social & cultural
In the last 1.5 years, I got much better at interacting with people both in professional and private settings, partly because of my international friends and relatives, partly because of work. Back when I first attended RC, I was very awkward. I had this feeling of being trapped in a social uncanny valley—the US functions mostly the same as Germany culture-wise, but sometimes just different enough that there was some friction that made it difficult for the foreign person to express themselves feely. One of the best decisions I made was to write about it, as open and as vulnerable as I dared to be. The reception was unequivocally positive, and a lot of international people shared similar feelings. It felt great to know that I wasn’t alone. Chances are that you’ll be very nervous for quite some time in the beginning. There are a lot of new people around you, some of whom you might already know and admire. I felt out of place at times, and like I didn’t belong. But after a while I was able to relax more, meet nice people, connect with them, and have almost exclusively positive interactions.
What I want to say is this: depending on where you’re coming from, there might be a bit of a cultural gap. But you’re not the only person from another country, and certainly not the only person who is overwhelmed by NYC. Admitting that you feel overwhelmed might help a lot.
There is also a voluntary, Recurser-led event called Feelings Checkins where you will be able to talk about your feelings with other people and listen to theirs. I’ve never attended, but I feel like that would be a great place to start being vulnerable while still not being quite as public about it as I decided to be, a good middleground.
Your private life
There are probably also some concerns about your private life that you’ll have to think about going into RC. Recursers will often do a lot of social activities together, and it’s usually not too hard to find a group of people to do these activities with, or even make friends. But leaving friends and family can be taxing in its own right. I know it was hard for me, even though my wife and I spend more time apart than other couples usually do3.
You might want to account for phone calls or video chats with the people you love in your schedule, or even invite them over if you can afford it and your landlord or roommate permits it. Some landlords are not as open about you inviting friends, and you should check with them if you plan on doing that, as early as possible. I checked to see whether that’s okay before I got my appartment, I even made it part of my initial message to the landlord. It was okay, and if it hadn’t been, I’d probably have looked somewhere else.
If you have the means or are mobile enough, you might also think about bringing your partner along; RC’s social events are often +1-friendly, and you will likely have a better time at RC than you would without them. Depending on what your partner does, however, it can be a pretty isolating experience for them, as you’ll likely make connections to people that they don’t know and have no immediate relation with—and don’t have as easy access to as you do, because they can’t be at RC during its regular hours. Your mileage may vary.
It’s been almost one and a half years since I never graduated from RC4. In a way, this blog post comes a little late, but then again I was at least able to give that extra bit of tax advice!
I hope this blog post helps you figure out how to make it possible for you to attend RC or that it prompts you to reflect about how you managed to organize your batch. I’d love for more articles like this one to appear, so that prospective Recursers can figure out what strategies work for planning for RC, what to watch out for, and what to know beforehand.
See you soon!
1. While we’re at it, you might want to think about getting international insurance for the time if you don’t already have that, especially as a German. We have a big culture around insurance, and it got rid of even more doubts and fears for me. Talk to your insurance company and see what’s available for you. Health insurance is especially important, in the hopefully unlikely event that you might require medical assistance during your time at RC.
2. I was fortunate enough to be able to try some good restaurants in NYC, and only a fraction of them were of the more expensive variety. That being said, I also did not have to shy away from spending more money when I wanted.
3. I’d like to emphasize that this is not because we can’t stand each other, quite the opposite—I miss her very much whenever I’m not around her, and I think she feels the same way. But sometimes there are very interesting things going on that require either of us to leave for some time, and that’s okay.
4. Never Graduating is a play on words about RC culture, it doesn’t mean that I dropped out (which is what I assumed when I first read it in the wild).