Last July I returned to Wisconsin after spending three years in the San Francisco Bay Area. I learned a lot during my time there and will never forget it. Not all of it was great, but even some negative aspects of SF taught me valuable life lessons. If you’ve never lived in SF before here’s some wisdom I gained while living there.
I know what poverty is and what it means to live in the most expensive city in the US
I knew SF was expensive, but I didn’t realize how insane the rental market was until I moved there. Luckily, I stayed in Oakland with a friend first, so I got gradually exposed to the Bay Area before moving to the city. However, I quickly realized even Oakland is outrageously expensive. I was desperate to live in SF though, so I took the first semi-affordable apartment I could find. Living in SF means you have to give up a lot to live there.
For instance, forgot about living on your own and living comfortably. I lived with two roommates, had a basement apartment with no stove, washer and dryer. Not only that, but I lived at the top of a giant hill that made commuting into the city a pain. I also kept my costs as low as possible by only eating two meals a day and sticking to peanut butter sandwiches, Hungry Man dinners and frozen pizza for my meals.
For any city, I wouldn’t have put up with this living situation, but the housing market in SF is so dire I endured. Hopeful a better life once I established myself. On the bright side, the public transportation was much better than Oakland, and it was actually cheaper for me to live in SF because of the monthly Muni Pass that’s exclusive to SF residents. I also got to know the city very well, and I was able to volunteer, network and socialize more frequently. All the positives made up for the negatives, but I knew it would be practically impossible to live alone and save money, so I knew I had to leave eventually.
I learned to be frugal and how to find cheap things to do
Having almost my entire income go to rent, student loans and other living expenses didn’t give me much left over to have fun. Fortunately, SF has a lot of free or very cheap things to do. I learn to frequent Sf.funcheap and Eventbrite to find things to do during my off time. I checked out Golden Gate Park, went to the Farmers Market in the Ferry Building, visited the Japanese Tea Gardens and Botanical Gardens, most of the museums, Angel Island, Alcatraz and more.
Living in SF made me look at finances differently
Once I realized being a writer wasn’t going to be easy in SF I realized how poor I was handling my money and needed to make a change. So, I read up on finance books and online blogs like I Will Teach You To Be Rich and Lifehacker. I hadn’t given much thought to 401k, savings account, emergency fund and the importance of starting a retirement account either. Plus my student loans debt wasn’t making it any easier to live in SF, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to thrive here if I stayed. Even though the poverty was bad, it was a blessing in disguise. If I hadn’t gone through my two years of being poor, I wouldn’t have been motivated to take financial responsibility in my life and learn to manage my money better.
I learned more about tech and startup culture
SF defines tech. Not having much of a tech background this area didn’t come naturally to me, but the more I researched and learned about it from work I saw its value and capability to change the world. I liked how tech could make out live easier, by seeing companies innovate with on-demand services like Uber, grocery deliveries and more. It’s incredible when you boot up your computer and realize that pretty much every tech company like Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, Oracle, Yelp, Uber and others have roots in SF. The startup culture also fascinated me. I was amazed that just one great idea can change the world and how a small group of people can transform into a large company in a matter of years.
I got meet some of my heroes growing up and developed a purpose
One of the most significant things about moving to SF for me was I learned that my dream job wasn’t really what I wanted to do with my life. So much of the video game industry is housed here like Sony, Electronic Arts and a ton of mobile companies. As well as a plethora of media publications like GamesBeat, IGN, GameSpot, Polygon, GamesRadar and more that I thought I’d easily find a job. However, it wasn’t as easy as I expected, and I quickly realized that video game journalism didn’t match with my reality. It didn’t help that my dream companies Electronic Gaming Monthly and 1UP, both closed when I moved here either.
I thought being a video game journalist and reviewing video games for a living sounded so cool, but instead, I found that I hate rushing through video games on a deadline, and I didn’t like writing news stories that resemble press releases. Most critical was playing games for work meant little time for playing games for fun and I didn’t like that reviewing games meant giving up weekends, evening and sleep to get reviews done in time. I realized that writing about games is more of a hobby than a job for me, and I prefer to keep my passion and work life separate instead. Still, it was fun attending conferences and events and getting to meet some of the journalists I admired over the years.
Also, living in SF was worthwhile because I got to go in the IGN building several times, attend the Game Developer Conference three time and go to all the IGDA video game developer meetups. As well as getting to meet video game journalists I admired like John Davison, Dan Shoe, Shane Bettenhausen, and Dean Takahashi.
I learned to be a minimalist
Having such a small space to live in SF meant not having a lot of room for my personal belongings. To make room I sold a lot of things on eBay or donated them to Goodwill and found I didn’t need to keep everything I buy. It was refreshing to know I could get by with very little and not be too attached to things. Selling most of my video game collection was hard at first, but I actually prefer having a digital collection instead.
I got exposed to new foods and cultures
Thanks to the wealth of diversity of people in SF, I got the opportunity to try many different kinds of foods. I learned to love bubble tea, burritos, food trucks, In-Out burgers, clam chowder, Phil’s Coffee and more. Also, being around so many diverse people I realized as a white Caucasian I was the minority unlike in WI where it felt like the opposite. The other part I loved about being in SF was that each neighborhood has a unique feel. From Chinatown, the Mission, Sunset, Japantown, Embarcadero, Market Street and Fisherman’s Wharf.
I learned I like being independent and don’t want to live with roommates
Being in SF meant I was over 2000 miles away from my family and friends. I’d been alone before in Milwaukee, but my family still regularly visited me, and I knew people from school. In the Bay Area, I only knew one of my step dad’s friends and to meet more people I had to do it on my own.
My roommates were good and didn’t have any problems living with them, but I’m independent and prefer to live on my own. Unfortunately, SF makes that very difficult so even though I could have stayed and found work I just didn’t want to live that kind of lifestyle. Which ended up being one of my motivations for leaving the Bay Area behind.
I understand experience of traveling when young
Working at Costco for Sony and Marketstar I got to know the staff pretty well. One of the pieces of wisdom they passed on to me was to travel when you’re young. Most people wait until they’re retired, but you don’t want to be traveling when you’re old and lack the energy to do things. The advice resonated with me and mads me want to be more proactive with my own traveling plans.
I learned the importance of paying attention to the news
Even though I majored in journalism, I didn’t care much for the news. I found everything I needed online or through friends. However, once I started working in tech PR, I was expected to be a news hound and stay on top of everything. I even created a weekly news roundup while I was blogging for work. Soon, websites like Tech Crunch, Business Insider, Skimfeed, VentureBeat and more became part of my daily routine, and I got to see how integral PR is to companies and journalists for getting public exposure.
I got sales experience
While sales work isn’t what I wanted to do after graduation, I found the experience valuable and meet some good friends while learning about Sony products. I got to be a part of Sony 4K TV line and enjoyed being a Vaio computer brand ambassador. I learned things about myself and areas of improvement I needed. The experience also spoiled me on other retail jobs because my primary responsibility was to educate customers and not sell products. So I didn’t have to use the register or open and close which was a blessing. Best of all I got a great discount and still to this day I can use it for cheap games, and I was able to buy my first 4K TV cheaply.
I found I enjoy living without a car
I like driving, but I hate traffic and just having a car wasn’t worth it in SF. Not only is it expensive and cumbersome to get around, but there is barely any parking, and I just prefer taking Bart and Muni everywhere. You save a lot of money not having a car in SF, and I loved that the area was so walkable. If it weren’t for all the hills, SF would be better than New York for getting around without a car.
I learned to network and what conference work is like
Volunteering for VentureBeat and other conferences helped me learned the dos and don’t of networking. I got to learn a lot about different industries like health care, startup culture, game developers, journalists and it helped me find new jobs too. I got to see many prevalent speakers at talks and learned a lot. Networking at conferences helped motivated me to go out to regular social events weekly and how to act around people too.
I learned new job searching skills
When I realized video game journalism wasn’t what I wanted to do, I took the time to learn new skills. How to write better resumes, cover letters, the importance of social media. All helped me get a job, and better prepare myself for interviews.
Why I left
I love San Francisco, and it was tough to go, but I realized I was living in Netherland and needed to get back to reality. There are so many wonderful things about SF, but having a nice place to live while having the lifestyle I want isn’t one of them. I came to the realization that I wouldn’t be able to live without roommates, save money, and pay off my student loan debt in a timely matter. I also craved a new scenery and didn’t want to be in the same area for the rest of my life. The truth is if I had a decent apartment I probably would have never left.
Lastly, since I found I don’t want to be a video game journalist anymore, it meant I need to start my career over and do something else besides just writing. So, I’ve returned home to the Midwest to save money and to rethink my career path. I may return to SF, but for right now it’s not in my immediate future.