There are few things I hate in this world, but two of them unfortunately tend to go hand-in-hand: networking and spending a lot of money.
Think about it: Between paying for events and paying dues for professional associations, buying drinks for all the people you ask to one-on-one networking meetings and buying yourself drinks to loosen up before an event (kidding—mostly), networking regularly can get pricey. And if you’re currently out of a job or rocking an entry-level salary, you might not have that extra money to spare.
The good news is that there are plenty of ways to make new connections without spending all of your hard-earned cash—you just might have to get a little creative. Read below for some ideas to get you started.
1. Volunteer at Events
Many networking events and conferences need as much help as they can get to keep things running smoothly. And while, yes, volunteering to staff one of these does mean you’ll be spending more of your time working than networking, it does have its advantages.
First and foremost, you won’t have to pay to get into the event. If you’re working the check-in table, you’ll likely have access to the guest list or see attendees as they walk in, both giving you a chance to make a shining first impression to anyone you admire and an idea of who you want to prioritize talking to when you do get a break. Plus, you’ll build relationships with other volunteers and the event organizers, who may be able to hook you up with more events in the future.
2. Look for Networking Events in Disguise
While many events touting themselves as opportunities to network will charge an entrance fee, there are plenty of other events going on—for free.
For example, look for product launches, restaurant or gallery openings, speaker series, meetups, or any other type of event that sounds interesting to you where people of your ilk are likely to be gathering. If you need help finding these, Eventbrite has a great feature where you can filter out for free events in your area. Or, search for newsletters that send event roundups (The Fetch is my favorite if you live in a city it covers), or pick up your local social magazine or newspaper, like Washington City Paper or Time Out.
3. Sneak Networking Into Your Day-to-Day
Networking opportunities can seem like something you have to seek out, but stop for a minute and think about how many people you interact with every day without trying—people who probably do interesting things with their lives and who may be able to help you out.
Then, start looking for opportunities to connect with and learn about these people in your daily life. If you’re stuck in a long line for coffee, for example, strike up a short conversation with the person next to you. If you’re sitting on the subway and the person next to you is reading an interesting-looking article, ask him or her about it. It may feel awkward at first—and it certainly won’t work out every time—but you’ll find that many people are happy to talk. And at the very least, chatting with these strangers will be a good way to test out your conversation starters for when you’re at an actual networking event.
4. Network Using Your Network
When you’re looking to expand your network without spending tons of money at events, don’t forget about the network you already have! Your connections probably know people you’re interested in knowing and would likely be happy to connect you. So next time you’re looking for product managers at startups or experts in marketing to chat with, send an email out to your network seeing if they know anyone who might be interesting.
This holds true for your social networks, too. Believe it or not, Twitter can be a great way to connect with interesting people for nothing more than the cost of your Wi-Fi (or a cup of coffee at the local cafe). If you already know people you’d love to talk to, just reach out to them on Twitter, let them know you admire their work, and, if they respond, see if they’d be willing to jump on the phone. If you’re looking to meet new people, Twitter chats can serve as virtual networking events. Tweet Reports has a good list of chats available that you can sort by topic or even day of the week.
5. Look for Places to Meet That Don’t Involve Money
When it comes to setting up one-on-one meetings to follow-up with people you met at events or to connect with people you met online, costs can add up fast, especially if you’re doing several of these a week.
To temper this, be the one who proposes a place to meet first, and choose your location wisely. At the very least, go for a coffee spot over a bar or lounge every time—even if you order the most expensive espresso concoction on the menu, it will still likely be less than half the price of a cocktail. There are also plenty of places that don’t require you to spend money at all. Hotel lobbies are under-used, professional, and free places to meet, and you usually don’t need to be a guest to use them. If the weather is nice, you could suggest meeting at a nearby park or plaza. You could even offer to drop by people’s offices if it’s “easier for them”—i.e., getting around your monetary concerns while making it seem like you’re bending over backward to fit their schedule.
Networking will always cost a little bit of money, and if you’re planning on doing a lot of it, it’s worth building some room into your budget. But by using the tips above, you’ll ensure you don’t go broke.
Tell us! How do you save money on networking?