Hey, Big Spender

Why money is still a mystery to most students

First, a disclaimer: there are lots of annoying people at Harvard. There’s That Kid in Section who takes copious notes on every week’s reading and asks if the term paper can exceed the set page limit, and those oblivious types who insist on sitting in the aisle seats of soon-to-be crowded lecture halls to cause maximum inconvenience to everyone else. Worse of the lot, however, are the semi-spoilt brats who complain about not having money to buy their grande skim lattes. I know this, because I am one of them. I am a card-carrying member of that horde of perpetually complaining masses known as the College Poor, a group fueled week to week by their wages from a low-paid library job which goes some way in funding extravagant lifestyles well beyond their actual means.

College is meant to teach money management. We know this because it’s the way Harvard justifies its continued policy of asking students on financial aid to produce a certain amount—to be made up of job, loan or some combination of the two—as a “self help” contribution toward the bottom line of their tuition bill. As Director of Financial Aid Sally Donahue noted in a November Crimson interview, “in general I think people appreciate experiences more by contributing to them.”

It’s certainly true that $40,000 does take on a more realistic and tangible quality when you’re earning $10 an hour in a part-time job. That’s a lot of shelving books, after all. But I’m beginning to think that at an affluent college like Harvard, where designer denim is de rigeur, the very notion of financial independence that Donahue seems to be invoking could only ever be an idealistic one. Here, the self-sustaining student who is bereft of parental bailouts remains very much in a minority, while the rest of us buy up big online and worry about which European hub featured on to visit for Spring Break. The state of being “poor” while immersed in a life of privilege is very much a case of surrendering to the temptation to spend everything in the bank account.

This is an understandable instinct. First, there are the manifold problems of having an ethernet connection in every dorm room to maximize the procrastinatory pleasures of having a world of shopping but a click away. And then there’s the thrill of the first MasterCard, opening up the world of deferred accountability that monthly bills allow (a world sadly populated by the all-too-adult specter of Debt). That there is actually very little that needs to be purchased during termtime, particularly given the required meal plan, is a fact conveniently overlooked by the serial spender. I can testify to many a joyful afternoon whiled away my first year among the aisles of CVS opposite the Yard, entering the store under the ostensible purpose of buying a toothbrush or other inarguably essential product, and leaving with bags of entirely frivolous drugstore-related goodies, particuarly those in gimmicky packaging.

For those not so inexplicably enamored of travel-sized toiletries (of which the Mass Ave. CVS has an admirable selection) and their ilk but still looking to burn a hole in their pockets, Harvard Square luckily also seems to specialize in entirely useless stores designed purely to sell, well, things of various sorts to newly-flush students. Think entire parts of said “gift shops” devoted to toys that look like assorted Japanese foods, fluorescent-colored hosiery and pasta in naughty shapes, and you’ll get a reasonably accurate picture of what one might buy on a spending spree in Harvard Square. The very existence of such stores seems to speak to a certain desire pervasive amongst us to accumulate, gather and spend: it lives, it breathes, it says “take me to Black Ink and buy some plastic sushi.”


So it’s no wonder so many of us are “poor.” And the frequently impoverished do not need to be told, I’m sure, that Crimson Cash exists as the ever-merciful last bastion of the desperate, who are prepared to limit their retail options in order to satiate their ever-famished desire to spend. I often wonder if my parents will eventually begin to question why it is I need so much money for “photocopying,” “printing” or any of the other acceptably academic pursuits so often cited as the need for regular top-ups to my Crimson Cash account. Beyond the carefully constructed myth of the dutiful student, clutching ID in hand while feverishly xeroxing all over campus, is the terrifying truth: I don’t think I’ve ever used a photocopier in college and instead wither away most of my plastic money at the Coop on magazines and superflous stationery.

For better or for worse, then, the financial independence of college is very much a transition step for most students. We can feel grown-up comparing prices on laundry detergents, end up blowing the bank account anyway on an impulse buy at Urban Outfitters and yet never need worry about putting food on the table. But never fear, for while college itself may not teach money management, the prospect of paying off student loans post-graduation will keep even the biggest spender’s impulse in check. In the meantime, the latte’s on Crimson Cash, thanks.

Amelia E. Lester ’05 is an English concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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