The price of tuition, books, room and board, and transportation are high prices to pay for college students, and for many of them the expenses don’t stop there. With the growing plague of student loan debt, college students (especially young ones) need to hold on to every penny. Navigating employment and income inequality as a college student is tough and a legitimate concern for many young people. While many expenses in college such as tuition, books, essay writing services, and transportation are inevitable, there are a few expenses students can and should avoid.
Three things students should avoid doing with money
While money has academically been considered a measure of utility within the marketplace, it would be a mistake to discredit the ways in which our social and cultural constructs affect how college students use and spend it. Viviana Zelizer covers this very concept in her book: The Social Meaning of Money. The author considers an understanding of transaction free of cultural constraints as narrow and incomplete—and in this piece discusses several examples of how money is “earmarked” for purposes shaped by social relationships and systems of meaning.
In general, people can fall into the trap of earmarking money for unnecessary expenses. Some unnecessary expenses include creating or dissolving social ties, making strong attempts to control others, establishing or maintaining inequality, maintaining delicate status distinctions, dealing with risk and uncertainty, establishing or managing a group identity, marking rites of passage, managing conflicts of interest, and maintaining clandestine social relationships (Zelizer 26). This blog will look at three of these examples as related to personal experiences of college students in the course of their own day-to-day interactions with currency, spending, and the rising cost of college.
Transactions for a group identity
Many college students have participated in transactions using money earmarked to establish a group identity. Zelizer accounts for gift giving in forms of contributions to certain groups to establish solidarity (like an organization with a particular ethnic tie), but as a student, you will also witness peers in your life “buy in” to a group by participating in sororities or fraternities.
Author Viviana Zelizer notes that “…in late-nineteenth-century saloons, workingmen were expected to treat their mates to rounds of beer as a symbol of solidarity and community” (Zelizer 90). This is a phenomenon experienced both among men and women of today’s world—with money earmarked for this sort of bonding social interaction. While college students certainly experience weighing the value of spending money to engage with my group of friends (lest be left out), many students have witnessed the pressure of this even further when receiving invites to parties and other social gatherings.
No other college activity defines transaction for group identity quite like buying into Greek life. Hundreds of campuses across the United States are home to Greek organizations. These organizations have been criticized for not only hazing, but also their high entry fees.
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Fraternities and sororities are designed as groups to give college students social opportunities and the development of leadership skills. However, the price for going Greek is not cheap and typically includes:
- application fees,
- going through recruitment (which doesn’t guarantee entry into the organization),
- and membership dues.
The membership dues members of Greek organizations have to pay vary from chapter to chapter at every campus. The average membership fee can cost a college student between a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars per semester. The pay-to-play membership fee is not the only price pay when joining a fraternity or sorority.
The hidden expenses associated with membership in a Greek organization are odd investments made by college students to be part of a social group. While it’s not mandatory, it’s strongly encouraged members purchase shirts, sweaters, and other apparel with Greek letters. On top of membership fees and customized apparel, members of Greek organizations are encouraged to have formal attire for events and costumes for themed parties. While the experience of being part of a Greek organization may be memorable and beneficial for socialization, it’s a luxury expense not many students can afford.
Members of fraternities and sororities spend money on membership fees, custom clothes, events, and dinners to be part of a social group. In this way, the money is earmarked to strengthen the group identity, and while some utility may be gained from the relations formed at social gathers and events, more often than not purchases are fueled by social pressure to act appropriately as a member of the group. However, we see that money can also be used to negotiate power within relationships.
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Spending money to impress others
Young college students may face incredible pressures to fit in with their peers, especially when starting at a new college or university. College is a big transition for young adults as many move away from home to study and some find themselves in a school full of strangers. While older adults going back to college may be wiser, young adults with little life experience may fall into various traps, some being very costly.
For young college students, the transition from high school to college can be accompanied with a job. Most college students work and study at the same time, but juggling new responsibilities like reading textbooks, attending classes, and working is difficult to manage. Managing money is a skill most adults struggle with and college students are no exception.
Human beings are social creatures and most people want to fit in with others whether they’re 18 or 81. Young college students are more susceptible to falling into a trap of trying to fit in with other students. One odd thing college students do with money is try spending it to impress others.
Things college students may purchase to impress others include:
New technology. The new iPhone or state of the art lap may seem a ton of fun but spending hundreds of dollars on the newest technology is not a wise choice as a college student, especially if the intention is to impress other students. Only replace your current phone or computer in the case of an emergency. The majority of college campuses have multiple computer labs available for students.
New car. Having a car can certainly be advantageous for college students, especially for those both working and studying. However, monthly car payments and insurance payments can be budget breakers. Instead, try walking to nearby destinations and using public transportation to travel long distances. Don’t underestimate the power of studying or finishing schoolwork on a city bus.
Dinners and drinks. There’s nothing wrong with going out with friends to eat out or drink to celebrate a small milestone like finishing an essay or finishing the semester. However, it can be easy to fall in the trap of going out for lunch and meeting up for a couple of rounds of happy hour with classmates. College students should keep an entertainment budget and wasting money on buying peers drinks is not a wise move.
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It turns out the use of money to differentiate status is in some ways similar to how we negotiate and define our intimate relationships.
Earmarking money for gifts
Earmarking for gifts is a long-standing and evolving practice of using money to deepen social ties and express our cultural norms. Zelizer explores this topic at length: “Consider how we define a ‘good’ Birthday gift. Surely it must express the intimacy of a particular social tie, convey affection, denote thoughtfulness. The meaning of gifts varies” (78). She goes on later to explain that “the personalization of gifts matters greatly: gifts must be appropriate in character and value to the relation of the parties, revealing the degree of intimacy and equality between giver and recipient” (78).
The exchange of gifts on during the holiday season is a great example, because there is a certain level of ambiguity in the gift (more often than not it is a surprise), the negotiation of gift exchange is an expression of our interpretation of intimacy.
In college, many students meet long-term romantic partners. For our romantic partners, we are expected to spend a much higher sum of money on our gift (or collective gifts) than acquaintances, despite there being no particular advantage or utility in doing so. Oftentimes, it is the pressure to abide by cultural norms and ensure equality that drives us to spend so much on these gifts, defining that person as closer. The equality portion is an incredibly important piece.
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Consider this scenario. Last Christmas, you received a very expensive gift from your partner, and felt embarrassed and guilty that your gift to them didn’t represent the same level of intimacy (despite a rather large inequality in our respective incomes). Your partner makes far more money than you, yet you still felt obligated to match his spending to interpret your commitment to your relationship at an equal level. This year as you consider your holiday purchases, your efforts have turned to gifts that more appropriately mirror that large purchase. Even now, you understand that it is quite economically irrational, but I still feel compelled to do so.
It is clear that money is a truly transactional commodity, but that transaction extends beyond the simplified constructs of the economist’s pure “market,” and is heavily influenced by our networks of social meaning. People throughout our culture consistently make decisions that would defy the utility models relied upon academically by this crowd. This shows that the models are useful—but are certainly not comprehensive in terms of understanding human behavior and how we give meaning to money.
Many college experiences reflect many of the phenomena described in Zelizer’s work. Many of the social experiences college students have encountered required some level of “buy-in” to establish group solidarity—ranging from less formal lunches out to organized house parties.
Earmarking money to more clearly define and maintain status distinctions will occur countless times starting in college. Though there are certainly other examples not listed in this blog, these examples should adequately illustrate why Zelizer’s argument is an important one to consider when we discuss money and its utility, as it exists within our cultural constructs.
How to spend money in college
The best way to spend money in college is to use it to buy things associated with your education. The admissions scandal of March 2019 is an example of college spending gone bad. While the average student will most likely never have their parents accused of multi-million-dollar bribery, they do need to worry about impulsive shopping on a smaller scale.
While it’s possible to avoid being part of an admission scandal, it’s impossible to avoid shopping all together as a student. Being a student on a budget doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time with new friends and relationships. Always remember your focus is finishing your degree and shift every priority, especially financial priority to around that goal.
Take advantage of student discounts
Set a goal for yourself and earn your fun. Did you study 12 hours in one week? Treat yourself to a movie or lunch. Being a college student doesn’t mean you can’t spend any money. Being a college student comes with a lot of expenses, but there are also ways to not pay full price for everything they purchase.
Retailers off and on-campus often offer discounts. Students can save on electronics, travel, movie tickets, events, clothing and a variety of services with their school ID and email. Remember to inquire about discounts or look online when they are getting ready to make a purchase.
Join a student organization outside Greek life
We previously mentioned the high cost of joining a fraternity or sorority. While Greek organization are the most popular on college campuses, there are dozens of other organizations with little to no membership fees. Student government, American Marketing Association, Financial Management Association are all lower cost and alternatives to Greek organization.
Student organizations outside of Greek life are great ways to gain experience in a field of interest such as economics or psychology. Student organizations are not just great addition to a resume, but great ways to network with professionals.
Invest in your education
When making financial decisions as a college student, be sure to invest in expenses to enhance your education. If you need help with your studies, hiring a tutor is a good idea because it’s an investment towards your future. If you need additional help, visit our essay writing service to help enhance your educational experience.
Zelizer, Viviana A. Rotman. The Social Meaning of Money. New York: BasicBooks, 1994. Print.