Town & Gown: Living On $40 A Week

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$40-pola“I spend all of my money at Starbucks,” I grumbled to a friend over my morning mix of cereals in the dining hall. (Versace x H&M has nothing on Hemp Granola Plus x Gluten-Free Chex.) She raised an incredulous brow at me.

“Really?”

“A lot of it,” I amended, before adding, “and a lot more of it at CVS.” I mentally tallied my weekly purchases. It seemed unfair to give caffeine all the credit, when my wallet had similarly atrophied from a combination of meals in restaurants, Burt’s Bees product binges, and the impulsive purchase of a week’s membership at the local Bikram studio, to indulge my yogi-aspirations: I lasted all of two sessions.

When I was younger, I was fascinated by ATMs. I used to watch my mother type in her four-digit pin with solemnity, picturing the nerdy relatives of Santa’s elves scramble about the belly of my neighborhood Chase Bank, processing her bid. In that context, I considered my own bank account, from which I’d been withdrawing money all semester. I imagined a Gringotts-goblin going to fulfill my touch-screened request for “Fast Cash” and finding cobwebs.

I looked at my skeptical breakfast partner.

“40 dollars in a week,” I proposed to my doubting friend, lifting inspiration from Rachael Ray’s early 2000s TV show, $40 a Day.

“You’re on,” she replied.

My first sacrifice came on the morning of Day One of The Challenge. I’d walked into my favorite of the three Starbucks location equidistant from my dorm room to pick up my customary Grande Vanilla Skim Latte. “Uh,” I paused, before a cheery chalkboard menu currently hawking Peppermint Mochas. “Can I get a tall coffee?” I eyed my black brew. I wondered if this is what adulthood felt like.

On Day Two, I realized that without espresso, Starbucks had a diminished foothold in my wallet. Deviating from my usual route to caffeinated bliss, I ordered a coffee — with a side of low expectations — at Dunkin’ Donuts, for $2.09. It was astoundingly delicious. While rushing to class on Day Three, I spied a flyer for a lecture to be delivered that evening at the university art museum. “Reception to follow,” I read in Helvetica type. Translation? A fancy (free) cheese-and-crackers dinner.

That week, I went to a screening of The Ides of March, sponsored by the Institute of Politics and enjoyed a complimentary, boxed Panera dinner. I stopped by the South Asian Association’s evening of “Samosas, Saris, and Soccer.” I discovered that the Women’s Center perpetually serves free hot chocolate. As it turns out, I’m a cheap date.

On Day Four, I spent 1/8 of my austere purse on Boston’s equivalent of the Metrocard, to go with a friend to Neiman Marcus Copley Place, where Zac Posen was making a personal appearance. Surrounded by gowns that my paltry $40 could time share for roughly 6.5 days a year, I asked the designer what he would suggest to style-seeking college students on a budget. “Buy Z-Spoke!” He answered with an impish smile. I grinned back: Z-Spoke and very broke.

When a group gathered to go to the movies, on Day Five, I persuaded a few outliers to trade AMC for the MFA — the Museum of Fine Arts — where admission is free for students at participating universities.

But the biggest success of my saving streak came courtesy of Day Seven’s discovery of “The Garment District,” an offbeat costume and vintage warehouse on Cambridge’s Broadway. “$1 for 1 lb.,” boasted a hanging sign at the self-proclaimed “Alternative Department Store.” Two thick, hibernation-ready flannel shirts and one cherry-red blazer later, I felt the triumph of receipt calculation that I’d formally associated exclusively with Rachael Ray’s rasp.

I may not be an Econ major, but I don’t need a C-SPAN correspondent to tell me that college students need money. We need it for vending machines, laundry machines and the never-worth-it energy drinks that we wince down when deadlines loom. We need funds to facilitate our occasional get-me-the-hell-off-campus escapes — for gas money, train money, and for greasy food in greasy diners. But saving money doesn’t necessarily mean back-to-back months of ramen noodles.

Madge once crooned, “we are living in a material world,” and she was right. Never was I more conscious of that fact than during the week I spent counting every spent penny.

At the end of my makeshift game show, I had burned through $43.07. I didn’t exactly paint the town red; I didn’t succumb to any “small, original, with toppings” from Pinkberry. But every cent of it was an adventure.