Cash and Burn

Harvard has never been cheap. Harvard Square on the other hand, has skyrocketed in recent years, and now boasts some of the most prime real estate around. These days, Harvard students wade through a sea of ATM’s, four dollar vanilla lattes and top-end shopping on their way to class. In this tourist-happy neck of the woods, everything from Tide to tote bags is marked up with a vengeance. Forget about the $42,000 tuition—for some, life beyond Lamont can start to get financially ludicrous.

Surviving in Harvard’s social world can be tough on a thin wallet. But for many students, buying things—whether they’re edible, drinkable, or wearable—can be a quick fix for loneliness or disatisfaction, and a not-so-free pass to social acceptance.

Harvard Square or Vanity Fair?

The Square’s pit of consumption can be difficult to resist. Elizabeth J. Heymann ’06 spends most of her money on big purchases like plane tickets to visit her boyfriend but she admits, “What kills my budget are runs to Starbucks and impulse buys at Aldo.” The latte factor can be significant for Harvard’s fatigued students—coffee is more than caffeine; it’s a warm, satisfying drink with a bonus jolt. “Last year I went [to Starbucks] on average five to four times a week…that’s 15 to 20 bucks a week,” says Audrey F. Duboc ’07.

Becca A. Donavon, a barista at Toscanini’s, a coffee shop conveniently located right across the street from Wigglesworth dormitory, has noted the literal and figurative consumption of Harvard students. “They surprise me,” she says. “They seem to consume more than the regular people who come in—they buy the more expensive [drinks] than the regular people that come in during the day.” Donovan estimates that about 50% of Toscanini’s customers are students, and believes they are buying their mochas (the most popular student drink at $3.75) “with their parents’ money”.

The problem isn’t just the student, though—Harvardians find few stores with “cheap” prices within convenient walking distance. The addition of a new Dunkin’ Donuts—whose coffee and coffee drinks run less than Starbucks, has relieved some students’ budgets. “It’s cheap as hell so I’ve started to go to Starbucks just as a treat,” says Duboc.

It’s a trend not limited to upscale coffee bars; bargain clothing shops are hard to come by in the neighborhood. Harvard Square is better-suited to high-end shoppers, and the prices can be daunting for undergrads not sending bills home to Mom and Dad.

“I don’t think the students shop at Harvard Square,” says Maria Stavropoulos ’05.

Au contraire, according to Liza, a salesperson at Jasmine Sola, a boutique on Brattle Street. “Summer is our slowest time because kids aren’t here for school,” Liza says, although she claims that that “isn’t based on Harvard clientele.” On a “slow day” the store sells around 70 pairs of jeans, the majority of which are over $100. “Once you find a pair of jeans that fits you, well, you’ll spend that much,” Liza says. To the uninitiated shopper, $130 for a pair of no frills Sevens, the store’s top selling jean, seems a lot for a college budget. But the power of a trend has no spending limit.

“I’m not going to lie to you, when I first started working here I was surprised but now I’m not,” Liza says. Since she started at Jasmine Sola six months ago, prices of jeans have risen by $30, which still hasn’t hurt their popularity. Are kids working extra hours to buy jeans? Liza says no: “I can tell by the fact that we haven’t had many applicants here recently so I can tell it’s their parents’ money they’re spending.”

For those without an extra $130, it’s a T-Ride into Downtown Crossing, and denim that’s less than haute.

Hungry Kids

One uniting factor of Harvard consumers is that they’re willing to pay for something they all, in theory, get “for free”: food.

“Everyone goes out to eat on the weekends and I’ll want to join in because Annenberg is definitely not satisfying, but it all costs a lot—one dinner at Bombay Club cost me $30,” Paayal R. Gupta ’08 says.

Students complain about the inability to get a satisfying meal in the dining halls, but the alternatives are expensive; a “cheap” ethnic meal in the square runs $10-20.

“The food’s not great—I think that’s a problem,” says Tom G. Stapleton ’07, en route to dinner at Houston’s with his roommate’s parents. “Kids eat out all the time.”

Lisbeth A. Zelle ’06 says she spends money “buying food because the dining hall can’t get the job done.” Marina H. Hart, ’07, eats at the dining hall for more than half of her meals but says, “I go through bouts: last May I couldn’t handle it anymore because Annenberg was disgusting so I used my credit card at The Wrap all the time and it got really expensive.” Heymann also says she sometimes gets “disconcerted with the dining hall and eats at John Harvard’s—the frequency adds up and my parents start to notice.”

With so many kids choosing not to eat in the dining halls, some feel social pressure to spend money on chowing down. “I’ve talked to people who only eat in the dining hall twice a week,” says Jason B. Munster ’07. “When I first came there were always people who would say, ‘Hey, let’s grab some pizza from ‘Noch’s, and I’d just say ‘No thanks, maybe next time.’”

Others have succumbed to such pressures but then realized the error of their consumptive ways. “It depends on who your friends are,” says Stauropoulos, enjoying potato fritters on a Friday night in Eliot dining hall. “Sophomore year there was a lot of pressure to do group activities—we’d all buy cakes from Finale and feel obliged to chip in.” As savvier seniors, she says, “We all realize that we’re poor and we just do cheaper things.” “I generally feel I have my wits about me and I know how much things cost,” says Jordan J. Evans ’06. “If I went out for a $30 dinner every night, I’d be broke halfway through the month. You learn to decline invitations.”

If You Want to Dance...

Entertainment can add up, too. “One time I had to spend $60 on a stripper and I didn’t want to,” says Will A. Rodger ’06, who typically “only consumes beer and movies.” However, his friends had hired the professional and he felt duty-bound to pitch in. Kids feel the crunch in other sectors of the entertainment industry as well. “I went to see an a capella concert last week and stayed for half an hour but paid eight bucks,” complains Mary O. Thomas ’07.

Harvard is concerned about this issue, says Sally Donahue, Director of the Financial Aid Office. In the past, she says, students had to choose: “Is it worth working for 3 more hours to finance this hour?” In response to this dilemma, the Office of Financial Aid, the Dean’s Office, the Box Office and the Undergraduate Council collaborated to “fashion a program to help alleviate those kinds of pressures.” The end result was the Student Events Fund, which gives free tickets to on-campus events to students the Financial Aid Office deems eligible. All of the transactions take place on-line and the student’s names are never released. “A lot of students use the fund,” says Donahue, and “no one else knows that the students are participating.”

But for those who don’t qualify for the Student Events Fund, engaging culturally can be difficult. “I want to support my friends by seeing their singing, acting, etc., but it all costs money. Those $5-$25 tickets add up,” says Gupta. But Jem E. Veljic ’06, of the Radcliffe Pitches, argues that the sense of consumption actually enhances the experience of a concert. “If you pay to get in it’s kind of a legitimate concert. It’s one of the features of established a cappela groups—they ask for money just because they can.”

Even for those who aren’t culturally inclined, long Harvard nights can be an expensive problem.

“There’s no such thing as a ‘fun, free night’ here,” says Stapleton. He says he spends his money “just socializing, not even going out and drinking, just movies.” When he does go out, he finds it easy to spend: “I’ll come back and have money missing,” he says.

When partying is on the horizon, the Square’s liquor emporiums hardly facilitate it, complains Danny C. Brown ’07. “Things are more expensive—for instance I can buy a 30-pack of Busch at home for $15 and here it’s about $20 dollars. I live 45 minutes away from here! That’s profound—five dollars.”

Evans estimates that the majority of his expenses “go on alcohol, cigarettes, food and shoes or clothes in general.” Evans drinks “frequently, but not a lot—I probably go out five nights a week and sometimes I’ll go there for one drink and sometimes I’ll go there for 3 hours.” For Evans, “There” is Daedalus. He says, “It’s probably one of the cheaper ones and it’s not cheap—it’s not meant to be a college bar.”

Jim Lynch, the owner of Brother Jimmy’s, says “we try to create an environment here where you don’t have to spend a lot of money.” He says that running an establishment in Harvard Square is “an odd dynamic because you have college kids who don’t have a lot of money so we have 3 dollar PBR cans.” But cheap beers are the best bars can do in Cambridge, because, according to Lynch, Massachusetts law forbis drink specials.

Some students do believe it’s possible to entertain themselves without spending money. “As a college student it’s almost part of the education to find out how to have a ‘fun, free’ night. You can always grab some grub at Loker Commons’ study break and then have a movie night in your dorm. You can wander over to the upper class parties to dance and have fun, and then chill into the late hours of the night at a friend’s dorm, talking about politics and other random stuff,” says Gupta.

“I don’t spend a lot of money at all—I don’t think I could spend a lot money if I wanted,” says Wes S. Cosgriff ’06. “There’s always something to do, you don’t need to spend money to have fun,” says Munster. “I mean, you can go to tons of parties and get free alcohol.” The booze may be gratis, but some still question the quality of such events. “Parties tend to be free,” says Heymann. “Whether or not they’re fun is up for debate.”

Evans, who is from Britain, compares Harvard’s efforts to the experiences of his friends from home. “In the English uni system they have subsidized student bars so you pay for your alcohol at cost price. If Harvard actually had a student bar I think it would make going out a lot more affordable for people. It would encourage a lot of people to go out—I don’t think Harvard encourages people to have a social life. I think your social education is just as important as your academic education.”

Social Education or Money Drain?

“I’m very surprised by the way money shapes your social life,” Veljic says. “I meet a lot of amazing people who don’t get to be as popular because they don’t have as much money.” But many students say money is just not as important as who your friends are. Jugo Kaptenovic ’07 says he believes that money doesn’t have to dictate student social lives: “I really don’t feel there’s much of a unified social pressure to do anything at all—campus has so many different niches and groups.”

Yet for some students a struggle to keep up with their peers clearly exists. “I do think that a lot of the social life may revolve around ‘going out’” for meals or coffee, says Suzanne Renna, acting director of the Bureau of Study Counsel. “You don’t necessarily want to say why you can’t go, but you might feel excluded from activities you’d really like to be involved in.”

A few years ago, the Bureau started a group, “Harvard on a Shoestring,” to address this issue. The Bureau started the group for those who wanted “to know about other students who feel financially constrained so they can go out and do things together without spending money.” Although students expressed interest, in the end, not enough showed up to keep the group going—they didn’t have time. According to Renna, the combination of working, socializing, and studying can be stressful for students, especially those under financial pressure.

“It often comes out as issues of time management—those trying to hold a job feel that the choices they have are limited due to time,” she says. “Choice making is a big part of what college is all about and for people who are under financial difficulties, they have many more choices, hard choices…what kind of courses they’re in, what to concentrate in…to give priority to what they think will be practical.”

Indebted to Harvard

In theory, the choice to consume is individual. Learning to handle money is arguably one facet of the college experience.

“I think I definitely consumed more freshman year than I am right now…it’s something about being a freshman,” Kaptenovic says. “Once you get here you’re on your own for the first time and you don’t really know how to manage what you’re spending.”

A junior who asked to remain anonymous had his credit card taken away after overspending freshman year. “I felt overwhelmed with the amount of resources I had at my disposal and I just had this urge to spend—on drugs, parties, dinners, clothes…” he says. Things improved as his lifestyle shifted. “I was given a budget readjustment and I also started working in the summer—I still spend a lot but I think about the things that I want to buy.”

The potential to spend money at Harvard comes as a surprise for some international students. “The English university system is such that most parents stop financing their kids when they go,” says Evans. “I had to renegotiate how much money my parents would give me. We both underestimated how much money I thought I would need—they thought my lifestyle would be such that I wouldn’t need as much money.”

Evans honed his money management skills through his recreational activities. “I don’t want to drink Ketel One’s for the first half of the month and Gordon’s for the last half—I’d rather drink Stoli for the whole month.”

But money mistakes made are not always easily undone.

“I definitely raked up a lot of credit card debt going out to try to keep up socially,” says a former student who graduated in 2000. “They sent me ads in the mail and I signed up for all of them. I spent money really wantonly—not because of [credit cards], but they facilitated it. I just kept getting new ones and never paying off the balance…it was a pretty typical consumer experience.”

The student, who comes from a small town in the Midwest, recalls the culture of silence that revolved around money at Harvard. “It was absolutely secret—when I was an undergraduate we were very secretive about our financial dealings. It is a real visceral social pressure—at least it was to me.”

Secrets were kept on all sides. “There are a lot of really rich people here but everyone’s ashamed of it. I think there’s an overall anti-consumption vibe at Harvard—people don’t drive SUVs around, [but] they consume $4 hot chocolates,” the 2000 graduate says. He remembers awkward moments with friends who had more money to spend than he did. “My friend John went snowboarding every weekend and he just wouldn’t believe me that I didn’t have an extra $200.”

The student took a year off between sophomore and junior year, and “bought the cheapest condominium I could find in Cambridge. I owned it for five years before I sold it and I ended up making $100,000.” With the money he earned he managed to pay off his credit card debts, but he admits his story is atypical. “Other people weren’t as lucky as me. They had to get jobs and pay off their bills. Most of the people I knew who ran up credit card debts were financial aid kids who were trying to keep up socially.”

Credit cards may be dangerous, but they are also a necessity for some students.

“I definitely have a credit card, because sometimes I don’t have enough money to pay for books up front so you have to pay it off over time,” says Munster, who says he has different credit cards for different purposes but is not afraid of debt.

“I use my credit card like cash—if I don’t know I’ll get that money at the end of the month, I’ll find another way,” he says. “I’m not going to get caught in that trap. It’s just stupid.”