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.
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.”