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WASHINGTON—A few weekends ago, in the span of just a few hours, I went from being the most spendthrift person in the room to being the most frugal one.
The weekend began in Washington, D.C., where my roommate and I are interning at a software company. Although we earn identical salaries—and even hail from similar socioeconomic backgrounds—he often views my purchases as excessive, while his spending strikes me as ascetic.
On Friday morning, as I departed for my daily trip to Starbucks, he flashed his usual half-smile and opted to get his coffee from the office kitchen. In the afternoon, I stifled a chuckle as he explained to a coworker that, though we would both be visiting New York City that weekend, he would be taking a midnight bus because it was several dollars cheaper than my afternoon one.
Though these disagreements about money are never confrontational, they have forced me to think about how I can justify spending more than my roommate. I’ve tended to adopt the attitude that neither of us has the “right” approach, but that we each spend in accordance with our own appetites and values.
However, my “to each his own” attitude was challenged during my trip to New York, when I found myself in the apartment of several high school friends working in finance. I listened in shock as one friend told me he had dropped $2,500 during a three-day trip to Las Vegas; later that night, he spent over $240 in the span of a few hours at a nearby bar. Over the course of the weekend, I heard other stories of coworkers who spent thousands of dollars on handbags, or spontaneously hired helicopters to the Hamptons.
To me, these expenses were more than a waste of money—they were conspicuous consumption, evidence of a misplaced value on extravagance. But, I wondered, couldn’t my roommate level the same criticism at me, with my habitual venti chai lattes?
In the weeks that have followed, I’ve found no easy answers to this question. But I’ve realized that my own spending needs a little bit more scrutiny than a flippant “to each his own.” Wrestling with my approach to money—and, in a broader sense, privilege—may be the most important task of my fast-approaching senior year.
Because at Harvard, we often talk about how wealth impacts the broader world, but we don’t always think about how we could be a part of that trend. And in just a few years, we will all leave this school with the privilege of an Ivy League education, and the associated earning potential. We will enter a world where the disparity between haves and have-nots grows wider every day.
How we choose to “use” our privilege—by spending lavishly or living abstemiously, donating graciously or forgoing money to spend time with loved ones—will play a major role in defining our identities.
The question of individual spending will never be an easy one. But I’m looking forward to talking through it with my friends over the next year. Whether these conversations will be happening at Starbucks—well, that’s still to be decided.
Evan T.R. Rosenman ’12, a Science News Executive, is a Physics and Mathematics Concentrator in Kirkland House.
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