Columns & Commentary 0

The Quarter Thief


I used to be a quarter thief.

In August of 2012, I had just started my freshman year of college. I moved in with my then best friend at the end of the seventh floor of Brayton Hall in Lafollette. After taking the elevator–the one that literally only went to floors one or six–I trekked at least one flight of stairs every day. At the other end of the seventh floor hallway was one washer and one dryer for 60 girls to share. It cost $2.50 to wash and dry just one load; that’s at least ten quarters if you don’t care about sorting your clothes. Don’t forget towels and bed sheets that occasionally have to be cleaned, too. I started out with $10 in quarters that my mom gave me. Thinking that would last me quite a while, I was running dangerously low on quarters sooner within a month or two.

Luckily, my parents and I arranged a system where I would go home every other weekend to visit. I, of course, never passed up the opportunity for free laundry. After a while, I realized how cost-effective it was to pile up the laundry, towels and sheets until I made my next trip home. Sure, it would take me three or four loads at home, but this way I was saving at least eight dollars. That also meant that I had to carve out a few hours of my Sunday just for doing laundry when I went home to visit. I often regretted having the large pile of laundry after I had to lug the load and my bags for the weekend down the hallway, and the stairs, to the car.

You never know when you’re going to have an emergency cleaning situation, so being low on quarters is not something I planned for. I actually did have an emergency cleaning situation the following year and had to mooch quarters from my friends in the dorm, where I offered food from my meal swipe as a trade. Whenever I went home I scavenged for quarters wherever I could. I searched for quarters on counters, on my dad’s nightstand, under the couch, in car cup holders, in my sister’s wallet (usually with her permission), and most often out of my parents’ hands when they received change back from cashiers. Just last weekend my best friend reminded me that I used to look through her car when we hung out, to find quarters, and all but beg her for spare quarters. I was like one of the beggars sitting in an underpass with a cup for change, praying for sympathy for the poor broke college girl who has to do her laundry.

I would purposefully avoid spending change to pay for things at the risk of losing quarters. And whenever other people paid for things, I put on my best puppy dog eyes and pleaded for quarters. I was the broke college girl who always needed laundry money. I knew I was weird for sinking to those levels just to afford doing laundry at my leisure, but I started to wonder if I was the only one that did these types of things.

As it turns out, I’m not alone.

After talking to fellow Cardinals at Ball State, I realized there are plenty of college students that do a lot stranger things than I do to save money. Some of the general consensus things I found apply to me as well. We college students often try to put off turning on the heat and using the air conditioner for as long as possible. Even if that means sleeping nearly naked with just a sheet, two fans, and all the windows open until mid-October, or with three blankets, socks, a space heater, and a spooning partner until April. I’m not the only one that refuses to pay for cable, either. Watching our parents struggle during the Great Recession, we’ve learned how to get around paying for things. According to a Nielsen study, the amount of “zero-TV” households will rise from three million to more than five million people in about five years. With Netflix and Hulu, who needs cable anyway? Twenty-three percent of Netflix subscribers in the Nielsen survey had cancelled their cable or satellite subscriptions. Whether it is because of the cost or lack of interest in regular TV, young adults like me are cutting the cord to cable. Paying for Internet though is a must; that is one thing I cannot survive without.

It’s almost impossible to go through an entire four years away at college without having at least one roommate. When you live in the dorms, it’s a little different because you don’t have to share expenses, but when you go out and try to start “adulting,” you have to consider living with at least one other person. Having one other person to share the financial load with is a great burden lifted off your shoulders, and your wallet. Between utilities, groceries, rent, and other expenses, living on your own is tough and without someone to help you figure it out, both emotionally and financially, you can have a hard time with the adulting thing. When my older brother was in college (he graduated in 2013), he and his roommates divided the utilities three ways by each roommate paying for one utility. That way it was on that person financially but if it wasn’t paid, the other roommates would not be happy. That’s just one way of doing it, but many college roommates figure out similar systems to split the costs of living away from home.

If you ask any organizer of any event on a college campus, the number one lure to get people to attend is to include something for free, just for showing up. Elementary Education major Lilia Arroyo actually said, “If it has free in the title [or the description], I’m there.” And it’s so true. Free pizza, free t-shirts, free pens, free bag, free cookies; any of these will guarantee at least 20 people show up and listen to what you have to say. If you offer to buy a college kid food, you are that person’s new best friend. Lilia also admitted that she agrees to go on dates with guys just to get them to buy her good food, even if she isn’t that interested in him and doesn’t plan on having a second date.

There are even more ways for saving money on food as it turns out. One theater major, Tucker Eckweiler, admitted that he purposefully tries to woo a girl by making her food himself instead of taking her out to eat. This isn’t only because he’s a sweet and romantic guy, but because it’s cheaper for him. Taken by his unfamiliar sweetness, girls fall for the facade every time, he says. One-upping this guy was language and classics major Jake LeCount, who says he makes his own donuts at home and used to grow a garden to save on buying fresh and healthy food.

Now, it’s been a good few years since my bony butt has ridden a bike but one of my good friends, Keenan Henderson, a creative writing major, has biked to campus every day for the past three years. He doesn’t own a car and lives a few miles away from campus. A few times he’s taken his bike to Walmart, which is quite a trek, but he usually just sticks to school and home. By doing this, Keenan doesn’t have to worry about parking passes, or the dreaded parking tickets, gas money, car insurance or spending money fixing a car that will inevitably need to have something fixed every year after driving the potholed streets of Muncie. And it’s an eco-friendly and cost-effective solution, which is popular with the Millennial generation.

Keenan isn’t alone in the car-less group. According to the U.S. Public Interest Representation Group, the percentage of 16-to-24-year-olds with a driver’s license has dropped since 1997, and is now below 70 percent for the first time since 1963, when cars were the symbol of popularity for young adults. Whether it’s because of the cost of owning a vehicle, the availability of other modes of transportation, or other new-age reasons, Millennials are not spending money on things as other generations did before.

Now in my fourth year at college, I spent two years living on campus and now two years living off-campus. I’ve seen both sides of the coin here and the one thing I miss the most, perhaps the only thing I really miss about dorm life, is the meal plan. The first two years I was on the 14-meal plan so I got 14 meals stretched out over 7 days — two meals a day. Any time I didn’t use the full amount for the meal on what I was eating, I would stock up on candy, snacks, and microwavable food that I could eat later. I often brought home bags of candy every time I went home. (Maybe that’s why my family wanted me to visit so often.) It was great never feeling like I didn’t have food, and never really having to go to the grocery store, or learning to cook. There also weren’t any monthly bills to worry about. It was like living in the dorm put off reality just a little bit longer, without us even knowing it. We thought we were so grown up living away from our parents — setting our own curfews, watching whatever we wanted, and eating whatever we wanted whenever we wanted. Little did we know the real growing up still hadn’t happened yet.

Now I go to the grocery store, after I clip my coupons, and buy in bulk, planning for two weeks of food to reduce trips. Instead of 12-packs, I buy 24-packs; instead of multiple 1-pound packages of beef, I buy the 3-pound tube of beef and freeze it; instead of buying one toothbrush, I buy the four pack — you get the picture. I make crockpot meals because I don’t have time to learn to cook genuine meals anymore. If my boyfriend and I are not really hungry, we can get at least two days of meals out of one pot. Leftovers and creative ramen noodle meals are basically a college kid’s menu. We find three or four meals that work and rotate them. Consistency is key. Luckily, I realized through this experiment that I’m not the only one with a plastic bag full of plastic bags under my kitchen sink, either.

Couponing isn’t only a thing for stay-at-home moms anymore. College students today have taken to the practice more and more. Many grocery stores now have rewards programs that allow you to get coupons and save money by using an app or going online. With the Internet being second- nature to Millennials, this is an easy way to save a little bit of money on your weekly shopping trips. I like to use mPerks, the coupon and reward system at Meijer. With mPerks, I can choose from the offered coupons, tap a button, and they’re added to my “coupon wallet.” Then I just put my number in at the register and viola`! The coupons I clipped are applied to the bill and I save money. A lot of college students are doing the same thing at their favorite stores.

Compared to previous generations (Gen Xers and Baby Boomers), Millennials are using coupons more, whether they print off coupons online, collect them from stores, or use printed coupons in the newspaper and mail. According to the 2015 Valassis Coupon Intelligence Report, 73 percent of Millennials say they use coupons from newspapers compared to Gen Xers at 69 and Boomers at 65. An interesting statistic since most of the newspaper readership is Gen X and Boomers, not Millennials, according to Pew Research. Ultimately, the report found that the “use of digital saving methods is higher for Millennials overall than Gen X and Baby Boomers,” but that Millennials with children are more likely to use a smartphone to make a shopping list, get coupons, and download royalty offers.

Student discounts are another huge benefit for college students. According to ID.me.com, a secure digital wallet site, a survey of more than 600 college students about their shopping habits showed the importance of student discounts. The survey showed 77 percent of the students said they would shop more online if student discounts were available, and 85 percent are more likely to sign up for a service that verifies their student status in exchange for student discounts.

A broke college student’s best kept secret is the crafts made on Pinterest. If you walk into a college dorm room, you might see photo collages made out of random house objects and office supplies, decorative lights made from dixie cups, and stacks of unused textbooks for tv stands. College apartments will have self-made pillows, refurbished flea market furniture, and mason jar organizers. We are thrifty and crafty and will take everyday items and make them beautiful. If we can spend $10 making a $30 house decoration, you can bet we will put in our best effort to make it.

One thing you cannot forget about as a college student is that six months after you graduate, you have to start paying off student loans. If you were really lucky and could completely afford college without taking out personal loans, or received grants and scholarships, then you are one of the few that do not have to worry about this feat. For many of us though, debt is always looming. It is in everything we do, especially as we near the end of the road in college. For most of us, this is the first time when we are really financially independent. We are creating budgets, paying bills, and trying to build our credit with credit cards. Without proper financial guidance, we put ourselves in even more debt. According to a 2007 study in the Journal of American College Health by Adams and Moore, college students with high credit risk behavior are more likely to report being depressed. It’s no secret that if you’re stressing about money, you will stress about everything else. So why do we take such ridiculous measures to save money?

It’s because we don’t have a choice.

When you ask broke college students what they do to save money, they have to stop and think about it. When we try to save money, it’s not an active decision but more like muscle memory. We’ve been trained to manage our money better because we want to make better lives for ourselves. That’s why we are in college; to get to a better place in life. Being away from our parents, and their money, college students resort to interesting measures to save money. We don’t just do things like grow a garden or steal quarters because we actively think we are saving money. We do it because we have to.

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