Saturday, September 11, 2010

Saturday Throwback: If I Had Known Then: Food and Financial Advice for the College-Bound (Also, a Story)

Every Saturday, we post a piece from the CHG archives. This one is from August 2008.

As summer draws to a close, gazillions of monumentally stoked 18-year-olds are preparing to leave the warmly comfy, comfy warmth of their hometowns for four years in cinderblock lecture halls. Yet college isn’t all reading, studying, and sporadically penning 25-page papers on FCC v. Pacifica (1978). It’s also occasion to figure stuff out – like how to seriously manage your adult life for the first time.

Fortunately for this blog, that adjustment period has much to do with frugality, food, and health. High school grads everywhere will soon be budgeting and cooking for themselves, and the initial months won’t be easy. I know, because once upon a time (the year 45 BC) I was there.

Looking back, I think I did okay. Still, there are quite a few CHG-type things I wish I had known before I left home. Like…

How to feed myself competently and frugally. My parents were excellent providers and decent cooks who fed us rounded meals from birth through late adolescence. Yet somehow, after 17 years, I never picked up on simple concepts like, “eat a vegetable, doofus,” or “an all-mozzarella stick diet will bankrupt, then KILL YOU.” If I had paid attention or done any research, the road to good health might have been an easier and cheaper one.

How to cook. In my small college town, it was ritual for students to eventually move out of the dorms and into run-down off-campus housing (owned by a landlord who worked nights as the anti-Christ). Of the eight kids who shared a single kitchen my junior year, only one knew what she was doing. The rest of us bought overpriced convenience food from the local superstore and/or made do with whatever she (note: me) could glean from her night job at the donut shop. In retrospect, an elementary grasp of basic cooking skills could have saved both time, money, and lots of donut indigestion.

How to avoid buying worthless junk. Every semester, I subsisted entirely on a few hundred dollars earned over summer or winter breaks. It was barely enough for textbooks and food. Yet, I still bought 14 tons of useless crap for no other reason than I COULD. Once, it was pair of vintage jeans. Another time, a Phish album (which, ew). And another time? I blew $7 on a vial of colored dust from a local tchotchke shop. To repeat, I spent SEVEN DOLLARS ON YELLOW DIRT. I wish I had read a finance book at that point, or even had any clue about maintaining a budget. At the very least, I wouldn’t have bought any beaker soil.

How to read nutrition labels. Oh man. How many muffins did I think contained only 220 calories, when it was actually more like 660? Duh.

How to care about my body in the right way. This is a tricky subject, because on the whole, universities are sadly rife with eating disorders. Too much self-scrutiny can land one in Bulimiatown, and too little will make the Freshman 15 seem like a fond memory. So, I’ll say this: I wish I had spent less time worrying about my weight (which nobody cared about half as much as I did), and more time investing in my health (which … it wouldn’t have hurt to hit the gym once or twice). Negative body images are endemic to teen girls – in America especially, and applying my energies the correct way (to eating right and exercise vs. stressing out about my butt) would have helped me greatly down the road.

I might also add “how to enjoy inexpensive beer” to this list, but I actually learned that part kind of quickly. And it still wasn’t half as valuable as the single best lesson I gleaned from my parents during college: namely, there are no second chances with real world money.

Let me explain.

Back in the spring of (DATE REDACTED), I was accepted to the aforementioned semi-affordable public institution in upstate New York, where the seven-month winters were matched in intensity only by my need to GET THE CRAP AWAY FROM HOME. I adored my Long Islander parents (and still do), but the prospect of living 400 miles away from them excited this lifelong Girl Scout to no end. So, I sent the “yes” letter, got my roommate assignment, and spent the rest of the summer earning textbook funds at the local Wendy’s fryolator.

For the most part, Ma and Pa were incredibly supportive. Besides making the obligatory trips to Bed, Bath, and Beyond for girly-blue shower caddies, they also offered to pay my tuition until my little sister entered school, two years hence. Being good parents and savvy businesspeople, they had one condition: I had to maintain a 3.0 average.

“No problem,” I thought. “Bs are easy.” I’d breezed through high school (for the most part - damn you, Physics), and wasn’t intimidated by the prospect of a higher, harder education. Subsequently, when I entered school in the fall, I devoted most of my time to … um … not schoolwork.

It went fine for the first few weeks, until I received a string of fairly awful grades on papers and tests. Those Cs (and in one or two cases, Ds) were both tremendously humbling and a serious wake-up call for my stupid (drunk) ass. So, I cut back on the excess, buckled down, and soon, most of my class marks had morphed into semi-respectable Bs and B-minuses.

Except Basic Musicianship.

Though the class was taught by the sweetest man alive, I didn’t understand a damn thing. Nor did I make any effort to, whatsoever. I missed a bare minimum of one class per week, never read the material, and probably took a combined total of three pages of notes. In retrospect, I’m surprised the professor didn’t hurl me out a window, smug attitude first.

By the end of the semester, I somehow pulled a C-minus out of the air (note: my butt). It was better than I deserved, but still brought my overall GPA down to a grand ol’ 2.99. (Seriously! A 2.99! I didn’t even know that was possible!) When my parents saw, I expected them to gush, “2.99! But that’s SO CLOSE to a 3.0! We’ll pay your tuition FOREVER.” To my then-consternation and their never-ending credit, that didn’t happen.

“Kid,” they said, “we asked for a 3.0. Here’s the bill.”

My callowness (and let’s be honest - newfound love of cheap beer) cost me upwards of $4,000, which I finally finished paying off last year, after more than a decade of interest had accrued. (P.S. I never got below a 3.3 again.)

But you know what? I’m glad it happened. I’m glad Ma and Pa stuck to their guns, because it taught me the three of the most valuable things I’ve ever learned:

1) There are no second chances with real world money.
2) There are no second chances with real world expectations.
3) My parents don’t mess around, ever.

Thanks to that inglorious 2.99, I pay bills on time. I don’t miss deadlines. I try to exceed what people ask of me. Sure, most of it’s out of sheer terror of the consequences, but I like to think I learned a microscopic smattering of responsibility along the way. (Note: It’s mostly the terror.)

Readers, how about you? Whether you went to college, your own apartment, or a marriage, what food/health/economic things did you wish you knew before leaving home? Bring on dem stories (and I promise next week, there’ll be an article with real research and actual learny-type things).


If you like this article, you might also dig:
(Photos courtesy of generalsarmory and lizblog.)

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Anonymous said...

What a terrific story. I've got a kid who'll start college in three years, and I think I want to copy your parents exactly, in the hopes that my daughter will grow up as savvy and responsible as you did.

hillary said...

The thing I learned in college is to invest in where I am rather than always looking outside the community. On campus there were tons of activities, parties, people, food...mostly for cheap or free. Instead I spent $20 on a train ticket every weekend and then who knows how much on food, taxis, subway rides, etc. in NYC. It meant I didn't forge meaningful connections at school, spent less time studying because I wasn't near my dorm or library, and was broke all the time. So my advice to college students is: love the community you're in and stop looking for the next big thing. It's a bad habit many of us forge in high school, and one best avoided because it is financially and emotionally expensive!

Frugal Scholar said...

Ahhhhh...great stories. But it seems that every student has to learn some things the hard way. If it's OK to toot my horn: my son and I put together an ebook for the new college cook: see our blog

Dee Seiffer said...

Hubby and I have 5 kids (2 2009 grads and 3 in college now). We have/had the same rule: We pay for 3.0 or better. So far, so good.

The other thing we did when they got apartments (which was 2nd yr and on), was to give them an allowance for room and board at the beginning of the semester. We told them how we came to the total: $x for rent, $x for utilities, $x for groceries per month. Whatever they didn't spend, they got to keep. Our other rule, was they had to eat a healthy diet - protein, veges, etc. - no subsisting on mac & cheese and hot dogs 7 days a week.

They became frugal shoppers and very good cooks. Four of the 5 took "food science" (aka home ec) in high school. (It was a nice break from AP English) All learned basic cooking skills at home before they left.

They've asked for Kitchen Aid mixers, good knives, crock pots, dutch ovens, pepper mills, spices and cast iron for birthdays and Christmas. (My oldest daughter got a full tuition scholarship, so she got a custom-painted Kitchen Aid mixer for her 18th birthday.)

My oldest (24-yrs-old next month) won a cooking contest at work. I'm so proud!

My second-oldest has an Excel spreadsheet of all the bar specials in town (who has cheap, but good beer on Tues, etc). He bought a CSA even when he was still a student. He called for a couple of years asking, "How do you do that beef thing I like?" or "Scampi - walk me through again." I think he has found a great balance.

It might also help that we have family meetings about personal finance, work/play (aka partying) balance and "living life as a grown-up." We think kids don't learn that stuff in high school and don't always pick it up by osmosis. We try to keep the meetings fun, too. Hubby and I pledge $X to charity. Each kid presents their favorite charity to the family and we all vote on how much to give to which charities.

Okay - off my soap box.

Jolanda said...

Thanks for the responsibility lesson. We will have a daughter soon. I am not quite sure whether we will raise her "living life as a grown-up". Children have to run their own lives with our guidance.

Rachel said...

Collegiate cooking is ...really fun. I don't have to eat what my mom makes.

Like today for lunch. Mozarrella, sprouts, and honey dijon on wheat. Best sandwich ever.

Amber said...

My parents weren't the balanced-meal type. I actually started buying and preparing a lot of my own food in high school so I had a leg up.

Unfortunately, that didn't help enough sophomore year. See at the end of freshman year, all my friends decided we'd go off meal plan and do "family-style dinner" at least a few nights a week, with rotating cooks. Great idea, we all said. I was the ONLY ONE who actually canceled meal plan.

That year I ate a lot of hot dogs, a lot of "burritos" (browning meat, throwing in taco seasoning and eating this + sour cream and maybe tomato in a tortilla). I also consumed literally 20 pounds of candy. My boyfriend and his roommate's mothers both sent them enormous sacks of candy for Christmas. Neither of them much like candy, and I was always hungry (no meal plan!), and I'm sorry to say that over the course of four months, I ate *all* of the candy.

When the boyfriend and I broke up at the end of sophomore year and I was on my own during the summer, I dropped about 15 pounds in 2 months. Yikes!