When I arrived at Occidental this year, I was prepared to face challenges. As a first-generation low-income student, I knew that financial matters would define my college life, but I underestimated the role that my meal plan would play. Things had already gotten messy in my first week, after I spent what I thought was necessary in order to eat balanced meals three times daily. This cost $46 more than I could afford and by the week’s end I was short on meal money, according to the “Check your Balance” sheet provided by Occidental. The experience revealed to me that Occidental is not providing proper care for its low-income students.
In week two, I made many changes. I skipped breakfast every day. I did not enjoy a single French toast stick. I stopped eating salad and fruit in bowls, because a cashier kindly told me that she would have to “up-charge” me if I didn’t use a plate for those items. I begged my family to send care packages by repeatedly posting my new address on Facebook. I used the eco-clamshell every meal, to save 25 cents. I only drank water, and in plastic cups, which are free. I started asking for a receipt with each meal, and immediately noticed when avocados jumped from $2.50 to $4.50.
It was tough to stop buying sodas, but it was harder to go to bed hungry, knowing that I could not afford to be full. I was afraid that I would run out, and not have money to add to my card. Or worse, I would have to ask my friends to help me out. I ended up saving a lot of money, and learning enough from my receipts to figure out how to eat for both my appetite and my budget. For example, the Carne Asada, a small salad, some fruit and milk for dinner, while satiating my hunger and covering all the food groups, is unaffordable. Instead, I grab a sandwich and a pure fruit Naked juice.
I began budgeting by dividing my starting balance by the weeks in a semester, and that number by the days in a week, and that one by three, for three meals per day. It all trickles down to $4.76 a meal (on Meal Plan B, after the 50 percent discount for meal-plan holders), which I had to spend less than, in order to catch up. The “Marketplace Pricing Guide,” recommends that you spend $10-$15 per meal. Do not listen to that. Assuming that this is before the 50 percent discount, (since $20-$30 a meal seems outrageous) students on Meal Plan B, spending the lowest amount recommended, would spend 24 cents extra a meal, and even then would still eventually fall far behind. Twenty-four cents three times a day adds up to 72 cents a day, $5.04 a week, and $80.64 a semester.
College is the place to learn the skills we will carry with us into our own lives, careers and families. First-generation students are especially in need of these skills. Budgeting is something I would prefer to learn now, instead of finding myself at 40 years old having to ask someone for a personal loan. I do not even want to be one of those students who expects others with extra meal money to swipe for them when they run out. In my first few weeks, I was counseled repeatedly not to worry about my meal plan because I could always add more money or use someone else’s excess. By giving students poor recommendations and vague pricing information, Occidental is encouraging a careless attitude.
As a student who can only afford her education through several different scholarships, I am very honored to be here, but I am also very aware that I am on my own. I do not have an array of people to call if I suddenly run out of the money I saved from working two summer jobs to supply myself with necessities like deodorant, shampoo and toothpaste. I do not want to be paying back family members and student loans at the same time.
I benefit from my merit and need-based scholarships, my work study and the connections that Occidental has to internships and jobs, but these do not cover all of my expenses. I thought that living on campus would be helpful, but apparently I do not really have a permanent residence. A plane ticket to get me from California to Delaware, since I cannot stay here over winter break, cost me $316. I also did not realize that laundry would cost about $70 throughout the year. An off-campus job or an internship will require transportation costs. Additionally, I do not have the luxury of building friendships through an expensive sorority. These fees add up, but the support does not. Even my work study comes with a annual limit of $3100, meaning I will not be able to get ahead after I pay for costs independent of tuition and room and board.
I am afraid of the possibility that I may have to leave Occidental in financial distress. I worry, as well, about my fellow low-income students. Students are buried under unexpected expenses and do not have the tools necessary to dig themselves out. Occidental administrators and student affairs personnel must rethink the way they set us up for our financial future.
Ann Garber is an undeclared first year. She can be reached at email@example.com.