Monday, June 22, 2009

When cheapness goes too far: or, tales of my weekend

Like my co-blogger, I'm in the process of moving apartments. Technically this means putting stuff into storage, running off to lower-rent lands, and returning come the fall, in the hopes of finding a recession-priced townhouse in the West Village, by which I mean studio apartment within walking distance of NYU. While we have hired (Brooklyn's least expensive!) movers for the furniture, the storage space happens to be on the same bus route as our apartment, and it was cheaper to 'claim' the storage space early, so we figured we might as well start the move ourselves. For whatever reason, the fact that a street fair blocked the entirety of that bus route did not stop us from thinking this course of action made sense. My arms are now in fine shape indeed. Jo suggested I try weight training, but to go to the campus gym in the summer now costs $50, so boxes it is.

Speaking of carrying things, here's another area where frugality adversely impacted my quality of life. After carrying around a backpack with every-expanding holes at the bottom and an ever-thickening layer of filth (as happens to things you put regularly on the floor of the subway) for some time, it occurred to me that perhaps the bag had had it's day. Which it had, so I threw it out. What I didn't do was buy a replacement. Because that would require the exchange of money for stuff, stuff that isn't fun in any way, and I figured that through some combination of tote bags and reused plastic shopping bags, I could get through the great Library Book Shift of 2009. I figured wrong. Thank you, Brooklyn Industries, for having one of your periodic bag sales just in time.

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In news of thrift on a larger scale, colleges are now cutting back on 'extras'. Predictably, in that the linked-to story is a lifestyle piece in the New York Times, and one that allows comments, after reading about some rather extreme college perks (how many schools ever had HBO in student rooms?) you get to hear from the ranks of those convinced that bratty Kids These Days demand luxuries beyond what they, when young, would have dared ask for.

But is it really the kids who demand these perks? I agree that there's been a trend in abandoning austerity-for-character-building's-sake, and that we no longer as a society believe one must be in a permanent state of physical discomfort, ala British boarding school of yore, in order to get an education. But I simply don't believe the undergrads care about the landscaping, the 'free' laundry, the fancy gyms, and so forth. These are things colleges do to one-up one another. Sure, there's some sense, if a student looks at nine schools with Perk A, that if the tenth lacks that perk, it's perhaps a worse-funded or less-brand-name institution. But it would have never occurred to individual undergrads to ask for most of what's now offered, to set the spartan-to-lavish scale where it's currently at.

11 comments:

PG said...

I don't think it makes sense for schools with competitive admissions -- I'm thinking roughly the top 100 liberal arts colleges and major universities in the country -- to bother with the amenities, because most of the kids attending those schools are doing so with some academic seriousness (either their own or their parents'). If I'd suggested picking a less elite school because it had laundry that didn't require saving up quarters, I'd have put myself at risk of having to fund my own education.

On the other hand, I do know some people for whom picking out a college was to a significant extent about picking out a lifestyle. It was important to them to attend a school where they would be comfortable, socially and otherwise, and if that wasn't the USNWR "best" school, so what? If it matters to such a person that she go to school in a city that affords decent shopping opportunities, for example, I am sure that dorm amenities also will be important.

Heck, my little sister -- who is much smarter, harder-working and more ambitious than I -- claims that she's done making choices based solely on the "best" opportunities (having gone to an Ivy League college and a top 5 medical school with about a dozen dates over 7 years), and is hellbent on spending her residency years in a city with lots of eligible single men.

I find this appalling in a You Bad Feminist way, but having bagged my spouse in law school, cannot really protest.

Miss Self-Important said...

But isn't it kind of hard to tell the difference between the 100+ schools in a top 100 list unless you're focused on minute differences in the rankings alone? Vassar vs. Sarah Lawrence? Kenyon vs. Grinnell? Isn't that the point of introducing, say, artisanal cheeses and filet mignon made to order in the dining hall--to distinguish your top 100 school from the other 150 schools on that list, which are all relatively on par with one another academically? The applicants for these schools may be more competitive and serious than the applicants to lower tiers of higher ed, but they also tend to have the most disposable (parental) income and the snootiest standards for what constitutes "livable."

The effect of such lifestyle inducements is probably strongest for hs juniors and seniors in the process of making a college list. You get swamped with all these glossy catalogues after taking the SAT, and if you, like me, are in the throes of a delusion about leaving home for a rural idyll. Vassar's promises of gourmet dining halls and Oberlin's library lounge did work to whet my appetite. But, if they had never installed these things or made these promises, I wouldn't have thought to expect or demand them. And once I got to school, I spent a lot of time justifying the absence of amenities in Hyde Park as part of the ascetic charm of the U of C.

I think the customer demand for such things is usually indirect in that way--it's not that the students declare, "Give me filet mignon or I go elsewhere!" but that schools competing increasingly on a national scale and against much cheaper state schools for their students need to distinguish themselves from their competition, and an arms race to acquire luxuries is one manifestation of that impulse.

Miss Self-Important said...

Oh, one more thing, on the problem of being too cheap: Sebastian is always complaining that I also settle for low quality just so I can save a few dollars. It's true that I replace consumer goods (headphones, clothes, bags, etc.) more often than he does, but I think there are two things at stake here:

1. The problem of susceptibility to trend that we discussed earlier--most clothes are not as classic as you'd think.

2. For some items, the cost differential between crappy and long-lasting is huge. For example, a crappy but serviceable pair of earbuds costs $15 and lasts me six months (I use them every day). A really excellent pair of headphones costs around $100. I don't know how long that pair would last given how much stress I will put them through, and unless it lasts six times longer than the crappy pairs, I'll feel cheated. I can't know in advance, so it seems safer to stick w/ the cheap and replace more often since replacement costs are relatively low.

This also applies to lots of household goods like cookware and kitchen appliances. Basic knives at Target are about $15 a set and they'll cut most things for a couple years. A really amazing set of German knives, by contrast, is $400 and they will probably cut through steel for eternity, but maybe not, and if they don't, I will cry SO HARD for that lost $385. (To balance this out though, sometimes really expensive stuff comes with a lifetime warranty, but if the problem is not the particular item you purchased but the product in general, that's small consolation.)

This problem is exacerbated in the realm of furniture purchases for people who move around a lot.

Allison said...

I agree on the college amenities thing - when I was at large state U for college, we didn't have new-fangled things like gourmet omelet stations in the dorms or campus bike-shares like my best friend at small midwestern smart-people college. But did I notice that they were missing when I got back from visiting her? Not really. But having now seen the amenities for the undergrads at my graduate school , I think it's more for the parents. They want a high-class experience for their kids. And since I'm jaded, it seems that most of the undergrads are there for finishing school/networking, not academics, so the amenities are just what they've become used to at their class status.

BTW, I love the discussions of thrifty moving and what to spend your money on. The question of furniture is especially baffling to me. I moved out of my IKEA furnished apartment in May to a summer sublet in a large city that is furnished with what I call "real people furniture". In August, my spouse and I will be moving to yet another apartment for a year at most. Living here has whetted our appetite for good quality furniture, but I feel guilty for both my rampant consumerism and contributing to a culture of disposable goods. I sold most of my old furniture on craigslist and gave the rest of it away - nothing went to the junkyard. But moving was bad enough without actual furniture (we managed an East Coast to Midwest haul with a borrowed cargo van packed to the gills) - I couldn't justify spending a thousand bucks to move my flat-pack particle board furniture in a u-haul. Would I do so for real people furniture? The psychic energy spent on this is troubling, as is the idea that we will be sleeping on the floor until we buy a bed - is it worth the wait to find a used one? Buy a cheap one from IKEA? A nice one with a real mattress? I've made lists and budgets galore.

Since we're both graduate students (law and PhD) and will likely have to be mobile for fellowships and later, my first job, this is not a question that will be solved in the next few years. I shudder to think how much energy we will waste thinking about this for so many moves...the scourge of being thrifty and guilty.

Phoebe said...

PG,

I think it's important to distinguish between the frivolous (HBO in rooms) and the substantial (city versus small town, esp. important for many gay students, but potentially also for those of other minority groups, or who are 'different' in some other, less-classifiable way). And as MSI points out in her comment, the question for the best students is how to choose among schools of near-identical rank/academics, so these extra's can enter into it as a way to make a tough decision easier, or as a way to justify choosing a private school over a public one that's also known to be academically rigorous.

Allison,

"And since I'm jaded, it seems that most of the undergrads are there for finishing school/networking, not academics, so the amenities are just what they've become used to at their class status."

That was not the case at UChicago, nor is it what my friends who went to other schools describe, nor what I've seen at NYU... but I've heard of this phenomenon, and will take your word that it exists, and is for all I know the norm. What's interesting, I think, isn't that rich kids are going to college - that's if anything less noticeable than in the past - but that the 'lifestyle to which they've been accustomed' is supposed to continue for those four (or so) years. The sense I get is that in the Golden Age, (private) college was for rich kids, yes, but it was a break from the bourgeois lives they'd led till then and would leave after, both in the lack of amenities and in the freedom to screw around, experiment, whatever. Now it's less of a break in both senses - students don't have to rough it, but they also think from day one about their careers, the latter being, of course, tied to the fact that private colleges do now have upwardly-mobile and not just already-heirs student bodies.

Miss Self-Important said...

Allison: My current dilemma, totally. I'm about to start grad school, my fiance is starting law school, and I wish furniture could be like those little pills you got as a kid that would "grow" into animal-shaped sponges when soaked in water. All you'd have to schlep is the pill-sized version.

Phoebe said...

Fiancé?

Miss Self-Important said...

Oh yeah, that happened too. Engagement, btw, is pretty thrifty given that the costs are largely borne on the male end of things prior to the time when incomes join.

Phoebe said...

Well, congrats!!! I can't believe I found this out not on Facebook but on Cheapness Studies.

PG said...

"The sense I get is that in the Golden Age, (private) college was for rich kids, yes, but it was a break from the bourgeois lives they'd led till then and would leave after, both in the lack of amenities and in the freedom to screw around, experiment, whatever."

I don't know how it was at other schools, but at UVa in the antebellum era, the students brought slaves from home and those who didn't had slaves furnished to them by the school for the duration of the students' living on campus. As early 19th century amenities go, slaves seem pretty fancy. I don't know exactly how much screwing around and experimenting with limited consequences was available. Supposedly the honor code originated after an incident in which a student shot and killed a professor (though I'm not sure what that would have to do with a vow not to lie, cheat, steal nor tolerate those who do), which to me sounds kind of permissive: having students roaming around with firearms. On the other hand, Poe had to leave the school due to gambling debts.

I know nothing about other colleges' historical practices, but this information is force-fed to all UVa graduates.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Looks like we're talking about different Golden Ages. I was thinking more mid-20th C, before the meritocracy brought in too many non-rich kids, but well after slavery had been abolished. Then again, Brideshead Revisited shows that in early 20th C Britain, college students, even the less fabulously wealthy, lived in splendor, so perhaps that was the case at some US schools as well. If so, it's hard to see what the moral panic is now about HBO and laundry.