College students are known for “scraping by” and often criticized for the “paycheck to paycheck” lifestyle. The reality is these conditions are consequences of modern systems, crippling student debt, and the increasing cost of living in urban cities especially. I’m not going to tackle these issues here because clearly I’m not qualified but these could all be stand-alone posts or projects of their own.
Simply, I want to address how being broke is a uniting factor among students, often the root of a joke, but something we aren’t raising enough red flags at. But, it’s a conversation I think must happen because I found myself wondering — how broke am I? Others around me laugh and joke about how much they’re struggling financially, but laughing at it must be some strange coping mechanism or sign that the threat must not be all too high.
If I consider myself broke, is it really? If I have a few hundred dollars to my name am I better off, or worse off than my counterparts? These are questions that I’d at least hope aren’t exclusive to my ideology. They lead to further doubts, like: Am I saving enough? Do I spend too much? Do I really need to be worried? How much should I be saving for food? How does my disposable income compare?
Comparison is natural, especially among fellow Gen-Z’s like me. The standard is evolving so quickly there’s almost no standard at all. I always have considered myself fortunate to be able to buy my own groceries, work for my own dollar and trips with friends, but still do what I love with not so much disposable income to become blind to the privilege of employment and finance.
I recently traveled abroad to Sydney where I spent some of the best months of my life. My school recommended I budget around $10,000 to spend, which surprised me. I don’t think my bank account has ever seen that many zeroes. But it made me question — am I not as financially stable as I thought? Surely though, after the semester I wasn’t doing all too well. I had spent just about every penny to my name exploring Australia, Asia, and surrounding areas to make the most of my time. Those months compiled of decisions I didn’t regret, memories surely worth more than the price tag, but a return to Boston that left me with a clean (and empty) financial slate.
But when I look to inspirations or measurements to help set new goals to motivate myself, there’s nothing there. I do have a 401k that I’ve been building since high school, but that’s about all the assets to my name. I also thought I had an edge there, but then some of my friends have an investment portfolio. My savings account had seen better days and my credit card debt had hit a maximum. As I returned to my normal work, paychecks, and adventurous and financially demanding routine in Boston, I decided to set a savings goal before I graduate. With my sights set on moving to New York, I know I’ll have to be more savvy than I had before.
I thought about what I’d learned about finance previously… but then realized I hadn’t. I couldn’t recall any information about credit scores, budgeting, or anything on home buying or apartment leasing as a matter of fact. I watched as friends struggled to understand terminology of their leases just to make sure they were making the right decisions. My friends and I had always joked that we can recite the quadratic formula and explain plate tectonics but not write a check. We can recall presentations on 1700 English literature but not explain a mortgage. With less than a year until I say bye to Boston University, I realized these are life lessons that had yet to cross my educational path.
After all this though, money is still a taboo conversation. I don’t talk to my friends about saving, investing, and anything of the sorts — but why? It’s one of the few things everybody in my generation can relate to. They say nothing creates a bond like common hardship, so why is financial stability something we aren’t working with each other on? Especially since teachers and role models before haven’t solidified it.
But from a larger perspective, it surprises and yet fails to surprise me at the same time our hesitancy over expressing financial wellbeing. Turn on the radio and mainstream rappers write hooks on their expensive lifestyles and how others can’t get on their level. Financial success is so widely admired and used as entertainment yet under any par or level the discussion becomes isolating and wrong. I often need to remind myself though I’m in college, and I don’t need to be making six figures or driving the car of my dreams.
Like most people, I’m motivated by a vision of success often crafted by stories of achievement by those who’ve tackled the industry or approached a sense of adulthood with admirable ambition. Whether these icons’ destinations seem achievable or not, it paints a picture that anybody from anywhere can emulate a similar success. Though I still firmly believe this to be true, discussions of hardship (especially financial) seem to be embarrassing. We want our path to the top to be seamless, but inevitable hiccups and barriers seem unexpected because our mainstream attention and focus highlights a new dream whether it be in the entertainment, sports, arts, or corporate world.
As much as I hate to admit it, the root comes back to money. An education costs money. Equipment and starting a business costs upfront money. But it’s more than an account balance that impacts future Gen-Z. It’s a credit score that influences their ability to get a future apartment. It’s the ability to apply and accumulate loans and scholarships for required higher education. It’s learning to set aside “rainy day” money in a world that squeezes finances so tight a “rainy day” is everyday.
It’s not insensitive to discuss finances. It’s a conversation that Gen-Z needs to have as a generation to prove that this uniting force is more uniting than we may realize. Though everybody comes from various financial backgrounds, the lessons we must learn are the same and are best understood in collaboration. Older generations like to poke fun at my generation for our seemingly superfluous spending habits on things like avocado toast and shoes. They can joke all they want, because only those in school now understand the modern youth financial climate. But I think there’s always more to understand, too.