How Money Dictates Your Welcome Week Experience

Pamela Jew

*Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

We’re all trying to make something of ourselves. But often in the context of NYU, doing that requires dishing out cash. Whether it’s your parents funding your three-month joyride of a summer for a supposedly career-making unpaid internship or working two jobs and allocating some extra money toward a MoviePass subscription (in hindsight, not the greatest investment), money is a hot commodity in terms of making it at NYU.

As many of us already know, the university’s financial aid isn’t the best (around 50 percent of NYU students receive need-based financial aid). So much so that on Facebook “Class of [Year]” pages, incoming students bond over NYU’s big-ticket tuition. The cost of attendance prevails as the punchline for many NYU students, overshadowing any financial background. At NYU, everyone is a “broke college kid,” but for many students NYU’s $70,000+ sticker price hardly makes a dent in the trust fund. NYU always factors in the ominous ‘personal expenses’ to somewhat prepare non-city slickers for New York’s own cost of attendance.

Coupons are a thing of your suburban past. Getting a meal that’s not McDonald’s for under $10 is a victory in and of itself. Finding your favorite box of cereal is an easy task, but it usually costs twice the amount you’re used to paying, and now, since starting NYU, you’re probably lactose-intolerant and exclusively drink almond milk.

The rush of arriving in New York City and beginning Welcome Week has kids scrambling for social stability, which causes them to spend in order to find it, although it’s mainly on their parents’ tab. But New York City provides limited constants: the MTA rarely runs on schedule, apartment leases last 12 months and that little bodega below your apartment could be gone next week.

It’s common for people to restart their lives when they come to college. But unlike other universities, NYU has the largest international student population in the United States and its attendees hail from all 50 states. Many families can’t just pack up the car and drop their kid off at school. Going to NYU from anywhere outside the tri-state area forces you to buy everything once you get there, only a few bags in hand and tipping the scale at 50 pounds.

This was the case for former NYU student Gabriel Manzano who arrived after over 24 hours in transit and three connecting flights from Brazil. Arms tired and wanting to sleep, Manzano and his parents dragged themselves down to the nearby Kmart where he collected all the essentials for his new home in Brittany Hall.

“I was tired and just wanted to sleep, but to do that, I kind of needed sheets on my bed,” Manzano said. “I came to New York with two big suitcases, which had all my clothes and basic toiletries for a few weeks, but I pretty much was starting over. Let me tell you, starting over in New York costs a lot of money.”

Tisch junior Kathleen Dionne, who only moved from Westchester County, experienced a similar shock, but with her family’s financial support, she was able to fully pay for what she needed sans stress.

“School and dorm supplies probably racked up, but things still seemed manageable with my parents’ help,” she said. “I think in the beginning I splurged a little on my budget, but eventually, I learned to keep my spending down, probably a month or two into school.”

Now, Kathleen budgets herself to $50 a week, via an allowance from her parents and excluding a pre-paid meal plan, for expenses outside of school if she wants to treat herself to a meal out with friends. Although her parents have instilled a sense of financial responsibility in her, Dionne is now looking for a job to wean herself off their support for her personal expenses, but many students don’t have the financial liberty to hold off finding a job until their junior year.

Since many incoming students lack job experience that fits what the city job market expects, some decide to save up beforehand to prepare for the city’s extreme expenses. Stern junior Shawn*, fully aware of the New York City he wanted to experience — one filled with expensive dinners four nights a week — worked a full-time job the summer before starting college just to prepare himself and his wallet. At home, his single mom would cook every night, but these home cooked meals were coming to a close, and he didn’t want the guilt of having mom pay for all his meals weighing on him. After three months spent assisting with the business side of a local tutoring center, Shawn raked in around $7,000 — he was ready to go nuts.

“I wanted to try everything,” Shawn gushed. “I just love food in general and that’s what I mainly saved my money up for. Food in New York is just plain expensive, but it’s something I did to hang out with new people my first couple weeks.”

Just to add onto the bill, Shawn had met a girl at Club Fest during his first week. With Shawn’s love of food and their shared Korean heritage, he knew he had to wine and dine her.

“It was still the honeymoon phase, so I was paying for most of the meals,” Shawn said. “That drained a bit out of my budget. Now, almost two years later we split the bill, but it’s that so-called traditional ‘we just started dating and I have to impress.’ I was new to the city, she was new. We didn’t know any better, spending-wise.”

But it’s not just first-years who face the challenge. Tisch senior Erica Snyder transferred to NYU her junior year from Wesleyan University, a smaller liberal arts college, arriving at a time when most friendships were celebrating their two-year anniversary. Only knowing one person at NYU and living off campus, Snyder dipped her toes into the Tisch Welcome Week events, but she found little community there. After a tireless first day trying to make friends, she treated herself to a Dean and Deluca premade meal.

“I knew one person here, and he was starting off his sophomore year. [I] didn’t want to bother him because he had his own life here and I needed to find my own friends,” Snyder said. “My first night I ended up going to Dean and Deluca because that’s where I thought real New Yorkers shopped for groceries. I bought some premade chicken wrapped in spinach. It was just sad overall and cold in the middle.”

Now, Snyder spends like a mad woman. She’s Seamless’ favorite customer and her dad’s credit card’s worst enemy. Every now and then, she’s even gifted with a nice phone call from her father who is just checking in about that crazy takeout she got the other day. Aside from her dad’s credit card number at her fingertips, she also holds a job at the NYU English Department to fund much of her spending. Even though her parents are willing to help support her, Snyder wants to be able to say she’s supporting herself, especially for more seemingly frivolous purchases. In her own words, she’s truly adapted to the stereotypical New York lifestyle like something out of a movie (see: “I Feel Pretty,” include SoulCycle scenes).

“Look, I’ll admit it; I go to my Rumble classes, my FlyWheel classes,” Snyder confessed. “I’ve become that quintessential New York mom or whatever. I go out a couple nights a week now if I can. I’ve fully adapted to that lifestyle, but, hey, I’m not ashamed. It’s stuff I enjoy doing, and I make my income for that type of stuff.”

In a city that takes advantage of you, if you don’t watch your back, you’ll find yourself paying much more than others — emotionally and financially. Some people learn pinch pennies faster, but many first-years just don’t learn. This isn’t to say money is flying out the door; small, consistent overspending drain that extra pocket change for one night of fun.

Manzano, vying for an elusive Columbia University man, knew his shared triple dorm room wasn’t going to cut it, and he had to seal the deal, prove the relationship was one for the books.

“I was this little 18-year-old guy from a conservative town in Brazil and now living in New York City, and I met this guy who was cute and he was tall,” Manzano said. “I thought to myself, ‘O.K., I have to actually hook up with this guy, and I ended up one night spending $300 on a hotel room just for us to hook up. That was the most stupid thing I’ve ever done, but it was a real fun night.”

After a year of quote-unquote thriving, Manzano left NYU and returned home to Brazil where he now studies law. His departure was caused by financial burdens and other family matters, but he hopes to re-apply to NYU and return sometime within the next year.

“My parents have the funds to pay for NYU,” Manzano admits. “They’re both lawyers, but with the U.S.-Brazil currency exchange, on top of the already expensive international [student] tuition and fees, going to school became too expensive.”

Aside from tuition, Shawn’s bank account slowly emptied from other outside expenses. Kids slyly took his expensive, low-quality booze — $200 worth to be exact. He and his friends met a couple of other guys in University Hall, and they just wanted to have a few parties because college is partying and taking exams hungover, right? In his first week, Shawn heard whispers of local liquor stores that either don’t card or will take any mail-order fake IDs.

“There are a bunch of places that rarely card or not even card, but that makes their alcohol more expensive,” Shawn said. “I was the only one with a fake, so it was up to me. Someone ended up stealing a whole handle [of alcohol] from me, and I thought, ‘there goes my $30.’ Most of the time, these kids don’t even finish their drink either, just wasted alcohol, just wasted money.”

By the end of Shawn’s first week, he spent $1,000 on dorm supplies, restaurants, alcohol and a new-found interest, for him — kava. Kava, which can be taken in the form of a liquid, is a root from the South Pacific that gives users a temporary high and promises relaxation.

“I met a guy from Colorado, and he introduced me to kava,” Shawn said. “For three days straight or so, we went down to this place called Kavasutra, and every night at 1 a.m. they host ‘1 a.m. Slam’ where all shots are $1. I’d get some shots and a bowl of kava for $15, which added up to about $100 by the end of the week.”

By the middle of the second semester his first year, Shawn had blown through the entirety of his $7,000 savings from the summer. Once all the money was gone, Shawn took a nice look in the mirror, got himself a job, started meal prepping and tries to cap his spending at $500 a month.

“Once you’re comfortable in the city, you start to scale back on your spending, or at least that’s what happened for me,” Shawn said. “You realize you don’t need to spend all this money, and spending [at the time] was to try out everything I wanted to. I tried out most of those things I wanted to, and now don’t even have the time to see anyone but my girlfriend because I’m so busy with school and internships, you know, the classic New York student who keeps working until they get to the top.”

But not many students, like Shawn, have to look at their finances as closely, rather they just wait for a passive aggressive message from mom and dad telling them they went over their allowance.

“Maybe because I’m coming from a place where I know my family is well off, but being at NYU, it’s hard to maintain friendships if you can’t afford to experience the same things,” Snyder said. “It’s clear that either people have an absurd amount of money or have dreamed for years to come here and have the funds — financial aid or not. It’s not that black and white, but it’s close to it. Even just sitting at your apartment, you have to pay for electricity and maybe you want a bottle of wine. Money has been ingrained in most of my New York experiences.”

We do crazy things to make friends, swoon over boys, try every cuisine in a one-mile radius and, above all, to achieve a certain level of happiness. Yes, my mom even had a pillow stitched with “money can’t buy you happiness,” but watching others score a six-figure salary straight out of college or that NYU classmate whose parents’ fund her Chelsea studio, it feels more like lack of financial stability brings you sadness. Even writing this story, I know there’s a gap in socioeconomic equality among NYU’s student population. A large majority of NYU students, according to The New York Times, come from upper-class backgrounds. Most students who gloat wild first semester stories have serious disposable income, often on their parents’ dime.

NYU truly does cost an arm and a leg because after you already front the money to live and attend school here, you want to actually experience all that the city boasts. The amount of disposable income you have realistically does determine the friends you make and the certain pockets of the city you can experience. Not that all people have a prejudice against others’ financial standings, but finding that social middle ground can be difficult for many, even me. Pure friendship comes down to sitting on your couch, or on your floor because your apartment is too small for a couch, or walking over the Brooklyn Bridge and just talking the night away under the New York City stars because, in reality, money only seems to fund the material items surrounding the experience.

Read more from Under the Arch’s “The City of Dreams and Disillusionments” Issue. Email Pamela Jew at [email protected]

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