“Ekene, we have to schedule two weeks in advance to hang out with you.”
“You’re chronically busy.”
They say time is money, but when you come from a working-class Nigerian immigrant family, there’s not a lot of either to go around. With four other siblings, two of whom are dealing with the exorbitant costs of college, I knew to keep my expectations low when it came to traditional splurge seasons — Christmas, birthdays, summer vacations — and save them for the big city rather than Charlotte, North Carolina.
I knew treating my inner child with all the food and fashion I’d been craving would cost a pretty penny — doubly, no, triply, so in New York City. The summer before my first year in college, I hustled at Bojangles, a fast-food chicken joint, for just a dollar above the federal minimum wage. I scraped together some extra funds with another grocery store gig that paid in the double digits per hour, but was still insultingly meager. My wide-eyed Southern idealism made me believe those sweet summer savings would be enough to help me fly by in the city.
Little did I know how quickly those dollars would disappear.
Ah, the allure of being a first-year — bright city lights, no curfews and unlimited fun at my fingertips. I was like a kid in a candy store. To say I was frugal during my first months at NYU would be a lie. I walked outside for a second and $35 would disappear. But no matter how many overpriced tourist traps I fell for or shiny new dresses I bought that were one size too small for me, I’d rest easy because I knew I had a lifeline 600 miles away.
It only took one call for my bank account to instantly double. My parents were more than willing to Zelle me some extra funds here and there to get me through the week, as I was the Onukogu child that had flown the farthest from the nest.
“Ekene, how much do you need?” my mom would ask softly.
By default, I learned to play ball and downplay how much I really wanted…
“Oh, not much, like… $75.”
… and have my mom sweetly offer some more.
“You sure? Not $100? We can send $150.”
It worked like a charm time and time again.
But soon, I ran out of excuses for why my bank account was dwindling, and my guilt skyrocketed. My parents always smiled and assured me that I could ask them if I needed anything, but it was clear that a tiny part of that was conditional.
My sophomore year at NYU, I hit the ground running. It was as if the chaos of my first year had multiplied. I had all the new challenges of being a second-year – a longer commute, harder classes, more career pressures — but without all the safety nets. I burned through all the savings I’d earned back home in Charlotte, and my parents were less willing to give me emergency handouts — they expected me to know the ins and outs of New York City.
To cut costs, I quietly shelved my meal plan. I even decided to cut my Netflix subscription. With NYU’s free HBO Max, I figured “Stranger Things” could wait. I’d been wanting to start “Succession” for a while anyway. But with the life I live, I fear my perennial “to watch” list will remain untouched.
If you’re like me, maybe you have the pot of gold called work-study, where the federal government pays you to work part-time as a full-time student. You work somewhere on campus, say the library or a residence hall resource center, or even at a nearby elementary school — the latter two being my choice of employment — and you’re on Uncle Sam’s payroll. You can get a whole host of benefits if you have work-study, like priority for on-campus job applications, food stamps and decreased taxes, baby! So it’s the perfect solution for the whole broke bitch thing right? Right?
Problem is, there’s the whole school thing. I’m a Media, Culture, and Communication major and a Business of Entertainment, Media, and Technology and Spanish double-minor. With the five classes I take, I’m drowning in readings, essays and group projects galore.
I try to use those awkward pockets of time between lectures to knock out some smaller assignments. But catching up on college homework is like slaying a Hydra — you submit one reading response on Brightspace and then two more essays take its place. And by the time you finally feel like you’ve tamed the beast, midterms appear. And once they start, they don’t stop.
So what’s my strategy? Stacking. I meticulously crafted my schedule so that the bulk of my classes are on Tuesdays and Thursdays, leaving Mondays and Wednesdays wide open for me to chase the bag. On Fridays, I’m saddled with recitations so I have to schedule my shifts for the evening, which has proven less than ideal for my nightlife. At 9 p.m., I finish a shift sorting and carrying packages, handing out loaner keys and dealing with other miscellaneous debacles as a residence hall resource center office assistant. And with the commute back to my dorm and getting ready to be a baddie? We not pulling up to the party till 11 p.m. at the earliest. The same goes for Saturday.
However, with the power of work-study, I am not bound to fixed eight-hour shifts.
I work at an elementary school through America Reads and Counts at NYU, which is very flexible when it comes to my schedule. I usually work Mondays and Wednesdays. I start when school starts, which is at 8 a.m. sharp. For about three hours, I’m an aide in a kindergarten class where I help the kids learn to read and write. After an hour break for lunch, I’m back on for two more hours, making arts and crafts, and teaching math skills, until school finishes at 2:15 p.m. The program also coordinates with the teacher I assist so that I can take days off if I have a test or three staring me in the face.
It’s hard to remember to give myself a break. If I miss a day at my elementary school, I’m out $80. That’s like 10 plates of halal food or half a textbook. And with a biweekly paycheck, you learn to make your money last. But when you’re two weeks away from payday, and you decide to treat yourself for the first time in months and go to an event like a movie premiere or a Broadway show? You’ll be kicking yourself for daring to be so frivolous every time you walk past that dumpling place you drool over on your way to work.
It’s easy to say “spend less,” but sometimes, that card just has to be swiped. I’ve been pushed to the brink, but there are some limits you just have to set. I don’t care how broke I am — I will never go back to Spotify with ads. I would rather walk the streets and hear the sounds of pee trickling on concrete than hear that godforsaken jingle that plays every 30 minutes on the free version of Spotify.
It’s choices like these that keep me going. Nixing Netflix was a huge blow, but I managed to pick myself back up. However, the day I strip myself of Spotify, just know there’s no saving me. I’ve hit rock bottom.
They say time is money. I have one and not the other — I’ll let you guess which. But one thing about me is, I make it work. The busyness makes me feel alive. Sure, I may strategically time my hangouts to coincide with my paydays, but this city ain’t for the weak. Now I can dream as big as I want. On my own dime, of course.