Dinner at Taco Bell and a double feature at the dollar theater was a typical night out with friends in my two-square-mile hometown near Detroit. Then, when I started my freshman year at the University of Michigan, I was in for a shock when it seemed like everyone else had access to monthly allowances and credit cards from their parents. How was I, with my student loan refund and the $400 I saved from a summer job, supposed to participate and make memories that would last a lifetime?
This become an obstacle I wasn’t at all prepared for. Dinner, parties, shopping, and everything that involved money I didn’t have became a source of stress. How was I supposed to make friends on campus if I couldn't afford to do any of the things they did on a regular basis?
Coming from a background where spare cash was a rarity, I started to feel like an outsider. No one else seemed to have that problem. When your new friends have a seemingly unlimited income for all kinds of food, drinks, and clothes, it's hard to have to explain to them that you don't.
We know that money isn't everything, and you don't need it for people to like you. But every time I said "no" to going out with friends on campus, I knew I had let them down and I ended up feeling left out. While it’s hard to feel involved when you don’t have a lot of money to go out, it doesn’t have to be a source of stress.
Get used to saying no
I had a friend in college who wanted to go parasailing one Saturday and invited me to go. I knew it was out of my budget and I was nervous about telling her. When I worked up the courage to tell her I couldn’t afford it, her face was visibly confused. She asked if I could just use my dad’s credit card, and I became more uncomfortable. Then I realized, for some people, the sky's the limit financially, but that’s not the world I (or most people) live in. It was uncomfortable for me at first, but there’s no shame in telling someone you can’t afford certain activities because that’s a true reflection of your reality. When you bring that authenticity into a relationship, you’ll build stronger friendships in the long run. Like most of life, honesty is usually the best policy.
If you don’t want to play the “I don’t have any money” card all the time you have an excellent, never-fail excuse: college. There is literally no end to the reading, studying, writing, practicing or cramming that needs to be done for classes. While it’s far less glamorous than a five course meal, it’s much cheaper and more productive. Eat a pack of Ramen, feel good that you got some real work done and reward yourself with ice cream with your pals once you’re done.
Having a limited budget is an opportunity to flex your resourcefulness and come up with creative ways to spend less money. When going out to eat, get a smaller dish at the restaurant and prepare by eating a snack at home before you go to dinner. You don’t have to announce it to the table, just tell people you aren’t as hungry. A similar tactic would be to eat a full dinner at home and not order anything at the restaurant. You could always sneak a couple of french fries from your friend’s plate if you feel awkward. Another way to save on dinner is to avoid ordering alcohol and just spend money on food. Finally, you could skip dinner entirely and meet up with your friends after they eat for coffee or dessert.
Be proactive in making plans
If you feel like you’re missing a lot of opportunities due to your limited budget, come up with some alternative plans for you and your friends. Suggest meeting up at a dorm for dinner instead of going out. Hop through new recruit meetings for clubs, Greek Week or even dorm mixers - they always have free pizza. If you have a kitchen or know someone who does, offer to cook for everyone and have a movie marathon. People will usually turn up for food. (Pro tip: the best investment I ever made was a $20 toaster over for my dorm room. I’d buy pre-made cookie dough, toss them in and serve warm cookies while we watched TV cramped in the bunk beds.)
Get familiar with the student or local newspapers and see what events are happening around town. There is usually a movie screening, play, concert, speaker, art show, museum or something else happening that’s free or discounted for students. Even something as simple as a walk, run or bike ride to explore your college town is a great way to spend time with others. You have no idea how many seemingly boring adventures turn into great stories later.
Try new things with new people
Unless you are an extremely outgoing person, the first people you get to know will probably be “proximity friends:” roommates, people in your dorm, some particularly chatty classmates. Don’t limit yourself to spending time only with people where it’s convenient. Get involved in something that interests you, even if you have to go it alone. Join the newspaper, sign up to volunteer at a local animal shelter, try out for a play or a capella group, go to political rallies. There may even be a club for first generation students on campus, or students from low-income backgrounds, on campus where you likely won't have to even explain your situation because other people will be going through the same thing.
There is usually a club or organization for everything you can possibly think of on campus, and if you find one that speaks to you, that’s where you will find your people. Talk to strangers in classes to start study groups, even if you don’t think you need the help. That boring Spanish lit lecture is a lot less boring when you have friends to commiserate with, and the more friendships you make the less you feel like to have to be a part of one group all the time.
Know when to splurge and don’t feel guilty about it
Adjusting to college is hard and sometimes you deserve to treat yourself. Be mindful of your bank account and get familiar with the bank website or app to keep track of your money the best you can. Yes, sometimes you may have to spend a week eating peanut butter, but it can be worth it for a great night with good people. Pick the things that are the most important to you and see if you can work it into your budget. You may never get another opportunity to see that band you love in concert, and you only turn 21 once. Enjoy those times so you don’t feel bad when you have to pass on the next outing.
Sometimes college can feel like culture shock, and for me, not having as much money as my friends had a lot to do with that. It’s easy to assume you have nothing in common with people who live a different kind of life than you, and to close yourself off from them when it seems like those differences are dictating your social life. That doesn’t have to be the case.
Remember that it’s actually spending time with friends that builds relationships, not how much you’re spending in that time. We can’t all go parasailing on the weekend or go out to a $20 per entree dinner, but you can always find something else much more economical to do if you are willing to put in a little work.