Fiscal disconnect: Why am I so broke?

Everyone wants your money. Tuition fees are due, your biology text is $139 and your mouldy basement suite is $550 a month

Being aware of your financial responsibilities can be a bit of a balancing act.

Being aware of your financial responsibilities can be a bit of a balancing act.

Everyone wants your money. Tuition fees are due, your biology text is $139, food and utility costs keep rising, and your mouldy basement suite is $550 a month.

Part of your job as a student — and it is a job — is good money management. If you’ve left home without budgeting skills, here’s a crash course.

I’ve heard students moan about loans, fees, and textbook costs while wearing designer jeans, swigging Starbucks lattes, and packing the latest techno-glitz. And let’s not forget the tattoos and piercings and those spring breaks in Whistler and Mexico. Ka-ching!

I’ve seen students toss good food, new clothing, housewares, unused stamps, bus tickets, and — wait for it — money. The manager of a student apartment block reports similar discards and a big jar of coins in the dumpster.

What happened to “Waste not, want not” and “Take care of the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves”? Why do we live so extravagantly and get into such life-restricting debt?

We’re as brainwashed as anyone. Today’s propagandists are corporations. As T. Boone Pickens, former CEO of Allied Stores, told stockholders, “Our job is to make people unhappy with what they have.” They do. New stuff, lots of it, is what we want. And the credit card companies will come onto campus to sign you up so you can get it. Right now.

Problem is, there’s later. Later is a big bill, which gets bigger — a nasty reality brought to you by the miracle of compound interest. If you don’t want to be paying for those lattes and jeans 10 years from now — through credit cards or student loans — it’s time to separate the wants from the needs.


Residence is pricy and sometimes a major pain in the psyche. For example, depending on your room and meal plan, UVic charges anywhere from $813.50 to $989/month. You can do better. Check out (carefully) shares and room-and-board. Seek reduced rent for yard work or similar. If you have references, try house-sitting.

Furnish your room or house from garage sales and second-hand emporia like the glorious Oak Bay United Church Thrift Store. Investigate on-line bargains and freebies. Haggle.

If heat and hot water are extra, turn the heat down, wear sweaters and thick socks, take a hot-water bottle or a friend to bed, and take navy showers.


Fast food and convenience foods are costly bad nutrition. For the price of a Big Mac, fries and pop, you can make lentil burgers and salad for two with apples for dessert. If you can’t cook, learn: buy a cookbook like How to Boil Water or ask someone to teach you. Ask your family for favourite recipes. Research specials online and plan your meals. Clip coupons. Rack up loyalty points. Buy house brands.

Avoid the centre aisles (processed stuff) when possible. Buy discounted meat — it’s fine — and stew it with lots of beans. Fleshy fish bones are great for chowder. Pack food and drinks to school, and always have food to come home to.

Make batches of soup and stew and freeze them for busy times. Form a bulk-buy club and have a divvy-up party. Visit bulk food and ethnic stores — in Victoria, try Ingredients, Mexican House of Spice, and Seven Valleys downtown, and the Indian Food Market at Quadra and McKenzie. Jubilee Pharmasave has brilliant food specials.

Carry healthy snacks so you won’t buy something stupid if your blood sugar tanks.  Never shop when you’re hungry.

Eat simply. And when you’re celebrating, avoid restaurants and throw potlucks. Learn three fabulous dishes.

Clothes and grooming

Go for garage sales, thrift and consignment stores, swaps. Dye old clothes and sew on different buttons. Learn to mend (ask Grandma). Do the French thing: a couple of good outfits and varied accessories. Ask for clothes for Christmas and birthdays. Read There’s Lead in Your Lipstick and you won’t want to use any cosmetics you can afford, so that’s easy. Soaps like Dr. Bronner’s will keep you clean and healthy.


Forget retail therapy. Find cheap and free local activities like ball games and private gallery openings. Walk in the park with a borrowed dog. Take a thermos and cookies to the beach. Stroll through ritzy hotels. Ride around on the bus and stop anywhere interesting. Take full advantage of campus amenities and public libraries.

People love personalized cards and presents. Recommended: a board game of your friend’s life, a glitzed-up, tie-dyed t-shirt, photocopies of newspapers printed the day your friend was born (go to Microforms at your university).

Remember the environment?

Living low off the hog is good for your health, your bank account, and life on this planet.  Neither you nor the earth can afford a car or too much techno-crap. Farmers’ markets are fun and provide the best nutrition. Support local micro-breweries and drink at home — cheaper, and you can fall quietly into your own bed. Take your empties back. Reduce, re-use, recycle. Seriously — it’s your future.

Just a few more things

If you find it hard to keep to a budget, use the Little Tin Box system. At the beginning of the month withdraw a realistic amount of cash for food and amounts for other necessities.  Keep them in separate boxes (try the freezer — it’ll likely remain intact if the rest of your place burns down) and that’s your budget for the month. If you run low, you just have to figure it out. Very educational.

Don’t work so many hours at a job that your grades suffer. If you find a job you like, it’ll help you decompress from classes, but don’t work more than 15 hours a week. It’s a lot smarter to take a couple of years off, live frugally, and stash away every penny you can.  (See my article “Reality 101: The Big Picture.”)

Ask old people how to save money. They’re the experts, and they’ll give you priceless advice.

Money management is a job, a skill, and a game. It’s not that hard, and giving Mr. Pickens the finger is kind of fun. You’ll be in control of your life, and there’s no better feeling. M

Hilary Knight taught university English for 21 years and lives well on a laughable income. Check out her website at

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