Deconstructing Money Diaries: Being Low Income at Barnard

By Maya Corral

In my hometown, poverty was portrayed as romantic. Children of doctors, lawyers, and professors opted for children’s shoes and flip phones because they were cheaper. To them, poverty was an aesthetic. After starting at Barnard, I noticed that most people proudly wore airpods and Canada goose jackets, while I sported a $35 discounted Target jacket with pleasure.

When I overheard students casually talking about their family’s wealth and their parents’ jobs, I was astounded by the privilege on campus. I’ve met numerous students whose parents are CEOs of massive corporations, and bring home tens of millions of dollars a year in salaries. I came onto campus naive about the truth of education at a private, elite institution like Columbia, and quickly realized that I didn’t really understand the amount of wealth a family could have. Nor did I recognize how much that can impact your academic and personal experiences at Barnumbia.

Because I am a first generation and low income student, I feel as though I have no room to fail. College is portrayed as fun, exciting, and carefree in movies, and while some of my peers feel that way about their college experiences, I am frequently anxious and worried about my current and future financial situation. As an FGLI (first generation low income) student, it’s even harder to balance school, work, a social life, and mental and physical health at an elite college like Barnard.

To combat my unease with finances and to see how my spending differs from my peers, I kept a money diary for seven days. While I went in meaning to write an article depicting exactly what I spent everyday, I came out of the experience realizing that this diary was much less about the money I spent, and more about the conversations and reflections this opportunity created. I love money diaries, and read them on a weekly basis. For that reason, I was hopeful that this experience would solve my financial woes and allow me to reflect on the barriers faced by FGLI students in comparison to their more privileged peers. However, what I realized in the process is that the relationships and connections we build as college students are far more important than the snacks we buy from the basement. This goes especially for FGLI students, who oftentimes enter college without the same professional connections and academic resources as their peers. So, rather than publishing the traditional money diary that most of us have a love-hate relationship with, I decided to deliberate on my spending and discussions with friends, family, and alums about the most controversial topic in my life: money.

Finances are a constant stress for most low-income students at Barnard, including me. First generation and low income students often have to choose between a major they genuinely enjoy and one that seems practical for gainful employment post-graduation. I came into Barnard as an Economics major, and, after taking one class, I knew it wasn’t for me. I found myself much more interested in my History, American Studies, and Literature courses. I’m still not quite sure how I would turn these subjects into a career. While many of my friends are at Mel’s on a Saturday night, I often find myself awake in my dorm room, terrified at the possibility of being unemployable (although I do stop by Mel’s on occasion).

While I worry about my future career, I also feel responsible for contributing to my educational and family costs. I look at our bill and feel ashamed at the student and parent loans we’ve taken out, and the daily sacrifices my family has made to send me to this college. I started the 2018-19 academic year with $3,500 (money that I earned working throughout high school and during the summer). Currently, I have $1,000 in savings, and I feel really fortunate to have had enough savings to pay my tuition, buy food, and pay for other expenses without working during the first term. Although I wasn’t awarded a work study job due to available jobs on campus last semester, I’ll be working two jobs this term, making $15 at one and $16.50 at the other. I anticipate working 12-15 hours a week, plus $100 per week from babysitting.

My tuition payment is $2,360 per month, and as of right now, I’ve taken out $5,500 in student loans. My father will be losing his job in the near future, so I’m currently looking into more loan options. Right now, my tuition is paid in combination between these loans, my parents, and me when I am able to contribute. Many of my peers have families that can afford to send them here without consequence. Meanwhile, I frequently feel like an imposter because of my financial situation. Imposter syndrome sinks into every part of my life, but most of these feelings are due to fear of my finances.

All of this was at the back of my mind during my money diary week. I started off with a visit to my great grandfather and errands, and ended by returning to New York. At times, it was emotional (like when my mega wealthy friend made a comment about being poor), and other times it seemed normal (I bought salad, $25 worth of chocolate, and three root beer floats throughout the week without overthinking my purchases). There were times when I felt guilty about spending money (when I had to ship a package filled with my stuff back to NYC because I overpacked) and there were times when I didn’t question the money I was spending (when I paid for my great grandfather’s prescription). While I made meaningful connections about the money I’m spending and my future career goals, the funniest realization I made throughout this process was recognizing that my favorite part of being home is seeing my esthetician and getting my eyebrows done (even though it costs four times what I would pay in New York).

My spending doesn’t really differ from many college students, because most of us don’t have a lot of extra money, and many are working to pay their own tuition. However, I think many FGLI students have a special appreciation for the sacrifices they, and often their families, have made to be at this elite institution. Being at Barnard has taught me a lot about myself, and the perceptions of FGLI students to our more privileged Barnumbia peers.

Many times, I think privileged Barnumbia students have a one-dimensional perception of how FGLI students are spending their money and interacting with the rest of campus. One of my peers complained about being broke when they’ve bought numerous sets of Airpods after losing them over and over again. The feeling of otherness that comes with being an FGLI student on Barnard and Columbia’s campus is inevitable. There is nothing I can really say to my more privileged peers to make them understand that not only what they’re doing is harmful to me, but also that they will likely never truly comprehend what it feels like to be helpless in your financial situation. The perception that all of us have had the same experiences, or that we are somehow different from the rest of the student population is rampant and naive.

Every FGLI student reacts to poverty (and the resources provided to us because of it) differently. It is difficult to name the “first generation” or “low income” college experience because it is ever changing and fluctuates for each FGLI student every day (or week, in my case). Although our experiences are difficult to pinpoint, all FGLI students have one thing in common: we do not have as many resources as our peers, furthering our low income status, both on campus and after graduation. I often overthink the money I’m spending, the extracurriculars I participate in (especially the ones that take away from time that could be spent working or in school), and the internships I’m applying for. However, I also go out to eat with my friends, buy new clothes, and experience city life like many other Barnard and Columbia students. Additionally, the growing efforts by Barnard to increase awareness and normalization of FGLI students has helped to make it easier to be a first generation and low income student on our campus.