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Cents in the City: The “Freshman 15” – and Its Effect on My Budget

Cents in the City: The “Freshman 15” – and Its Effect on My Budget

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Maya Bluthenthal
UpdatedMar 1, 2019
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    5 min read
Key Takeaways:
  • Even when you think you are prepared, new challenges arise.
  • To eat a healthy diet, I need choices other than the college meal plan. These choices cost money.
  • I am motivated to earn more money, so I can eat better and not spend more than my budget allows.

Cents in the City

Hey, I’m Maya. I live in New York City, where I’m a student at Columbia University. When I moved here last fall as a freshman, I expected a whole range of new experiences but hadn’t thought so much about managing my money and all the different ways I am challenged to make smart financial choices. So, with this blog, I am going to share my thoughts and experiences about the life of a college student in a big city, and the ways that money and finance come into play. "Cents in the City" seems like a fitting name for my posts. What do you think?

Budgeting in my freshman year

Freshman year. For many, this new environment means new friends, new fun, new dining options - and sometimes new stresses. It’s also the ascent into adulthood. No longer surrounded by the people whose job it was to take care of you for 18 years, college is a chance to take ownership of yourself, which, if you are doing correctly, includes establishing patterns of healthy living.

Ready to Be on My Own

Always comfortable embracing a challenge, I was excited by the prospect of moving across the country, taking charge of my own life, and creating a healthy lifestyle. I had worked and saved through high school to contribute to my education and to have spending money, and I had a plan in place for how I would (carefully) spend that money. Then came the dining hall.

As a lover of food, I was eager to experience all the food options at my university - endless buffets and the prospect of having excellent ready-made food available at all times. Three months into my first semester, I can confidently say my expectations were far from met, and I’ve seen the results in my wallet as well as my scale.

Easy Access, but to What?

Yes, the ready-made food I’d anticipated was accessible, but the food itself strayed greatly from the farm-to-table cornucopia I had naively envisioned. It turns out the number 15 had a few meanings for me. I had often been warned, "Watch out for the freshman 15!" With 15 dining "swipes" a week covered by my dining plan, the warnings were well-founded.

Now, I’ll be honest, back home, I never considered myself to be a healthy eater. An athlete for a majority of my life, I grew up enjoying the privilege of eating what I wanted when I wanted while staying fit. It has only been in recent years, since I stopped playing competitive sports, that I’ve contemplated the quality of the food I was consuming. Even then, when my eating habits required a change, the snacking tendencies I’d developed as an athlete remained. Knowing these things about myself, I made a promise to myself before I left for college that I would seriously attempt to mend my eating strategies and take responsibility for my dietary wellness.

Tough Choices: Paid for and Unhealthy or Healthy and Unaffordable?

It became clear very quickly after I arrived on campus that this goal was going to be nearly impossible to achieve with my food plan. My first visit to one of the three dining halls available revealed a nearly day-long breakfast bar, a pizza bar, a pasta bar and a sad excuse for a salad bar. As a lover of carbohydrates, I was in heaven, but as a college student committed to establishing healthy habits, I felt defeated.

Determined not to settle based on the reality of one dining hall, I ventured on. Dining Hall No. 2 provided better options, but the healthy options – unlike the froyo machine and dessert bar – were not consistently available. I literally needed to adjust my class schedule in order to have a chance at accessing the few relatively healthy meals offered.

On to Dining Hall No. 3, where I found exclusively unhealthy options: fried chicken wings, French fries, mozzarella sticks, French toast, froyo, slushies. Actual dishes served at this dining hall include “hot cheeto-crusted chicken” and “edible cookie-dough quesadillas.” (I couldn’t make this stuff up if I wanted to.)

As a result of these harsh realities, I’ve faced unanticipated expenses of eating out, and making frequent trips to the grocery store so I can prepare for myself. While my parents have been exceedingly generous in supporting my college education, when it comes to elective activities, like going out to get food, I have to support myself.

I want to utilize my mandatory freshman dining plan that is paid for – and preserve the money I have saved. Yet prioritizing my health is something equally, if not more, important to me.

Surprise?! Need More Money

My solution? I continue to work on figuring it out. I’m seeking more opportunities to earn income so I don’t have to settle for the unfortunate food options at my university. And I’m realizing that while stress and less opportunity to work out do often contribute to the “Freshman 15,” the bombardment of unhealthy, and in some cases outright inedible, food, is a factor, too. The bottom line is that I am prioritizing where my money goes (for my health), and making the hard choices with my time and wallet so I can realize my goals.

Any other freshmen out there who've experienced this? How have you handled expenses you didn't expect or plan for?