“That’ll be $9.50, ma’am.”
I handed my debit card to the burly, graveyard shift cashier at Pancheros, my favorite burrito place. “Thank God for magic money cards,” I thought as I pulled my debit card from the tiny pockets of my jeans that can’t fit more than a couple dollar bills.
“Ma’am, your card is not going through.”
“Can you try swiping it again?”
This question is arguably the most anxiety-inducing question a college student can ask. “Please, magic money card. I need that burrito soaked in guac and queso in my mouth ASAP,” I prayed to the money gods. Maybe the magic was just turned off for a second.
“Sorry, ma’am. It’s not working.”
I couldn’t ask him to try the card again. If I didn’t wrap up my transaction soon, I feared a riot from the intoxicated crowd of college students behind me would break loose. Reluctantly, I handed the cashier my pink-striped credit card with a big, curly M in the middle: my emergency card from my dad.
Returning to my table, I checked my account balance and promptly burst into tears. I was two dollars overdrawn. I had no idea what overdrawn meant, but I knew that red numbers and negative signs are bad, and a big, fat (-2.00) mocked me from the screen.
I cursed whoever came up with magic plastic cards that hide how much money you’re really spending. I cursed my roommate for mentioning burritos and inspiring the craving that brought us all to the Mexican joint. I cursed guacamole for always costing extra. But mostly I cursed myself for never taking the time to learn how to manage my money.
Growing up, I was spoiled. I don’t say spoiled because I was bratty, ungrateful or provided with all of the luxuries of life, but because my parents literally spoiled my ability to handle money. I never had an allowance, but I could always ask my dad for a little spending money when I went out with my friends. I never had a summer or part-time job aside from babysitting because my dad always said school was my job. Taxable income? A bank account? I had no clue about money or a care in the world about it—until I started looking at colleges, of course.
While I gushed to my dad about pools, college towns and famous alum, he always said the same thing: “Show me the numbers.” After he ignored my ratings on campus attractiveness, social scene and academics for six schools, I finally asked why he only cared about tuition and housing costs. “We have this covered, don’t we, dad?” I asked referring to the nebulous concept of a “college fund” that I assumed covered all costs of college.
“We have it covered for now. You’ll have to take out a loan to cover the rest. Then you’ll have to pay that loan back.”
“I will? I have to pay it back?” Cue the tears.
That summer, I worked hard babysitting for family friends to earn money. My dad assured me that paying off my loans was years away. According to him, all I needed to focus on was earning money for expenses other than tuition—housing, dining, books, etc. He also suffered through my tears as he taught me how to open a checking account and a savings account, use a debit card and write a check.
I handled my finances pretty well for the first semester, if I do say so myself. I checked my balance regularly and made sure I didn’t spend too much money per week. I felt capable and responsible until I overdrew my account by two dollars.
The morning after the Great Burrito Incident of 2016, I called my dad to explain the charge on the credit card. I confessed I was overdrawn, and guess what? I cried again. To me, being overdrawn meant I failed at being responsible, couldn’t handle being an adult, that I’d be nothing but a financial burden to my parents for the rest of my life and, most horribly, that I’d turn into the creepy uncle who lives in his parents’ basement and orders clown dolls online. My dad listened to all of my wails, waited until I finished and calmly explained how to transfer money from my savings account to my checking account.
Since then, I’ve watched my friend shave her armpits in the sink with a handleless blade because she couldn’t afford a new razor when the handle broke, I’ve seen my best friend drop our sorority due to financial reasons, and we’ve all counted quarters, nickels and dimes to afford a pizza to split. Still, I’ve seen us get new jobs, ask for help from our parents and learn to budget. No one goes into college knowing exactly what to do with their money, but money doesn’t actually make the world go ‘round. We can all just relax and learn what to do along the way. There’s no use crying over missed guac, but the goal is to be able to say “that’s okay” when the employee asks if you know guac costs extra.