The Spectrum: At Northwestern, financial instability largely undiscussed


Jackie Montalvo, Guest Columnist

This essay is part of The Spectrum, a weekly forum in our Opinion section for marginalized voices to share their perspectives. To submit a piece for The Spectrum or discuss story ideas, please email [email protected].

It was Jan. 6, 2015, and I was fighting my jet lag as I sat crunching numbers for my painting class. The course materials added up to just over $100 and I currently had $71.82 in my bank account. While searching through the Blick website, adding prices together for the things I knew I absolutely needed, the cost of my other books weaved into my thoughts: “How would I pay for six books for my English class? Or four more books for my journalism class?”

I’ve been teetering on the line of being financially stable for the vast majority of my memory. It’s not uncommon at Northwestern to be financially insecure. However it is rarely talked about and, when it is, it’s often with hushed tones discussing the stresses of paying tuition and buying books.

Living paycheck to paycheck as a college student and balancing tuition payments and sorority dues is extremely stressful. I currently have two jobs here at NU, and still I’m stressed about all my expenses. I’ve had to borrow money from friends just to have materials I need for class. I am so grateful for them, but it is humiliating to walk up to someone and admit you need their help financially, especially at a university where everyone appears to be well off.

Shame is a big part of why it is a topic that is often swept under the rug. How does someone explain why they can’t go to your philanthropy event or buy the Derby Days shirt, not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t afford to spend that extra $5? I also don’t want to bring it up with friends who have the money. Making them feel guilt for something they have no control over — whether it’s guilt about their money or my lack of it — makes me feel as uncomfortable as I do when I have to call my mom and ask for money, and she tells me she doesn’t have any to lend me.

This is not a pity party. Living within my means has taught me a lot about myself and what it means to be mature. I’ve known how to do my taxes since the age of 16. I know how to get creative when it comes to means of earning money: I sign up for every psychology study, Kellogg study and Frances Searle study I come across, and even use online sites, like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk or Swagbucks, to make a few dollars here and there. I’ve learned to prioritize what is important in my life. I might not order food on GrubHub very often, or buy a Starbucks coffee every morning, but I’ve saved $10 per paycheck to plan a trip to another country.

The biggest thing I hope to get from the NU community is conscientiousness. Although I would love to attend every Dance Marathon event as a member of the public relations committee, and I’d love to support your Greek organization’s philanthropy, sometimes I have to say I can’t, and it’s not because I don’t want to.

Jackie Montalvo is a Medill sophomore. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].