How can someone learn to be thrifty and not be a sucker for ads?
December 26, 2006 7:07 PM   Subscribe

How can one learn/be taught to be thrifty and to not be sucked in by advertising?

Sorry for the long story, but I want help and need to give a bit of background.

I am a surrogate parent to a 19-year-old college student from a former Soviet country (and the only adult in her life - her parents are barely accessible in her home country and not financially capable of being involved beyond her initial coming to the U.S.). Being from her home country, she was extremely sheltered growing up and is *very* naive compared to her American classmates. I try my best to help "get her up to speed" in order to operate socially (for example, sex ed, basic peer pressure issues.) She spends her school breaks with me and we're in pretty regular contact while she's at school. She is minorly financially dependent on me, mainly for housing and food during school breaks. We have a good relationship and she is very thankful to have the help.

She's a very good girl, does very well in school, and has a generous partial scholarship. She's still responsible for a chunk of personal expenses though (again, her folks can't contribute). She works during the school year and summers to cover these expenses. Her budget (created with my help) is tight but I thought that we had it worked out that as long as she was frugal, she'd be okay. Beyond food and rent and books, she has $45 each month for toiletries, clothing and entertainment. That is tight, but not impossible. I thought that I was very clear to her that in order to make it all work for her to pay her rent/food/books, she should be buying store-brand everything, not going out to dinner, etc. (PS, she is in a co-op that all meals are covered and her town movie theatre offers free movie tickets to students!)

Fast forward to now, and she is -$400 where she should be from her summer savings to be prepared to pay her rent/food/books etc. this upcoming semester. I ask her where it all went and she has no idea. (The good news is that she is doing a lot of odd jobs over winter break and may make that $400 up.)

I have an idea where the money went though - she is buying the snazziest toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, perfumes, makeup, etc. One issue is that her only store in the small town is a rip-off, but I've realized that she has no concept of price comparison by "price per ounce" AND more importantly, with no critical evaluation skills she is a TOTAL SUCKER for advertising (and somehow got subscriptions to 5 women's mags!) She bought Garnier Fruitise shampoo because the ads "have girls with great hair" and uses the tooth whitening toothpaste because "if it costs the most, it must work the best." This has lead her to buy ProActiv acne treatment off of TV, weight loss pills off of TV, etc. She can't imagine that the cheapest bar of store-brand Dove-like soap would work as well as expensive body wash. I think that this is partially a legacy of her growing up, but it has to change!

As you can imagine, with her tight budget this is creating a big problem for her. I try taking her shopping with me and showing her how to compare price per ounce. I've told her to buy all of her toiletries on to be cheaper than the local store, but I don't know if this is enough. I told her at the end of last summer when I noticed the perfumes and makeup, "once you hit $45 each month, no more... and you're going to likely need to make a choice between perfume or a pair of shoes and toothpaste." She promised to be more frugal, but I've seen more bottles of Garnier and the bottle of Suave that I helped her buy a few months ago still with the wrapping on.

I realize that chances are good that she is not going to change her behavior very quickly and that most likely she is going to "accidentally" spend a few hundred dollars again this semester and be screwed once again and that this may be what she needs to learn how to stop spending.

But I'd love the hive's help in things that I can do with her over the next few weeks of winter break to not only help her learn to be a better comparison shopper/bargain hunter (Other than being a bargain hunter myself!) AND to help her learn to be more critical of the ads (other than commenting on the techniques that the ads use to sucker people.) Also, her New Year's Resolution is to write down every penny she spends. Thanks! We need all the help we can get!
posted by k8t to Work & Money (50 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Teach her to be more cynical.
I sit and make fun of commercials all the time and I think that has a strong impact on the fact that I hardly buy things solely because I saw them advertised. Maybe if you sit down with her while watching TV and just be a complete ass, making fun of everything, she might start doing it herself and curb her spending.
posted by shokod at 7:11 PM on December 26, 2006

This game is an excellent place to start.

My parents bought it for us when I was a kid, and it was invaluable.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:15 PM on December 26, 2006 [2 favorites]

Let her go soapless and freezing for a couple of days.
Please don't think I'm being flip.
If she'd rather buy XYZ Glam Toothpaste than socks, give her the freedom to fail.
She sounds like a good kid, and you sound like a caring mentor.
But sometimes experience is the best teacher.
You mention that she has her food and shelter covered, which is a good safety net.
But she'll figure the whole thing out for herself pretty quickly when she realizes she can't afford a smoothie because her hair smells like fruit cocktail.
posted by Dizzy at 7:25 PM on December 26, 2006

Tell her that advertisers are worse than the old Soviet government(s) in lying and manipulation. She is probably too have had direct experience with this though her parents may have passed on some of their attitudes toward things like Pravda.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 7:27 PM on December 26, 2006

I second Dizzy; but also ask, how could she possibly go $400 into debt? Get rid of the creditcards, and make that impossible. If there is no money to spend, one learns quickly that $5 toothpaste isn't quite that special afterall.

You can only do so much.
posted by SirStan at 7:30 PM on December 26, 2006

My mistake..

"Fast forward to now, and she is -$400 where she should be from her summer savings to be prepared to pay her rent/food/books etc."

Perhaps separate accounts? The "spending" account, and the "savings account" (I call mine Checking, and Savings..)
posted by SirStan at 7:32 PM on December 26, 2006

Two prongs:

First, don't just tell her, show her why there is no connection between higher price and higer quality. Explain the economics - better marketing is cheaper than research and developement, and acheives the same product price premiums. Solid examples, like this one recently in the blue.

Second, it sounds like she wants to experience some luxury, and from the sound of it, sees this is her chance and she doesn't want to miss out. To that end, pushing the earn-more side of the equation might get better results than pushing the spend-less side. If she may have covered her excess so far in extra jobs, maybe concentrating on that approach is the way to go.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:42 PM on December 26, 2006

$45 each month for toiletries, clothing and entertainment.

There are people who will completely throw in the towel if given an impossible task. I'm having a hard time translating $45/month into a minimally satisfactory combination of entertainment, clothing, and cosmetics for a young girl in a college setting.

If I were in your shoes I'd pay her $N dollars/month (N in the 40-50 range or higher) in exchange for detailed, complete accounts of her expenses for the month just ended, perhaps for a period of three-six months (not as a permanent arrangement). This solves three problems in one swing:
* she has a concrete, easily-identifiable motivation to track her expenses, as opposed to an easily-opted-out-of new year's resolution
* you and she will quickly find out where her money goes, which will make for much more fruitful conversations as to the relative merits of, say, garnier fructis
* ceteris paribus, it's extra income at a rate sufficient to close her current income/expenses gap, but not enough to immediately eliminate the problem
posted by little miss manners at 7:47 PM on December 26, 2006

I agree that the earn side of the equation might be more effective and enjoyable for all involved. $45/month is very tight, and you have to realize that she's probably around kids who spend four or more times that much per month.

She reminds me a little of myself at that age. Since I grew up in a family with very little money, when I was finally on my own I felt it was finally my opportunity to make up for lost time and to enjoy some of the "finer things" in life. I certainly made mistakes, and I wasn't always very good at managing my money. However, I think she will learn over time, especially if she has to earn it herself. I know I did. I think maybe if you look at it more from that perspective, i.e. what spending may mean to her, you will give her a little more leeway to learn from her own mistakes. Sometimes experience is the best teacher.
posted by mintchip at 7:53 PM on December 26, 2006

Products that are supposed to accomplish something special (acne healing, weight loss) should be thought of as medication -- they have ingredients that do something specific. They are almost always available as generics once the initial product has been on the market for awhile. The fact is that the Proactive system does work for many people. However its active ingredient is merely 2.5% benzoil peroxide, which can be bought as wash and lotion for substantially cheaper than the TV version. I think that if she could be informed that these products aren't magical but scientific, she could be pursuaded to buy them in their least expensive form.

The magical products are trickier, because what she's really buying there is status. Her girlfriends may have the name brands in their bathroom AND all the extra money that their middle-class lives afford them, and she can't help but associate the two. Perhaps she could be convinced (having compared ingredients lists between Garnier and its Suave equivalent in the drugstore) to pour generic product into name brand bottles? It might give her the feeling of increased status.

When I was a poor college student, all I knew was that I didn't have enough money for anything. I just had to spend as little as possible at all times -- so I never actually learned how to use a budget.

A budget only works if it's reconciled each month, ideally with a few dollars left over as a reward to add to the next month! If she's got $45 a month for these categories, she may still need help distributing it. (E.g. $25 clothing item + $10 toiletries + two $5 café outings.) Then she'd need help assessing how many bars of soap and toothpaste tubes and shampoo bottles she goes through per month. From there, she could figure out how to purchase those items for $10 by comparison shopping online or looking for sales, or stocking up at Costco.
posted by xo at 7:53 PM on December 26, 2006

There are a couple of key issues that you seem to be glossing over, and I'm not sure how important they are:

1) Sometimes, expensive things really _are_ better than cheap things. Not only in superficial, but still significant, ways -- they smell better and have prettier packaging, thus making life just a little nicer -- but expensive shampoos and hair conditioners may actually give slightly better results. If you can disprove that, great. Otherwise, you've got to deal with it.

2) She's probably going to school with people who have a lot more disposable income, nicer clothes, who smell better and generally don't look like they came from a former Soviet state. Some students are richer than others, and it does make a difference, in ways she may or may not even be aware of. You've got to deal with that, too.

I'm not proposing that using Suave shampoo will make someone look low-rent, but there are subtle differences that she may be noticing. It's not fair, but some of us have to wait until we graduate and get a job to afford the fancy shampoo and nice-looking clothes that our classmates are enjoying every day, for every meeting and conversation they have with a professor, potential date, or future professional contact (or work some while studying, which has huge drawbacks of its own).

The good news is that her background and struggle can mean that she's smarter and savvier than her classmates in some important ways. She's special enough to be where she is rather than back home with everyone else, and if she ever feels slightly weird (and she probably feels weird all the time, and just wants to be a typical American, lame though that may be), it's because she's probably just a little better than most people.

What school and major is she in? That may even make a difference.

little miss manners: I don't think $45/month is necessarily impossible; there are a lot of subsidized entertainment options at most colleges. Of course I'm assuming she won't need a lot of clothes.
posted by amtho at 7:56 PM on December 26, 2006

I agree with both -harlequin- and Little Miss Manners. For one thing, $45 is really insufficient for a month of entertainment and toiletries. I mean, be realistic. Maybe it's possible but it's really not plausible.

Secondly, this is a girl who is new to American and who grew up in the Communist Bloc. She's probably seeing products and being exposed to items she's never seen before, items she sees as a special luxury or novelty. There has to be some leeway here, some room for her to acclimate. It sounds as if you have thrown her in all on her own without any financial support from you. Perhaps that's not financially possible for you to help her (as you don't explain your own financial situation), but as a surrogate parent I see this as part of your responsibility.

I don't think she's a sucker for advertising. I think she's looking to fully immerse herself in the culture and opportunities she didn't have access to in her home country. And she'll never be able to "unlearn" that. She'll either have to get over it on her own time or never get over it at all.
posted by Brittanie at 7:58 PM on December 26, 2006

Response by poster: Little Miss Manners, I have to disagree. $45 is fine. She has all the clothes she needs and they are even relatively fashionable. She can see movies for free in her town and there isn't anything else to do outside of the free college activities that seem to occur all the time. She needs toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant, soap and pads. $45 is more than adequate for those things and gives a bit more for lotion or hair stuff for sure. I determined this number both based on my own calculations but also what the US Government determines is enough for a foreign student on a college exchange program.

I have asked her already to tell me how she is spending money (I do give her some financial support, but I for sure don't have $50/month to just give to her!)
posted by k8t at 7:59 PM on December 26, 2006

There are lots of angles into media and budget. Here's one:
Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me (Paperback)
by Paula Begoun
Book Description (copied from Amazon):
Paula Begoun's mission is to educate women on the facts that the $45 billion cosmetics industry doesn't want people to know. In her makeup and skincare bible, she deciphers ingredient lists, translates cosmetics-counter beauty babble, and evaluates the worth of virtually every product on the market. This completely revised and expanded edition includes more than 75 new product lines. "Her straight talk about what cosmetics can and can't do has penetrated the blare of magazine and advertising hype."

Tallying receipts into budget categories at the end of the month is probably a good exercise.
posted by kch at 7:59 PM on December 26, 2006

Advertisers have zillons of dollars invested in commercials to make this work. And then they make their products "seem nicer" through texture and smell. If you take the line that cheaper is always better, you've got a losing battle.

1) Certain cheaper brands do get touted as "expert beauty secrets" -- Cetaphil cleanser, and Maybelline Great Lash mascara, and Pantene shampoo come to mind. Is it InStyle or another magazine that does a yearly "best beauty buys" comparison thingy? Another source besides just you would likely be helpful if you want her to see your point.

2) You've got a teenage girl, here. I bet she would rather give up a pair of socks than have only CVS brand, when the other girls are moving on up to Clinique. She may be giving in to the siren song of advertising a little bit on purpose, yes?

Perhaps you can help adjust her budget -- it may be hard for her to separate the "necessary items" part of the budget from entertainment.
posted by desuetude at 8:06 PM on December 26, 2006

Response by poster: Her work deal:

Also, we figured that she'd need to work 10 hours a week to pay for the basics. SHE chose to work 2 additionally hours a week because she wanted to join a sorority (which I REALLY tried to discourage her from doing, explaining the direct and indirect costs). She can't study during her job.

She's probably going to end up having to work another extra 2 hours a week this next semester to pay off a phone bill that she ran up. I have encouraged her to do those extra hours babysitting as she may be able to study more at that (and not pay taxes on it).

And I myself went back to school last year, so I don't have lots of extra cash. I definitely spend a lot of my extra cash on her... such as the money that I loan to her to buy books AND that I pay for her to fly cross-country to stay with me (no other options) AND bought her a wardrobe and bedding AND I'm feeding her for 6 weeks in winter and 3 months in summer... well, you can imagine that it is an additional cost for me beyond being able to hand her cash.
posted by k8t at 8:10 PM on December 26, 2006

I have a hard time with this, to an extent. I've ended up using Pearbudget (which is, IIRC, made my Mefite Alt F4) to track my expenses, and it is helping. It would be overkill for someone with a $45/month budget, but if she has even the most rudimentary computer skills, she could set something up in Excel to track this, or even just do it on paper. Something so that she can, at the end of the week, enter in receipts and see, "oh, ok, I have $20 left to play with for the next 10 days."
posted by rossination at 8:10 PM on December 26, 2006

You're asking a different question than the one that needs to be answered. Your friend has an immediate need to not go broke and be able to pay for toiletries, school books and other necessities. In the long run, this is a problem that is approached by learning the vaue of a dollar, how to be cynical about advertising, why it's important to be thrifty with money, budget and etc. These are all important things, but if you're not her parent and you're not starting with a six year old, it's going to take a long time (if you can even do this sort of thing when someone is already grown) and right now she needs a more immediate plan that works: she needs a budget.

When I lived in Eastern Europe, I had frequent conversations with the college kids there about why I didn't use Colgate, why I bought local cigarettes instead of Marlboros, why I didn't have expensive jeans. From their perspective -- and this was a while ago -- being broke was something you no longer had to do under their repressive government and so now that they were no longer being repressed, they weren't going to be broke all the time and dressed shabbily. I'm sure this is an overgeneralization, but it was definitely my experience for the year I lived there. I was super frugal compared to my colleagues who were locals and they thought I was a total idiot.

So, while it may be an admirable long term goal to help explain the ins and outs of advertising and the manufacturing of desire and consumerism generally, remember that it took you years to learn and she needs a plan now. So, if you are really in a position to affect things instead of just advice, start with an allowance. If she wants, accompany the allowance with advice but at the end of the day it doesn't matter what shampoo she buys as long as she lives within her means, correct? Try to see the difference between you trying to help her with money and you trying to tell her that her choices are bullshit. If she just needs to live within her means, then let her make her own choices. If she wants to eat ramen and have [to her] fabulous hair, then let her; that's what being an adult and making adult choices is about.

Advice on how to tell how much something costs per ounce, does not have to be accompanied by advice on how the TV lies to you. Both of them are useful things to know, in my personal opinion, but one is more likely to be listened to because after all, trying to sell her on frugality is just another kind of pitch (and this is coming from a total koolaid drinking convert who has waged this particular hearts and minds campaign with various people and find it to be shockingly ineffective).

Lead by decent example, get her on Wesabe or some other site that makes tracking spending easy, have a regular BS session talking about money (where it's going, how she's feeling about it, what's a good bargain this week) and encourage her to start some small savings account, even if it's saving money for something you think is frivolous, it's saving for a plan and learning how to plan with money for the long term. Teach her how to bulk buy at or at the local dented can store and how the idea of "price" is fluid especially for high end products. As much as you see it as a goal state, you may not be able to deter her from wanting brand name stuff (I'm sure she has a peer group, brands are part of social identity to some extent) but you can still teach her to be a savvy consumer, a critical thinker and perhaps someone who can account for her money and learn to have it when she needs it.
posted by jessamyn at 8:11 PM on December 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

Maybe you could make a game out of it. For example, get a couple of identical smallish unlabeled clear plastic containers (that are sold for traveling) and fill one with the most expensive brand of shampoo and the other with the 99 cent V05. You'll have to at least make sure they are roughly comparable items and not easily identifiable by smell or whatever, but this should be doable. Label one A and the other B, and give them both to her and challenge her to figure out which was the cheap one. I guess you could do this also with lots of other products (shampoo, conditioner, laundry detergent, liquid soap, astringent, peanut butter, floor wax, ...), as long as you could arrange to have both samples in a small unlabeled generic container. Turn it into an ongoing little game, and maybe keep score. The only thing that really matters is that she compares the products without the marketing, advertising, labeling, and pricing information getting in the way.
posted by Rhomboid at 8:12 PM on December 26, 2006

As soon as I read the second line of this post I knew who'd written it. K8t dear, you need to let this girl make her own mistakes. This means you need to let her run out of money. When this happens, she will be stuck, but you have to be resolute. Either she makes up the money somehow -- by working more -- or she goes without until she's able to get money again. This is not the first time that she's been trouble. Apparently telling her things and then bailing her out with more money has not worked. I know you love her; now is the time for tough love.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:16 PM on December 26, 2006

This is a tough situation just because it's a common problem for young adults - I know I have (and still do occasionally) spend money I shouldn't use on stupid shit. I have certainly in my college days stared at my low checking account balance wondering where on earth all my work study wages could have gone.

You've budgeted with her - do you think she *gets* the concept of saving the money budgeted for future expenses? Maybe you & she need to work together to make that money untouchable for high temptation situations. Put it in a shared account where you both have to sign to take it out, so she gets a month's worth at a time. There are plenty of ways to make the money untouchable or inconvenient to get to, but she has to be willing to save the money. I'm not clear if she doesn't get the concept of "if you use it, it won't be there when you need it".

And yes, *sometimes* more expensive products are better, but if you're working on $45 a month, you can't always expect the best of the best. What I would do is show her labels, the ingredients on a package. How generic ibuprofen is the same as advil. How store brand whitening toothpaste has the same ingredients as Crest Super Fantastic Whitening MegaSparkle Plus. Even challenge her to some blind tests to see which really works better.
posted by tastybrains at 8:18 PM on December 26, 2006

About all you can do is lead by example here. Don't try to preach, just take her shopping with you and let her see you buying cheaper brands. Also let her see you writing down every penny you spend, when you spend it. When she actually hits a budget crunch she'll remember that.

BTW, I think you're probably playing up the young woman's upbringing a little much. There are plenty of college students who grew up right here in the U.S. who have the exact same bad habits. Money burns a hole in your pocket at that age, especially if you've grown up relatively poor.

The biggest thing you need to make sure of is that she Absolutely Positively does not sign up for a credit card. They hand them out like popcorn on campuses these days, and she needs to be informed in no uncertain terms that they are *not* a solution to budget woes.
posted by tkolar at 8:29 PM on December 26, 2006

Response by poster: As always, Jessamyn figures it out perfectly. :)

But thanks all for your solid ideas. I really appreciate it!

As she's housesitting this week, I feel like I have a bit of a refreshing period before she comes back next week. I think that I have some good beginnings to conversations here.

But yeah, I agree with most of you, she's probably going to need to fall on her ass a bit before she'll figure it out.
posted by k8t at 8:31 PM on December 26, 2006

k8t: I misread part of your earlier comment and was under the impression that you were already paying for her housing, in which case it'd be hard to imagine the amount above being a huge increase in your current support.

I used a similar strategy with all three of my children when they asked for allowance raises -- essentially, no documentation meant no increase -- to seemingly good results; I've also found people suffering from a lack of discipline seldom fix the problem as consequence of new year's resolution, but often will with an external motivator.

I'd also warn not to get too hung up on toiletries until you have some verifiable budget data: it's entirely possible she has a new boyfriend (or crush), for example, with all the attendant expenses; it's also possible that the garnier fructises are putting her slightly overbudget on toiletries but that it's the food or phone (she has a phone, correct) that's sending her as far over-budget as is.
posted by little miss manners at 8:31 PM on December 26, 2006

I didn't see (may have missed it) a mention of transportation.
Does the $45 also have to cover gas money (either in her car or to friends driving her), or public transit (if her area has such a thing).

One idea that might satisfy both the need for thriftiness and her desire for name brands (and I will admit, some of them IME do work better than the cheaper. Shampoo and razors come to mind. I shop in discount grocery stores, but still shell out for Venus blades and Garnier shampoo) would be to stock up and take stuff with her. Do you have a membership to Sams, BJs, Costco or the like? Maybe getting a couple big bottles of Garner wouldn't be much more than Suave at her overpriced local store. It would certainly be a lot less than buying the name brands there.
posted by Kellydamnit at 8:55 PM on December 26, 2006

Response by poster: Everything in her town is walkable Kelly. There is only one store in the whole town for her to shop from, so I encourage her to do online shopping in bulk.
posted by k8t at 8:56 PM on December 26, 2006

Little Miss Manners, I have to disagree. $45 is fine

It's only fine to the extent that it doesn't involve malnutrition or hypothermia. You're talking about a budget that's downright austere, with essentially no room for any human comforts or activities with others that aren't utterly free.

If that's the position that she's in, then it is. In that case, I'd go with others suggesting that you let her face the consequences of failing to live within her very meager budget. Running out of shampoo in the middle of a month is indeed a good lesson in the value of shampoo.

But I don't think pretending that her budget is at all normal or even reasonable is in order. Having enough money for toiletries and nothing else, including a little bit of popcorn at the free movie, is very, very far from the normal lives that her classmates lead. This is not a matter of a confused young girl who can't live within a regular old budget, this is about a girl who's finding it difficult to live within a budget that anybody who's not a monk or otherwise accustomed to deprivation would find very hard to live within.

As such, it seems to me that advice that's suited to normal college-student overspending might not be applicable here.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:24 PM on December 26, 2006 [3 favorites]

I came to America at the age of 20, after my parents were killed in a war (also in a former Communist country), and I came to America with *nothing* at all - a couple of changes of clothes, some salvaged photos and a lot of bad memories. Like the girl you describe, I was fortunate enough to have a lot of help from an 'adoptive' family of wonderful people. I also received some grants and student loans and worked full-time through school as well. I can really relate to this girl in a way that I bet a lot of people cannot, and so here's my perception of this situation:

1) $45 is an exceedingly small amount of money outside of the basics, especially for a girl of college age. A lot of college students even in small college towns are aware of $10 cover charges just to go dancing - that would be more than 20% of her budget. For that matter, stopping for a cup of coffee with friends more or less kills her entire budget for a couple of days. It *could* be done, but where I live now (and it's not America's ritziest area), most high school kids have *weekly* allowances way bigger than $45. Someone mentioned (with some sympathy) the fact that she's probably around kids who spend more than four times that amount. The reality is that she's probably surrounded by kids whose budgets are TEN to TWENTY times what hers is. I realize she only has what she has, but please be aware that it's a sickly small amount. Be sympathetic to this simple fact.

2) Many people here have stilted ideas about her upbringing and the life of people in former Communist countries. The fact of the matter is that this girl has never really known much of communism (she's 19, do the math), and a market economy full of choices for the consumer has significantly existed all around her for as long as she's been able to shop. (I don't know specifically where she's from, but this is true of any of the European former-Communist countries. If she's from Uzbekistan or a similar place, I could be wrong somewhat, but less than you'd think.)

3) I have faith that this girl is not stupid. So she can do the math and budgeting as well as anyone, I suspect. The problem probably really is twofold. Number one, she's a girl in a college environment. She wants to look and feel nice and feel some connection to things we girls like, such as fashion. Nothing in what you've written implies that she's really gone that far overboard. Some nice cosmetics and a few fashion magazines - a 19 year-old girl *ought* have these things, otherwise, why not revert to communism? Second, none of this is about her failure to comprehend advertising techniques. In many ways, advertising in Hungary or Poland or Bosnia or Estonia is much more sophisticated - and yes, they have Garnier and all those same products over there. It's more likely her purchase of these products is simply a comfort thing - who can't justify spending $5 on shampoo? The girl's away from home and looking at years of scrimping, and she likely comes from a place where the ability to splurge on a nice shampoo exists whereas the assurance of a viable future does not. It took me a couple of years to realize that not "living for today" had actual value. In America, that seems obvious to life-long residents. In my country, investment in the future at the expense of today has historically been a foolhardy thing. I fixed this attitude in myself by working hard and seeing - just quickly enough - real benefits in terms of pay, responsibility and power (I like power!). You couldn't have "explained" it to me with all the time in the world. This girl will figure it out, too, even if she screws up a lot in the next few years.

4) I would hate it if this girl's future is endangered by such paltry economics. There's an insecurity which comes from being "poor" and a naive girl from a very different place. I know. I was lucky, but my thoughts are, will this girl fall for some confident jackass with a few bucks to spend? And on and on. She needs support, and you're to be commended for being a parent-figure for her, but I think there's more to it than simply being a pushover for good ads.

5) Send an address and I'll load her up with cosmetics. She sounds like a good person, and I've no doubt she will one day be a productive citizen. All things considered relative to college students, this is a *small* problem. And we ex-commie chicks need to stick together!
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 9:26 PM on December 26, 2006 [6 favorites]

Dee Xtrovert is righteous.
E-mail me and I pledge to send the young woman some CVS gift cards.
My Mom sent me a couple for the Holidays and I would be very pleased to pass them on to a young person in need...
We're all in this together!
posted by Dizzy at 9:44 PM on December 26, 2006

where I live now (and it's not America's ritziest area), most high school kids have *weekly* allowances way bigger than $45

Jesus. That's a lot. I had nowhere near that much money available to me for discretionary spending in high school, and I thought I was doing fine. I'm not that old, either.
posted by oaf at 10:45 PM on December 26, 2006

As a college student, $45 is absurdly small.

With this budget:

-A significant portion is eaten up even buying the cheap shampoo and soap.

-She cannot go out to eat where it isn't free.

-Even at the generic clothes store, even from an assumption that she only buys clothes when her old ones wear out, buying an item of clothing is 1/4 to 1/2 her monthly budget. I'm a guy who doesn't give a shit about clothes but I'd estimate I have to buy on average at least one item of clothing a month just to have enough clothes around.

-Non-free outings are basically out of reach.

-Don't be naive: as a college student, she is likely to drink and, depending on location and preference, smoke pot. Drinking (at home, not bars) and smoking pot aren't really all too expensive, but with $45 a month they're just about out of reach.

-There's going to be pressure to engage in all these activities - not evil peer pressure, but "We're going to the diner, come out," and "Party tonight, BYOB." It's going to be very awkward that she can't participate or ends up mooching off people or borrowing money.

That said, if she's working a certain amount of hours, she should probably have enough to get by given that regular meals and housing seem to be provided. So she does need to stop wasting money on all that Garnier crap.

I'd recommend shooting her $150-$200 a month allowance in addition to what she earns at the job, but with somewhat of an understanding that if she blows it all on stupid crap it's tough titty.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 10:59 PM on December 26, 2006

I had about $20-40 of discretionary spending each month when I was a student. And I spent about $115 a month on groceries, toiletries, toilet paper, soap, shampoo, etc. This was no more than 13 years ago in Canada, which would mean it was a lot less than someone in the US was spending. It was probably less than the $45 your student now spends.

I managed to live on this austere budget. However, it was not much fun. My social life was limited. None of the other students wanted to live so cheaply, and so I didn't have many people with whom I could go to cheap movies or anything like that. People would claim they wanted to be cheap, but would insist on going to a restaurant that was $10 an entree, where they'd want to order appies, drinks and dessert too. It took a lot of strength to go and order the cheapest thing on the menu with a glass of water. It was also hard to go to the pub/nightclub and nurse one drink for several hours. People would want to share cabs and would actually become angry when I insisted on walking 8 or 10 blocks on a winter night. They'd tease me for ordering a plain coffee at the local coffe house. I was considered a cheap person. Fortunately, I was doing a BA and some people considered "slumming" to be cool.

I was able to resist these pressures, despite the influence they had on my work and career. However, some of the other people I knew -- especially those who came from more limited means -- had a really rough time. They were the ones most likely to latch on to expensive perfumes, clothing, shampoos and the like. They didn't want to chance being seen with generic products on their shelves. They wanted to look like all the other middle and upper middle class kids. At the time, I thought they were weak people. But, now that I'm older and I'm actually immersed in a middle / upper middle class background, I can understand what they were aiming for. I was fortunate that I was so incredibly motivated to get through with no debt so that I could graduate to the middle class. My friends, though, were more the "live for today" types, who feared their sacrifice might go unrewarded. And, fortunately, we were just migrating socio-economic classes, not national boundaries.

Let her live on her own terms. You're doing the right thing by pointing out her budget and the risks. Perhaps she'd rather work a few more hours a week than live without great smelling hair. She'll work out her own priorities and learn valuable life skills. If possible, find a way to hold back the money she needs for tuition. She can possibly couch surf for a few weeks, but tuition's hard to make up for.
posted by acoutu at 11:20 PM on December 26, 2006

A comment on a particular tree, since many have already described the forest so well (and I say this having just graduated from college, the whole while paying for everything but housing with money from my part-time job): Garnier isn't exactly what I would call a "splurge." Pricewise, it's middle-range drugstore, one step up from Suave - it's not like she's buying Phyto or Matrix Biolage. If she's so naive as to be persuaded by commercials alone, that's one thing, but being made to feel guilty for spending $2.99 on shampoo instead of 99 cents is a little ridiculous (especially when there really is a difference in quality. Suave gave m...y friend REALLY, REALLY bad dandruff. Less expensive shampoos are super harsh).

$45 a month is a very, very small amount. I couldn't have done it. I felt stressed enough living on $100 a week.
posted by granted at 11:45 PM on December 26, 2006

I have to say that I was surprised that Garnier Fructis was considered a "splurge", myself. Garnier is about $3.99 per bottle. However, the store brand version of Garnier is half price. Suggest store brands to her, heck, she can even refill her Brand Name bottles with the cheap stuff and no one will know.

You say $45 a month is just fine because movies are free and there's nothing to do in her town... she's probably going to go a bit stir-crazy and will end up spending extra just to kill the boredom. There's so many things that she might need extra for, such as helping a friend plan a get-together (buying paper plates, bringing her own soda, etc.) or gas money to go to a nearby town to hang at the mall for a few hours.

As someone else has already said, it's going to be hard for her to continually tell friends she can't afford to do these things. I lived on my own without any parental help in college and missed out on absolutely everything, to the point that it affected my college career. More than one professor didn't bother inviting me to their house/bars/etc. for study sessions because they'd heard I was to "non social" type -- and it wasn't that I didn't want to hang with people, I just had no money to. Almost everyone else in college had money and never wanted for anything, and the culture didn't have room for a person who couldn't even afford a beater car and a few bucks for gas. (If she wants to work more hours for money, if she ends up having a conflict of work hours with classes she'll have problems; almost no professors are sympathetic to someone who has to work through school.)

Also, I had friends in college who borrowed or mooched or lived off of others' good graces, and after a while, even the kindest person gets irritated by someone who can't pay their way. I'm not saying any of this is right, I'm just saying what it is. Some sympathy and a few extra bucks a month are probably in order.
posted by smashingstars at 1:00 AM on December 27, 2006

Another thing that hasn't quite been covered (I think) is that she might not have a good understanding of her own splurging priorities. She may definitely see the added value in more expensive clothes and makeup, but is the $5 toothpaste all that important to her in comparison?

Going from being relatively poor to having some disposable income makes you think that it's now okay to spend more on everything, regardless of whether or not you can justify it from a quality standpoint. She'll figure out in time (with your hands-off help) what makes sense to spend more money on, and once she does that, help her find cheaper ways to get that stuff.

Oh, and keep her away from sororities if she's having money troubles; even if the dues are reasonable (and they often are with payment plans and the like), the inevitable spike in expensive social stuff will break her $45 budget very quickly.
posted by thisjax at 2:01 AM on December 27, 2006

I agree that it helps to learn to track your expenditure for a month or two - the results can be very enlightening.

But in general she just needs to be left to it - get her to pay over rent and food money as early as possible so you know she won't be homeless and won't starve and then leave her to it!

If her phone gets cut off she'll learn to track her usage!

If she runs out of shampoo or whatever it won't kill her...she'll find ways to stay clean.

There's a difference between college budget constraints and real life - if your most basic needs are covered all that is left is luxuries to a degree...I was one of those students who always bought the cheapest food, clothes etc and went out once every blue moon. But I also left college without debt.

Once you have paid rent and have just about enough to scrape through to your next payday you appreciate a budget constraint a lot more. If your car breaks down - which you need to go to work - it is beans on toast for the rest of the month.

She'll learn...she just needs to be given the opportunity to do so!
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:51 AM on December 27, 2006

As a basic suggestion for keeping a good idea of how much money she has to spend, perhaps encourage her to get out her budgeted amount of money each month in cash and try to use only cash for purchases. Having that physical reminder of how much money you are spending and how much you have left to spend certainly helps remind me of my budgeting goals.

In terms of food, I know from experience that getting a few friends together and actually cooking food can save a huge chunk of money each week.

In terms of toiletries, I don't think that, even with purchasing the high-end items, she should be spending too much money. Shampoo and toothpaste last me a few months, so if she is going through these things very quickly, perhaps suggest (especially in the case of shampoo) that she is using more than she needs. In terms of entertainment, with only $45 per month there will be some things that she can't do, and the people she spends time with certainly will affect her perceptions on what things she "needs" to be doing.
posted by that girl at 7:08 AM on December 27, 2006

It may not be that she's spent her money on stuff she sees in ads. You mention a sorority: sororities can take up a lot of money. Dues are just one thing; there are other fees for dances, pictures, party favors, fines, etc. etc.
posted by cass at 7:14 AM on December 27, 2006

Response by poster: Dee X, I don't have an e-mail address for you in your profile... Thanks!
posted by k8t at 9:17 AM on December 27, 2006

Response by poster: I agree with you all that $45/month is tight, but other than working more hours, where in the world will the money come from?

She lives in a co-op, which is cheaper rent and food. I bought her clothes on eBay or on sale. I buy her books on She already is working 12 hours a week and is not interested in working that much more.

(And as I mentioned before, I am back in school now and it is already a stretch for me to cover her books and clothes as well as flying her here to stay during breaks and feeding/housing her during those breaks. *I* am taking out loans to cover this stuff for her.)

She is CHOOSING to spend money from her summer savings that she is well aware needs to pay for her rent and food for second semester. Now here we are, a few weeks away from second semester and she had $250 in the bank to pay $650 worth of fees, rent and food the first week of January. (She is babysitting and petsitting and has already made $275, we're hoping that she will keep on earning before school starts!)

So, again, I think it is totally true that $45/month is tight, but I don't think that me taking out bigger loans for myself is the solution. She is afraid if she works more that it will affect her grades.
posted by k8t at 9:27 AM on December 27, 2006

k8t, not that you asked, but you may want to look at your own level of involvement in this girl's finances [travel money, buying her bedding, "AND I'm feeding her for 6 weeks in winter and 3 months in summer"] as part of solving this overall problem. While it's admirable how much you've been helping her, getting too tangled in her own money situation may be making you feel like you have a vested interest in every money decision this girl makes. It's not your responsbility to go broke so that she can go to college.

If you're choosing that, and then feeling hard done by over it, you may want to examine your own part of this equation while you help her work on her own. It's simply not true that she has no other options, though I'm sure it may feel that way to you. Whether or not those choices seem to both of you to be "genuine options" is a different issue. 19 year old girls can always sell their underwear to perverts for cash, or (usually) go on food stamps.
posted by jessamyn at 9:42 AM on December 27, 2006

Response by poster: I don't mean to sound like I don't want to help her. I hope she doesn't start selling her undies though!
posted by k8t at 9:50 AM on December 27, 2006

Does she have loans of her own? Why not? Even an alternative student loan from a bank for a $2000 or so a year would allow her an extra $150 or so a month, more than enough to live like any other college student, without being too overwhelming in terms of paying back after school.
posted by Kellydamnit at 10:10 AM on December 27, 2006

As a consideration: might she be better off staying at school and working during some of the upcoming breaks? If she skips out on spring break and works full time in some temporary capacity she could easily close much of her existing gap.

Perhaps some or all of the money spent flying her around would be better used as a one-off gift to get her on her feet, with her then using a break or two to put in some extra earnings.

There's certainly also resources at the school she could be taking advantage of: they may not give her money for nothing, but they'd certainly hate to lose a good student over a few hundred dollars, and may also be better positioned to help her than you are. Many schools maintain a supply of what are effectively sinecures (or, equivalently, under-applied-for, virtually unknown "competitive grants") for handling situations like these; for obvious reasons they aren't advertised, but enough inquiries either in the financial aid office, to members of her department, or to the school's equivalent of the "area studies" program for her home country might turn something up.

And, finally, there's almost certainly a few successful immigrants from her home country who've set up (or would be interested in setting up) foundations and scholarships to benefit people in her situation; it will not solve the immediate problem but it still would perhaps be wise to spend some time searching and making inquiries.
posted by little miss manners at 10:17 AM on December 27, 2006

Response by poster: Kelly, yes, she has a few small loans (6k a year) on her own that I've co-signed, but the big issue is that she won't be able to pay them back when/if she returns to her home country.

When/if she returns, at the very very best case scenario, she'll make $200/month. This will certainly be a lot more than her parents do, and she will be expected to contribute to the household income at that point. With that sort of income, paying back those loans is next to impossible, not to mention that there is little internet in her country AND no reliable banks. She'd have to Western Union the money to me to pay each month even if she could.

We're hoping that she'll be able to stay in the U.S. for a little while after she's done with school (and hopefully grad school) so that she can pay off the small loans that she does have - which will be about 18k when she's done with undergrad. She/we could take out more each year, but with the looming issue of her having to go back, we've decided that it is best to only take out as little as possible.
posted by k8t at 10:20 AM on December 27, 2006

Response by poster: Great ideas everyone, but some more information...

She does stay at school during small breaks or goes with friends of mine closer to her school, but her school makes everyone leave for their long winter break (6 weeks!) and for the summer her school doesn't stay open!

The school gives her entirely free tuition (which is RARE with international students, trust me, I searched) and that's as good as it gets, we think.

She applies for all scholarships that are open to international students (not many, mainly $500 here and there essay contests) and there aren't any scholarships for people with her ethnic background - she is an unusual Central Asian ethnicity.

I spend hours looking for more sources of money for her... it is tough!
posted by k8t at 10:25 AM on December 27, 2006

Can she at least work full time when she is staying with you over the winter/summer breaks. Temping agencies should be able to place her. You don't say what languages she speaks but anything that requires a foreign language is normally better paid. ..
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:12 AM on December 27, 2006

Response by poster: Koahi, good idea - but as an international student, she can't work off-campus legally. She babysits and petsits a lot though.
posted by k8t at 11:15 AM on December 27, 2006

Could she legally work as translator and be taxed in her home country? The work doesn't even have to originate in the US but could be issued from anywhere. That kind of work is emailed back and forth so location makes no difference...

As student I was doing freelance work as translator (well subcontractor actually) and was made to sign a form to say I was 'tax resident' of my own country...which was the truth although I chose to not declare the income at the time...
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:56 PM on December 27, 2006

Can she get into a co-op program that is considered part of the educational program? In some jurisdictions, foreign students are allowed to earn money if they're in a co-op program.
posted by acoutu at 4:29 PM on December 27, 2006

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