Cost of the Experience: Students' spending habits at the 'U'

Cover by Luna Anna Archey
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By Will Greenberg, Daily News Editor
Published March 24, 2015

$6,406. On top of tuition, books, and everyday living expenses, an average student will spend this amount on social expenses during their four years here. $6,406. That’s the amount it costs to truly experience social life at the University.

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A recent survey conducted by The Michigan Daily examined the social spending habits of undergraduate students, looking at what people do for fun and how much they’re paying for it.

Whether going to the football or basketball games, taking a road trip with friends over a break, or scheduling a weekly meeting at a favorite bar, a variety of experiences were shown to shape a student’s love of their college experience.

As found in previous Daily surveys about the school, the University is largely comprised of students who come from more affluent socioeconomic backgrounds. Over half of respondents come from households earning at least $100,000.

Despite high family incomes, only 20 percent receive their primary money for “fun” from their parents. A large majority, 73 percent, earn their spending money themselves — with 37 percent making the money at an on or off-campus job and 36 percent saving money from previous jobs.

The data show a wide range of favorite activities and spending habits, but in the end, one thing is clear: a large majority of students are happy with their social lives at the University.

Out on the town

Drinking is a major social outlet for many students. Over a quarter of students go to a party at least once a week, with 12 percent of students going out to parties two to three times a week and 17 percent reporting just once a week. Around one-fifth of campus, 21 percent, goes to parties just two to three times a month. Twenty percent responded that they never go to parties.

Bars are less popular than parties, with 15 percent of students going out once a week and only 7 percent going out two to three times a week. About half of students responded that they never go out to bars. However, among upperclassmen, who are more likely to be of age to go out to bars, 21 percent go once a week and 13 percent go two to three times a week.

Public Policy senior Bobby Dishell, president of Central Student Government, said he and his friends enjoy going out to bars and restaurants. Dishell has spent a great deal of his four years working with CSG but has also enjoyed the campus social life. He said what he most enjoys is having a large friendship circle, most of whom are fraternity brothers of his.

Dishell said he is fortunate enough to not have to worry much about being able to afford going out and that his friends tend to trade-off covering each other’s bills. While he said he and his friends were a “fiscally responsible” group, he added that he was a bit surprised by how quickly the expenses added up as he estimated his weekly spending.

“If people are going out two to three nights a week, you’re usually paying cover twice so that’s $10,” he said, counting the cost of bringing along a friend or significant other. “Cabbing to and from is about two bucks a person. You call it two bucks a person each way, three nights — that’s $22. I mean, it’s warmer out, people are walking more, but call it 20 bucks a week before you even walk in the door.”

On average, students spend about $39 per week on smaller social expenses. Going out to eat is the largest cost, with people spending about $18 per week. On average, alcohol costs students about $5.77 per week on campus; cover for bars and clubs costs $2.59 on average. Another $3.43 per week goes toward ingredients for homemade meals and baked goods while another $3.33 per week is spent on gas to drive places.

Dishell said his circle tends to go out to the bars more often than most, and, while he can’t speak for everyone, the group is generally able to keep up with their habits. Still, he recognizes that many in his group come from a “place of privilege” and noted that many also have jobs lined up already for next year that could make up the costs later.

“Something my parents always taught me was everyone spends their money differently,” he said. “There’s some people who may choose to go out way more frequently but when it comes to going to formal, which costs more money, or going to the bigger ticket items they might not do that.”

Pay to play

LSA sophomore Martha McKinnon joined Delta Gamma sorority early in her freshman year. McKinnon already feels connected with the women in her sorority, saying these are the best friends she’s ever had. Along with a love for Michigan football and going out to eat, McKinnon and her sisters share something else in common: paying around $890 in dues for their sorority.

Sorority dues, which go toward a chapter’s social events and activities, are widely acknowledged as one of the most burdensome fees for joining an organization on campus.

According to the University’s Greek life website, the median dues owed for the first semester after joining a sorority is $370, with costs ranging for subsequent semesters and additional payments often required for larger events. Fraternities have comparable dues, though the numbers were not listed on the Greek Life website.

While non-Greek life organizations often also have dues, the University’s Office for Student Life, which oversees student activities including clubs, does not track the amounts each group charges.

According to the survey, a majority of students participate in clubs — 63 percent at least once a week and only 21 percent participate less than once a month to never. Additionally, students spend an average of $220.96 on larger expenses per semester. Of that, about $77 goes towards dues or fees for clubs. Other large expenses include about $62 for Michigan sporting events and about $37 for overnight trips.

For McKinnon, the money to pay her dues freshman year came out of her own pocket — though this year her parents covered the costs when they paid housing fees for her to live in the Delta Gamma house. Her money is saved from a combination of earnings from previous jobs as well as a current on-campus job.

While she wouldn’t categorize her group of friends as having expensive habits, McKinnon estimates she herself spends around $50 per week on dining and going out.

McKinnon said money isn’t terribly influential on what her friend group does but said many of her friends are judicious about where they spend their disposable cash, as most of them work for their spending money.

“Michigan’s an expensive school,” she said. “They talk about Michigan, at least when you hear about it when you’re touring, it’s sort of, ‘Oh, this amenity is included; this amenity is included; this amenity is included.’ And then you come here and you realize what’s not included.”

While Greek life fees can pile up, there are other organizations on campus that require a notable starting cost.

The University has 31 club sports teams, which are organized leagues that compete with teams at other schools. Club teams are largely organized by students, but often have coaches, and compete in playoffs for national championships. The average cost of a club sport is roughly $434, though the prices range from just $30 for the club running team to around $2,750 for the rowing team.

LSA sophomore Sara Lin is the treasurer of the women’s club gymnastics team. While the team does receive funding from the club sports organization, members are also required to pay $100 per semester. Additional costs are added when the team travels for meets and must pay for food, lodging, and travel.

Yet organized sports are less common than other activities, with only about one-quarter of students participating at least two to three times a month. Exercising, however, is very popular: about 66 percent reported going to a gym once a week or more frequently, with about 21 percent going daily. While 43 percent of students never play sports, 22 percent play sports at least once a week.

Lin said a large portion of her time and money goes into her gymnastics team. She has been a gymnast all her life and said participating at the University — getting to spend her time in the gym with her friends — has been some of her favorite time on campus.

“It’s nice to go (to the gym) after classes or something and not necessarily have to work hard and you just have two friends you can talk to or a private gym almost,” she said.

The price may be steep, but for both Lin and McKinnon, the experience of joining a close-knit community makes it worth the money.

“It’s been a really good way for me to build friendships, as well as find a community,” McKinnon said. “I always kind of equate it to joining any other club. I mean, there is sort of an idea that Greek life is kind of different than any other extracurricular but it’s similar in the same way that everybody finds their group through it.”

Go Broke!

At any given home basketball game, students pack the lower bowl, drape themselves in as much maize clothing as they can find, and jump up and down from tip-off to game’s end. Conducting the crowd is the leader of the student section, Maize Rage President Christian Tallarico.

Tallarico is an Engineering junior and a seriously devout Michigan fan. Since his freshman year, Tallarico has bought both football and men’s basketball tickets every year. On top of that, he also takes several road trips to away basketball games each year, typically with fellow Maize Rage members.

“I love the away games more than the home games, to be honest,” he said. “It was more fun freshman, sophomore year where we walk into an away game thinking we’re going to win and we’re confident and we’re not really taking crap from people talking to us.”

Each year, Tallarico has taken around four to five trips for away basketball and football games. He estimates the cost per trip is about $200 per person, $300 for the trip to Chicago for the basketball Big Ten tournament. Last year, the combination of football tickets, basketball tickets and an at-Notre Dame ticket cost him $700.

This year, the University’s Athletic Department worked to accommodate the requests of students to make athletic events more accessible. Former Athletic Director Dave Brandon collaborated with the Central Student Government and in October 2014 agreed to reduce ticket prices for student football tickets down to $175 from $280. In February of this year, the Athletic Department implemented need-based ticketing, offering federal Pell Grant eligible students the chance to buy significantly cheaper tickets for football, basketball and hockey.

As CSG President, Dishell was instrumental in this latest deal and said the number of Pell Grant-eligible students buying tickets has already increased 20 percent. Additionally, Tallarico said the department has been helpful to the Maize Rage as well, particularly for Big Ten tournament tickets, which are offered at a discount from regular season tickets.

Apart from these larger purchases, Tallarico said he and his friends rarely have any other social expenses. Tallarico saves his money from jobs and internships over the summer then budgets his sports year ahead of time, rarely going out to eat or to other events. For him, putting his money into tickets and his time into the Maize Rage is the only way to go.

“For most of us it’s a big reason why we’re here and if you want to get together with us I can assure you you’re going to be at the front of all the basketball games, you’re going to have the opportunity to get all the away tickets,” he said.

What are you really paying for?

Whatever a student choses to spend their money on, the hope is that it goes to good use and helps create an experience that a proud Wolverine can remember for years to come. And, for the most part, it appears University students feel good about the money they spend.

When asked whether they felt money played a significant role in their social lives, 38 percent of students agreed and 20 percent strongly agreed. A majority of students feel they are able to “keep up” financially with their friends, with 43 percent agreeing and 16 percent strongly agreeing. A majority also disagree that “money has inhibited their social life” at the University — though 18 percent agreed and 4 percent strongly agreed with that statement.

There were still variances in response. Students coming from homes making less than $100,000 annually were less likely to agree that they can keep up with their friends financially than those coming from houses making $150,000 or over. Of students from the higher socioeconomic bracket, 38.86 percent strongly agreed that they have a great social life, compared to the 16.42 percent of lower-income students who strongly agreed.

Engineering junior Joe Spurlin handles all his money personally, socially, or otherwise. Spurlin classifies himself as middle class and receives financial aid through federal grants, as well as money for the University. He supplements this with a part-time on-campus job.

Spurlin spends roughly close to the average per-week amount, estimating at around $30. He also participates in a local hockey league and has football and hockey tickets.

However, Spurlin said he has to spend extra effort managing his money, because his money for housing, food, and social activities all come from the same place. For him, keeping up with his friend group can become difficult at times.

“I do have friends who their parents pay for everything in terms of tuition and housing so that all the money they make, all the money they have is stuff that they put towards lunch and dinner and stuff like that,” he said. “It always feels like they can spend more freely than I can.”

While Spurlin is undoubtedly not alone in this experience, University students aren’t exclusively spending money to have fun. A large portion of students are having fun for cheap, frequently hanging out with their friends with no specific activity. A resounding 72 percent of students “chill” two to three times a week, or more frequently.

Watching TV and movies are also popular activities, with 56 percent watching at least two to three times a week, if not daily. Video games are less popular: only about one-quarter of students play at least once a week.

The University also provides a considerable amount of free or reduced-price activities. The Michigan Union’s Umix offers a free meal on Friday nights, a variety of programs provide accessible tickets to on-campus shows, and, though many clubs do require dues of some sort, there are still plenty of free organizations for students to get involved in.

In the end, 70 percent of campus believe they have a great social life that they will look back on fondly. Though the University might have expensive taste, at the very least it appears a good portion are able to find their social niche, wherever it may be.

“Spending time in lounges, we all watch ‘The Bachelor’ on Mondays together, that’s just like a social event that we do without spending money,” Spurlin said. “You can have a good college experience regardless of the amount of money you have.”