It was noon on a Saturday afternoon and the scent of $2 Patrón tequila shots was still oozing through my pores, evidence of last night’s soiree at Studio 4 Nightclub. After puking, showering and dressing I headed out my dorm room door, stopping to check my mail. I shuffled through my late payment notices and stuffed them back inside, hanging on to a coupon from The Limited for $25 off of my next purchase.

After stopping by Starbucks for my daily vanilla latte, I sauntered into the library and whipped out my $300 PDA to check my bank account, remembering that I still owe T-Mobile $346.86 for accidentally using too many of my minutes. A few hours later, I realized that what I really needed was another date with Briarwood Mall to ease my pain.

My eyes lit up as I dashed in and out of every store, opening up two new credit card accounts for a 10 percent discount on my purchase. I was feeling great with my eyebrows freshly threaded, my nails perfectly manicured, two new pairs of shoes, three new pairs of jeans and another Starbucks vanilla latte as I headed back to campus, using the sweet aroma of coffee beans to block out the haunting thoughts of my next MasterCard bill.

Sure, my expected family contribution on the FAFSA form has been $0.00 for the past four years, but as long as I’m pre-approved for a credit card, I’ll never spend another Saturday night sitting around the house.

Private scholarships and government grants will have everyone believing that a quality college education is just an application away. But once you arrive on campus, the need for more cash flow increases when all the signs leading to success point to the nearest ATM machine.

If they really wanted to level the playing field, they’d hand out gift certificates to Macy’s with those scholarships, because ultimately, it takes a little more than free tuition to make a promising student a competitive job applicant. Ironically, in order to succeed in college nowadays, you have to look like you’ve already succeeded. As superficial as it may sound, it costs a pretty penny to maintain a certain level of shall I say, “status” at the University and in the country. Because of this, many of us find ourselves living above our means for the sake of maintaining a certain image.

It’s no secret that most learning is done outside of the classroom, and the best way to network is to build and maintain friendships and relationships with your peers right here at the University. Those of us who go Greek can testify that membership fees, chapter dues, workshop registration fees and miscellaneous expenses like buying gowns for formals or gas for road trips can be just as costly as tuition. This requires making some steep financial investments.

According to a study by Nellie Mae, a leading student loan provider, most college students will graduate with at least $20,000 in debt. At least 15 percent of that will be credit card debt. Everyone expects to graduate with a few loans to cover educational expenses after college. What they don’t tell you is that if you want to be a student who’s involved on campus and marketable to companies, you’d better take out another loan just to pay for your shot at winning enough votes to land a position on the executive board of the Squirrel Club or an internship with a major corporation.

When attending a top school like the University, there are students who don’t have to worry about budgeting and credit card debt, and there are those who do. Unfortunately, for those of us who didn’t memorize daddy’s American Express Black Card number, we find ourselves struggling to keep up with our rich friends. No one wants to be the tacky buddy who’s always borrowing clothes or the hermit friend who can never go out because they are always “broke.” Many would argue that if your friends really want you to hang out with them, they would choose activities that are budget-friendly or offer to front part of your bill, but playing Frisbee in the Arb gets boring after a while and mooching is a big no-no on the list of friendship do’s and don’ts.

Contrary to popular belief, us collegiate folks really don’t carelessly blow all of our money. But being involved, driven and competitive causes many of us to slowly dig ourselves into a hole of debt. Trying to keep up with the societal standard of what’s accepted and respected, whether it’s clothes, electronics or even group affiliations, is very expensive. Unless you’re the secret love child of Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates, chances are you’ll never have the luxury of truly being able to afford this lifestyle.

Fortunately, American Express has made it possible for you to fake your way to the top for only 12 easy payments of $99.95.

Shakira Smiler can be reached at stsmiler@umich.edu.

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