The Most Frugal Man in America Takes Us Back to College Life

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I have a vivid picture of my first night at college 40 years ago and I’m sure it doesn’t differ much from yours.

When I walked into my dorm room that first night, The Allman Brothers was playing on the 8-track and more than a dozen people stood toe-to-toe in a space designed for two. The air conditioner was set at 66 degrees, but only because it couldn’t go lower. Food we called “munchies” was everywhere. Everyone had a bottle of beer in their hands and empties outnumbered participants 3-to-1.

The volume of consumption was astonishing. I remember saying to myself: “Wow, this is what college is like?”

That was quickly followed by: “No way can I afford all this!”

I thought about that when I sent two of my boys back to college this week and realized four decades later, nothing has changed. It’s still an education surrounded by excess. I still can’t afford it and neither can they.

The College Board, an organization of more than 6,000 schools that share data, confirmed the economics of higher education are downright depressing. They put the average sticker price (tuition, fees, room, food, etc.) of attending an in-state school at $22,261. Private schools go for $43,289.

If you subtract the financial aid students receive, the average drops to $16,510 for a public education and $27,600 for private.

That’s still $27,600 more than my oldest son can afford for the private school where he’s headed and $16,510 more than my other son can pay for at the state school he attends. They’re on the hook for the whole thing and while they’re figuring it out, it’s a struggle.

What’s shocking is they didn’t ask for tips on how to weasel your way through four years of fun on limited funds, but I’m going to share one anyway:  Buddy up, boys!  Share and share alike. Ancient Frugal Man saying: The more contributors you have, the less you’ve got to contribute.

I had five wallets contributing to the cost when I was in school and none of them belonged to my parents.  It was me and four roommates sharing every major school expense, except tuition and girlfriends.

We divided rent, utilities, food and partying five ways. It took a few weeks to get comfortable, but we quickly learned to love the leverage we were creating, especially since none of us were getting help from home.

Our rent and utilities were pretty much the same every month so there wasn’t a lot of “frugaling” we could with that. Food and entertainment were another story. We banked thousands in savings splitting those costs.

Starting the first week, we drew up a six-day menu (no dinner on Sunday nights) based on everyone’s cooking skills and posted it on the refrigerator. Two of us would head out Saturday morning and do the grocery shopping for the week. The cooks cooked, the eaters cleaned and everyone left the table happy. We even saved a plate in the oven, if somebody missed a meal. We did that every week for three years.

Party time was more of the same, only better because we figured out a way to make the parties pay for themselves.

We usually had 40 to 60 guests walk through our parties and we budgeted about a $1 per person for beverages. Remember, this was the mid-1970s and if you have the right contacts at local pubs (we did), deals could be made and we were dealers.

However, we soon realized that college kids often are thirstier than you think. The $50 in pooled money wasn’t going to cover the actual costs of quenching their thirst, so we decided to draft more contributors.

When guests arrived, we greeted them with $1 raffle tickets for a chance to win the grand prize drawing at midnight — a bottle of top-shelf liquor. Actually, it was bottom-shelf booze poured into an empty top-shelf container, but this was college and deceptive drinking practices were approved.

At midnight, someone, who we knew didn’t drink liquor, won the drawing. As she was presented the “prize,” one of my roommates would start the chant, “Shots! Shots!” and before you knew it, the bottle was opened and emptied.

People loved it. We did, too. Great parties with 60 buddies ponying up to pay for it.

At the end of the year, we did some accounting and the average costs for rent, utilities, food and partying, came to $1,000 a month divided five ways.

Even our parents would agree that $200 a month was money well spent.

I wonder if the College Board would agree.

Meme of Most Frugal Man in America with party advice



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