How “Broke” Are You Really?

How our campus equates financial modesty to poverty

You’ll hear it in regard to almost all facets of campus life, from discussions of meal plan money, comments made in Weber Liquor, at the Arc, or in the moments before your friend agrees to get dinner downtown: “I’m so broke.” At a college with more students from the top 1 percent than the bottom 60 percent, we need to stop and consider how much some of us fall back on the “broke college student” trope, and how our use of “broke” has caused it to lose its gravity.

Cartoon by Cate Johnson

In my experience at Colorado College, the default meaning of “I’m so broke”—along with a laugh or smile—tends to be something along the lines of “I don’t have that much money in my bank account right now, so I probably shouldn’t,” or “I’m on the apartment plan, so I should probably just steal this kombucha,” or, quite simply, “alcohol is so expensive.” In a school culture with a majority of exceedingly wealthy students using the term “broke” to express their caution to pay for something rather than their sheer inability, we will never progress in our dialogue around privilege.

There are students who repeatedly claim to be “broke,” who are not the ones paying for their tuition, are not expected to contribute to their familial income, get some form of allowance from their parents, and even have a car on campus. “Broke” does not equate to limited spending money, nor is it always synonymous with a low bank account balance. A student whose family does not financially struggle and knows they can ask their parents for assistance—even if they do not want to—may have $200 in their bank account and, therefore, is not “broke.” The quantity of funds is not the issue here; it’s what happens when it runs out, and whether someone has to swallow their pride, or spend less on costly experiences.

This is not to say anyone’s financial situation is without restriction. There is, however, an inflation of language on this campus that trivializes the “broke college student,” and with such a generally affluent student body, language pertaining to money can become easily misconstrued. When “I’m broke” comes to colloquially mean “shouldn’t spend,” any student who is struggling to make ends meet without any resources to fall back on becomes even more alienated from our school’s culture of costly sports, vacations, and the normalcy of working less or not working at all when in a difficult block.   

You do not need to say you’re hyperbolically “broke” if you’re just being frugal and not taking your resources for granted. Reevaluate your language. Are you really in a stressful situation financially with nowhere to ask for help in terms of everyday costs or tuition? Claiming to have nothing does not, by any means, validate the fact that you need to be aware of your spending, and maybe you can’t always do all of the things you want.

For those of us who can—and should—check our privilege, we need to consciously resort to phrases such as, “I can’t spend anything right now,” “I don’t have the money for that,” “I don’t want to spend money this week,” or “I have not been making that much, and don’t want to ask anyone for anything.”

So, as one of the least economically diverse colleges in the United States, we must stay conscious that the top one percent represents almost 25 percent of our school, and that our vision of what is “broke” is massively skewed. Those of us guilty of professing a false poverty owe it to our peers to not minimize the fact that some people at this school have to think about money on a daily basis.

You don’t have to wear designer clothes and eat out every night to be wealthy, but at the same time your Arc flannel and relatively modest and limited spending habits do not make you “broke.” Don’t act as the broke college student you aren’t.

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