My friend Rosa once had this great big overcoat. Stylish and impeccably tailored, it was the ideal length for those days when the wind whips around your knees and the cold rain finds its way between your neck and your coat collar.
Not too long ago, Rosa's coat was laid to rest at her neighborhood dry cleaners. "Fell apart right at the seams as soon as I put it in the machine," said the store owner. Still, that's not bad service for just under $10. That's not the dry cleaning bill, either; that was the price of the coat. Ten bucks can still buy you three year's worth of a wearable secondhand coat.
It was Rosa who enlightened me to the fact that being a financially strapped college student working only part time does not necessarily mean going without. Students have never had much money, and with President Reagan's proposal to cut guaranteed student loans and Basic Education Opportunity Grants, the definition of a financialy strapped student is sure to take on a broader and more ominous meaning. If there are any college students left by then.
Luckily for me, my college days are just over. To be honest, I must admit that the college-student affliction of bargain living was more a matter of course than of choice. Except, perhaps, for poets sequestered away in dusty attics, there is no romance in living on next to nothing. But there is an art. Herewith, some of its fine points, my legacy to college students in the Washington area.
A semester's worth of books can cost up to $100; buying them secondhand from other students can cut this expense by almost half. I used a pencil until lead and eraser met. And I was not above writing on paper towels from a public restroom.
Once you know where to look, you can apply the art to finding a cheap meal, movie or watering hole, besides a sturdy coat.
When it came to mealtimes -- and they came all too frequently -- my wallet made my dinner selection long before my stomach did. Such delicacies as macaroni & cheese, Oodles of Noodles Instant Soup, grits, vegtable soup and white rice pretty much made up the week's staples. Protein came packaged in Burger King cheeseburgers or an occasional protion of Giant brand fishsticks. For some real nutrients, I waited until celery or potatoes were on sale.
The cheapie/freebie bargain hunting doesn't stop at the dinner table, which in my house, consists of a plank of wood atop two cinderblocks. (Seating is Japanese style.) Speaking of my house, it's a cost-cutter in itself. Nine of us live in a group house probably intended for a family of four. No matter; we've created bedroom space out of unlikely corners once inhabited only by spiders, such as the basement, the attic and the den. None of us has to share a bedroom and we each pay about $100 per month.
Making use of a housemate's special talents also will go a long way toward keeping expenses down. For starters, my housemate Sharon cuts my hair free, so long as I treat her to the Peoples' Drug Store 99-cent breakfast. Keep it short -- your hair, that is, although this could apply to breakfast as well -- and you won't need to buy shampoo, conditioner or hairbrushes so often.
So my head wears short hair -- the rest of me? All my clothes come from two sources. For the usual source, an older sibling's discards, it's important to forget "in" and "out" fashions, such as your brother's old Nehru-collared shirts or your sister's "wetlook" (remember that?) skirt.
Most of my other clothes hail from the Value Village Store on upper 14th Street NW, inarguably the queen of secondhand department stores. I paid $4 for a pair of electric-blue cotton pants and 75 cents for a white silk shirt bought the same day. There was even a 20-cent blue plastic belt thrown into the deal; a brand new outfit -- new to me anyway -- for under $5. All the Value Village stock needs is a hot water wash, a little pressing and a good home.
But even when fortified with a new set of clothes and a can of cream of potato soap, I still itch sometimes for a change of pace. Cabin fever can run rampant at our house: We have no TV and the radio can pick up only one FM station. And sometimes our budgets wouldn't even allow us to go out for a drink.
The secret here -- without depleting my monthly food allowance -- was "Always Elvis" wine. The bottle comes complete with a picture of the King himself, perhaps caught in the middle of singing "Suspicious Minds." How could anyone pass this up at only $1.99 a bottle?
Don't be ashamed to invite your friends over to imbibe with you. As much as they may tout the virtues of a good beaujolis, they probably won't even taste the difference. Toss to the winds your broke-student-who-can't-entertain inhibitions and sponsor a dinner: something like leftover macaroni with celery stalks.