From the Heart to Higher Education: The 2021 College Essays on Money

Despite the loud street music, the arcade lights and the swarms of people, it was hard to be distracted by the stand on the corner serving steaming cups of tteokbokki – a mix of rice cake and fish cake topped with a hot, sweet sauce. I swallowed when I felt my friend pull on the sleeve of my jacket, expecting that he would try. After all, I promised him that I would spoil him when he visits me on my winter vacation in Korea.

The tteokbokki cups, garnished with sesame leaves and tempura, were a high-end version of street food, nothing like from my childhood. The price of 3,500 Korean won was also not what I remembered it was, simply asking for more to sell on a busy street. If I declined to buy, I could comfort my friend and brother by buying larger meals elsewhere. Or we could spend now on overpriced food to indulge in the instant gratification of a convenient but short-lived snack.

With every seemingly insignificant effort, I weigh the pros and cons of possible purchases, as if I hold my whole fate in my hands. To be generously hospitable, but ruthlessly skimming the travel expenses we needed for two weeks? Or be budget wise but possibly risk being stingy? That is the question and a calculation that I detest so much.

Unable to secure a future job and plagued by livelihood problems, there was no place in my father’s household to be ashamed of austerity or scraping crumbs. Ever since I was taught to dilute shampoo with water, I’ve revamped my formula to reduce eye irritation. Every visit to a fast food chain included a request for a sheet of discount coupons – the parameters of all future menu choices – and an earlier receipt with the code of a completed survey that could be redeemed for a free cheeseburger. Using combinations of multiple promotions to maximize savings at such facilities felt as exciting as cracking war cryptography, which is critical to minimizing cash losses.

However, while disciplined spending restraint can be virtuous in the private sphere, paradoxically, spending less – when it comes to status – on outings, even among friends, costs more. In Asian family style eating habits, a dish ordered is usually available to everyone and the total bill is split evenly regardless of what you or did not consume. I am ashamed to be excluded from paying for dishes that I did not order or eat, so I completely decided not to be invited to dinner. Even at meals where the welcoming host has offered to treat everyone, I am suspicious because I fear that if I only partake in “free meals” I would be pinned as a parasite.

While I can now run t-tests to extract correlations between multiple variables, calculate marginal import propensity, and assess whether a developing country is at risk of being trapped in the middle-income trap elsewhere in the world, my day-to-day decisions keep twirling or elementary arithmetic. I feel haunted, cursed by the compulsion to diligently deduct pennies from purchases in the hopes that it will eventually accumulate to a dollar, as if the slightest miscalculation in a single purchase would plunge my family’s balance sheet into irreversible poverty.

Will I ever stop stressing out about spending too much?

I am not sure if I will ever do it.

But I know that. When I gave 7,000 won in exchange for two cups of tteokbokki that the three of us – my friend, brother and me – could share, I was reminded that even if we don’t swim in shine, our dignity through the generosity of sharing. If you limit your conscience to just wondering which roads lead to wealth, you run the risk of blindness to rarer wealth: friends and family who do not measure their worth by their net worth. Perhaps one day such strict monitoring of financial activities will no longer be necessary, but even if not, it is still enough.

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