Finance and Hunger in D.C. – A Savage Journey to the Heart of an Undergrad’s Checking Account

By Chris Vest

Having grown up in a small, rural town with maybe five fast food restaurants, a few mom-and-pop diners and a questionable Chinese place for dining options, I have few reservations about making reservations at various eateries when the chance strikes. Any food that might be considered ‘unique’ where I come from (see: any ethnic eatery or even any place with a semi-decent atmosphere) draws me like a moth to a flame. I’ve spent many week-long vacations in big cities, and weekend outings in some of the more culturally oriented parts of my home state of Michigan, but never before have I settled in for a months-long stay in a cultural mecca like the District.

My first week here I don’t think I cooked a single meal in my apartment. The second morning I made a brief stop at a nearby grocery store to pick up a handful of essentials (for posterity’s sake if anything else) and some of them still remain untouched in the cabinet, waiting to find purpose. Whether it was Portuguese chicken, pad thai, sushi, Lebanese, or crepes, I never found myself want for options. Worse yet, all of these options were within 15 minutes walking distance of my apartment. At first, I was in heaven.

I spent the better part of my summer preparing for this semester working a minimum wage job, keeping my spending lean and my wallet fat. Little did I know that my efforts were in vain. After my second week here, I decided it might be a smart idea to check my bank account. What did I know? As far as I was concerned I had been fairly responsible – only spending my budget on the necessary components of integrating myself into a new area. What I saw was perhaps a reflection of my own hubris – possibly how a large portion of Wall Street felt before the Stock Market Crash of 1929. I had blown through my finances in (relatively) small transactions faster than I think I ever have in my entire life. With the occasional necessary Smart Trip card refill or Uber interspersed, I was presented with a wall of restaurant charges so large that I sincerely wished we could make Mexico pay for it.

From that point on, my diet was purely despair-inducing. While I watched my classmates go out to try new restaurants and go to group dinners, I stayed in to eat affordable, $2.00-or-less-per-serving meals. My shameless self-indulgence had put me in a financial situation where I had to keep my wallet in my pocket for about as long as I possibly could. I wasn’t broke, but my budget for activities was nearly spent.

Do not let my story serve as a warning against going out and seeing the sights, or indulging oneself; rather, treat it as a cautionary tale. Ration your precious opportunities to eat out and experience the local cuisine well. Don’t eat out alone on impulse, share in the experience with friends. Make the culinary arch of your trip a rich tapestry of personal experiences instead of a brief flavor binge. Give yourself time to process and digest the culinary marvels you experience rather than mindlessly consuming as fast as you can. For now, I’m going to go defrost several pounds of black beans and rice that I made in the days following my financial revelation. Don’t be like me, keep your impulses in check and your wallet close.

Originally posted October 5, 2016

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