The Reason Commuter Students Are Broke

By Ayesha Depay

CUNY: LEHMAN COLLEGE Commuter students often get left out of the conversation about how to manage money while in college. Financial advice for students tends to overlook those who are older, employed, or raising children. For these students, financial savvy includes not buying into the following misconceptions.

Myth 5: College is a non-stop party

Do you need the latest $600 iPhone? Is the quad your personal runway? We all want to look

good, but at what cost?

“Be careful about your spending and the purchases you make,” advises Nancy Ann Cintrón,

director of the Career Services Center. “Ask yourself honestly, before you are tempted to buy or

spend, is this something I need?—for example, food, clothing, housing/shelter, medical

[treatment], tuition, books, transportation–or something I want but really don’t need?–vacation,

an extra pair of shoes, going out to eat, clubbing?”

If you must party, find one with no cover before midnight, and arrive early. New York is full of

free and low-cost entertainment options, not to mention the world-class shows available on

campus at a student discount. Students can also get discounted tickets for Broadway shows at and, save on Knicks tickets with a student ID, and pay just $10

admission at the Brooklyn Museum on the first Saturday of the month. Many events offer free

admission to volunteers, including Dragoncon and some individual booths at New York Comic


Myth 4: You are going to be comfortable

You don’t want to live at home with your parents, you want your own place. And no smelly trains

for you. You want to take the express bus, or better yet, a taxi to class. Or how about just leasing

a car?

“Somebody will tell me, ‘Well, I bought a car. Now I got car payments,’” explains Vice President

of Student Affairs Jose Magdeleno. “What the hell are you buying a car for? I’m not saying

there’s something wrong with wanting a car, but is this the time to buy one, when you’re

struggling to pay your tuition and everything else? You don’t need a car right now. You need to

get on the iron horse.”

Myth 3: You can live on takeout and Starbucks/Dunkin Donuts

Do you really need the Caramel Venti Mocha Pumpkin Spice Latte with an extra shot plus

whipped cream? Or will the dollar coffee from the bodega do? Fast food is unhealthy but

convenient. Between class and work you’re out of the house 10-12 hours a day. So how to keep

from going hungry—or broke?

“Pack your own lunch,” Magdaleno says, “and pocket the money you save by not eating out. Do

you need food every day? Absolutely. Do you need to be buying your food at the cafeteria every

day? No.” In the course of a month, he calculates, the $20-$25 you save every day adds up.

“Plan and budget your expenses every month, [and] save a little something every month in a

savings account,” recommends Cintrón.  “You would be surprised how quickly a minimum of

$20 a month (that’s $5 a week) can become $240 for that year.”

Myth 2: You are a superhero

Can you really work 40 hours a week, take 18 credits in a semester and spend enough time with

your family and friends? If you answered yes, maybe it’s time to stop believing in the fairy tale.

“You cannot expect to work 30-35 hours per week, take 5-6 courses/semester, and gain much

from your college education,” exclaims Dene Hurley, chair of the Department of Economics and

Business. She emphasizes that “education is not just about attending classes and getting passing

grades…You need to get involved on campus and invest your time to acquire deeper knowledge

as well as relevant skills in your discipline which are both necessary for a richer and fulfilling–

personally and financially—professional career in the future.”

Myth 1: You don’t need that scholarship anyway

“I cannot tell you how many times we hear about scholarship opportunities for Lehman students

and we have a hard time getting students to apply,” laments Madgaleno. “I say to a student, look,

we’ll help you write your personal statement. You do a draft. We have a writing center. We will

help you massage it.”

And yet, he says, many students feel too intimidated by the process to try.  “I say look, all you

gotta do is write one statement and it’s a statement that you can use for a bunch of different

applications,” he continues. “You write that one statement and you never know; you’ve got to be

in it to win it. Sometimes there have been scholarship opportunities when the people said: We

want five Lehman students. And we have to chase people to get it done; that’s like low hanging


Myth 1: You don’t need to plan ahead

College is not like high school; nothing is preplanned for you. You are an adult now, and you

know that procrastination will cost you time, energy, and money—especially when it comes to

financial aid.

“The key is to file [your FASFA] as early as possible,” emphasizes Director of Financial Aid

David Martinez. Problems happen, he says, “When there’s no follow up.” If more information is

needed, notifications are sent to students—who don’t always respond in time.

“If you go to financial aid office in June and July or in November, it’s a ghost town. If you wait

to the last minute in August when classes are about to start, your wait times can be as long as four

hours.” There won’t be enough time to see how much money you’ve been awarded before your

classes start, and classes get canceled if you do not have enough money to make up the


His advice is to finish your follow up in June, and if you need a loan, apply early so you receive

your money before classes start. Keep in mind too that if you drop or fail too many classes, your

financial aid eligibility could be at risk. So plan your credits and talk to your advisors to see how

close you are to graduation, and then do what it takes follow through with your plan.