STERN: Controlling our shopping urges

I used to think my parents were pretty thrifty people. I grew up wearing my cousins’ hand-me-downs and learning about the value of coupons. My parents always instilled in me the importance of saving my allowance. My dad is known to drive miles out of his way to save a few cents per gallon on gas. But in the last month they’ve become shopaholics. And not just my parents — mothers and fathers across the nation have started buying with abandon.

I refer, of course, to the unique phenomenon known as college shopping.

Like back-to-school shopping on steroids, college shopping consisted of buying previously unimaginable quantities of office supplies, linens, toiletries and everything in between. My formerly frugal parents were caught up in the frenzy, suddenly advising me to buy a massive toolkit and soberly informing me of the virtues of a lint brush.

Walking into Target to begin the shopping spree was like being beamed up into the mother ship. As soon as we entered, a massive neon-green sign directed us to College Central — a treasure trove of shampoo, Post-it notes and garish wall decorations. An entire shelf was stocked with Q-tips! Target was also kind enough to provide us with a comprehensive checklist, which made helpful suggestions like “mop,” “Kindle” and “toss pillows.”

Bed Bath and Beyond, our next stop, seemed to subscribe to the claustrophobic school of interior design, bombarding the consumer with piles of cushions and scented soaps from floor to ceiling. Once again, I was persuaded to do previously unthinkable things, like spend a delightful 10 minutes deciding on the best scent of Glade air freshener. (I decided on “Hawaiian Breeze.”)

I bought and bought and bought. I purchased a mini-fridge that frankly seems to defy the word “mini.” I have enough Kleenex, pencil lead and Sharpies to sustain me until my 50th college reunion. I now own more clothes hangers than clothes that need to be hung.

This is what college shopping has become: an exercise in indulgence. It’s fun and exciting. Will I ever need a sewing kit or a 16-pack of multicolored binder clips? Probably not. And who cares, right? When you are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on education, what’s an extra $4.99 for sparkly pencils or a solid metal spork?

But actually, we should care. There’s a dark side to this excessive college shopping. No, this dark side is not our increasing dependence on material possessions. And no, it is not that college shopping is our parents’ furtive attempt to bribe us into remembering them. (Surely the next time I need one of the weirdly flesh-colored cough drops my mom bought, I will think of her.)

Thousands of kids have moved into Yale, hauling in their freshly bought laptops and Snuggies. College shopping has come to an end, and college is beginning. But, if you look around carefully, you will notice that some people have succumbed to the epidemic of college shopping more than others. While I bring my old iPod, who will bring a brand new DVD player? Some have always had nicer clothes and shoes, but now they have nicer comforters and throw rugs, too.

We are divided in so many ways by what we buy: whose clothes are nicer and whose car is fancier; how big one’s house is and where one goes on vacation. And college shopping has placed another divide between the rich and the poor. Some people’s parents will forget — if only temporarily — their frugality, and let their kids shop till they drop. But others do not have that luxury.

The true dark side of this excessive college shopping is that it throws into sharp relief the difference between the haves and the have-nots, even at a place like Yale. College is supposed to be a haven of merit, a utopia of equality and youthful opportunity. But it can’t be if some people arrive with pimped-out MacBooks while others haul in battered PCs.

We are here to learn and live on our own. But I’m worried that who has what can distract from this end. My experiences with college shopping, which once enthralled me, are now a little disturbing. Perhaps we should avoid excessive college shopping, even turning down exhortations from our glassy-eyed parents. Perhaps we should be a bit more sensible. In the future, I will say no to the bejeweled pillowcases and cartoonishly big paper clips. I will say no to enough posters and pictures to paper my walls. I will advise others to say no to excess — it’s not conducive to a collegiate atmosphere, and it’s just not sensible.

And when it comes to Glade air freshener, go with “Hawaiian Breeze” — far more sensible.

Scott Stern is a freshman in Branford College.

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