While I was in graduate school, I was already deeply troubled with my indebtedness. Even though I knew I made the choice to go to an expensive school, I couldn’t quite grapple with what I was getting into.  I am still grappling with those ramifications to this day.

At the time I was taking an Arts and Politics class, which wanted us to come up with a socially engaged project. We had read a lot about class, capitalism, art, commercialism and the like and I just had this strong feeling like I should beg for tuition money as a project (definitely one of the strangest things I’ve done for money)

As soon as I thought about it, I felt sick. It didn’t feel right. It scared me.  And because of that I decided to do it. New York brought so many things and one of them was to face my fears head on and get out of my comfort zone. If it was scary, I knew I should do it.

I picked the day before Thanksgiving. I planned to stand outside of my graduate school begging for tuition money. I was scared I might run into a classmate, or a professor, but it meant much more to me to do it there.

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I held a sign “Broke NYU student needs help with tuition” and dressed in my everyday clothes. I wasn’t trying to be anything but myself.  This was November 2010, one full year before Occupy Wall Street made it mainstream to talk about student loans. At the time, there was still very little dialogue around student loans, predatory universities, and unfair lending practices. There didn’t seem to be a lot of information about how crippling student loans can be, but I felt it.

I wanted to change the idea of what a beggar looks like. People have preconceived notions about what beggars are supposed to look like. Being a young, white, female, outside of a prestigious university, I knew I changed that dynamic.

The first few people to walk by completely ignored me. I could sense how lonely it was to stand alone and ask for help.  The seconds felt like minutes and were drawn out in empty breaths and sly glances.

An NYU employee left the building, looked at my sign and chuckled. Within ten minutes, a woman who could probably be my mom’s age stopped and gave me $5. I wasn’t expecting it at all, and I started tearing up. I had envisioned my time out there as a grand experiment and expected largely to be ignored.

What happened was amazingly surprising.

In thirty minutes, I was given $29 by four different people. One man bought me a coffee and bagel.  Originally I had planned to be out there all day, but I started to feel overwhelmed with emotion. I hadn’t expected such generosity.IMG_0953

My critical mind started to kick in and I thought about the situation. Why did I make so much money? Surely this is not what others are getting. In that moment, I owned my privilege. My white, privileged, educated self felt “safe” for other people to give money to.  I didn’t look homeless, or on drugs, so I was a safe bet.

Although the project stemmed from my own experience and interest, at the end of the day I didn’t really need to be out there. Far more people needed that money. Throughout the day, I gave out the $29 to several people who I knew could use it more than me.

All in all, it was exactly what I thought it would be; a grand experiment. I got out of my comfort zone, changed some people’s perception, accepted generosity, and owned my own privilege.

Sometimes I think about starting up the project in Portland and other locations, seeing how people respond. But I think that chapter is done and I’d like to make my own money.

Would you beg for tuition money? Do you know anyone who has done it online or in real life?

Melanie

Melanie is a freelance writer currently living in Portland, Oregon. She is passionate about education, financial literacy, and empowering people to take control of their finances. She writes about breaking up with debt, freelancing, and side hustle adventures at DearDebt.com.

Currently she puts more than 50% of her income towards debt, while living a frugal, fun life. In addition to her love of personal finance, art and music, she is also a karaoke master. Follow the adventure @DearDebtBlog.

35 responses to “Would you beg for tuition money?”

  1. Coral says:

    This is an amazing post – very humbling. It’s certainly got me thinking.
    I’m impressed you decided to go so far out of your comfort zone. I think that’s a very important thing to do every now and again.
    Thanks for this post – you’ve got me thinking early in the morning which is no mean feat!!

  2. This is VERY situational but some people who live on the streets can make enough to live. Probably minimum wage amounts but still, not too bad for doing ‘nothing’. Some people beg for money on the streets because they don’t know what else to do, have no other skills. Some just live off that money (food, etc) some spend it on drugs/alcohol.

    What’s most surprising about this story is a friend of mine did this same thing, a 20-something white male, spent the day sitting in the subway with a sign asking for money. Oddly enough, only other ‘homeless’ folks actually gave him some change or told him where to get food. Otherwise he was ignored. All in all he made $5 all day.

    So it’s VERY situational. But for those who know what they’re doing, it can sustain you as much as a job.
    Leslie Beslie recently posted…Comics: The First Carrot Cake CupcakeMy Profile

    • deardebt says:

      I agree, it’s situational. Some people do make a good living. There was this guy in SF that people thought were homeless, but hid behind a bush and scared people at Fisherman’s Wharf. I heard he made $80k/year. I don’t know if that’s true, but seeing the crowd he brought, I believe it. Some people do get more than others and that is the really interesting part. Why did your friend get $5 and I got so much? Was it because I’m female? Or why? I think the difference makes a case for how much judgement goes on — effective begging helps people understand why they should give to you and not someone else. But there are so many factors in our psychology that already make that decision for us. Very interesting comment, thanks for sharing Leslie.
      deardebt recently posted…Would you beg for tuition money? My Profile

      • Oh my gosh, I remember the bush guy at Fisherman’s Wharf from when I was living in SF. I wouldn’t be surprised if he made that much either.

        I loved your experiment (especially since you gave the money away). It reminds me of a socially conscious performance art piece or something (sorry, just trying to make MY graduate degree worth it). The cost of education is staggering. I do wonder if your experiment gave you any insight as to whether or not “begging” is a job, in a way?
        Mel @ brokeGIRLrich recently posted…6 Tips to Rock the Post-Holiday Savings SpreeMy Profile

        • deardebt says:

          Haha about the bush guy. I’m sure he did make bank. It was really a performance art project and for my degree that’s what it was– but it was a personal experience as well. I wasn’t trying some alternate reality on. Performance art as a label has a bad rap and can be complicated. I do think begging could be a job for sure. It takes time, energy and exchanges. Courage. I am sure people who do it everyday might be desensitized to the negative aspects, but I wonder if it affects them over time?

  3. Wow. That was one hell of a brave thing to do – even though you didn’t need the money. I can imagine how lonely it must feel to put yourself out there so vulnerably and confront the world with a sign that asks for help. I don’t think I could do it, to be honest – even if it were just to test the waters.
    Little Miss Money recently posted…Day 59 – Celebrity Spotting.My Profile

    • deardebt says:

      It left me with a lot of questions and was quite an intense experience. I kind of wish I stayed out there the whole day, but I just started crying too much and it was breaking up the project.

  4. This is really interesting. I have never been in a situation where I had to ask for money, let alone beg, and I am extremely grateful and appreciative of that. I never want to forget all the ways that I am privileged and lucky, because I never want to take it for granted. And I want to remember that not everyone is in the same position I am; I want to remember other people need my help and that I am happy to give it. Thanks for a really thoughtful post – I appreciate you sharing this experience.
    Kali @ CommonSenseMillennial recently posted…Dealing with Student Loan DebtMy Profile

    • deardebt says:

      Kali, thanks for your perspective. We need more people who recognize privilege and own it. Even though I’m mired with debt, I didn’t really need the money either. At the time I was working three jobs, and interestingly enough begging made more money! But I couldn’t keep the money.

  5. Interesting!

    I’ve never been in the position to beg for money before and I’m very thankful for that. I usually do give money to people holding signs though…my husband says I am a huge sucker =/
    Holly@ClubThrifty recently posted…Cash Money: $5,650 in November Income and Blog UpdatesMy Profile

    • deardebt says:

      I give as much as I can, withing my comfort level. It’s a hard thing to do, begging, when you get ignored for so long people pretend you are not there. It’s dehumanizing. Glad you support your fellow brethren!

  6. anna says:

    What an amazing and thought-provoking experiment! I took a few poli sci and ethnic studies courses in undergrad, so these topics resonate with me, both with people’s reactions as well as your take-aways. Thank you for sharing, I’m going to be thinking about this all weekend!
    anna recently posted…K.i.s.s.’ed my debt good-byeMy Profile

    • deardebt says:

      Such a great comment, Anna. I’m glad this post was thought-provoking. People in my class had mixed reactions — some thought it was great, some thought it was offensive because I didn’t really need to beg. If nothing else, it’s good to incite a reaction. And that it did.

  7. You know, if I had to, I wouldn’t be above begging for tuition money. However, I haven’t had to and I’m very grateful for that. I like that you gave the money to people you know needed it more than you did. It’s kind of funny, I was thinking about doing an experiment a lot like this one. I plan to really dress up like I’m homeless, ripped cloths, roll around in dirt, grow out my beard, the works. I’ll be living through the day like I’m homeless, leaving the house with nothing, pan handling, eating from what I get, and hopefully giving some to real homeless people. I plan to do it to get a good feel of how homeless people are treated and write my findings on CNA! Well, I’ll see ya around, thanks for the great read! Glad you gave the money to people that needed it more.
    The CNA Finance Guy recently posted…What Are Secured Credit CardsMy Profile

    • deardebt says:

      I think everyone should get out of their comfort zone and try something different. I think something I took into consideration with my project and thinking about your proposed idea, is that it’s different to do it as a project, and different to do it as a livelihood. Some people can’t just try it on, then go back to their normal lives. We have to recognize that we have that privilege and many people don’t. That was a criticism I got, which was completely valid. I’d be interested in hearing your experiences if you do it.

  8. Wow, that took guts! I’m not sure I could push myself that far out of my comfort zone.

    I am curious how that would go over here. With our large homeless population begging for money, I wonder how generous people would be to the “privileged” student.

    Great post, M 🙂
    Erin @ My Alternate Life recently posted…That Time I Almost Bought a HouseMy Profile

  9. What an interesting experiment Melanie! I do agree with you that people probably felt safe and could relate to you based on what you looked like. I was also happy to read you gave that money away to people who needed it more. I think I would have a hard time doing that. At most I think I could do something like play music at a subway stop, but since I don’t have any musical talent that’s not happening either. 🙂
    Tonya@Budget and the Beach recently posted…Good ThingsMy Profile

    • deardebt says:

      This whole experiment brought a lot of feelings. Both gratitude and guilt. Did I seem like a nice, clean looking, young female? Did I deserve money just for that? It’s amazing how much we judge people on first glance and the assumptions that are made.

  10. Wow, what an interesting experiment. I don’t think I could ever put myself out there like that. I’d rather work for my money than beg but it’d be interesting to see how people would react to me though…I look like a weird little kid.
    Kasey @ Debt Perception recently posted…One Year!My Profile

  11. eemusings says:

    Wow, wow, wow! That was BALLSY of you, I am positive I wouldn’t have the guts to do it. I wouldn’t have donated anything to you, in all honesty, but I would have admired your chutzpah.
    eemusings recently posted…Confession: Our finances are a mess right now (and I’m okay with that)My Profile

  12. Michelle says:

    Wow, what a powerful experiment. I am not sure what to think about this project. I do like that you were able to connect with how it feels to be vulnerable and hoping that other people will be kind to you.
    Michelle recently posted…Retail Fail-I won’t be working holiday retail for the first time in years!My Profile

    • deardebt says:

      It was powerful indeed. I had mixed feelings going into it, and it left me with so many questions rather than answers at the end of it. I was both humbled and guilty by people’s generosity towards me.

  13. Thank you for sharing this. I’ve actually been trying to work up the courage to do something similar in Times Square just to see the reaction, but I always chicken out.
    Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life recently posted…Budget Travel: 3 Days in San DiegoMy Profile

    • deardebt says:

      Do it! I can see it now, “Broke and Beautiful actress in need of cash”. Times square would be interesting because it’s a lot of tourists, which may or may not work in your favor.

  14. Wow! I totally admire your courage for having done what you had to do for tuition money. I would not have the same guts but I’m sure it was one heck of a learning experience.
    Jen @ Frugal Rules recently posted…Shout Out Saturday #46My Profile

  15. Wow, you’re brave! I don’t think I could beg for tuition money, although maybe if I had to… This is a great project to be part of though. Very thought provocative indeed.
    Eva @ Girl Counting Pennies recently posted…Spending Report, Office Christmas Party and My New Tiffany BraceletMy Profile

    • deardebt says:

      I don’t know if I would call myself brave, but I appreciate the compliment. I do like to push my own boundaries (and sometimes others) in the name of truth and seeking out new experiences.

  16. Such an interesting experiment. I have a good friend (two actually) who graduated from the NYU school of social work with over $100k in debt (yup, social workers!). What they charge for a graduate social work education (knowing how social workers are traditionally paid) is robbery.
    KK @ Student Debt Survivor recently posted…The Difference Between “Broke” and “Poor”My Profile

    • deardebt says:

      Yeah, I graduated in the arts (facepalm!). The tuition is outrageous and people will continue to pay it because it’s a “good school” with a “good reputation”. I genuinely believed that trumped everything. Looking back I was pretty naive.

  17. Peter says:

    You’re the first person I know that has begged for tuition. My good friend wrote me a check for 10K to pay toward my student loan, but I used it to pay off my car with higher interest. Of course, with his permission.

    Never thought about begging for tuition though… would I do it? Nawww.
    Peter recently posted…Necessities vs. Niceties: Personal Finance 101My Profile

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