A major in shopping, a minor in debt

Some college kids today think nothing of putting a $500 shopping spree on a credit card. But paying it off? That's a secondary concern.

Published September 26, 2005

TAMPA - In the bedroom of her college apartment, Tiffany Spence still keeps a large pink Care Bear on her comforter. But in her closet, there are signs of a more sophisticated woman: $90 Steve Madden pumps, $100 designer jeans and $250 Coach bags.

During a recent shopping spree, the 19-year-old spent $800 - most of it on outfits for a couple of college parties that weekend. Another party loomed the following weekend and though she recently got in a car wreck and needed to come up with $5,700 for repairs, she was thinking of doing more shopping.

It didn't occur to her to look in her closet for something old. Someone might recognize the outfit from a previous party.

"Shopping is my therapy and I have a lot on my mind right now, so I can go spend $500 and feel so much better," said Spence, a University of South Florida sophomore from Miami. "And I'm really into fashion."

* * *

While many college students still struggle to make ends meet, the stereotype of them scrimping by on Spam and beans, unable to even buy cheap beer let alone designer sweat pants, is fast disappearing.

Today's college students are more sophisticated, harder working and wealthier than ever before, according to marketing companies that study them. Three out of four own or have access to a car. Almost 80 percent of them work.

They are so hooked on brand names that they are willing to pay $150 for a pair of jeans. They are so bent on impressing that some will wear outfits just once. Some college men wear $300 Gucci belts while some college women carry $450 Louis Vuitton bags.

But while America's 16.5-million college students as a whole have 24 percent more disposable income today than just a year ago, they are still spending a lot more than they have, according to a survey done by Alloy Media and Marketing, a New York City youth marketing company.

"Young adult college students we've recently interviewed are in deep, deep credit card debt because of everything from designer jean purchases to gas prices to $150 cocktail tabs to mortgages," says Irma Zandl, whose New York company, Zandl Group, studies trends in the youth market for companies such as Walt Disney and General Motors.

The typical college student gets an average of $757 a month from either a paid job, parents or other sources, according to the Alloy survey.

They spend most of their extra money on food, but a large portion goes to cell phone service (about 85 percent of them have one), entertainment and clothing. They spend more than $5-billion a year on clothes and shoes.

Many are smart shoppers who try to find sales on their favorites, said Samantha Skey, senior vice president for strategic marketing at Alloy.

But somewhere along the line, many of these younger consumers started shopping like celebrities with unlimited cash. Experts think it may be because they have more access to the wardrobes and styles of celebrities than ever before, and some of these items are within reach.

"Luxury in general is very, very visible from TV programming to Web lifestyles," Skey said. "There are five different reality programs about rich kids, and once a peer group is exposed to that kind of wealth, they may try to emulate it."

At the same time, many college students are buying what some refer to as "disposable clothing": inexpensive clothes they may only wear once or twice to pair with their premium jeans, shoes and handbags.

Maureen MacGillivray, 49, a professor of apparel merchandising and design at Central Michigan University, said she has noticed this with her students. They will buy designer jeans for $150, then pick up cheaper "disposable" tops from stores such as Forever 21 and Target, clothes that won't withstand multiple washings.

"The idea that you would throw clothing away is a relatively new phenomenon ... because our clothes have always been important to us," MacGillivray said. "Now it's more likely to be a surface decoration and surfaces continually need to be renewed with the younger generation. We're living in a makeover culture."

* * *

A few hours with one student at International Plaza mall reveals the nuanced dichotomy of the college shopper.

"If there was a major in shopping, that would be me," said Jessica Cairo, a University of Tampa senior as she looked at shoes in Baker's.

She carried a $450 Louis Vuitton bag, which she said her mother gave her, and wore 7 for All Mankind jeans and a white T-shirt with "Lucky" printed in red on the back.

Cairo, 23, made her first purchase at Forever 21. She spent just $20 on a creamy lace shirt and $7 on a wooden bead necklace. But then she headed over to Nordstrom and spent $156 on a pair of 7 for All Mankind jeans. She already had five other pairs of the brand in her closet, but she said this one is a different wash.

Cairo said she works for her parents, who own a strip mall and an office building in Tampa, and pays for most of her purchases with their help. She lives in one of their houses and doesn't pay rent. She says she tries to stay on top of credit card payments. She has $250 in charges on her credit card.

But when she looks around campus, she sees other students wearing designer jeans by 7 for All Mankind (price range: $132 to $395 a pair) and designer sweat suits by Juicy Couture ($158 on the low end).

"It's everywhere around here," Cairo said. "I"m assuming it comes from their parents or their loans or maybe they work, but it's more so than maybe a year ago. They're dressing nicer, and they're wearing more designer names."

And this is not just a girl thing.

Greg Horner, 20, and Don Peters, 21, were hitting some of the same stores as the women, exploring expensive jeans, watches, sandals and belts. Peters, a University of Illinois at Chicago student, was visiting Horner, who just moved to Tampa to live with his uncle.

Horner, who plans to attend the University of South Florida, gravitated right to the $198 jeans for men in Nordstrom.

He had a $300 pair of Gucci sunglasses hooked into his V-neck T-shirt and a $200 silver Gucci ring on his finger. He wore flip-flops and Quicksilver Bermuda shorts held up by a Diesel belt. He said he has 19 other pairs of equally expensive jeans in his closet: Diesel, 7 for All Mankind and True Religion.

"My mom and sister are all about this stuff, and so I got sucked into it," Horner said.

He said he works as a personal assistant for a businessman and makes $1,500 a month. He doesn't pay rent because he lives with his uncle and his parents pay for his school.

As for where he gets the money to make his purchases, he said, "I don't know. It just kind of works out."

* * *

Spence, the girl with the Care Bear, decided to get a second job to pay for her car repairs. But even with that, she figured she would have to get a loan.

Her friends, Kodra Ables, 19, and Aimee Joyner, 19, make $12.50 an hour at a collection agency.

The three women said they started buying nicer clothes in high school in Miami, where you "dressed to impress," Ables said.

Ables' mother, Indra Ables, said she first noticed her daughter's need to go out and buy a new outfit for every event while she was in high school. She has discouraged the practice and has her daughter pay for her own car insurance, groceries and spending money. But sometimes, especially in the summer, Kodra "tends to shop like a little demon."

"She has the opinion that she's working hard and she should be able to enjoy her money and that's why she has a mommy," said Ables, who works as the chief compliance officer at a Miami securities firm. "And I have the opinion that these are transitional years where I'm trying to get her to become more independent so she needs to learn sound financial habits and how to put money aside for herself."

But with her mother far away in South Florida, Ables, along with Joyner and Spence, said they can't wear their going-out clothes twice - unless they are shoes or belts or plain jeans like the $120 DKNY pair that Joyner wore.

"Once you put something together as an outfit and they give you so many compliments on it, you can't wear it again," Spence said.

That presents a dilemma. Spence was tapped out, even with her two jobs. So would she go into her closet for an outfit for the upcoming party?

"No. Maybe I'll call home and say I need money for groceries," she said. "Or maybe I'll spend my grocery money and then buy groceries once I get paid."

--Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.