Grad Life: The Target Incident

Posted by barb on Jun 1, 2004 in Thesis/Grad Life |

The “Target Incident” is perhaps my quintessential grad school money experience. I’ll start by detailing my monthly budget — this will highlight why money was my constant concern (making it difficult to to concentrate on other things).

In New Mexico, I lived in a three-bedroom house, ostensibly with two roommates — one person for each room. However, both of my roommates had significant others who essentially lived with us, and the brother of the primary renter came down to live with us during the week (he lived and worked in Albuquerque on the weekends). So, in reality there were about six people living in the house at most times. I was tired of living with people.

When I moved to Maryland, I decided that I would get a place on my own. Afterall, I was 27 and it seemed time to try my hand at being alone (well, alone with my two cats). Also, since I had two cats, I wanted a one bedroom apartment rather than an efficiency, so the cats would have some room.

The rent for my apartment was $635 per month. My take-home pay from my fellowship was about $1000 per month. That left $365 to live on. Oh, but I needed to pay out $125 to my credit cards just to cover the finance charges. And I had the $50 phone bill, a $45 cable bill (that was probably a mistake), and $20 to keep gas in my car. That left $125 for everything else — cat food and litter, groceries, necessary-items, and any surprises that might come up. Needless to say, the budget was a bit stretched.

So, one December I found myself at Target picking up essentials — cat food and litter, toothpaste, toilet paper, deoderant, tampons, contact juice, and paper towels.

On my way around the back of the store, I saw a display of Christmas table clothes. I stopped to see what they had, and found the cutest vinyl cloth I’ve ever seen. It had little santas, angels, candy canes and reindeer on a green background. I think it was the reindeer that did it for me — I love reindeer decorations. I so wanted that table cloth. I knew that I couldn’t afford it, but decided to look at the price anyway.


Less that $3. I sat and debated for a bit. I looked at the contents of my cart, and thought about the money I had in the bank and the one measly paycheck I’d be getting before my trip home. That paycheck had to pay a few bills as well as a few meals out when I went to visit friends in Minnesota. Plus I’d already decided that I couldn’t get a Toys-For-Tots toy. Nor could I get the cats any Christmas presents. There was no way I could justify a $3 table cloth for myself.

But it was only $3. My god, how could I not find $3 in the budget.

I debated internally for several minutes before replacing the table cloth on the display and hurrying to the checkout. $3. I was nearly in tears as I checked out and brought my purchases to the car.

I realize, and even at the time I realized, that it was a silly thing to get upset over. But to not be able to pull even $3 out of the budget seemed a ridiculous and depressing thing.

The story does have a happy ending, though. I happened to talk with my Mom the next day (or maybe later that evening), and I mentioned the incident, trying to make it humorous but not succeeding. She ended up telling my Dad, and he Fed-Exed me a check for $50, telling me to just have fun with it. I bought my Toys-For-Tots toy. I bought the cats a new round “cave.” And, yes, I bought that $3 table cloth, which I displayed until I got rid of my round kitchen table two years ago.

* Some people might not worry too much about a Toys-For-Tots toy, but I had a nephew who died from SIDS at 4 months 21 day old. Since we lost him, I have been buying toys for TFT each year for a boy who would have been Tyler’s age that year. It’s my way of honoring his memory and hopefully bringing a little joy to a child.

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