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Low Balance by Jess K. '10

A epic story of Chinese food, heartbreak, and loss. All because I have no TechCash.

I didn’t start out this weekend trying to write a scathing expose on what it’s like to survive at MIT with no TechCash, no cash, and a terrible desire to spend money on food at least once a day. This certainly wasn’t planned, especially because I still have six hours of exams to power through – it actually probably started about two weeks ago, when I bought lunch at Stata, handed over my ID and was alarmed to see that little “low warning” sign.

I have $1.70 in my TechCash account, and the reason it’s stayed that way for such a while now is a combination of a lot of things. A lot of it has to do with the fact that I filled up my account to a pretty sizeable amount at the beginning of the semester, since I’m far too lazy to go to the basement of the student center and put money in my account for free (quick deposit online costs $1.50), but it’s also finals week, during which many MIT students seem to take on the view that life’s ordinarily small daily burdens are now no longer obligatory. (This could explain why the girl studying in the cubicle next to me looks like she’s making a beanie out of uncombed hair.) For me this includes a couple things: not picking my clothes up off the floor (no roommate, no mom –> no place to stand), not washing my dishes (although someone in my suite cleaned up last night; pretty suite), and not watching my bank account (not that I’m out buying couture, just caffeine drinks and Thai food).

To give a little background- MIT’s money system, rather than work with “points” or “meal plans” like other schools with more dining halls do, is basically a debit card that doesn’t collect interest. You put money on your TechCash account whenever you want, either from your account online or in the basement of the student center, and use it to buy food at dining halls, restaurants in the student center – basically anywhere on campus, and a few places off-campus. You can also sometimes use it to buy things like tickets to events or food from class fundraisers, or do your laundry, and it doesn’t run out at the end of the semester, either – it just stays as money in your account. While not entirely necessary to survive – all places that take TechCash also take real cash – it can be pretty impractical to carry around large wads of cash, and not everywhere accepts actual debit/credit cards.

And so we use TechCash. But I haven’t been, and it’s been rough.

Day 1: the beginning.
Salad and a gatorade at Stata. “Low Balance,” the cash register informs me. I glance at the angry green $1.70 briefly, wondering whether I should sprint home to my computer and refill my account.

Obviously, I do not do this.

Day 4:
Ben ’11 wanders into my kitchen complaining of hunger, and I look up from studying something definitely genetics-related (okay, I’m lying a little, I might have been on facebook but it was probably looking up something very important). “We could go to the student center?” his roommate Allin offers hopefully. NO, Allin, we CAN’T go to the student center. I consider cooking, before remembering there is studying to be done and cooking can take a lot of time.

We order Chinese food from Royal East, a place not too far from campus, and I pay with debit, because there is a whole wide, WIDE world out there of places that do not require only cash or TechCash and those places are wonderful repositories of food and goodness, that are also kind of expensive because you have to pay delivery charges and tip. But also, not in TechCash.

Day 6: or why I’ve been banned from Anna’s Taqueria


Today I hit rock bottom. I’m on shift on the ambulance, from 2300 to 1200 (11 PM to 12 PM), and around 8 AM it’s blizzard-ing outside. We decide to go to the student center for breakfast because every other breakfast place in our service area is closed, and the roads are too blocked up to drive very far. The two other people on the crew go to LaVerde’s, the small grocery store on campus, and I go for Anna’s. On four hours of sleep, I request a breakfast burrito and watch the guy make it in front of me. I don’t register my money situation until I get to the cash register and my custom-made vegetarian burrito is looking extra-delicious underneath a “Cash or TechCash only” sign.

Feebly I hand the lady my debit card, and she looks as me as if I have very seriously insulted her family.

“We don’t take credit card.”

So I weigh my options. There’s an ATM, but I only have my California-specific debit card on me. I could go ask one of the people on shift with me for money, but I can’t pay them back later because I won’t have any cash later, either. I could also risk having to be taken away by the very ambulance I am working by telling her I can’t pay for my food.

“I, uh… I’ll be back.. I just have to.. get – yeah.” I motion feebly to the ATM and hightail it out of Anna’s, never to return.

(It would be a good way to end this story by saying “and THAT’s why I’ve been banned from Anna’s Taqueria!”, but I haven’t actually been banned – well, as far as I know; I’ve just decided not to go there until maybe like the end of IAP. I’ll get back to you on that.)

Day 9.
The fifth floor of the student center has this wonderful place called the reading room where all sound goes to die, and this is where I’ve parked myself for the day before my first final. I’ve been here for about three hours before I decide it’s time for a break, and head downstairs to order a falafel.

From the line I can see no “TechCash or Cash” only signs, and so I feel this is a fortuitous day – but when I get to the front of the line and hand the guy my card, he smiles and shakes his head at me. “We don’t take credit.”

This, now THIS I was not prepared for. Anna’s, maybe. But THERE’S NO SIGN AT THE FALAFEL PLACE. Seriously??

I’m preparing a lack-of-sleep-induced diatribe about false advertising when the dude smiles helpfully at me. “We can wait for you!” he suggest cheerily. Only then do I notice he looks vaguely like a Mediterranean Santa Claus, and I start to remember for most of the world it’s the holiday season, not finals season. And so my rage and disappointment in the falafel guy simmers. Very swiftly I mentally change my “No TechCash” policy to “No Falafel Left Behind” and inform him I’m sorry, it’ll just take a second and I was seriously misguided – for me to sprint back up to the fifth floor and deposit money into my account.

The falafel tastes like victory.


I’ve learned a few things from my TechCash-less lifestyle – yes, it’s not absolutely necessary, but if you have a debit card it’s a little more difficult to get around if you plan to eat on campus rather than just cook for yourself. (LaVerde’s, Dunkin Donuts, and Cambridge Grill all accept debit. There are a few other scattered places on campus here and there, but those are the main ones.) Generally speaking, though, it’s a pretty effective system, and I like having the freedom to put money as I please (or don’t please), whenever I need it.

I have a lot of pictures to post from our fall dance show, my floor’s formal, and the giant volumes of snow we’ve been hit with lately, as well as entries to write about changing your major, getting accepted (?! congratulations, all of you!), how to get around campus, and how to pick a living group (SO MUCH BLOGGING – so little time) but I’ve still got that silly thing called “finals” in between me and winter break. I’ll be flying home Thursday, so! Until later –

52 responses to “Low Balance”

  1. Isshak says:

    So life without TechCash is like life in a world where internet has become vital and you get offline ? Cool…
    So there’s a student center where you can eat breakfast at midnight ? ^^ So cool !

  2. Mike says:

    That is the single most amazing tree I have ever seen in my entire life. I wish I could’ve pulled something like that on our school tree, although I somehow doubt the administration would be very understanding. Good luck on finals, Jess!

  3. Snively says:

    Good to see somebody else is completely reliant on TechCash! I’m starting to run low too so I’m having to ration my food. I need more Federal Loans!!!

  4. Anonymous says:

    The coolest Christmas tree ever!

  5. Kevin X says:

    Ah thank you very much for the hilarious post Jess! I like the little tidbit about Facebook because it is so true xD

    Good luck on your finals! Don’t push yourself too hard, I bet you’re going to do awesome anyways. And I’m looking forward to those other posts!

  6. PS says:

    After reading Jess’ story, I can assure than CASH ROCKS *cough*

    Good luck with your finals!

  7. milena '11 says:

    Oh, you’ll definitely be permanently banned from Anna’s–-those people have a very good memory (I mean, as soon as I walk in there they start making my burrito exactly the way I like it) and they’ll always remember you as the girl who never paid. Or something.

    But techcash is useful, in a way. I don’t use mine too often for food because I usually either cook or order from campusfood, the gift of God in my life. So my techcash goes to doing my laundry, which, thanks to finals/work/general lack of energy and concern, has been accumulating in a corner for the past month. *sigh*

  8. Jess says:

    They never remember the way I like my burritos. They probably just like you better.

  9. Judy says:

    Oh man…banned from Anna’s Tequila?!?!?! That would be my worst nightmare. That’s the first place I ate at when I first came to visit MIT and I loved it. Good memories, good burritos (watch out, Chipotle).

    anyways, nice tree …lol, IHTFP. Someone should make that into a Christmas light show.

  10. LarryV says:

    Screw Anna’s. Damn fake Mexican food.

  11. Judy says:

    @LarryV

    but it tastes good (and go to the arteries)

  12. Hyun Jin says:

    I looked up IHTFP on wikipedia…
    Needless to say, it was extremely interesting.
    And: “okay, I’m lying a little, I might have been on facebook but it was probably looking up something very important” made my day. smile

  13. B1 says:

    haha Judy, Anna’s Tequila? Now that would make things more interesting…

  14. Christina says:

    Do the thing where it automatically puts money in whenever you get low.

  15. Judy says:

    @B1

    wait, what’s so funny? I heart burritos.

  16. Judy says:

    Can Boston share some of that nice snow with Maryland? I could use a day off -__-

  17. SI says:

    @Judy – Anna ‘Tequila’ or Anna ‘Taqueria’? That’s what (s)he was pointing out raspberry

  18. Vin says:

    Hey Jess, good luck with your finals!

  19. Ankit says:

    IHTFP stands for I Hate This F***** Place right?

    What else does it stand for? It has more than one meaning right?

    Ankit

  20. Hawkins says:

    Oh no! Not fly sex! =P Good luck with finals, Jess! See you in the fall! =)

  21. A parent says:

    TechCash… Three times my wife asked our daughter to refill her account and finally mom had to do it online. Seems like TechCash is essential and keeping a + balance of a low priority.

    Jess, enjoy your break, happy holidays, and no babies around on your flights to/from California.

  22. Jermaine says:

    If I get in to MIT I will teach a class on stock market analysis so that all you poor saps don’t have to worry about money anymore. Trading on the stock market using data and a non-emotional approach is easy. After learning the tricks, making money is as easy as statistics or in the case of MIT students its as easy as “comcplex differential equations.” Play the market like bernanke Ph.d 79′ Sorry about the nerd rant.

  23. Anonymous says:

    IHTFP

    It’s hard to fondle penguins

  24. Sam 2 says:

    If this blog entry were a passage to be read for an AP exam/SAT, the only part I’d remember is the “pretty suite” pun.

  25. Christina says:

    ankit –

    I Heart This Fucking Place
    I Heart/Hate This Fucking Paradise

  26. Keri says:

    Somehow I ended up not using TechCash at all this term.

    Of course, I’m also flat broke, so the entire semester has been an exercise in how not to spend money.

  27. Scott '10 says:

    My TechCash balance has been at $0.41 since November 13, and I *still* haven’t bothered to go refill it. You can get away with exclusively using cash for a long time:

    – ATMs on campus are run either by the MIT Federal Credit Union or Bank of America. If you have an account with either of them, you’re in good shape: no $1.25 fee. Unfortunately, the nearest ATM for my bank (TD Banknorth) is 2.3 miles away in Boston.

    – If you order food with several friends, offer to pay for it yourself. You put $20 on your debit card, your friends give you $15 in cash, and everyone’s happy.

    – There’s a 7/11 in Tech Square that will give cash back. Since I live at EC and it’s actually closer than LaVerde’s, I go there quite often–and take out a little bit of cash each time.

  28. Hank R. says:

    Oh man. Same thing happened to me, except I didn’t order before I remembered I had no TechCash. Went to a computer to refill it and….

    the techcash site was down.

    This was after I maxed out my credit card on campusfood.com

    and MITFCU was having some problem, so I couldn’t use my ATM card because it said my account didn’t exist.

    Let’s just say it was a very hungry day.

  29. But it’s finals week! There is no reason to pay money, there is more free food than ever!

  30. Judy says:

    I heart the bubble tea there…mango tea, yummmmmm

  31. bunny says:

    I too have been learning the art of eating on campus while broke… fortunately the place I hang out has an unlimited tab, and plenty of Doritos,easymac and root beer.

    On the subject of the reproductive acts of insects (although I’m not sure how that was introduced exactly) a guy in my AP Bio class last year did an extremely in-depth research project on the evolution of male genitalia. Flies are known for a “lock and key” phenomenon. Just in case you were interested smile

    Thanks for the awesome blog.

  32. Hunter '11 says:

    Institvte has the finest professors.
    Interesting hacks to fascinate people.

    I also ended up using TechCash most of the time =)

  33. Aditi says:

    i love the tree !
    smile

  34. Sam says:

    you’re left-handed? man, remember when we used to be friends?

  35. Anonymous5 says:

    Nice tree:) wow life without debit/ credit/ tech cash. Now I know how that is lived. Heh, lived almost all my life without cash…

  36. Kevin says:

    Wow, my financial topics teacher would be so proud of you.

    A slightly related question: How is the food at MIT?

  37. Angela says:

    it’s cool that you ride with the ambulance. I’m interested in joining too (provided that I’ll actually get it). What is it like?

  38. Sam says:

    you gave up a BREAKFAST BURRITO?? I would have been like, “chop off my left hand. you can have my left hand. just so long as I have one left to hold that delicious packet of potato-filled goodness.”

  39. Omar '10 says:

    haha, good luck on your finals jkim. smile
    i’m done, completely done, like… extra done. me flying home in the afternoon tomorrow. smile

  40. Jess says:

    but I’m left handed! :*(

  41. No one else has done it so I might as well …

    The entirely too long list of meanings of IHTFP:
    http://www.mit.edu/people/mjbauer/ihtfp.html

    warning: some are not entirely .. appropriate

    happy reading of lists
    ~Donald Guy

    P.S. the felt pens is still may favorite

  42. @isshak:
    any school that you’d want to go to will have a lot of stuff open 24/7…and i don’t mean just the library. anyway it’s not like a city like boston ever totally dies at night…unless maybe there is 2 feet of snow?

  43. EV says:

    YEAH!

    700 PHYS 650 MATH L2

  44. snikolov says:

    ahaha i have 1.70 on my card too. i was about to pay with it today when i realized. luckily i had cash =D

  45. E Rosser says:

    The food situation was the only unpleasant thing I found out upon visiting MIT. I’ve heard the endless legends of free food as far as the eye can see, but it just seems a bit odd that for day-to-day foodstuffs there’s no meal plan or anything. Our tour guide didn’t mention the TechCash- that sounds a bit easier than cash…
    The tree is awesome, and I hope I will be able to lay claim to the more optomistic version of IHTFP come March…

  46. Anonymous says:

    I was just watching the second episode of Bionic Woman and your name (J Kim) appears on a door. Cool. lol

  47. is it sad that because I miss you I check your blog for updates? is it sad that because I miss you I check your blog for updates? <3
    P.S. put up pictures of our floormal where I don’t look like a monster, okay?

  48. Anonymous says:

    I hear the freshmen passed.

  49. Sara says:

    I’ve been to Anna’s Taqueria! haha
    & Hopefully I will be there many more times. smile
    This blog made me happy.

  50. Cathy says:

    oh my god, i love jess kim!!

    “The fifth floor of the student center has this wonderful place called the reading room where all sound goes to die”

    haha, soo true!!

    P.S. happy 2008 y’all!!!