In April 2008, while wearing a pretty white dress, I recited a few ritualistic phrases and made a lifelong commitment. It was a pledge of values, friendship and loyalty. It was also one of the biggest financial decisions I’d made at that point.
Nope, this wasn’t my wedding. It was sorority initiation.
The money part actually came into play well before I officially became a member of the organization. First, you have to pay new member dues — a few hundred dollars — before you’re initiated and entrusted with all those legendary secrets of sisterhood. Even before that, I had to pay to rush. I don’t remember exactly how much it cost, but I believe it was about $25 to $50 to register for recruitment.
I went to a small university where greek life dominated the social scene. The overwhelming majority of students had some sorority or fraternity affiliation, but I hadn’t seen myself going greek before I went to college. It took me all of one day on campus, everyone asking each other, “Are you rushing?” for me to decide I’d at least go through the process.
I remember attending an interest presentation where representatives from each of the sororities went over some basics about their chapters, including new member dues. Having always been a financially minded person, I made mental notes of the more expensive chapters (ones with new member dues around $800, as opposed to $600, which was the bottom of the range that year), and thought to myself, “I can’t go there. It’s too expensive.”
The sticker shock faded as the first semester wore on (my university held rush in the second semester), and I quickly got swept up in the enchanting theatrics of it all. By the time I graduated three and a half years after that white-dress ritual, I had racked up thousands of dollars in debt to my parents.
I did this knowingly. I told my parents I’d pay for joining a sorority if I ended up doing so, but because I worked few hours at minimum-wage jobs throughout college, many of those costs fell to my parents, tabulated in invoices and spreadsheets — IOUs I’m still repaying years later.
Some of the charges are downright hilarious. I actually have invoices with the line items “Drink Cozies” and “Required T-shirts.” These invoices don’t account for all my sorority expenses, but they document the big ones, like dues, and the occasional, random expense that went through our billing system (like drink cozies) as opposed to the other system of “go find this person and give her the $20 you owe her for the branded sweatbands we bought for [insert event name here].” (The sweatbands in question are real and cost $5 each. I had two.)
What You Have to Pay
There are many direct, required expenses of joining a sorority, like dues, but there are many optional and indirect costs. The required fees are easier to account for.
In 2008, the new member fee for my chapter was $656 (one of the lower-cost sororities that year). In the fall of 2008, I moved into the chapter house, and a semester of that cost $4,120.50. Here’s how that breaks down:
- Dues to the national fraternity: $50
- Dues to the chapter: $412.50
- Entertainment & social events: $75
- Liability insurance: $15
- Technology fee: $12.50 (house printers and computers)
- Room charges: $2,670.36
- Board charges and food: $797.64
- Telephone: $50 (Seeing this years later, I’m like WHAT? I never used the phone, nor did I even bring a phone to hook up in my room. Ugh.)
- Vending machine income: $37.50 (I still have no idea what this is for.)
The next semester, things got slightly pricier: $4,181.20.
I lived in the sorority house for three semesters, and financially, it would have been smarter for me to live in the house every semester I could, because it was cheaper than living in university housing (living off-campus was not an option at my school). In 2008-2009, when my room, board and dues at my sorority cost $8,301.70, room and board for university housing cost $8,400. Because I would have paid for university housing with student loans, I paid for the semesters I spent in my sorority house with student loans — so I’m still paying for it.
For the next and final semester I lived in the house, it cost $4,222.04, including an accounting fee for the new billing service the chapter started using that year. (University room and board cost $4,370 that semester). In the spring of 2010, I had an internship off campus and didn’t participate in anything related to my sorority, and as a result, my dues were much lower than usual: $122.50.
For my final year of sorority life, I lived in campus housing (with zero members of my sorority, which might give you an indication why I wasn’t living in the house in the first place), and that first semester of dues added up to $559. It included $44 of required T-shirts (we must all match and woo the freshies!), $200 of social fees, and $25 of senior alumna dues (why these had to be paid months before actually becoming an alumna, I have no clue). The spring only cost $534, identical to the previous semester, except for the alumna dues. In retrospect, I find this very comical, because our chapter got in trouble that semester and had no social functions.
Grand total of required dues and fees: $14,395.24. If you account for what I would have paid for university room and board if I wasn’t living in a sorority house, it’s only $1,625.24 of additional expenses. That’s not a totally accurate estimate of “extra expenses,” because had I lived in university housing but still been a member of the chapter, I would still have had to pay more than $500 a semester in dues, which is an extra $1,500. In short: It’s expensive.
That’s just the required stuff. If you don’t pay for those things, you can get kicked out of the chapter, and that happened to a member of my chapter while I was there. (I should note there were a limited number of scholarships available to help with the cost.)
What You Choose to (But Sort of Have to) Pay
The optional and indirect costs of Greek life were huge, and they often didn’t feel optional.
I paid for a lot of stuff in cash, so I can only estimate many costs. My credit card statements don’t go back far enough to cover my whole college experience, either, so here’s an educated guess on these expenses, based on memory and some financial statements:
What would sororities be without matching T-shirts and lettered-sweatshirts galore? I conservatively estimate that I had 40 sorority-specific items of clothing. I’d say five of the shirts were gifts or hand-me-downs, and maybe six were the so-called required shirts, so at about $20 a pop, that’s a rough total of $580 for clothing I have now given away, made into a blanket or thrown out.
When you’re a pledge, you get lots of gifts. The following years, you’re buying them. I must have spent $30 in craft supplies alone my sophomore year. As a big sis, I was responsible for showering my little sis in gifts, including the then-$25 lavalier (necklace with your greek letters on it) all new members receive on initiation day. I bought notepads, picture frames, pens, mugs, windshield stickers — any cute little thing that had our letters or symbols on it. Of course, I bought plenty of this stuff for myself, too, and as a junior and senior, I had other “family members” to spoil. There’s no way to know how much I spent on non-apparel Greek gear for myself and others, but again, I’ll make a conservative estimate: $200.
The random costs come from every direction. There’s an annual cycling race at my university, and I was on my sorority’s team. Some of our stuff was covered by the chapter, but most wasn’t. I have three personalized cycling jerseys and a jacket: $120. I bought costumes for Greek Week and similar sorority/fraternity-related festivities. I bought dresses for formals and informals (though I re-wore a lot of high school stuff). I shelled out cash for alcohol. I often accepted invitations to eat out and socialize, even though I had already paid for the food at the house. A lot of this stuff cost $10 here, $20 there, but it added up and stressed me out. A conservative estimate is $30 a month. If there are four months in a semester and I spent six semesters on campus as an active member, that’s $720.
Perhaps the most difficult cost to calculate is the cost of the pressure to keep up with my very stylish sisters. It was as a member of my sorority I first learned of the brands Tory Burch, Longchamp, Vineyard Vines, Lilly Pulitzer and J.Crew — not that I ever owned things with these brands. Instead, I was hyperaware I did not. Since I couldn’t afford quality, I went for quantity: I tried to at least add variety to my wardrobe for that first year, but I eventually reverted to my inexpensive T-shirt and jeans/sweatpants routine (hey, I had plenty of T-shirts). I definitely spent more on clothes, jewelry and makeup in my first year in the sorority than I ever had, but I don’t have an estimate for that.
It’s been a few years since I made all these purchases, but I’d say the optional and indirect costs of my sorority experience added up to at least $1,620.
That’s a total of at least $16,015.21 for my sorority life. Was it worth it? Some of it certainly was, but some of it definitely wasn’t — so if you figure I wouldn’t have had the good experiences at all if I hadn’t joined, I guess it was worth it. But $16,000 (plus interest, since some of that was student loan money) is hell of a lot of money for a social life and, um, sisterhood. Or something.
More on Student Loans:
- How Student Loans Can Impact Your Credit
- A Credit Guide for College Graduates
- Strategies for Paying Off Student Loan Debt
Image: Taber Andrew Bain