April 14, 2022

GUEST ROOM | Big Red Bucks are a Big Red Rip-Off

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Hannah Master ‘23 is beginning to worry. It’s already April, and she still has $300 in Big Red Bucks left in her account. She nibbles on a Terrace burrito while internally debating whether she should grab coffee at Libe Cafe before her architecture class. In truth, she would rather have gotten her lunch and coffee at Temple of Zeus, but alas, they don’t accept BRBs. Master’s phone lights up — a text from a friend asking to get lunch at Collegetown Bagels. With a sigh, Master picks up her phone and taps out a response asking if the pair could meet up at Mac’s instead — Collegetown Bagels doesn’t take BRBs. 

On its website, Cornell Dining pitches BRBs as a “tax-exempt … debit plan,” a convenient way to keep one’s food spending all in one place, all while saving money on sales tax! This pitch is deceptive, to say the least. All meal plans come with a $50 “administrative fee,” so if you buy $1,000 BRBs, you are actually paying a five percent tax on every purchase. Compare this to New York State’s sales tax rate of four percent, and you’ll quickly realize you are indeed paying sales tax — plus a little bit to Cornell on top of that.

To make matters worse, any BRBs that you fail to spend by the end of the academic year go directly back to Cornell, so BRB users often find themselves in Master’s dilemma come springtime — saddled with more BRBs than they can spend and facing the reality that their money will soon be deleted from existence. I have seen my peers work around this problem by exchanging their BRBs for dollars at a discounted rate or by raiding Bear Necessities in mid-May, but these attempts at cutting losses with one’s own money just underscore the fact that BRBs are a really bad deal for students. 

The financial terror of BRBs doesn’t stop there, though. There are many credit cards available to college students that provide cash back on all purchases — and some of these cash back schemes can be pretty lucrative. The Discover It card, for instance, gives between two to 10 percent cash-back on all purchases for your first year using the card. BRBs offer no such dividends. BRBs also have to be paid for in a lump sum at the beginning of the semester, meaning that your $1,000 will be converted to Cornell’s disastrous pseudocurrency months before you even spend most of it. Credit cards are usually paid monthly, so you could use a program like Acorns to invest small amounts of your money during the semester and only pay back the exact amount you owe when your credit card bill comes.

And if all that wasn’t enough, BRBs are inconvenient compared to other modern payment methods. When I used BRBs, I had to pray the GET app would load before awkwardly trying several times to get a barcode to scan on my phone. As a credit card-carrying chad, I now use Apple Pay by double tapping my power button, scanning my face and placing my phone near the chip reader. This may not sound like a huge deal, but it’s just worth noting that even the technology that BRBs run on makes transacting significantly less efficient than just using cash or a credit card.

David Hume wrote about the conflation between what is and what ought to be in society. It strikes me that many Cornellians think they ought to buy into the BRB system simply because it is what many of their peers do. If we are ever to pressure Cornell to abolish BRBs or at least improve the system (making BRBs actually tax-exempt would be a good start), we must change this way of thinking, person by person. So join me in this fight. Tell your friends. Write it on chalkboards. Pepper incoming freshman forums. It’s time to stop using BRBs.

But if you find yourself in Master’s position, nearing the end of the year with more BRBs than you can spend, allow me to conclude with a brief word of encouragement. Two years ago, as campus was shutting down, I found myself stuck with over $400 of BRBs, and I wanted to get creative in spending them. I put a message in the Cornell Free Food GroupMe offering to buy people lunch. A few GroupMe members took me up on the offer, and I ended up sitting down for lunch with these strangers, hearing their stories and fears as we left campus behind and entered a season of uncertainty. 

BRBs are a scam, yes, but as a food-based currency, they also create an opportunity for precious moments of human connection — sitting down over a meal, enjoying the privilege of hearing someone’s story or sharing your own. So, as you think about how to blow your stacks of BRBs in this final month of school, think about how you can use your unfortunate investment as a way to connect with others — because gaining a friend is truly priceless.

Jack Kubinec is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.