True financial accessibility is something that sorority life is still working towards. Good budget planning and financially efficient chapter leaders can go a long way in lowering dues and curbing costs to members. However “unofficial costs” of sorority life (expenses that accumulate from sorority activities that are not dues) can still be really high. Even with being financially transparent about dues during recruitment, it’s not enough. As sorority women, it is our role to make our sisterhoods accessible to all, and to reduce the barrier the financial obligation causes as much as we can.
We need to be committed to creating values-based budgets and lowering unnecessary costs in our organizations.
Start by limiting any unofficial costs by accounting for all your events in your annual budget. With an all-inclusive budget, dues reflect the totality of what a member will have to pay to fully participate in your chapter, as opposed to pay-as-you-go budgeting which limits access to sisterhood events or formals by the ability to pay a per-event rate on top of dues (learn more about these two types of budgeting here). Besides sorority events, there are a few places these costs come up, and there are ways all sorority women can help avoid them.
Buying Sorority Gear
When I joined, I was so excited to show off my sorority pride. I bought shirts, sweaters, and so many other types of gear. It took me at least a year not to feel the desire to buy every event shirt. I know this is an experience a number of people feel. While some t-shirts and gear, like recruitment apparel, are incorporated into dues, most of them are at an extra cost. Luckily, there are ways to avoid spending money on another shirt.
- Find another way to commemorate an event. Instead of t-shirts for a sisterhood retreat, try a picture frame. Have a sister dedicated to taking pictures throughout the day either with a polaroid camera or a digital one and print them.
- Bonus, it can be a crafting event, which is usually a good icebreaker/bonding opportunity. You can find inexpensive wooden frames from craft stories and have members decorate their frames together.
- Consider doing a group order of gear at the end of the year, if you have a surplus. It might incentivize officers to come under budget.
If you do happen to buy gear, also check out this article on sustainable ways to handle unwanted apparel.
Transportation to Events
Depending on the setting of your chapter (suburban, rural or urban) as well as the car-owning culture on your campus, this will affect chapters differently. A cost that creeps up over time is Ubers to and from philanthropy or other events. If available, plan sisterhood and service events that are accessible by public transportation. Encourage members to carpool to events. If it is in your budget, organize chapter-wide transportation to and from larger events like formal or retreats and offer to cover gas for people who drive another member.
Formals and Social Events
In the Instagram age, there can be pressure to have a new outfit for each event. On average if a sorority hosts one formal or semi-formal event a semester, over 4 years that could be 16 dresses/jumpsuits a member will purchase. For me, between my organization, the events of friends in other Panhellenic organizations and fraternities, that number was more in the mid-20s. I found my sisters’ closets were my best place to look for a new dress. You can do this on a chapter or Panhellenic level by planning a dress swap a few weeks before formal. It is fun, affordable and it’s more sustainable for the environment.
Themed social events add another scramble to find a floral print shirt or pair of cat ears not normally found in your wardrobe. Start a chain on your chapter’s Facebook page or group message about extra costume pieces that people are willing to lend out for that weekend’s theme. Also, pass it on. I was fortunate enough to inherit a small costume box from a graduating sister who shared my enthusiasm for dressing to a theme and I was able to add a few things along the way before giving it to another sister.
Big and Little
While not every member will take on the responsibility of a little, cost should not be a determining factor when a sister makes that decision. While the big-little relationship is supposed to be one of mentorship, it often starts off as overly materialistic and almost competitive, with each big trying to “spoil” their little.
From a chapter leader perspective:
- Set boundaries and set them early. A good place to start is setting limits on how much a big can spend over the whole of big/little.
- Are there extra shirts from fundraisers or recruitment? Sell them under cost, especially if someone takes on twins (two littles) or triplets (three littles). This also frees up how much the chapter is storing.
- Plan a crafting sisterhood event for bigs. Provide something like a canvas, craft supplies like paint and glue. This gives members time to bond and share supplies instead of buying more.
- Rethink the big/little structure as a whole. My chapter did almost a full week of gifts leading up to big/little reveal. The sheer number of days made it difficult to stay under budget. Place a focus back on the mentorship aspect of the relationship. Prioritize building relationships between the big and little rather than gifts.
As a member taking on a little, my best advice is to get creative! Gifts are not the only way to make someone feel loved and welcomed. Asking a friend to help you execute a well-timed food delivery as a study break or having a musically-inclined friend serenade your little can be equally (or even more) meaningful and memorable than any letter sweater or necklace. Planning for your relationship after that week can also help make some very meaningful gifts. Some ideas are:
- An empty photo album filled with milestones like “first family movie night”, “first family football game” or “little gets a little” that you want to experience together.
- Fill a mason jar full of positive affirmations or things you love about your little popsicle sticks.
- An IOU coupon book of things that your little can “cash in” when they need it. Like “a girls night in” or “study session in the library” or “impromptu dance party”.
While the value of the sorority experience cannot easily be distilled to the monetary amount that members pay in dues and other expenses, curbing these costs is extremely important. Increasing the number of people who have access to our organizations will only make our sisterhoods stronger, giving more wonderful women the opportunity to have a powerful and transformative sorority experience.