Hundreds of hundred dollar bills spread out
Stuart Dee — Getty Images
By Laura Entis
August 11, 2016

This is the final part of a three-part series on the business of Greek life.

Most college students’ budgets are fairly simple. Soaring tuition costs aside, money typically goes to rent, textbooks, food and entertainment.

But a small percentage of the collegiate population is tasked with managing sums in the hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions. For fraternity and sorority treasurers, budgeting means hunting down fellow members for dues and rent checks, documenting spending, and balancing the budget so the chapter doesn’t run out of money by the year’s end.

Altogether, it’s a lot of responsibility to hang on the shoulders of a college kid.

Despite Greek life’s hard-partying reputation — or, in some cases, because of it — fraternities and sororities often serve as incubators for professional success. Some of Silicon Valley’s most high-profile entrepreneurs pledged Greek. Executive positions, in particular, can seed fraternity members for real-world achievement.

At 21, Hunter Whitfield appears to fit this model. Now president of Phi Kappa Tau at the University of Georgia, Whitfield served as treasurer last year. He inherited a messy, overextended budget — his chapter was two weeks, or roughly $7,000, behind schedule in its payments to the housing board, which owns and pays mortgage on the fraternity’s 14-bedroom house.

His strategy for imposing order was simple, but effective: constant, systematic record keeping via an Excel spreadsheet, which he used to track all revenue and expenses for nearly a dozen categories (member dues, housing, social events and committees, among others). Throughout the year, Whitfield kept careful tally of revenue and money spent on rent, football tailgates, housing repairs, updating the template as necessary. “As long as you stay on top of that,” he says, “I don’t know how you can go wrong.” Within a semester, Phi Kappa Tau was out of the red.

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The fraternity, which has 92 returning members and aims to recruit 20 new ones, is working with an estimated budget of more than $150,000 for the fall semester. Of that, 40% is explicitly for rent (25 brothers pay $500 per month to live in the house). The rest of the budget comes from member dues. After liability insurance, dues to the national organization and a variety of small miscellaneous costs are paid, the remainder of the money — or about $36,000 — will fund social events. (Phi Kappa Tau does not offer a meal plan, but many sororities and fraternities do, meaning the treasurer must budget for and track dining service costs.)

As treasurer, Whitfield estimates he budgeted for 20 events per semester last year, including tailgates, socials, date nights, and “brotherhood” activities. Because the previous treasurer overspent, Whitfield cut corners wherever possible. Local bands are popular at Greek events, and often charge thousands of dollars to play for a few hours. “If Christ himself was performing, that’s still too much to be spending,” says Bill Crane, vice president of Georgia’s Phi Kappa Tau housing corporation. Even without any frills a typical tailgate, held at every home football game, was easily $1,000; buying enough food and drink for 250 to 300 people adds up quickly. Meanwhile, more formal events could cost three times that amount.

The Phi Kappa Tau Fraternity house at the University of Georgia
Bill Crane

 

Altogether the fraternity collects and spends a lot of money. “The budget process is like any business’s budget process,” says Bob Ragsdale, 71, a National Alumnus who sits on the chapter’s board of governors. Along with the treasurer, president and seven other alumni advisors, Ragsdale helps determine how member dues will be spent. The fraternity members can bring a draft budget to the table, but “we look at it and we say, ‘you spent too much money here, not enough here, why are you holding onto this?’” Ragsdale says.

After the budget is approved, it’s the treasurer’s job to implement it — which is where things can get tricky. While organization is critical, the most important (and often difficult) task is ensuring all members pay their dues. Or, in the words of a reddit user who posted to a thread on the topic, “Part of being Treasurer is being a dick.”

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Perhaps that’s an overstatement, but the role does require a mental toughness. Treasurers must make unpopular financial decisions, call parents regarding late payments, and bar delinquent brothers from attending social events. “That’s a hard thing to do because you are collecting money from your friends,” says Whitfield. “But if they aren’t paying their bills it’s not fair for them to be at the event.” Social prohibition is “the main way we hold people to their agreements.” That, and if payments are excessively late, they’re sent to the collection agency, which can ruin a brother’s credit.

Tracking down said late payments isn’t just emotionally tough — it’s time consuming work. Between wrangling money, updating the budget, making trips to the bank for deposits and attending board meetings, Whitfield estimates his treasury duties took five to 10 hours a week.

It could be a slog. He’s glad he did it, though. Unlike many of his peers Whitfield, an agriculture engineering major, knows what he wants to do after graduation: get a job at the engineering company where he’s interned for the last three summers. His duties as treasurer, for all the corresponding headache, taught him the value of organization, focus, and attention to detail, skills he believes will help him long after he leaves the frat house.

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