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February 7, 2017

Living on the AmeriCorps stipend: tips and strategies

A year of AmeriCorps service offers unexpected benefits and rich opportunities for deepening your understanding of your aspirations and connecting with members of your community. The service experience can certainly propel you forward on your journey to find out who you are and where you’d like to go; at the same time, AmeriCorps comes with a particular set of challenges.

One of the biggest challenges for members is learning how to provide and care for themselves on a modest AmeriCorps stipend. The AmeriCorps VISTA website explains that the stipend “enables you to live very frugally, like the community you are serving. The allowance is based on poverty rates for a single individual in your geographic area.”

A simple lifestyle certainly has its own rewards—a focus on people, not things; a truer understanding of the difference between what you want versus what you need; even the opportunity to try on values that counter the themes of a consumer society. Yet, the limits of the stipend produce real obstacles; having fun, exploring your city, and developing hobbies can be tricky when you’re strapped for cash.

Fortunately, many AmeriCorps members have developed strategies to live well while living on a budget. Thanks to the generous responses of  Reading Partners’ current AmeriCorps members and alums, this blog is a collection of clever suggestions and resources for creating a full life without oodles of money.

Top tips for living on the AmeriCorps stipend

A group of AmeriCorps stipend beneficiaries on the job during a service event.

Create and stick to a budget.

This may be the biggest takeaway for anyone living on limited means. Having a budget means that you’re planning ahead and developing a safety net for yourself—this way, you won’t be wandering around spending money you don’t have. Reliable online budgeting tools include Mint.com and Goodbudget.com. 

In addition to budgeting, be sure to: 1) get your student loans put on forbearance as soon as possible and 2) make an effort to save after each pay period, however small the amount may be.

“Even on such a tight budget, remember to save a little bit of money. Even if it is ten dollars per paycheck or change in a jar, set it aside and it will add up. It can feel difficult to not have spending money on the AmeriCorps stipend, so setting a bit aside for a trip or event later in the year will be a treat to yourself.” -Reading Partners AmeriCorps alum

Find out your SNAP/food stamp eligibility and apply as soon as possible.

The process for applying differs by state, so check the USDA’s website for details. Using SNAP will give you a little more room in your food budget and savings from this category can add up over time.

“I didn’t my first year because I felt like I made enough that it didn’t justify it. But the second year, I just decided to try it out and not only was it extremely easy to apply for, but it made a huge difference in my quality of life. This is one piece of the benefits AmeriCorps offers you and don’t hesitate to make grocery budgeting that much easier.” -Regional site coordinator, Tulsa

Cook for yourself as much as possible and grocery shop for deals.

Cooking your own meals rather than eating out at restaurants is one of the best ways to keep spending in check. Most members say they eat out very rarely and pack their lunch for work nearly every day of the week. Eating out once a week or less is common, as is eating at restaurants with lunch specials or happy hours.

Invest in your culinary chops by asking friends for recipe recommendations and borrowing cookbooks. Becoming more comfortable in the kitchen will open up new worlds of nutritious delights. It will keep you healthy and happy too!

Smart shopping is vital. Look for opportunities to find cheap produce, like at a local farmer’s market—a fan-favorite for AmeriCorps members. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, such as Imperfect Produce in the Bay Area, are great for money-savers. Get a SAMs or Costco card to buy bulk items if you live with roommates willing to split the costs.

“Look through the ads at your local grocery store; don’t worry about having to go to multiple stores to get items on sale; make a list of priority items; plan meals ahead, see a buy one get one free? Get them now and freeze one if need-be…in the back of many grocery stores there are carts full of day-old bread or pastries; get grocery store cards; some Dollar Trees have a big grocery/freezer section.” -Development coordinator VISTA, Colorado

Pick your grocery store wisely. Choose one that’s known for affordable prices. Meal planning can also help you focus your search for deals based on your actual ingredient needs.

“Premade meals and sandwich shops were draining my wallet, and I hate seeing produce go bad when I don’t have specific plans for it, so I plan it out and buy exactly what I need to make homemade meals for the week.” -Senior volunteer organizer, Colorado

Shop smart—for everything.

Whether you love to shop or just need some new items of clothing, try thrift and bargain stores to find what you need for cheap. Recommended secondhand stores include: Salvation Army, Savers, and Goodwill. Sign up for email lists for your favorite shops or activities and wait to purchase when you get a coupon/promo code.

Prioritize self-care.

Find a balance between exercise, sleep, and healthy habits that make you feel good. You don’t have to give this up just because you’re living on a stipend. Many gyms and YMCAs offer discounts based on income. Some local studios may offer free classes in exchange for your time volunteering at the front desk or providing clean-up services. Or forego a membership cost entirely and exercise outside. Find running trails and paths. If you own a bike, explore parks and nearby towns. Learn yoga at home by checking out YouTube videos.

“If you’re interested in joining a gym, you can apply for financial assistance at the YMCA—I got a 60% discount on my membership.” -Senior volunteer coordinator, SF Bay Area

Search for communal living opportunities.

If you have the option to live at home, it may save you money in the form of reduced or free rent. If not, look for openings in houses and apartments with roommates or investigate cooperative living situations through Craigslist and Facebook groups (search for groups with “affordable housing,” “co-op” or other key terms in their title).

Commute to work using public transportation or by carpooling.

Some cities offer a reduced-price transportation pass for low-income individuals. Check your local transportation website for details.

Take on a small part-time job if you want some extra cash.

Some members recommended taking on part-time side jobs if you’re able, such as babysitting, dogsitting, housesitting, or tutoring.

Four AmeriCorps members participating in a day of service

Having fun on the cheap

Attend free events.

Use sites like events12, which compiles lists of local fairs, theater, and arts events, or ask around about free festivals. Even better, many festivals and events that require a ticket will offer free entrance in exchange for volunteer hours. Go to free community lectures at libraries and colleges. Plan ahead by finding out when museums offer free entry days (usually at least one every month or so).

Make your own fun.

Host game nights or potlucks at your house for other AmeriCorps members and friends in your area. Join a book club or start one with coworkers. If you like the outdoors, find parks, beaches, or other destinations you can reach via bike or public transportation. Hiking and spending time outside is one of the most popular activities among Reading Partners’ AmeriCorps members. Host Netflix screening parties, karaoke, or dance parties at home with friends. Read more and borrow books and movies from the library. Befriend others in your AmeriCorps cohort—they likely want to save money too and will help you stay on track.

If you can’t get it free, find deals.

Go to $5 movie nights at local movie theaters (usually Mondays or Tuesdays) or free popcorn days. Theaters may offer reduced-price tickets on certain nights or have pay-what-you-can shows. Keep your eyes open for free promotions at newly opened cafes, restaurants, and ice cream parlors. Locate the best local happy hour for affordable bites and drinks. Many urban areas have First Friday events with fun window-shopping, art-viewing, socializing, and cheap-eating opportunities.

Find and develop a hobby.

Just make sure it’s the type that doesn’t require a lot of pricey materials. Many members noted that they enjoy hobbies like painting, writing, or making DIY projects. And if you do have an expensive hobby, be sure to seek scholarships or other ways of funding your interest.

“I take a lot of improv classes, which are not cheap. Because of my AmeriCorps status, I was very easily able to apply for scholarships that minimized these costs. Programs typically have scholarships like this—they just don’t advertise them.” -Site coordinator, Twin Cities

Download our guide with additional resources and websites for living on the stipend.

Click here

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