AmeriCorps: Living on a Budget

Living on a Budget: VISTA Style
By Kate Prestine (MHYC Colorado Springs)

With signing up for AmeriCorps comes the understanding that not much of a salary will follow, no matter what program you choose. In the AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program, the one I’m a part of, the point isn’t to make money, it’s to alleviate poverty. With that goal in mind, AmeriCorps has set the VISTA monthly living stipend at the poverty line, as well.

But I still have bills that need to be paid each month: rent, utilities, car insurance, cell phone, internet, and more. Yet in my past 6 months with AmeriCorps, I’ve surprised my family and friends by having been able to see and enjoy an incredible amount of Colorado, all while keeping my finances in line. Here are my “secrets to success” on how to live large on a small amount:

1. Personal financial planning. “Financial planning” always sounds like such a businessman phrase, like something you need to hire someone to do for you. However, it’s a pretty crucial skill I think everyone should know, emphasis on the “personal” part. My personal financial planning is way more simple than setting up a retirement fund for myself or college funds for my unborn children. It’s just planning out my expenses month-to-month.

Essentially, I create a bill calendar every month. For each bill, I write the name (example: Comcast) and the exact dollar amount in the date square that it’s due. I also put a dollar sign on each date that I’ll be receiving a paycheck. This helps me to see when I will have to pay certain bills by and what I will have after those have been paid. Some folks like to pay off everything at once, though I prefer to pay a few days before each bill is due. Both ways work – you’re still paying the same amount. It’s just a matter of having or not having that (sometimes seemingly) large chunk up front to pay everything off at once.

2. Saving when you can. This is a tough one for VISTAs and generally, for most people. If I still have money after bills are paid, it’s so tempting to spend, spend, spend. There’s nothing wrong with treating yourself every now and then, but saving a little every month is equally rewarding to me. Whether that savings turns into a vacation fund, an emergency cushion, or a pot to dip into for shopping sprees every now and then, it’s never a bad thing to have a little extra.

After consulting my bill calendar, I try to set aside a given amount each month for my savings account. Most banks can set up an automatic transfer from your checking to your savings of whatever amount you want. To plan for it, treat that amount like another bill, whether it’s $20 or $200 a month. You’ll be surprised how fast it adds up.

3. Be picky with your spending. Whenever you have some extra money after bills, be smart about what you’re doing with it. I don’t mean don’t spend it, but don’t blow it either. Say you’re thinking of taking a weekend trip: it’s pretty easy to estimate how much gas will cost you. Or if you’re wanting some new clothes, go after items you’ll wear often or that you’ve been eying for some time. Set limits for yourself, too. Try carrying a set amount of cash instead of using a credit or debit card. Then when that runs out, you know you’ve reached your limit.

With those three tactics, living has actually been very comfortable for me. Though many other factors are certainly incorporated into how I’m living my life, these practices are a great start to getting everything in order.

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