Destiny Gadson, Business Coach VISTA for the Department of Commerce, shares her tips for fellow VISTAs living on a budget.

For one productive year, would you rather move closer towards your career goals living on a fixed income or just work for a bigger pay check? Which choice would produce greater fulfillment in your life? Which would also undoubtedly encourage you to achieve your personal, financial, and career goals in the long-run?

Why are these questions relevant? By becoming an AmeriCorps VISTA, you’ll receive several benefits that are sometimes over shadowed by the bi-weekly fixed stipend. Instead, let’s focus on the benefits of the real-world experience, continuous networking, opportunity to fight poverty for a community bigger than yourself, exposure to different career fields, and even the education award to help with student loans.  As a second year AmeriCorps member, I have experience living on a modest stipend and can give valuable advice on how to “live lavishly” on your fixed income.

With these five budgeting tips you’ll learn how to stretch the dollars have, while embracing other VISTA benefits and widening your career opportunities.

  1. Carefully evaluate your financial status before committing to a year of service. Take the time to look over all your finances so that you can plan accordingly. In other words, uncover your eyes and take a look at any debt you may have. Take a look at your credit score or credit report to obtain a general view of where you are financially. Write out all your bills and expenses to track down how much your money you will have to maintain throughout this program. Knowing where you are starting from financially will help you create a successful budgeting plan.
  2. Try to start a daily, weekly, and monthly budget plan. Many of us are very familiar with monthly budgets and may use them very often. However, I’ve learned that when working with such a limited income, it’s best to see where your money is being used daily and weekly, as well as monthly. The monthly budget plan is a normal finance plan that allocates future personal income towards expenses, savings, and debt repayment. Weekly budget plans are for the items you buy on a weekly basis. For an example, items on the weekly budget could include: transportation, money needed for social or professional events, and any pampering that you like to do. Track where your money is going throughout the week. My daily budget plan was the greatest eye opener for me. It helped me figure out where all my money was going every single day and where I needed to cut back. Daily budget plans are the small items you tend to buy every day—coffee, snacks, and even lunch. Let’s admit it, most of us spend money daily. All three budgets can overlap, but the more specific the budget gets, the less room there is for unplanned spending.
  3. Go grocery shopping with a purpose and not on an empty stomach. If you have not learned the importance of a grocery shopping list, now is the perfect time. First, check supermarket specials and coupons—get excited about finding deals and saving money. Next, you’ll want to make a shopping list and stick to it! Be sure to see what items you already have to avoid buying doubles. When buying your groceries, try to stick to the right portion of food to avoid groceries going bad.
  4. Get a second source of income and give yourself an allowance. As a VISTA member, you are allowed to work a second job for additional income—it just cannot interfere with your work and duties as a VISTA member. If you walk dogs, babysit, tutor, work as a cashier, or have another side job, continue to do it.  Allow yourself to make additional money and keep busy during your year of service. My advice would be to not take a job that burns you out. You’ll want your main focus on your VISTA position.
  5. Take advantage of the resources and benefits AmeriCorps VISTA offers. AmeriCorps stipends are set at the local poverty level for the city members are serving in. The mission is to get AmeriCorps members to live like those they are serving. This makes AmeriCorps members eligible for some government assistance programs, including SNAP. SNAP provides food-purchasing assistance for low-income individuals and families.  Other resources include medical coverage, assistance finding affordable housing, and other additional income assistance you may be qualified for.