By Chelsea Lienhard, CCNYPA*VISTA Leader
I think we can all attest that the AmeriCorps stipend is quite modest and well below the amount we would prefer to get paid for a job. The living allowance allows us to live very frugally and mirrors the income of the community we are serving. You’re probably thinking, How the heck does anyone or any family live on this income?? But as the AmeriCorps website explains, the allowance is based on poverty rates for a single individual in your geographic area (which is still, surprisingly, not very much). At the end of the day, though, no amount of money could equate to the gratitude and satisfaction we receive from giving back to our neighbors when serving our community.
Learning how to provide for ourselves on this modest living allowance has its challenges but there are so many tips and tricks to easily live off of it and still have money left over after paying your expenses for the month. Below are my top tips and suggestions to still live fully on limited means as a VISTA!
1. Create a budget in the beginning of your service term AND STICK TO IT.
A great online tool to calculate how much you’re taking home every paycheck is Federal Paycheck Calculator. This calculator is so spot-on accurate, give or take $1 - $5. It’s super user friendly and easy to follow, just make sure the items selected under “Work Info” are correct! The best way to use this tool is either with a laptop or desktop computer rather than a mobile device. Figure out what your monthly expenses are and when they need to be paid (good to know when, so you know what paycheck it’s coming out of). After that, you can calculate how much extra “spending money” you want to give yourself!
2. Apply for SNAP/food stamp benefits as soon as possible!
Food will always be an expense because you can’t not eat just to save money BUT it doesn’t have to be an expense that comes out of your living allowance. Applying for SNAP benefits will save you so much money because you don’t realize how much groceries total out to every month. Every state’s County Assistance Office runs differently, so make sure you read up on their website beforehand to see what forms and documents you need to have/bring when you apply! To keep track of your SNAP spending, download the mobile app Fresh EBT!
Did you know? The monetary allowances that AmeriCorps VISTAs receive shall not in any way reduce or eliminate the level of, or eligibility for, governmental assistance or services (for example, TANF, Medicaid, childcare subsidy, SSI). The federal law which prohibits AmeriCorps VISTA monetary allowances from being counted is known as the “income disregard provision.”
3. Take full advantage of the IMG healthcare benefit plan/allowance.
In the beginning of your service year, you will be emailed a link to sign up for the health benefit plan or healthcare allowance through IMG. You can apply for the health benefit plan if you’re not on an insurance plan through a parent/guardian. What’s great about this is it doesn’t come out of your living allowance! You can apply for the healthcare allowance if you’re still on a parent/guardian’s insurance plan. This allowance helps to cover copays and reimburses the difference that your primary health insurance doesn’t cover. Be aware that many doctor offices have never heard of IMG and that it is NOT health insurance. If they are still unsure after you explain it to them, they can call the hotline on the back of the card.
4. Put your student loans into forbearance or deferment.
Repaying student loans can be a hefty cost so take advantage of this option as a VISTA! Go onto your MyAmeriCorps Portal and find the loan forbearance/deferment option in the left hand-side drop down menu. This is not an automatic thing that just happens so you must be proactive and follow-up with your college/university to make sure it went through and your loan service provider as well. If you are a VISTA that has recently graduated college, you will need to wait for the 6-month grace period to be up to apply.
5. Cook your own meals rather than going out to eat or ordering take out.
We all know it’s much easier to go out to eat or order takeout on Seamless or DoorDash, but those costs sure do add up rapidly. So, put on your chef hat and apron and start trying out all those recipes you have saved on Pinterest and tabbed in your cookbooks! If your host site provides you a meal plan, take advantage of that because it’s free food. If the dining hall food isn’t your thing and you’re really missing your go-to meal at a restaurant, check out CopyKat Recipes to find your favorite and make it at home! If you love fresh produce but not the price at local grocery stores, check out Farmers' Markets that accept SNAP benefits!
6. Shop at your bargain grocery and retail stores!
There are SO many bargain grocery stores out there, don’t be afraid to check them out. Just because food is cheap doesn’t mean the quality is bad! My favorite bargain stores are Aldi, Walmart, Dollar Tree (or any dollar store), and Grocery Outlet Bargain Market. Do a Google search of “bargain grocery stores near me” to find the closest store. Shopping for appropriate work clothes can get expensive too, so make a stop at Goodwill or your neighborhood thrift store! I recently bought a brand new, with tags, Calvin Klein coat that went for $300 and got it for only $13! Who doesn’t love a good deal?
7. Try DIY projects!
Why buy an expensive laundry detergent or all-purpose cleaner when you can make your own right at home? Repurpose old bed sheets to make curtains or repaint picture frames you found at Goodwill to fit your style in your place of residence! Getting crafty and resourceful can save those extra cents here and there. When the holiday season comes around, create your own holiday cards and give a go at making handmade gifts.
8. Practice minimalism.
This is the #1 thing you can do as a VISTA when it comes to saving money. As someone who considers shopping as “retail therapy,” I have to take a step back many times and think, do I really need this? Because 1—It saves me money, 2—I probably have a similar item anyway, and 3—It’s taking up space that I don’t have and I most likely won’t even touch it for a while. I give myself a little pat on the back when I walk past the shoe aisle without being tempted and when I don’t buy the dog sweater for my dog just because it’s cute. Practicing minimalism has made my life a little simpler and has actually reduced some of my stress!
Living a minimalist and frugal lifestyle this year in an eye-opening lesson within itself. It will give you a better understanding of the difference between what you want versus what you need. Thinking of whether you can afford something or not will constantly be on your mind—just like the members of the community you’re serving. Living this way may or may not be a learning experience but don’t forget--If it’s free, it’s for me!
Welcome to the CCNYPA*VISTA Blog, written for VISTAs, by VISTAs!