Nonprofits are generally pretty tight for money and hiring staff can be anywhere from fairly easy to literally impossible. This is one of the reasons that BiGAUSTIN hires AmeriCorps VISTA members to do a variety of the projects that need to be done. AmeriCorps is essentially the domestic PeaceCorps, it allows volunteers to serve right here at home instead of sending them over seas. While AmeriCorps is very similar to the PeaceCorps, there are a few differences. AmeriCorps has three different programs; NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps), VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), and the Senior Corps. Here at BiGAUSTIN we have four VISTA’s that are working on everything from creating a donor database to social media to fundraising.
One of the downsides to AmeriCorps is that you’re a paid volunteer, so you receive a small stipend that is equivalent to the poverty level of the region in which you serve. Here in Austin, TX, that amounts to exactly $796.84 per month. You might be asking, how on earth does someone live on that little of an income? Well, that’s what Cally, our Marketing Coordinator, is about to tell you.
MAKING THE CHANGE
It wasn’t easy for me to wrap my mind around making less than minimum wage for a year, but not having to pay back my student loans and the idea of getting almost $200/month in food stamps made the idea a little less daunting. Aside from these perks, I really had to assess my situation and what I wanted in life. I had just graduated college and was feeling optimistic about where I was heading, I knew I wanted to get into social media marketing and work at a cool, hip start-up company that offered free snacks and ping pong. After a couple of months of searching for a job, I realized that my dreams were a bit lofty so I settled for a glorified call center position that had pretty good benefits, monthly 15-minute massages and 18 days paid vacation.
The problem was, I get bored extremely easily. I couldn’t handle the data entry that was about 90% of my job alongside answering phone calls regarding gap insurance (what IS gap insurance anyway?!). That’s when I decided that either I needed to go back to school or do something drastic to get the real life skills I needed for the job I wanted. AmeriCorps was something I had done after graduating from high school so I thought, why can’t I do that again? Needless to say, I applied, got hired, and here I am today handling the social media and marketing for BiGAUSTIN.
I HAVE TO GIVE UP WHAT?!
Making just under $800 per month sounded a lot easier than it has turned out to be. No more happy hour. No more going out to eat. No more lunches. No more Starbucks, seriously, who can live without Starbucks?! Alas, that also meant no more shopping and I could continue, but I will not bore you with everything I’ve had to cut out. I really needed to take a look at my expenses and figure out where all my money was going, after two months I hadn’t been able to save any money and was spending pretty much 110% of my income. So I sat down, downloaded an awesome budget template from Microsoft and got down to the nitty gritty. When I say nitty gritty, I mean down to the penny. Starbucks doesn’t cost just $3, it costs $3.52 or $4.78, those extra cents add up faster than you can blink an eye.
I like to think of myself as lucky, right now I do not have to pay rent because I live in a house that is already paid for. My boyfriend and I simply need to cover utilities and maintenance costs, which are also more than I imagined on a 30 year old house. Not only is this house old, but the front door won’t open anymore because the foundation has shifted and now the opening for the door is too small; good thing we have a side door that is easier to use and has not shifted…yet. Needless to say, the foundation is not getting fixed, but as you homeowners know there are plenty of other things to throw your money at.
Back to my monthly budget, as I started hashing out penny for penny where I’ve been spending my money I realized that I’m spending around $300 on miscellaneous items! You might be thinking, holy cow that’s a lot! Or, perhaps you’re a spender too and think that’s pretty reasonable. Whichever side of the fence you are on, it doesn’t work when that $300 is an entire paycheck. So, here’s how I’m really doing it. Little by little I’ve started to cut things out. Don’t do it all at one time or you will go into “not spending shock” and get burnt out very fast. Skip Starbucks one morning, make your own coffee. Don’t stop at Target on the way home, everyone knows that you don’t leave Target without spending at least $50. Lastly, don’t do happy hour and don’t go out to eat.
IS IT REALLY WORTH IT?
You might be asking yourself, is AmeriCorps really worth living in poverty for a year, possibly longer? I can’t answer that for you because everyone is different. However, in my opinion I believe that AmeriCorps is totally worth it. Not only have I met some amazing people, but I got a free trip to Colorado for training! But seriously, the skills that I have learned and the projects that I have worked on are things that I never would have been able to do in a “real, paid” position (mostly because I couldn’t even get hired). Where else can you be given the freedom to learn as you go? Without experience, no company or organization is going to hire you to perform a job that you can’t prove your success at.
For me, being a recent college grad with experience almost exclusively in retail, it has been a blessing. It’s almost like a second opportunity to learn valuable, marketable skills while connecting with the community. Not only am I networking with professionals in the area, but I’m getting real, quantifiable experience that will (hopefully) help me get a job after my year of service has ended. Even though this year will be financially stressful, I am confident that it will make me more conscious of my money and help me find some direction in my life. While I’m trying to figure out my future, I’m working at a nonprofit that helps other people make their dreams a reality through business education, flexible lending, and one-on-one business consulting. It’s like a double wammy, by helping others I’m helping myself. I also decided to look at it like this, I am not a paid employee and as such I get to look at this as an experience instead of a job. By changing my perspective I can more easily drive past H&M or Nordstrom’s or Jimmy John’s; notice I said more easily because it is still not easy.
So, if you are still wondering how the heck I can live on less than $800 per month, just remember the old cliche “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” And stronger I will be.