In 2011, I embarked on a journey to St. Louis to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer. This is a federally-funded program where individuals work in a nonprofit or school full-time while receiving a small stipend.
Following the 12-month commitment, I became eligible for the Segal Education Award. This could be used for educational costs (grad school, for example) or a cash sum.
I didn’t have loans to deal with. But completing national service may reduce or delay your loan payments if you do.
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I received about $11,000 that year. I learned a lot about budgeting at the same time. Here are my biggest takeaways on surviving on a small income.
1. Find a Roommate.
As a single 20-something just out of grad school, I knew I would benefit from living with another person, not only because I didn’t know the city at all, but also for cost. I had never stepped foot in Missouri before I moved there, so I found a roommate on Craigslist. We only spoke on the phone before I moved in. My portion of the rent was $650 a month.
My friend lived in a house with four other women. That was very helpful for her, not only because her living expenses were cheaper, but she also had a great community of people to go home to at the end of the day.
I planned meals throughout the week, making dinners big enough to have leftovers for the following few days.
I bought mainly food items that were on sale, which totaled about $70 a month.
If a loaf of bread was on sale because the expiration date was near, I bought it and froze it, saving a good $2-$3 every time! I usually shopped once every two weeks, though, for fresh fruits and vegetables, I would often go every week.
Because I became involved with the local Jewish community, I had places to go for Shabbat. This also cut my costs — with at least two to three meals a week covered. And if there were leftovers, I offered to take them home with me instead of trashing them.
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If I went out, I chose less expensive items on the menu. My friends would often gather during happy hour, so I knew I could get a cheap beer (just one!) and still have a good time. I never went to movies. I found out the free activities to do in the city and made a point of doing them all.
In St. Louis, the Budweiser and Schlafly beer factories are free and you get two free drinks at the end. Also, you can check out the zoo, science center, history museum, art museum, and Laumeier Sculpture Park without paying a dime.
During the summer, one of the parks has free seating for Broadway shows. You had to wait in line a few hours before the event, but it was worth it. I saw Bye Bye Birdie and Thoroughly Modern Millie for free. Each month, I probably spent an average of $25-$30 on entertainment.
4. Medical Costs.
AmeriCorps has a simple insurance plan that I didn’t use because, since the Affordable Care Act had just gone into effect, I was able to get back on my parents’ health insurance, which was much better.
When I got sick, I went to Walgreen’s clinic, which was reimbursed by my health insurance. I got strep throat during that year, and Walgreen’s was great. I went in, got the test, was diagnosed, and was sent home with prescriptions.
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While I did have other doctor visits, luckily, my health insurance was good, so it didn’t cost me much.
5. Car Costs.
This could be the problem for some people. Gas was under $2 a gallon back in 2011, and I tried to minimize the amount of time I spent in the car, usually only taking it to work and back or to a friend’s house. St. Louis is very bike-friendly, and while I didn’t have a bike, my friend would often bike a few miles to meet up with me.
I didn’t have many other costs associated with driving. If I needed an oil change, I used coupons to get a good deal.
I was also in an accident near the end of my term, but the insurance company paid for the damage to the car. I received relocation benefits because St. Louis is further than 50 miles from my home, and that helped with traveling back to Atlanta, too.
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I was spending about $80-$100 a month in gas though I would get reimbursed when I was driving specifically for work.
At the end of the year, I received a $1,100 cash stipend from AmeriCorps and my checking account showed a balance of $1,500. At no time, I had to dig into my savings – about $5,300 that I had before I moved to St. Louis.
It was quite simple: I didn’t spend what I didn’t have, and I also didn’t spend every last penny I earned.
What’s more, I never felt deprived of anything. I’m grateful for the experience because I learned many ways to reduce my expenses and create a plan and a budget. Strategies I am still using today!