Corps Finances: Personal Financial Management for the Service Corps Member

Earning a stipend doesn’t mean suffering financially

These rocky financial times call everyone’s attention to government spending, and cause those in public service to wonder how the nonprofit sector will survive the turmoil on Wall Street — which affects the ability of foundations and donors to contribute financially.

Scobay (CreativeCommons, Flickr)

Scobay (CreativeCommons, Flickr)

The mess we are in also calls us to pay more heed to our own financial circumstances.

What does that look like for a member or stipended volunteer in a service corps?

Depending on the program, and on a member’s spending needs, a service corps stipend can be challenging to live on.

For service corps members facing challenges, the term of service is a great time to get schooled in personal financial management. If you are working with clients who have low incomes, the lessons you learn can also benefit them.

Do no harm

While most financial advice will tell you how to save and invest wisely, Corps members may not have any extra money to save. The priority for you, then, is to do no harm:

1. Get Your credit report free annually, know your FICO score (which doesn’t come with your free annual credit report), and learn how to protect and increase your score.

2. Track your money—all your money. Save receipts or take notes for a week. It helps to see it in black and white. That way you can spend according to priority not habit, and find cheaper alternatives.

Thinkpanama, Creative Commons, Flickr

Thinkpanama, Creative Commons, Flickr

For example, you might spend a lot on buying coffee at coffee shops, where you could make coffee at home or the office. That change would allow you to choose organic produce if that’s important to you.

A big expense that can build up unexpectedly are ATM fees. If you withdraw money from another bank’s automated teller machine, not only that bank but your own bank can deduct fees from your account. Imagine losing $4 every time you withdraw $20. And you may not see the fees till you get your monthly statement.

As part of tracking your money, list withdrawals and deposits in an account ledger like the kind you get for free with your bank account. Overdrawing your account can cost a lot of money.

3. Make a budget. Allow yourself to spend a maximum amount on a certain category each week or pay period. Some people like to put cash in envelopes at the start of the week, and when the cash runs out, so does the spending.

One envelope may be for food, and could include groceries and eating out. Another could be for gas, a third for entertainment, etc. You don’t need a fancy worksheet, all you need is to list your living expenses (rent, groceries, childcare, credit card, utilities, transportation), their due dates and their monthly costs. Make adjustments where you see waste as mentioned in Tip #2.

4. Be responsible with credit cards. Avoid running up credit card debt, as well as carrying a credit card balance from month to month.

The Truth About, Creative Commons, Flickr

The Truth About, Creative Commons, Flickr

Paying just the minimum payment fee on your monthly statement or paying the fee late can incur costly fees, and damage your credit score.

Also be careful about the due date in your monthly credit card statement. Those companies switch the date around like a fickle fiance, and they win if you pay too late.

If you are serving in Peace Corps or another international service program and are taking credit card debt with you, you can do a few things to help yourself out: sell off your car, books, and other valuables to pay off as much as you can before you go. If you won’t have enough cash to pay off your credit card that way, you can instead use the money to pay the minimum fee (or a set amount above that fee) monthly through an automatic bill pay that you set up through your checking account at home. It’s a very expensive solution.

Choose a credit card wisely, and understand the true cost of using credit cards. Use this calculator to figure out how much you really owe. Check out Frontline’s The Secret History of the Credit Card for understanding the fine print of your credit card agreement and more.

5. Live simply. Here are some of the biggies: live with roommates; borrow books and movies from the library; ride a bike whenever possible — going car free saves a lot of money; cook at home and have friends over for pot-luck dinners; forgo internet access and cable television at home; shop at thrift stores and swap clothes with friends; cut down on expensive drinks  like beer; reuse, reduce, recycle.

Richard Masoner, Creative Commons, Flickr

Richard Masoner, Creative Commons, Flickr

6. If at all possible, save. Similarly, avoid spending your savings you came into the Corps with. Even $5 a week adds up.

7. Know your financial goals. In the next five years do you want to enroll in school, buy a house, buy a car, pay down student loans, start a family, retire?

You may not be able to put a lot of money towards these investments this year, but can educate yourself about the financial needs you will have. Knowing what lies ahead for you may motivate you to watch your pennies now. You can also take workshops on these topics as you see them offered in your community. Sometimes they come with free pizza!

Resources

The National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) offers an array of resources to help people think about money strategically, begin with Smart With Money’s Taking the First Step. Also check out this resource on Life Events and Financial Decisions.

Partnering with Idealist.org, NEFE published Making a Difference: A Guide to Personal Profit in a Nonprofit World especially for young people looking at a career in the nonprofit sector.

Service corps members are often eligible for programs that benefit all people with low incomes (such as housing for people with low incomes, Food Assistance and individual development accounts).

Another resource to check out regularly is Michelle Singletary’s Color of Money column in the Washington Post and NPR podcast.

Finally, keep an eye on the blogs in the Money Life Network.

For prospective corps members

If you haven’t yet joined a corps, have confidence that hundreds of thousands of people have participated in service corps and made it financially.

That said, do take a hard look at the numbers and make sure you can afford to live on a stipend. Take into consideration student loans (qualified loans can be deferred or put into forbearance during the term), child care expenses, rent/mortgage payments, car payments, etc. Service Corps programs, local nonprofits and government agencies may be able to offer help with certain expenses, so be sure to ask. It’s not impossible to thrive on the stipend, but a term of service isn’t worth ruining your credit history or incurring deep debt.

Also note that not all Corps are the same in terms of stipends. Peace Corps Volunteers don’t get rich, but typically earn enough to cover all their expenses (including housing, utilities, food, even medical expenses are taken care of), and sock a bit away for extras. AmeriCorps*VISTAs on the other hand, who work to end poverty, earn 105 percent of whatever is poverty-level income in their area—which can be a struggle!—and aren’t allowed to take on side jobs. Teach For America Corps members earn the starting teacher’s salary for their school district, while AmeriCorps*NCCC members earn $400 a month but have all their basic needs taken care of for their ten-month term. The terms of every program are different, so be sure to ask.

Do you know of other personal finance tips, or resources, useful to service Corps members? Are you a service Corps member or Alum? What have you done to be successful financial through your term?

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Applying to U.S. grad schools from abroad

Are you a U.S. citizen working or volunteering abroad? Know someone who is?

Check out the newest article on Idealist.org‘s Public Service Graduate Education Resource Center: Applying to a U.S. Grad School as a U.S. Citizen Living Abroad.

The article offers considerations for working with your local mail system, finding test prep materials and taking tests, and finding good alternatives to the campus visit.

Idealist.org grad fairs are not as useful if you can’t participate, however, you can and should check out the list of registered schools at some of the events (for example the 117 schools at this week’s San Francisco fair and or the 107 schools registered for the Los Angeles event).

Also note that Idealist is still looking for bloggers including current or former term-of-service participants (like Peace Corps and VSO volunteers), and people crossing borders to attend grad school.