Let’s face it: one big challenge of serving in AmeriCorps is a tight budget. As I started venturing out and meeting people, I was reminded of how intertwined socializing and consuming are. Grabbing dinner or catching a show seemed to be mindless occurrences for my friends but just didn’t fit into my budget. I wanted to forge some semblance of an after-work life while working within the limits of a stipend.
Eighteen months in, I certainly don’t have all of the answers but I have found some tricks that have made things easier. The basics, first of all, are true. The thrift store is my friend, a budget is necessary, and I have become very conscious of what I need vs. what I want. That’s not all there is to life, though. There’s definitely something to be said for living comfortably and having the occasional bit of fun.
Unsurprisingly, food is my biggest challenge. Ultimately, I find it’s best to keep cooked food around the house, at the office and/or in my vehicle at all times: a lack of planning will likely lead me to seek it out in convenient and expensive forms. I make big batches of soups/stews and grains once or twice a week, so I can turn to them instead of a takeout menu when I get home late or stressed out. It also helps for lunches: I just bring leftovers. I also keep my evening plans in mind when I pack my lunch in the morning- I’ll often bring enough for dinner so I’m not tempted to grab something on the road or while out. I recently started stashing a couple of servings in the freezer every time I cook too, so I can make large quantities but not be stuck eating the same thing all week.
Coupons, it turns out, are magic: an hour a week with the Sunday paper and Wednesday circulars can save a good 50% on groceries. Basically, I go through the circulars and for each store I list what’s on a good sale (only looking at things I would normally buy anyhow). Each weekend, I get the coupon inserts and clip just the coupons for things I normally buy. Then if a sale and a coupon happen to match up- voila! I’ll buy it that week. With this method, I pretty much only bulk foods full price, fruits and vegetables on sale, and anything else if it’s at a deep discount. For eating out, I was relieved to learn that groupon.com and restaurant.com coupons work and I don’t get weird looks using them.
For socializing, households are key. I recently went to a board game party where almost 30 people were fully entertained for several hours and the total cost was a suggested donation of $5 to cover food that the hosts had purchased. Similarly, Netflix has been the driving force behind many a movie marathon night- again for several hours of entertainment and good conversation the only cost tends to be ordering delivery (optional, of course). After all, the important part of socializing is spending time together, right? Not only is the casual atmosphere more frugal than most alternatives, it also often leads to better interactions.
Sometimes though, one needs to get out of the house. Thankfully, there seems to be some type of nonprofit promoting almost any interest you might have. I love biking, and since moving to Maryland I’ve learned about of bike co-ops. The Mount Ranier Bicycle Cooperative is near my office, and the wonderful volunteers there are incredibly helpful in showing me how to maintain and improve my bike. Instead of paying for a tune-up, they’ll look over it for me and there’s the added bonus of learning the process!
I honestly welcome the challenges, as I’ve become more creative and mindful. I feel like I’m getting incredible life lessons about fiscal responsibility pretty early in life, and I have no doubt that this will lead me to wise decisions for decades to come. After all, it’s empowering to know how much I can rely on myself to do without.