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By: Jacqueline Cheney, Regional Recruitment Coordinator

As a City Year AmeriCorps member serving in San Jose several years ago, I learned many good habits and life lessons that continue to guide me today in my current role as an Impact Manager at City Year Milwaukee.

One of those lessons was figuring out the best way to budget while I was in service. My City Year experience gave me a chance to live within my means by challenging me to determine the line between “wants” vs. “needs.” It also showed me how mindful spending and careful budgeting can reconnect us to life’s simple pleasures—a lesson I remain thankful for today.

My year of service was my first time living on my own. No pre-assigned roommate, no meal plans or discounted student housing, and no help from my parents. All the challenges I faced that year taught me how to manage my budget and ways to be creative with my finances in order to still do the activities I enjoyed.

There is no one right way to budget while living on a stipend. It takes accountability, focus and planning. Here’s a few recommendations I’d like to share with incoming service members as they navigate living on a stipend.

Top 5 Tips for Living on a Budget

1. Be purposeful about spending. Explore the free events that are happening within different communities. There are often Free Fridays at museums and galleries (which also usually include free food!), I found yoga in the park, poetry slams, author readings at the local libraries, and festivals highlighting the different cultures that we were serving.

Working in the classroom, learning to live on a budget

2. Check out, a free, online tool to help set budgets for entertainment and treats. Here’s a rough snapshot of my monthly budget: $20 toward food restaurants, $10 on coffee, and $30 could go toward shopping. I got alerts anytime I went over those budgets and I knew that if I was going over in one area, another aspect of my budget would suffer.

3. Embrace your inner chef. My favorite way to save during my year of service was through cooking together. Communal meals with others can form bonds that will last forever. It was during these family style meals that I learned about my fellow AmeriCorps members in a setting that I would not have found simply through our service days. Those bonds last today.

4. Determine what’s necessary and what’s now. For 11 months, I made the conscious decision not to buy coffee every morning. I didn’t go see a concert that cost more than $20, and I only ate at Chipotle a handful of times. Those choices are now a part of my life after City Year and I find comfort in the fact that they are in no way connected to my happiness.

5. Find happiness and gratitude in every day life. What gave me the most happiness during my year of service was when I got to swim in a lake surrounded by redwoods, had my face painted and marched in a Dia de los Muertos parade, heard community members weave together words that inspired me in my service and when I met people who still fill my life with love and joy, all without spending a dollar. I had everything I needed during my year of service and what I gained far exceeded what money could have ever given me.

Learn more about the City Year AmeriCorps experience and the skills you’ll gain that prepare you for life and career.

If you enjoyed this, check out: 

-Hope For the Year: An Open Letter to Learners

-Top Ten Things You Should Know About City Year (before you apply!)

-How To Shine As A City Year Applicant 

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