By: Jacqueline Cheney, Regional Recruitment  Coordinator

I can remember as graduation approached, I was terrified that my success would now be defined by a dollar sign. My friends and I had these grandiose ideas about what we would be doing after graduation. We were going to have jobs that we loved. They would challenge us and give us a comfortable salary.

As I took a step back and looked at the job market in it’s entirety, I realized I was one of hundreds of thousands of young professionals entering the workforce. How was I supposed to stand out?

The answer was City Year.

City Year created a beneficial opportunity for me in two ways:

  1. A chance to live within my means that challenged me to determine the line between “wants” vs. “needs;”

  2. A chance to make myself stand out and increase my own worth within the workforce.

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. It was a challenge. That year taught me how to manage my budget and how to get creative with my finances in order to still do the activities I enjoyed.

My first recommendation is to check out Mint.com, an online tool to help set budgets. Here’s a rough snapshot of my 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. I also took $10 out of my bi-weekly paychecks to help with my taxes in April. That savings gave me a couple hundred dollars to use during a trip with some fellow AmeriCorps members down the Pacific Coast Highway. It also allowed me to pay taxes on the portion of my education award I used the fall after my service year.

Be purposeful about spending, especially with your fellow AmeriCorps members. You get to know a lot about a city when exploring the free events that are happening within the 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.

My favorite way to save during my year of service was through my meals. Breaking bread 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 gotten simply through our service days. Those were the bonds that have had the largest impact on me

There is no one right way to budget while living on a stipend. It takes accountability, focus and planning.

Here’s my one important takeaway I want to leave you with:  role of the stipend was an insignificant factor in my year of service. For 11 months, I made the conscious decision not to  drink starbucks every morning, I didn’t go see a concert that cost more than $20, and I only ate 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. 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.

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!)

-Real Talk: How To Live on the City Year Stipend 

-How To Shine As A City Year Applicant 

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