This week was awesome but challenging. One of the highlights was my ability to take Tuesday to serve alongside the Carpenter’s Sons, a group of mostly retired men who serve every Tuesday helping their neighbors. If you want to see some of my reflections on that experience, please check out my vlog for this week. https://youtu.be/VrV-kOxBXEYIn this blog post, however, I want to focus on the challenging aspect of my week: Unexpected car trouble and feeling the stress of having limited means to deal with it.
Part of my service as an AmeriCorps VISTA is accepting to live at the poverty level for the next year, on a fixed income, regardless of how much I work. “The AmeriCorps VISTA program provides a living allowance that enables you to live very frugally, like the community you are serving. The allowance is based on poverty rates for a single individual in your geographic area.”
So, even though the first goal of the VISTA program is to eliminate poverty, VISTAs voluntarily enter into poverty, in order to understand how to better conquer the issues keeping people in poverty. In many ways, this year as a VISTA is teaching me what tools and tactics are effective when budgets are tight. I have theoretical knowledge of some budgeting and cheap living tactics and now I get to put them into practice and test them.
As I have explained in previous blog posts, I have enormous support from my family, friends and coworkers(many of whom buy me food on every occasion they can), and an education that helps me make the most of this situation, but that doesn’t prevent me from stressing over money, particularly when emergencies happen. It took a lot to keep me from crying when I realized I would be losing 20 days worth of wages this week to repair my car. Which gave me my first real glimpse into what it is like to be poor in America.
40% of Americans cannot pay cash for a $400 unexpected expense,
according to Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2017 - May 2018.
Additionally, nearly 30% of Americans have put off necessary medical care due to a lack of funds,
according to the same report. Growing up in a middle class family, I did not have to live with these realities, but due to my AmeriCorps service, I am now feeling the crunch, the tension, the juggling act for when expenses hit my bank account (I have a pretty elaborate spreadsheet).
The real concern in cases of unexpected expenses is that it can push a household from living carefully, paycheck to paycheck, to one with debt that they will likely never pay off. With the average credit card interest rate in America at 19%, people end up paying hundreds or thousands of dollars more than what they borrowed.
For many people in poverty, it is not spending sprees that end up on credit cards, it is necessary expenses such as utilities and rent end up on a credit card, particularly after a major expense pops up. As it was explained before, carrying a credit card balance means paying interest, which quickly turns difficult financial situations into dire ones. What’s worse is that consumer debt is at an all-time high in America, meaning many of our neighbors are spending today’s resources to pay for yesterday’s spending with interest tacked on.
While debt and expenses increase, incomes often do not. Those on fixed incomes, such as those who are disabled or on social security can be hit very hard with unexpected expenses. They also have to adjust as their real purchasing power decreases each year, due to normal inflation increases. Those who are low income or on a fixed income and renting are also likely to be burdened when rent increases each year, removing what little financial margin they had. For example, many people in low-income situations have issues that cause their credit scores to decline or they lack collateral, which reduces their ability to find financing for a house, leaving them as renters.
Just under 50% of American renters spend over 30% of their income on rent, making them officially designated as “rent-burdened,” and 26% of those renters spend over 50% of their income on housing.
Even beyond my own desire to stay financially solvent, I have had a few key experiences that have made me want to stay debt-free and help people create a plan to get out of debt and save for their goals. One key experience for me was financing my trip to Switzerland for a semester study abroad. I asked myself before every purchase if I wanted the item more than I wanted the opportunity to go abroad, and I found the answer was most often no. Ultimately in a 9 month period, I was able to raise or earn over $10,000 to go abroad, and that experience encourages me that I can accomplish a goal and that it was worth it to save.
Having a goal and working towards it dispels the desire to live for instant gratification, and it helped me come to the realization that I almost always wish I had saved more money. Or to put it a different way, I never look back on my choices and say, ‘Gee, I should have spent $40 more dollars at the art fair.” But I do look back and wish I had thought more carefully before making purchases or budgeted them in, and I want to share that insight with others, so they too can accomplish goals and dreams. This is part of why I wanted to work with AmeriCorps and NeighborLink, to understand the struggles facing impoverished homeowners in the Fort Wayne community.
Another experience that has made me want to help others get out of debt and manage their resources well is seeing the people I love with limited means end up in financial crises. If you never have much budgetary wiggle room, it can be easy to live paycheck to paycheck without saving for the big expenditures that ultimately hit everyone. This time with VISTA is giving me common experiences with those in poverty, so I can look at them with comprehension of their struggle, which will hopefully enable me to come alongside people and share information for how to manage what they have well.
Budgeting is a way of life for many people, and it can be an empowering way to make the most of our resources.
Here are 10 steps I’ve taken to be more proactive in my finances and thrifty overall. Hopefully they can be helpful to you, too!
Think strategically about routes to limit gas usage. (I moved to an apartment within walking distance to my office, but I know many people cannot take such a drastic step).
Write out all my expenses and what day of the month they hit my bank account. I do this so I know how much money I have to work with from each paycheck during the month.
When grocery shopping (at a budget store like Aldis, or even local farmer’s markets): Cut out packaged foods, aim for nutrient density and check the price per ounce.
When I am eating, I make mental notes to ensure I am getting enough from each food group and that I am watching my vitamins, minerals, and electrolytes, particularly if I know I am doing outdoor work in the summer heat. It is cheaper to eat carefully than deal with an unnecessary doctor’s visit for heatstroke or an infection.
Eliminate most packaged beverages, opting instead to brew tea at home and bring it with me or get fruit juice concentrates and add water.
Make popsicles and smoothies at home. I do this to get through hot days and a lack of central air in my apartment. Mainly I freeze fruit juice or tea in little plastic popsicle containers, reducing the overall cost for each popsicle. I also freeze fruit if they get close to being overripe before I will eat them, saving them for smoothies later.
Buy cheap proteins, i.e. not meats. Beans, legumes, nuts and some protein powders are shelf-stable and can be used to add protein to meals at a much lower cost.
Make cards and gifts by hand using what you have at home. A good friend just had a baby, so I painted flowers on a homemade card, rather than spending to buy real flowers that ultimately die.
Shop thrift stores, garage sales or barter among friends. I have always shopped at thrift stores for my needs, and it has gotten me some great finds, but now that I am more budget constrained I have moved into bartering or exchanging goods with friends to get what I need.
Stop using paper towels or paper napkins. Making the switch to cloth towels and napkins is not only more environmentally sound, but it allows me to save money.
Some Additional Resources
One way I track my spending is the Mint app, which tracks and automatically categorizes spending made via credit or debit card.
If you are interested in seeing the average cost of living per month in your area, check out the Economic Policy Institute’s Family Budget Calculator at https://www.epi.org/resources/budget/
Love’s Auto, a local ministry that helps with auto repairs, see their website for details https://www.the-lc.org/loveautorepairfw ( I only learned about it after my car was repaired)