I started working at the local ice cream shop in my teeny tiny hometown when I was 16. I was the girl who gave you soft serve with a smile for a whopping $5.15 an hour. Plus tips, but unfortunately not too many people tip those hard working the ice cream servers.
When I opened my first bank account [you know, all of those big tips had to go somewhere], I understood that if I put even a tiny amount of money into savings, it could grow because of interest. A light bulb went off, and I came up with a plan. When I got paid every other week, I always put 20% of each paycheck into savings. I don’t know where I got the 20% figure from, but it worked.
My parents never asked me to put money into my savings, but I was convinced that all of the money would add up and I’d be able to do something cool with it one day. Plus, the 80% that went into my checking account was enough gas money, so I’m sure my parents were happy I wasn’t nagging them all the time for some moolah.
As a work-study student in college, I edited students’ résumés and cover letters to help them find jobs and internships. I applied the same 20% into savings principle, and it actually paid off. My sophomore year of college, I was accepted to study abroad in Angers, France. Total dream come true. While most people were trying to figure out how they were going to afford a $1,000 flight or their first month’s rent, I knew I already had more than enough saved in my student savings account. Who knew serving ice cream cones and editing résumés could add up to something so awesome?
I eventually did open an account with a major credit card company as a just-in-case measure before I studied abroad. Thank goodness I did, because the US dollar tanked while I was abroad and I needed to have a backup to my soft serve vanilla funds.
Fortunately, I never racked up too much debt on my credit card, and to this day the only thing I put on it are my flights home to Pittsburgh. The payments are always manageable and I’m thankful that I don’t sit around in fear of unsurmountable credit card debt, as I know many people do.
Now, I do have quite a few student loans, but that’s the price you pay for going to a top-notch, private, liberal-arts institution [or you know, for just going to college in general]. So after college I made the decision to work for AmeriCorps for 2 years, the second of which I’m finishing this July.
Unfortunately this also means that I made a conscious decision to make practically no money whatsoever. Though I have worked full-time at a university, my job is provided by AmeriCorps*VISTA, the poverty-fighting sector of the Corporation for National and Community Service. As agents for change in the community, AmeriCorps VISTA members also live below the poverty level. VISTA members make approximately 95% of poverty level income. The benefit of the program is that for each year of service you complete, you can receive around $5,000 in an education award that can either be applied directly to your federal student loans or a college institution. Many colleges will match this award, so your year of service could easily equate to a $10,000 scholarship.
For the first time, I wasn’t able to apply the 20% into savings principle that I had become accustomed to since I was a teenager. My bank has a Way 2 Save program that puts $1 into my savings account every time I swipe my check card. I didn’t think this would add up, but over the past 2 years I now have more than enough money for my books for the upcoming fall semester. Pretty cool if you ask me.
I would never regret working for AmeriCorps for the past 2 years. Sure, the pay sucks, but it has taught me so much about what’s really important and what isn’t so necessary. I’ve learned how to make ends meet on little money, and aside from a crazy weekend in Atlanta last year, I’ve never seen my bank account go in the red. Sometimes it’s hard knowing that I can’t participate in all of the fun things that my friends who have a real income do, but when I look back and see that I’ve gone on a mission trip to Nicaragua and I will be going to visit one of my BFFs in St. Lucia in just 2 weeks, I know that I’ve been able to make it all work with little funds.
When I took the Charles Schwab Financial Fitness Quiz and saw that I only scored a 62, I wasn’t too surprised. I don’t contribute to a retirement account and don’t have a lot of money in emergency funds. But I hope that the lessons I’ve learned in the past two years of living on a meager budget will help increase this number in the future.
As I transition from this job and back into the life of a full-time student, I know that these lessons will carry me far. I’ve learned how to keep a close eye on my budget, and I’ve realized what’s important to keep and what I can get rid of. Plus, knowing that I’m able to decrease my student loan debt by $10,000 thanks to my AmeriCorps Education awards isn’t too shabby either. At the end of the day, I know it’s not about the amount of dollars in the bank, but about the lessons you learn along the way. And always remembering to tip the ice cream server.
This post is part of the 20SB Blog Carnival: Friends & Money, sponsored by Charles Schwab. Prizes may be awarded to selected posts. The information and opinions expressed in this post do not reflect the views or opinions of Charles Schwab. Details on the event, eligibility, and a complete list of participating bloggers can be found here.