Each year, thousands of fresh graduates join intensive service programs like AmeriCorps (80,000) and the Peace Corps (9,000). They are engaged in activities as diverse as teaching, community capacity building, and disaster relief. These corps members are far from well-paid, and have to manage their finances fairly tightly to stay afloat. We sit down with Nicholas Chan, who not only served in the AmeriCorps program after graduating from Stanford, but subsequently went on to serve in the Peace Corps in Ecuador as well. He recently spent 2 years in New York City as the Director of Operations for Blue Engine, an educational non-profit that brings recent college graduates to serve as teaching assistants in high need New York City public schools. He is currently studying for a teaching credential with the Stanford Teacher Education Program and student teaching at Mission High in San Francisco.
Q: Tell us a little about what you did when you were part of AmeriCorps.
Nicholas Chan: In my first year, I ran a Youth Leadership Program in East Palo Alto. I then moved to Baton Rouge, LA with City Year, where I provided in-class support to 95 middle-school students. These were students who had been displaced by Hurricane Katrina as well as a number of over-aged kids.
Q: Then you decided to join the Peace Corps! What did you do in Ecuador?
NC: I was a community health promoter, providing sexual and reproductive health education through three schools and two health centers in a large coastal city of 90,000.
Q: You have lived in a number of expensive places (San Francisco Bay Area, New York City) on not very much money. What’s the secret to your success?
NC: As my Peace Corps trainer told me – make a budget. It’s a simple equation – Revenue, Expenses, and manage the difference between what you planned and what actually happened.
1. Before buying anything, I would ask myself – “Do I absolutely need to spend money on this?”
2. Hanging out with other people who have constrained budgets (ie other AmeriCorps volunteers) also makes it easier, because you don’t have to feel like you’re missing out on things.
3. Shopping at thrift stores for clothing. Great quality for a low price. In fact, I think everything I’m wearing right now cost $10!
4. Potlucking – saves times, spreads costs amongst a larger group, and is social!
Q: Did you feel deprived at all? 105% of the Federal poverty line is not very much money.
NC: There were some sacrifices, but the bigger the city you live in, the more free stuff there is to do. We often looked on websites that highlighted free/cheap activities. (Folks in the Bay Area, check out FunCheapSF).
I definitely put my retirement savings on hold (i.e. I didn’t save anything), and didn’t travel or go out very much during the years that I was doing my service. Now that I make a little more money, I try to buy drinks when I go out with AmeriCorps people because I remember how it felt when I was a member. It’s a good check in general to remember that sometimes people aren’t comfortable spending money because they don’t have it.