So You’ve Decided to Join AmeriCorps…

At a family function last month, I discovered that 3 of my newly college-graduated cousins are going into the AmeriCorps program this fall, as these seem to be the only jobs available to them. I’ve been noticing lately that things I’ve been doing for years — e.g., being a huge cheapskate — are cropping up as novel and chic tips in fashion magazines and morning shows like crazy this year. I knew, knew, knew, deep down, that I was a trend-setter; living in poverty loooong before living in poverty was cool!

So it comes as no surprise that something I did 5 years ago – accept a $10K per year stipend to be a glorified admin-assistant at a Manhattan non-profit in exchange for flexible work requirements and government health insurance – is suddenly becoming fashionable.I’ve gotten flack in the past for perhaps being a touch jaded about all this National Community Service stuff. But I’m not necessarily alone in my criticism here, check out what the Chronicle of Philanthropy** has to say:

“While some AmeriCorps programs, like Teach for America, can demonstrate real results, others are less effective because they operate through thousands of different nonprofit groups that each set their own requirements and do little evaluation.”

Heck. Effing. Yes. The reporting I did for my AmeriCorps job was generally based in fact, sort of. But not really. And not enough to bring any of us volunteers any sense that we were accomplishing our “program goals.” Boo.

BUT, not to be a total wet blanket, I will support my underemployed kin in their impending vocations. I’ve even compiled a short list of tips and tricks to help you through your year of “service.”*

1. Don’t move out.
I know the whole reason you went to college and subsequently looked for employment was so that you could fly from your parents’ house at top speed. I know nothing would have enticed me to move back in with them when I was 21. But honestly, I’ve never been all that smart about these practical things.

The most happy/successful VISTAs I knew were the ones that lived with their parents or spouses. Unless your program is offering you housing, or you live in a place where rent is cheaper than food, you really, really need to think about sticking the year out at Mom & Dad’s place. For example: a 2-3 bedroom apartment share in a public-transport-accessible area of NYC goes for a monthly rent of typically no less than $600 per person. Probably more like $700 or $800 if you want a closet or full-sized bed. I’ve been told the “living allowance” is now up to $900 a month. If this doesn’t give you pause to renting, read on.

2. Remember hidden costs
As of this month, an unlimited monthly metrocard will cost $89. Your cell phone, I’m betting, will be between $40 and $80, if you’re not using a Smartphone, which I hear lots of the kids are doing nowadays. Also, unless you are really eager to take full advantage of of their unlimited mental health coverage, I would suggest you get Internet access. Asking a Millennial to live without Internet is like asking a pot-head to live without Dunkin Donuts/Baskin Robins. It ain’t pretty. Let’s be generous and think that this could be around $30 a month. What’s the tally up to? 200 bucks. If your apartment is 700 that’s your entire paycheck, and you haven’t bought any food yet.

3. I’ve said it before: Never take your credit card to a bar. Try this instead.

4. Food Stamps. Even though your shouldn’t need to, for gods’ sake.
I know they tell you at orientation that you can apply for them, but REALLY? Isn’t that kind of taking funds from the populations you are attempting to serve? But yeah, off-setting your food costs will help a lot.***

5. Clothing Swaps, thrift stores, duh. It’s still New York. You still want to look good. Luckily that ain’t hard to do if you put a little thought into it.

6. Use that AmeriCorps ID as a student ID wherever you go and don’t let anyone tell you it ain’t valid! One of the hardest things about “serving” in a city like this is that you are surrounded by people with money, taunted by the amazing things you could be doing if you could afford it. So go see art films, go to shows, look at paintings in museums. Milk that sort-of-student identity as much as you can, because having mind-blowing cultural experiences will take your mind off how hungry you are.

7. Use those medical benefits, use ’em like you are going to contract something horrible tomorrow. The pace Congress is going, you may not have any for a while after you finish your year.

There is so much more, and so many other diatribes about how to live on the cheap. But I guess my best advice (besides not moving out, seriously) is to remember it is only temporary. And don’t be afraid to ask your cousins to feed you from time to time. We know how it is.

*And by service, I mean “hopefully not disillusionment and angst, but probably both of these things.”
**Yeah I read the trades. I’m a professional, bitches!
***I, unfortunately, used up my “I’m was at the foodstamps office” excuse one day to be 3 hours late to work after a night of furious, depression-fueled drinking (for free, mind you). So I guess don’t do that.


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