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Melia Tichnor is the Eastside Program Manager of Hands On Greater Portland at the United Way of the Columbia-Willamette in Oregon where she was first an AmeriCorps National volunteer between 2007 and 2009. In this interview, she opens up about about her life in AmeriCorps — specifically the financial choices she had to make while living on the volunteer stipend. Her clarity and insight shine light on how to stay financially, socially, emotionally healthy while earning an income below minimum wage.
Let’s get right down to it, shall we? What was your financial situation while in AmeriCorps?
When I started as an AmeriCorps member I think I made the same amount full time as I did part-time over that summer. My stipend was $13,500 for the year. That was high for AmeriCorps positions.
Before joining AmeriCorps, I had a little savings to my name. Not all my work-study income went directly into paying for school [Lewis and Clark College]. I worked part-time over the summer after I graduated with Portland Parks and Recreation, and interned with Idealist.
Some AmeriCorps programs pay for housing, which drastically reduces cost of living. My program wasn’t like that. So I lived in a two-bedroom apartment with a friend.
How did you budget for things like food?I was lucky that I lived with someone that loved to cook and who worked for a community garden. My housemate would come back from this garden that she helped support with all sorts of vegetables that we could cook up.
For lunch, I made sandwiches with a coworker most days. We’d go in on the ingredients, and we’d both go into the lunchroom to make our sandwiches. We had a ritual around it. Since other people in the office ate at restaurants, I would have felt left out had I not built this other routine with somebody.
I did sign up for food stamps. A lot of AmeriCorps members do this. It is part of your training where you’re told about food stamps as a resource. You’re making a stipend, and then you’re getting a monthly allowance on an Oregon Trail Card on top of that.
There was a little bit of cognitive dissonance for me initially. I thought maybe I’d get looks when I was using the card, or they’d think, what are you doing using this? But the reality is they are a resource available to people in difficult financial situations. In the case of AmeriCorps, I chose that specific situation, but I probably wouldn’t have made much more than that right out of college.
Because we could only use our card on grocery items, not restaurants or hot food delis within the local grocery store, it helped me pay attention to budgeting. When your food stamps run out, next month you’re going to do a little better trying to budget down a little more.
My splurge every month was feta cheese. I grew up on feta cheese. I love it to death. Valbreso. It is delicious, very creamy, sheep’s milk feta. My Mediterranean upbringing definitely taught me to appreciate the loveliness of well-made feta.
Adorable! On items like that, would you cut coupons or look for sales?
Food’s hard. I love food. It’s very hard for me to reign it in. There’s the Chinook Book, a local coupon book, and it’s how I “discovered” Portland. There were so many two-for-ones at restaurants, half-off this and that at the grocery store. Wherever my friends and I could go out to eat for a deal would guide our choices. I use it even more now that they have phone app!
During those years I realized that for me, food is entertainment. I don’t have a separate entertainment budget. Food was the way I could bond with friends.
My first year in AmeriCorps was the year I began having potlucks. I was feeding two birds with one seed by seeing friends, and everybody could bring an item based on whatever capacity they had. It’s where I came together with people rather than going out to bars.
I need to download that app asap! Can you give me a breakdown of monthly expenses outside of food?
When I was living in a two-bedroom apartment, I paid $400 to $425. This was eight years ago, when Portland was not as cool as it is, even though it was still cool. I took the smaller bedroom to pay slightly less rent. Then, I moved into a $350 sublet for a room in a small house with three ladies.
When I became an AmeriCorps leader, I got bumped up to $15,000 a year. I felt like I was making bank, so I moved into another shared housing situation for $475.
Utilities hovered around, depending on the place, an extra $60-100 a month. With utilities, the more people contributing, the cheaper it was. In my first apartment, we even shared the internet with our downstairs neighbors.
Was anything particularly hard about paying the bills?One issue was that I’m not a TV watcher, and one of my housemates got cable. The cable bill kept going up (and up and up). I didn’t think it was fair for me to pay for something I did not use. It’s hard because it’s all wrapped up in the internet bill, so I didn’t pursue it. You have to pick your battles when you live with people.
I used a credit card that year, but I tried to use it responsibly. If I came up short one month and needed to pay a bill, then I’d use it. As soon as I got my next paycheck, I’d pay back as much as I could. While that put me in a bad habit of always being slightly behind, I did not let debt build up during that year.
How did you budget in things you wanted rather than bare necessities?
To keep from spending, I had a “Melia will buy this eventually” wish list. While, say, I would have loved to buy a really nice kitchen knife, I went garage sale-ing to see if could find one instead. I asked for practicalities from family around the holidays.
Travel and experiences were what I wanted in my life. I couch-surfed, staying with people free-of-cost when I traveled. That was one way to continue doing something I loved, keeping costs low. By couch-surfing, I connected with people I wouldn’t have normally met in cool ways I wouldn’t have otherwise experienced.
What about health insurance?
AmeriCorps provided me with minimal health insurance. It helped, but my stipend was so low that I used Planned Parenthood a lot. I used resources that are designed for low income people to get health care.
One Halloween, I had an inner eye operation. I walked out with an eyepatch and went back to work like a one-eyed pirate! Even though having health insurance made that possible, I had to pay a couple hundred dollars. When you’re not making much more than that a month, it’s painful.
What about transportation, how did you get around?
I didn’t own a car. Cycling was my way of getting to work, and also another form of entertainment. Those were the years I discovered long bike rides. A way to explore Portland, and outside of Portland, that didn’t necessarily involve spending lots of money.
I also love biking in Portland! How about clothes? You’re pretty well dressed if I don’t say so myself!
Well, I discovered Naked Lady Parties during my first year in AmeriCorps. In fact, I got these pants along with this shirt at a Naked Lady Party the other day, and this sweater three years ago. The only things I buy new are shoes and underwear. Early on I realized when people who spend money on new clothes get tired of them, they can come to me. Clothing swaps, second-hand stores. Then I can wear those clothes to the ground, which I do. You make it into a game, like a scavenger hunt.
What do you feel was most helpful in managing your money?
For one, developing a culture and cultivating a lifestyle that socially and emotionally met my needs without it costing a lot of money.
And, you can’t just be optimistic and trust everything’s going to work out. Things cost money. I had to build connections. There’s this understanding, if there weren’t services out there, if there weren’t other people out there in the same boat, I wouldn’t survive. You can think about what your needs are to you, both for survival and what will going to keep you happy, motivated, and uplifted.
I couldn’t have lived alone during those years, and luckily I’m one of those people who enjoys living with housemates. Figuring out a way on some of those levels to make ends meet without money being as a huge a part of that.
At the end of an AmeriCorps term, you additionally get up to [$5,645] to pay off student loans. After two years of participating in AmeriCorps I paid off nearly $10,000. That was so much more than any of my friends who’d had higher paying jobs, because that money was untouchable. It ended up being a savings strategy for me. So instead of being tempted to buy $5,000 worth of feta cheese, I’m chipping away at my loans.
What do you wish was different about your finances?
I realized during my years in AmeriCorps that I grew up thinking that my family’s lifestyle was solidly middle class on an annual salary of $30,000. I knew making $13,000 meant I was below middle class, but I thought it would be close enough.
I’m now making more in my nonprofit job than my parents made. While I don’t think anybody would go into the nonprofit sector if they didn’t have confidence that they could make ends meet, I think it’s important to really honestly understand how far money does and does not go, where you can cut corners and where it is going to be really hard to cut corners. I think that confidence, and that inspiration, is important.