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Friday, October 28, 2011

Helping Washington Americorps Volunteers Develop A Budget

By Jeremy Lushene – Financial Educator for the Washington Department of Financial Institutions

Last week, I had the opportunity to teach a budgeting class at orientation training for new Americorps (Washington Conservation Corps) volunteers.

The volunteers are going to be doing great work in helping restore Washington’s rainforests, responding to floods, cleaning up Washington's backcountry and more. But before they go, they needed a little lesson on how to live on a tight budget, since they will only be making minimum wage.

Living Within Their Means

I started my “living on a budget class” by walking up and down the aisles of the 65+ students and asking who had the hottest car in the room.

Starting in the back of the room, I heard: Suburau Outback, Honda Accord, Hynduai Sonata, and Toyota Camry.

With no clear winner, we moved towards the front of the room where I heard a young man say “Metro Transit Pass.” Instantly a winner in my mind, I asked him to say his answer louder and to explain to the class what the Metro Transit Pass was. “A $20/month bus pass good across multiple counties where I live, it’s bomb,” he said.

The point I was trying to make was that not all of our peers have fancy cars, designer jeans, or expensive cell phones. It’s ok to not have these things, and besides, it’s more important to live within our means than out. As the young man said, "it's bomb."

The Conservation Corps Budget

We moved onto developing a Conservation Corps budget as a class.

We started the process by identifying our income. Conservation Corps members receive around $1200 a month and $200 through food assistance. $1400 a month total to budget with.

It didn’t take long for a young gentleman to chime in that he works another part time job to cover his expenses. “Yeah, I spend at least $75 a month on my girlfriend,” the young gentleman said to roaring laughter from the crowd.

Fixed Expenses

The next step in our budget journey was to identify our fixed expenses. Nearly the entire class said that they need roommates to cut costs in housing. Some even rent couches as low as $200/month!

Something that amazed me during our fixed expenses discussion was the fact that the majority of the class was already setting aside extra money for savings. As I believe that it’s important to “pay yourself first”, we set up a line item in our fixed expenses budget for savings. The class chose to save $70 per month instead of eating out all the time. I was so proud.

Variable Expenses

Moving on from fixed expenses, we talked and budgeted for variable expenses. This is where things got really exciting.

I broke the class into groups and made them come up with ideas on how to cut costs on entertainment, transportation, housing, and other living expenses. The class sure came alive with this discussion. Penny pinching tips were being tossed around from student to student.

Here are some of the savings tips the class came up with.
  • When shopping for groceries, only look at the price per unit, not the label nor the sales price.
  • Aim to use alternative transportation methods at least twice a week (bike, bus, and carpool).
  • Find free movie screenings/other events in town.
  • Find the cheapest happy hour in town for appetizers and drinks.
  • Always ask if there are specials when eating out or purchasing items.
  • Let your other friends know that you are currently on a tight budget and that you won’t be able to eat out all the time or go to the movies every weekend. Then, invite them over for movie/game night.
  • Take a free/cheap cooking class with friends and learn how to cook cheap meals. Share recipes and have cooking challenges.
I hope my class and the Department of Financial Institutions materials were helpful to these young individual and wish them luck with their future projects.

Below you will find the sample budget that we worked out. Money was really tight but the class left some wiggle room. Important for any successful budget!

Conservation Corps Budget