This is a guest post from Frugal Babe
, who was kind enough to contribute this post for your reading pleasure while I am on vacation. If you enjoy reading it be sure to check out her blog!
Welcome to Frugal Babe readers! A little bit about me… if you’re looking for financial advice or wisdom, you’ll have to go elsewhere; I’m still looking myself! On the other hand, if you’re in search of an (overly) intimate look at one family’s finances and journey out of debt, with a few French/American cultural observations thrown in for flavor, well than, you’ve come to the right place.
Nearly ten years ago, I embarked on “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” I spent the first two years after college in East Africa, teaching high school math in a rural boarding school as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The list of things I learned in those two years is long and winding, and included lots of life lessons about money, frugality, making do, and having enough. Ten years later, many of these lessons still work their way into my life on a daily basis, so I thought I’d share.
During the time I was a volunteer, the Peace Corps provided $200/month as a living allowance for volunteers in Africa. We got $600 every three months, and the schools where we taught were responsible for providing housing for volunteers. My school gave me an adorable little house – about 380 square feet – with a bedroom, living room and cooking area, about a five minute walk from the school. The house came with a bed, a table, and two wooden chairs. From there on, I was on my own with my $200/month.
The very first lesson was budgeting. Since we only got money once per quarter, we had to make sure it lasted. One of the other volunteers got his first check and promptly threw a massive party, inviting volunteers from all over the country to celebrate the start of our Peace Corps service. A dollar goes a long way in Africa, and $600 seems to go forever. Until you spend $400 of it on a party that lasts one weekend. The rest of the volunteers – and his parents back in the US – had to bail him out for the next couple months. Life lesson: pace yourself – it’s easy to overspend right after you get paid and then regret it as you try to get through the last week of the month with $37 left in your checking account.
Most of the volunteers in my group were assigned to sites where they were replacing PCVs who were finishing their service. The bonus there is that you get all the stuff that the exiting volunteer leaves behind. Most of those houses came fully furnished and included the cast-offs of several former PCVs. Dishes, books, cooking supplies, furniture, bedding…. Makes for an easy move in, and leaves plenty of money left over for fun. I was assigned as the first volunteer at my site. I’m sure that the volunteer who is serving there now ten years later is using the shelves and dishes that I bought when I moved in. Life lesson: there will always be people who have more than you. And sometimes it’s easy to sit around and think about how much easier life would be if you had what they have. But it’s a lot more productive to just focus on getting what you need rather than getting what other people have.
Once I settled into my cute little house, I started working on getting to know the people in my village and the other teachers at my school. I never told anyone how much money the Peace Corps gave us as a living allowance, just that they provided money for food and necessities. I went to my first staff meeting where the other teachers were very upset because they hadn’t been paid in three months. Most of them were owed $175 in back pay. For three months work. So my $200/month living allowance was nearly four times what the other teachers at my school were making – and they hadn’t been paid in three months. As I walked home from that meeting, I was overcome with guilt – why was I getting so much more money for the same work? I resolved to live as frugally as possible so as to blend in with the other teachers and match my lifestyle to theirs. Life lesson: There will always be people who have less than you. It’s counterproductive to feel guilty about this, but flaunting wealth in the face of poverty is not going to win you many friends.
My village had no electricity and no running water. We had a little market that sold basic food supplies and household necessities, and a couple of places where you could get a prepared meal. I noticed that the other teachers at my school cooked almost 100% of their meals at home, so I followed suit. I started eating most of my meals with the other two female teachers, as that was a lot more fun than eating alone. Our days were very routine, with school followed by a trip to the market for supplies, and cooking in the evening. I was spending almost no money, because the food was extremely inexpensive and our entertainment was free – sitting around talking with each other. A bonus was that I learned the language much faster than I would have if I had not spent my evenings with these women. And I developed friendships that have lasted ten years. Life lesson: Wherever you are in the world, you don’t have to spend money to have fun. Friendship is truly priceless, and often the best entertainment is the stuff that you can’t pay for anyway.
Since my lifestyle in the village cost so little, my bank account balance tended to grow each quarter. After a year and a half in my village, I had saved enough money for a vacation. I decided to take my two closest friends from the village (fellow teachers at my school) on a trip with me. They had made my Peace Corps experience 1000 times better than it would have been without them, and everyone in the village knew that the three of us were basically attached at the hip. We did everything together, so it made sense that I would take them with me on my vacation. With the money I had saved, I could have taken a really sweet vacation by myself or with other PCVs who had also saved money. But I knew that for my friends this was pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I decided that it would be more fun to spend time with them on a budget vacation than to go somewhere fancy without them. So during a school break, the three of us took a train (third class, sitting on bags of potatoes for 20 hours) to the coast. Then we took a ferry to a tropical island off the coast of East Africa. We went swimming in the ocean, stayed in a little budget motel, ate out, and even got ice cream. We spent five days exploring a world completely different from our village. I paid for the trip for all three of us, using money I had been saving over the previous year, and by being very careful to keep our travel and entertainment costs as low as possible. If I had spent my full living allowance each month, the trip would not have been possible. Life Lesson: Living frugally to save up for something awesome is truly worth it. And if you can save enough to be able to share the wealth a bit, it’s even better.
When we finished our Peace Corps service, each volunteer got $6000 as a readjustment allowance, plus we were able to take home any living allowance that we hadn’t used during our service. This money is intended to help get volunteers back on their feet in the US. Many of my fellow PCVs used the money to live on for several months, but I decided that I’d rather save it, and started looking for a job as soon as I returned. Like most returning PCVs, I lived with my parents, but only for about seven weeks. By the end of that time, I had a job and had rented a room in the town where I had lived during college. I bought a 1989 Hyundai (which my sister now drives) and started working two months after my return to the US. I had $5000 left over from my living allowance/readjustment money, which went into the bank. I met my husband a month later, and almost exactly two years after I got back from Africa, we used that $5000 as part of our down payment on the house we live in today. Life lesson: Just because you have access to money doesn’t mean you should spend it. If you save it, it will be there in the future if something comes up – like buying a house – where you need a little extra cash.
I wouldn’t trade my Peace Corps experience for anything. Time has flown by, and it’s hard to believe that it’s been a decade since I was preparing to spend two years on the other side of the world. The lessons that I learned during those years will stay with me forever, and the financial lessons have served me well over the years since I’ve been back in the US.