How to Live (Well) on a Teaching Fellow Stipend

Ann Lambert - Teaching Fellow Irving Middle School Roslindale, MA

If you’re the type whose quick-fix, feel-good strategy is a shopping spree, a nice dinner out—or any type of dinner out—indulging in sweets, treating yourself to Starbucks coffee, or [insert something delicious but expensive—AKA over 5 dollars—here], then living on an AmeriCorps stipend is rough.

Rewind:  Senior year of college.  An acceptance to the Citizen Schools Teaching Fellowship.  Decisions, decisions...

The work was exactly what I wanted; but I was super nervous about how I was going to live in Boston on sub-$20,000 a year after taxes.  Granted, I didn’t have any concept of what it was like to budget and live on my own outside of a dorm setting.  Room and board were conveniently provided each Fall that I returned to school, and swiping my student ID card at the dining hall magically translated to food on my plate… But still… 22K??  Yikes.  I weighed my options and signed the contract with Citizen Schools—if I was doing what I loved, the money stuff would figure itself out.  I hoped…

Fast forward: August 2010…Week 1 of living on the stipend.  Grocery shopping.  I did not veer from the canned and dried food isle.  I stocked up on canned beans, canned vegetables, canned fruit, dried noodles etc.  30 dollars later, I was stocked for the next 2 weeks.  Not ideal, but I was proud of my purchases and savings nonetheless.  Did I mention I had no concept of budgeting?

Apartment: check.  Food: check.  Job: check.  Bring it on, real life.

Day one of the fellowship: Bright-eyed and optimistic with a plan for everything and visions of 7th graders confiding their deepest fears and greatest hopes with their new Citizen Schools teacher (me).  Hah. Day two, three, and four of the fellowship: Slightly disillusioned because my 7th graders were more into calling me “aggy”, asking me to stop “forcin it”, and using choice words combined with a roll of the eyes to tell me to go… well, you know.

As I arrived home each night and scoured my cabinets for the perfect treat that would make my days slightly less miserable, I found myself lost in a sea of canned beans—black, green, kidney, pinto—it was a chili lover’s dream; but definitely not a discouraged Teaching Fellow’s.

Fast forward: September 2011.  A year and countless dinners out, nights on the town, trips around the country, and morning visits to Starbucks later… I am still living on the stipend and am a much happier Teaching Fellow.  Yes, living on the stipend is hard.  I won’t lie—you have to make some cutbacks and you won’t always be able to keep up with your accountant and investment banker friends who are living in the lap of luxury (I swear I’m not bitter).  But you certainly don’t have to live on canned food for 2 years.  It’s doable and it’s not that bad once you get in a groove and figure out where you want to splurge and where you need to save.  I figured out the secret to sustainable stipend-living.  The secret to taming 12 unruly seventh graders?  Now, that’s a whole other can of beans…I mean worms.

Teaching Fellows and Alums share stories and tips from your life on the stipend in the comment section!