Living on a VISTA salary is tough.

There’s no way to get around it. Throughout their terms, Volunteers in Service to America must contend with prohibitive salaries. The struggle is a feature, not a bug. AmeriCorps members are expected to live beneath the poverty line to experience the struggles of their communities first hand and enable the organization to fund more projects  


It’s difficult but not impossible.

With careful budgeting, AmeriCorps VISTAs can live within their narrow means while setting aside some funds to save or use for fun, but that requires constant consideration of living expenses.


VISTAs must manage their costs.

On average after taxes, most members make about $1000 per month. It varies by region, especially within urban areas, but it’s a relatively accurate benchmark, which will serve for the purposes of this article.


There are 3 core expenses to consider: rent, transportation, and food. 

For most VISTAs, the first two are fixed costs after entering service, which is why they should be considered beforehand. Ideally, car payments, gas prices, and rent checks should not occupy more than two thirds of a VISTA’s monthly budget. If they do, it is often difficult to build up enough savings to handle emergencies like car repairs. Therefore, potential VISTAs should look for ways to curb those costs before entering into contracts. 


Rent is fairly simple to reduce. The best way is to look for roommates to split the bill, and fellow VISTAs make for ideal candidates. On the other hand, transportation costs are restricted by living situations. In a city with public transportation, a car might not be necessary or other options like walking or biking might be viable, but in rural areas, cars are often essential, so prospective VISTAs should consider how far they plan to commute and what rents are available before committing to a service terms


On the other hand, food is rarely a fixed expense.

If costs need to be cut, the weekly grocery budget is usually the place to start. Living on canned beans, cheap eggs, frozen vegetables, and 10 pound bags of dried rice, it’s very feasible to lower expenses to $20 or less a week, at least in the short term. In the long term though, prospective VISTAs should also apply for SNAP and look for opportunities to host potluck food swaps with their fellow AmeriCorps members to further cut costs and increase the range of accessible foods on an AmeriCorps budget.