According to, AmeriCorps Members receive a “wealth of benefits.” The primary benefits being the satisfaction of incorporating service into your life and making a difference in your community and your country. That’s an awesome reason to join AmeriCorps! In fact, that’s why I joined. They go on to explain other benefits like professional development, helping with college costs and student loans, and helping fellows to pay their bills. I definitely agree with the professional development; however, my experience thus far in Miami has negated the latter benefits.
It’s hard living on an AmeriCorps stipend. I’m living below the federal poverty line. Some say AmeriCorps stipends are designed so that Fellows understand the nature of the people they are working for; it is designed to cover the basic necessities. For most people, that includes housing, food, and transportation (See how one family lives on $20,000/Year). For me, the basic necessities also include Discover, Sallie Mae, Bank of America, At&t, and CitiBank (I obviously love to shop). So, it’s been a struggle staying afloat in Miami of all places, where there is a surplus of good food, there’s a mall on every corner, and there is much to see and do. But I will NOT succumb to temptation. It is my goal to leave Miami having been financially and professionally successful!
Throughout my time with Strong Women, Strong Girls, I will be presenting a series of blogs called “Living on an AmeriCorps Stipend” with varying topics. I think if you learn how to get by on very little when you’re learning to manage your own money for the first time, you’re likely to develop good frugal habits that will be an asset to you throughout your entire life.
That brings me to the topic for this month, Bringing Holiday Cheer on a Budget! The holidays are a time to give, but on an AmeriCorps stipend, one has to be creative. For me, it’s difficult just finding the funds to get home, let alone buy gifts. But just because money is tight doesn’t mean you have to give up on giving. This year, be creative with your gifts. Here are 10 tips for bringing holiday cheer on a budget:

  1. Give the Gift of Service: I’m giving my family the gift of service by cooking Christmas dinner. It combines my love for cooking with my love for giving gifts. You can create a gift certificate pledging your commitment to perform some type of service like baby-sitting, yard maintenance, or a home cooked meal.
  2. Draw Names: If you have a large family like mine, have everyone draw names so that it is affordable for everyone. Buy only one gift instead of many gifts.
  3. Bake: I’m notorious for burdening my friends and family with baked goods and larger bellies during the holidays. Bake some goodies and place them in a decorative tin or wrap them in cellophane topped with a pretty bow.
  4. Use Your Special Talents: Take an inventory of your basic talents and skills to see which ones you could put to use to create holiday gifts. Most people would appreciate a gift that someone put time and effort into and personally make for them as opposed to something purchased at the mall.
  5. Don’t Buy Gift-Wrapping: The comic section of the newspaper is a fun way to wrap a gift. Or you could even reuse brown paper bags from the grocery store or recycled gift boxes and bags from previous gifts to wrap new gifts.
  6. Holiday Cards: Consider sending eCards when appropriate.  Sending electronic cards does not cost anything. I particularly like!
  7. Buy Gently Used: Have you ever made a visit to a pawn store, a consignment shop, or a used game store? Kids play a game for a few hours and get bored with it. They then trade in for a new one, and so often the shelves are filled with previously played games. It’s the same deal with clothes. You can find some great stuff at your local thrift store.
  8. Don’t Feel Pressure to Match Gifts: What if a friend or family member surprises you with a gift and you have nothing to give in exchange? Don’t say you left your gift at home and run to the mall to buy something. Instead, be honest. Explain that you kept your list tight this year, but really appreciate that they thought of you. If you want, you can always make plans to spend quality time with that person in the near future, by either grabbing coffee, catching a movie, or having lunch — and maybe picking up the tab as a treat.
  9. If you must shop, Shop AFTER The Holidays: Take this from a Shopanista, all the best deals are after the holidays.
  10. Stick to Your Budget: Stick to your budget and give gifts from the heart that don’t cause you to cringe when you open the bank statement next month. A thoughtful gift that doesn’t cause you angst in your pocketbook is the best gift for yourself and the recipient.

Don’t forget about the less fortunate. The holidays are also a good time of year to evaluate and rid yourself of things you no longer need but could be useful to others. While you’re shopping, donate some items to a non-profit charity like Goodwill or the Salvation Army. And, those donations are tax deductable!
Overall, the most important thing to remember is the true reason for the season. Refrain from over-extending yourself and ending up in debt over the holidays. Staying within budget will allow you to really enjoy this time of year with family and friends without winding up in “debt-regret” later.
*A year of living frugally is good for the soul!*