A Horse is Not a Home

A Year in the Life of an Americorps VISTA on the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota

“M-O-O-N.” said Tom. “That spells budget.”


The first thing to talk about with Americorps VISTA is the salary. They place you right at the poverty line so that you can understand what it’s like. The very first interview with Americorps is one question. “Here’s how much you’re gonna be making, are you still interested?” I said yes.

As time grew closer and closer I grew more and more anxious. I wasn’t worried about the details of my service or anything like that – I was worried about my budget. How am I going to pay rent on $800/mo? Even if I get a cheap place that’s still half my salary gone right there. Then food… I guess I just won’t buy anything and not have any fun at all.

Luckily, there are tricks to this just as there are institutions in place to help you. The information here is specific to my service in South Dakota, but I think a lot of this applies wherever you are.

1. Chambers of Commerce are bomb*

My mother works for a Chamber of Commerce, and her first instinct in helping me move was to look at the chamber of commerce site for Pierre, SD. Right on that page was a link titled Relocating to Pierre.

From there was is a rental search form on the city website. I had my requirements: must allow pets, must cost less than $400, and must have one bedrooms available (efficiencies would be too small for a cat to run around in). Something fit. I gave them a phone call, and they mailed me an application.

Besides maybe having helpful links, they are also your source of information on the local businesses. This will come in handy later when you actually start fundraising.

2. Subsidies are Your Friends

As a VISTA your income is non-countable. Remember that.

The rental application that I received from the apartment manager was thick. It included forms for Section 8 federal assistance. I filled them out, and my rent was lowered to $25 a month.

I applied for EBT (aka food stamps) and received the full assistance of $200 a month.

3. Some Grocery Stores are More Equal than Others

There are three things in Pierre that qualify as grocery stores: Lynn’s Dakotamart, Sutley’s Super Savings, and a Walmart Supercenter.

Walmart is amazing for things like pasta, rice, condiments, etc. They have their own brand called Great Value that’s very inexpensive, and the packaging kind of reminds me of Repo Man.

However, they are NOT amazing for produce. I’m checking out the price and quality differences between Dakotamart and Sutley’s now. I’ll report back.

4. For the rest of your money, use a budgeting tool like Excel, Quicken, or Mint.com

Being able to look at your budget at any moment and see how much money you have left in particular categories is extremely helpful.

I chose to use a site like Mint.com, but I’m not advocating any particular tools. Write your budget on a chalkboard or index cards if you want. You should do whatever you, personally, need to do to keep accurate records.

Here’s a screenshot of my  budget as of May 25:

I pay too much for my phone, and I owe money to the IRS. Such a bummer. Also, notice that I’ve gone over in several categories.

This is OK.  I’m in my second month of service. Your budget is not going to be perfect, and you’ll probably need a bit of savings to tide you over these miscalculations. The numbers aren’t exactly even, either, because I’ve been tuning them as I go.

Several of these are roll-over budgets: business services, pets, gas, and entertainment. This means that whatever balance I have in them carries over. I’ve already spent $16 of next month’s entertainment,  but luckily I will have $26 extra for my cat next month. I try to save extra money in his budget for emergencies, and also for new treats every couple of months. 🙂

Also, I try to save some money into a couple of savings accounts: one for emergencies (aiming for $1200 there), and another for Christmas shopping ($300 in there now). Mint takes care of that too but it’s in a slightly separate area than the master budget.

5. “Acquire Wealth”

My brother, who is 7 years my senior took me to hike a bit of the long trail in Vermont. He wrote down some lessons he wanted to impart to me, and lately one of them has been more relevant than ever: Acquire wealth. This seems strange in a post about how I barely make any money, but my brother was very clear in pointing out that wealth does not equal money.

What I can equate this tip the most to right now is “If somebody offers to give you something, take it.” As such, I have become quite a packrat lately. I save cardboard boxes, jars, egg cartons, yogurt containers. I don’t know what I’ll use them for… yet.

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2 responses to ““M-O-O-N.” said Tom. “That spells budget.”

  1. elizabethtool May 26, 2011 at 9:07 am

    Mark, I have been living like that for the last five years! Only without section 8 or ebt. (long story) It is impossible with emergency car repairs. (Thanks for the transmission Mom!) I would go through it all again though to be where I am mentally. I could have extracted myself from the situation by moving back to Virginia though. And I have a great family and support system. When I lived in Oregon my neighbors were bad off due to that lack. Undriveable cars left sitting. People selling plasma every week. The cycle of depression/forgetting to take meds/eating unhealthy food/alcohol/drugs. People whose lives so far fallen that the tv is on from morning until night. TV is the babysitter for the elderly and mentally/emotionally challenged. But then again its the babysitter of the middle class too. I was still considered well off with my part-time job! Even as poor as I was I still can’t truly understand what it is like to survive without support as so many people do. Then there is the lower level of poverty the people who can’t keep it together enough to have a bank account/pay rent/make the good choice to buy food instead of lottery tickets and alcohol. America is not a good place to fall. Getting up again is a chore and the new regulations since 911 makes it twice as hard. No address no job no apartment no license. Getting mail isn’t free!

    Now I’m working full time again your brother is right wealth does not equal money but I had figured that out before just not to the depth that I understand it now. There is another level of freedom when you get past the nonsense of money and possessions. The money and possessions I have now are more appreciated almost a celebration! Instead of more more more. At the same time I know they don’t really mean anything. I can survive without them.

    When I moved to Montana my boxes were sitting in my friend”s house. She said That is your entire life. To which I replied That is everything!

    Thanks for putting up the budget. I’m not good with budgets and since I put this move on my credit card I’m paying interest for the first time in a decade. It drives me crazy and I thought I would have it paid off by now! It does go down every month but I know I could do better with it!
    One more thing about the stuff you are saving. I have observed this many times people in hard times feel like they do not have enough so they start hoarding. Poverty breeds houses with plastic containers, jars, fast food containers, stacks of newspapers and magazines. I know you are a creative person but a word of warning if you don’t think of something to do with them soon take the time to recycle them – THAT is doing something positive with them.
    Save enough of those jars and you can build a bottle house!

    • AphelionZ May 27, 2011 at 4:49 pm

      If by “bottle house,” you’re talking about one of these: http://conceptrends.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/06/earth_ship3.jpg then yes! That’s getting towards why I’m keeping all the cardboard.

      For example, I have this garden, and I want to start elevating the plants so I can centrally irrigate them from below with a basin instead if watering them individually all the time. So, I’m keeping them around for now until I get inspired to attempt some sort of solution. I’ll definitely recycle if/when it gets out of hand.

      Here’s my current hoard / garden. Don’t laugh. https://ahorseisnotahome.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/imag0070.jpg. Starting from the bottom left and going clockwise:

      Soil, mailing supplies and my file cabinet, my cat totem, a stuffed animal left behind by another VISTA who transferred back to MA, Strawberries, soybeans, carrots, sage, beets, squash, turnip + spinach, random elastic bands, trash, boxes, cans, box i just got today and was too lazy to re-organize with a milk carton in it.

      ..and yeah, poverty sucks, it’s crazy. The group I works with is trying to increase financial literacy in Crow Creek and they’re doing a stupendous job. Next year the high school will be working personal finance and literacy as part of its curriculum.

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