Not Paying Bills in the Peace Corps Caused Me More Financial Stress Than I Realized
I can still hear the incessantly loud honking horns, the faint smell of spicy noodles, the rising steam carried by the humid wind eager to reach my nose.
I remember walking to my school just around the corner, following a little pack of children with jet black hair donning backpacks in a rainbow of color and characters.
I remember the shouting from older men selling fruit off their rotting carts.
I remember it all.
From 2014 – 2016, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in China. I did what many people dream of doing, and went on adventures people only talked about.
I stepped foot outside the smallness of my hometown and everything I knew to fully integrate into a culture unknown to me.
For 27 months, I slept in a bed 8,000 miles away from my parents, siblings, and best friends. I struggled to speak a language that always twisted my tongue in foreign ways to spit words that would help me make friends.
In truth, I loved every second of it. I’m happy to say I had an excellent and unexpected two years of service.
Peace Corps Influence on My Financial Stress
Living in the culture, somehow breaching the language barrier to make friends, speaking a different language, and eating exotic foods, was all one magnificent part of my Peace Corps journey. But there was a second part that made my entire experience even more incredible.
My lack of financial stress.
Before I left for the Peace Corps, I spent an entire year working four part-time jobs, paying off debts, saving money, and ensuring I had everything I needed financially before I embarked on this incredible journey.
I made sure I had enough money to pay off the one student loan that couldn’t be deferred and that I had something extra in case I wanted to splurge on a fancy trip or in case of an emergency.
I even sold all of my belongings, including my car.
Save Less to Get More
Peace Corps encouraged us to come with nothing, to live like locals, to live simply, to be volunteers. I heeded that very call and came with nothing more than three suitcases, a backpack, and the sum of a single month’s mortgage payment. I’m not historically known to be good at saving, but this was the most financially secure I had ever been after years of financial stress.
I was worried I would struggle, not having wads of money saved up in preparation for disaster even though I am known to live paycheck to paycheck.
But after months of living in China, I became financially comfortable. Peace Corps Volunteer service is a sweet gig in that way, especially in Chongqing, China. Here were some of the incredible benefits they don’t usually detail.
My apartment was paid for.
Utilities were paid for.
My phone bill was stupid cheap.
I had no car to insure or manage.
They provided a monthly stipend that covered my one living expense – food.
They also provided a designated travel allowance and language learning allowance.
I even had enough money from my stipend to cover a year’s worth of gym membership.
I was living on about 2,500 RMB a month, which, at the time, came out to about $380 a month.
But there was no doubt I was financially free.
Two Blissful Years Without Financial Stress
For two years, I went to bed not worrying about money, not worrying about how I would pay rent, not worrying about my utilities, not worry about my car.
The only things I was worrying about were learning one of the world’s most difficult languages, trying to be the fantastic foreign teacher with my students, and, funny enough, losing weight. All of which I thrived in.
Living in China as a Peace Corps Volunteer and without financial stress was glorious.
Peace Corps set it up that way. They made you so comfortable that it was difficult to leave and return home. What sane person would want to leave such a life where they never worried about their living expenses?
It was like being a teenager again, and only mom and dad worried about how we would live.
I was so comfortable I forgot what I had to face when I came home. I forgot I would again have to take care of myself with no one’s help but my own.
Peace Corps did not prepare me for this. I never even knew it was something I should’ve prepared for.
When My Financial Stress Came Back
In July 2016, I came home stacked with a healthy readjustment allowance that was enough to cover maybe six months of rent.
Later that summer, I intended to return to China (but that’s a different story). When that fell through, I was back home in the US looking for a job.
Whatever money I had left from my readjustment allowance seemed to disappear in a matter of months, even though I was living with my parents.
When I financed my first car, I thought the cost would be no big deal. Then the apartment came. But that apartment was empty, so then came buying all the items needed to fill it. With no extra funds to purchase those things, I opened credit cards, buying things until my apartment was fully furnished. “I’ll pay it down later,” I told myself.
Before I knew it, I was $12,000 in debt, and the raging financial stress I had kept at bay for two years had returned.
I fell into a familiar cycle of constantly worrying about money, always worrying about how I would pay for things, and the job I worked never covered it. As a result, I was continually reliving my life in China, wishing I could have that sense of security back. It’s been five years, and I still haven’t been able to recreate the financial freedom I felt, but I’m working on it.
It all happened so quickly. Even today, I couldn’t tell you just exactly how I got myself there or what I even bought.
I had no education on financial wellness, but I was well-versed in financial stress, and it is still something costing me greatly today. Of course, the pandemic didn’t help either.
Peace Corps Didn’t Prepare Me For This
Peace Corps didn’t prepare me for readjustment into an American lifestyle or coach me on financial wellness after my service was over. No one sat next to me whispering pearls of wisdom about inserting myself back into a costly American culture.
Maybe it wasn’t their job.
But fortunately, I was able to go back to China in 2019.
From that experience, I learned a few things that might help the next hopeful Peace Corps Volunteer avoid financial stress so they can thrive after returning home.
If you have a car, keep it. You can drive it when you get home from service. Leave it with a trusted family member.
Don’t sell your things. Instead, place them in a storage unit. You can put your car in there too.
Save a little more. Put a little extra money in an account and reserve it expressly for when you come home.
Don’t finance. Unless you absolutely have to finance, try not to incur those big costs upfront. Take it all in strides.
Pace yourself. Coming home from Peace Corps is SO overwhelming and shocking for a lot of people. Avoid shopping for things you don’t need until you are financially capable.
Buy cheap for now. If you have to, get your necessary household items from Goodwill or Habitat for Humanity. Take only what you need until you get back on your feet.
Prevent Financial Stress With Nav.it
Having the proper education to manage my finances more effectively and prepare for any situation of financial stress could have significantly impacted my return from Peace Corps service.
Nav.it helps you manage your money, understand your finances, and redefine your ideas of wealth and financial wellness.
“You’re here to make a difference in this world. And we’re here to help you live that life, well funded.”
As Peace Corps Volunteers, we strive to make a difference. Nav.it helps other Peace Corps volunteers prepare, organize, and manage their money in healthy ways so they are prepared for life, before and after their service. Learn more about this app and download it here.
Kelly Branyik is a mindful writer and published author. She has written for multiple publications including Fluent in 3 Months, PRO Motion Music News, Colorado Fun Guide, and frequently writes for Elephant Journal. Her first book, “It Depends: A Guide to Peace Corps” published in 2017. She is also the author of her first novel, “The Lost Pleiad”. Kelly lives in central Colorado. She loves to read, write, travel, and be of benefit to others. Learn more about her online at kellybranyik.com.