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Experiencing New York on the Fellow Stipend

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Rachel Leshin | Former SAGA Fellow

August 10, 2016

About 14 months ago, I sat in the office of a trusted campus mentor in pursuit of career advice. Just one month from that day, I would be thrust from the ivory tower into the ‘real world’ without a job, apartment, or sense of purpose. I was lost.

“My first question for you is this,” my mentor started. “Is money at all a factor in your decision for next year?”

I stared at him blankly, unsure of what he meant.

“Do you care about how much money you make next year? Or would you be fine living on a stipend?”

“Oh, it doesn’t matter to me at all,” I answered, without a trace of hesitation.

He paused and cleared his throat. “Let me rephrase that. Are you fine going without Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks for a whole year?” 

That question, admittedly, was more difficult. Having looked into nonprofit fellowships prior to our meeting, I had already considered the possibility of living on a less-than-generous stipend. I realized at that moment, however, that I had only thought about it in an abstract, theoretical sense; no one had ever put things in such bluntly practical terms before.

I hesitated. “I can be fine with that.”

Fourteen months later, I have learned how to “go without Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks for a year,” both literally and figuratively. Before I go into detail on my budgeting regimen, I should make clear the disclaimer that I did drink a few cups of Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks over the course of the year. As the saying goes, “everything in moderation–even moderation.”

After accepting my offer at SAGA, the first big decision to make was housing. Everyone had told me that housing pricing was different (read: scaled up) in New York City, but I quickly came to realize that it doesn’t have to be so stark from other cities. Comprehensive and user-friendly sites like Streeteasy, Zillow, and Naked Apartments are all great places to start for housing searches, and on there you’ll be able to find apartments ranging in price from $600/month to $6,000/month (literally) in different neighborhoods throughout the city. One key thing, wherever you’re looking, is to strongly consider finding roommates. This cuts down the cost of living in NYC immensely, and — for a lot of people — provides a helpful outlet after a draining day of work. Additionally, adding roommates to your housing situations allows you to purchase household items in bulk, which can help to cut down on living expenses (more on this later).

Once I had solidified my living situation and acclimated to my job at SAGA, I decided to seek additional work. I hadn’t anticipated finding a second job, but it quickly became clear to me that doing so was not only feasible given our work schedule, but also quite common among members of my team. Schedules vary slightly from school to school, but my workday ended between 4:15 and 4:30 on most days, which enabled me to set my availability for other jobs as early as 5:00. I found an outside-of-work tutoring gig through Care.com within the first week of my search, and I soon began traveling to the east side of Manhattan twice a week after work to provide homework help and academic enrichment to two young children. Other tutors found similar jobs through Varsity Tutors and WyzAnt, both of which connect tutors to individuals and families seeking help. Whatever the website of choice, these second jobs provide a really great alternative source of income for tutors, allowing us to treat ourselves to an occasional cup of coffee every now and again. Plus, having the job title of ‘SAGA tutor’ certainly does not hurt to edge out the competition for these kinds of side gigs (who would you rather have help your sixth-grade student with arithmetic, a professional math tutor or a consultant?).

If you are looking forward to not interacting with children past 4:30 Monday-Friday, there are plenty of other ways to make extra money on the side. I, for example, joined SAGA’s Recruitment Team in January as a way to earn additional income. 

Whether you decide to pursue a side job or not, it is incredibly helpful (and important) to budget your money throughout the year. I personally created an Excel document at the beginning of the year in which I inputted each of my expenses for the month to ensure that I didn’t exceed my allotted amount. I’m told that the app Mint is also a helpful tool to keep track of where and how your money is being spent, and I have a bunch of friends who are indebted to it. To cut down on the expenses themselves, I found it really helpful to buy in bulk as you are able to. My roommates and I used Soap.com for household items like toilet paper, shampoo, and sandwich bags, and I know that Boxed.com provides similarly good deals. The convenience store down the street will seem (and often be) the easier option, but I’ve found it important to remember that spending consciously means sometimes taking the extra 10 minutes to save $10. Over time, it adds up.

Having taken pains to find roommates, pursue outside work, and spend consciously, I am happy to report that I was able to occasionally treat myself. While there absolutely were times when I would eat at home before a group dinner so that I wouldn’t have to buy a meal out, or propose a walk in the park instead of a coffee meet-up (subtle plug for the unlimited monthly metro pass), I was able to reward the hard work I put in at school every day with delicious non-homemade food and drink every once and a while. Because New York City is so large and varied, it’s also very possible to treat yourself in small ways; that is to say, there is a lot you can find between MacDonald’s and Wolfgang Steakhouse, or between an impromptu street performance and Hamilton. However and whenever you choose to treat yourself, the tireless effort you’ll put in as SAGA Fellow and the meaningful gains you will make with your students as a result will make all of these treats even sweeter. 

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