Friday, November 20, 2009

"Do you need any money?”

The most common question I get from home is, by far, “Do you need any money?” No, I don’t need any money. While Peace Corps doesn’t pay us a salary, they do provide us with a living allowance. The purpose of the purpose of the living allowance is to feed and house us in a modest way, a modest way that is comparable to the way most South Africans in our assigned area live. Since we’re living and working with people who live in poverty, well, you get the picture.

While I have plenty of money, I don’t have money to give to every child that asks me for some, and many children ask me for money every day. I give my standard response: “I’m sorry, I don’t have any,” which feels horrid and is untrue. (I have a little.) My fear is, that if I give one child some money, well, in living with 800 of them on a college campus, the “dam” will burst and my “having to say no” situation will worsen.

When I lived in the States I lived close to downtown and found myself being “panhandled” often. It was hard to tell these people “no” too, and once had a friend suggest, “Why don’t you buy them a sandwich?”

In this spirit, I’ve decided to allot some of my monthly allowance to “buying the African children a sandwich.” This means that I’m buying a jar of peanut butter and a box of crackers to have on-hand when I’m asked for money. (Often, the children state that they’re hungry.)

Now, before everyone’s heart strings are pulled, let me state as well: most of these children, asking me for money, are wearing the latest trendy, expensive jeans and all are carrying cell phones. Where does this money for these items come from? Well, I’m not sure, and worry, with the girls especially, where it might come from.

I’ve added a category to my spending plan to cover the expense of having food on hand for the times when I do have a hungry child asking for money. I have been giving a modest amount to the churches of village as well.

Peace Corps suggests a spending plan for volunteers to help with managing our living allowances, and I’ve run across one in a South African careers publication aimed at South African college students, and have, of course, my own. I thought them interesting to compare:

Peace Corps’
11% household/utilities
10% transportation
41% food
6% clothing
10% entertainment/holiday
4% reading material
8% work supplies
10% incidentals

South Africa’s
25-40% housing/amenities
15% transportation
10% food
5% clothing
5% entertainment/holiday
10% (or more) savings
5% credit card/loan payment
5% other expenses
(varies) tax

10% spirit/community contributions
11% household
4% transportation
52% food
4% entertainment/holiday
11% phone/postage
4% tutor (but reimbursed)
4% banking fees

By far, most of my money goes to buying food. (I spend more on private health insurance in the States, even more than I spend on housing.) I spend 10% more on food than the Peace Corps recommends and 42% more than is recommended by South Africa. I’m thinking that the South African recommendation is assuming that the South African college students are eating only Raman noodles and white bread, which seems to be the case.

My second largest categories for expenses are tied: one for maintaining household and the other for phone/postage. Money for maintaining household covers cleaning supplies, toiletries, and the like. The South African housing category is so high, I’m sure, because it is assuming that housing is bought or rented, whereas Peace Corps has arranged housing for us through our communities.

I also spend a chunk on phone and postage, because it is important to me to maintain contact with my loved ones at home. I guess, theoretically, this money could also fall under a “fun” category. (If this were the case, my second largest category would be “fun” at 15%.)

My next largest category, then, is the spirit/community contributions category that covers my expense for contributions to church and peanut butter crackers.

My last categories share 4% of my living allowance equally: transportation, entertainment/holiday, tutor, and banking fees.

Peace Corps provides us money to pay for transportation as most of us have to travel 20-30 miles to our nearest shopping town to buy food. I save a bit here, because I do have a market within walking distance where I can by fresh fruits and vegetables. I do travel either to Vryburg or Taung twice a month to stock up on cleaning supplies, toiletries, and non-perishables. This travel money also gets me into my “free” form of fun: visiting the public library.

Which brings me to my entertainment category: I spend 4% of my living allowance on eating out, which is a form of “fun” for me. At this, I generally eat out twice a month. What I mostly do for fun is free: I walk around with my camera and South African field guides trying to identify regional flora/fauna, which keeps me ridiculously entertained for hours. I also read voraciously, and since the public libraries are “free,” I have lots of fun time here. (Actually, as an international, I was required to pay a R50 fee at the Vryburg public library, which is renewable annually and is highly worth it!)

An aside: One of my favorite forms of entertainment in the States is going to the movies. The closest movie theater to me is 3 hours a way in Kimberley, so I haven’t seen a movie since leaving the States in July. I’m hoping to somehow devise a “movie night” here on campus to give the students something to do on Saturday nights (besides going to the bars) and so, very selfishly, that I can watch movies too. There is a lecture auditorium and even a large auditorium with a stage that would both serve as suitable venues. I must put some thought into how to acquire the equipment: screen, projector, DVD player, and of course, DVDs.

Other 4% categories include money for a language tutor and money for banking fees. Peace Corps encourages and pays for a language tutor. We have to arrange this service with a Tswana-speaking person in our community, pay them out-of-pocket, and then we are reimbursed by Peace Corps. Four percent of my living allowance is budgeted for my tutor and I hope to put the reimbursed cost toward a traveling/holiday allowance. Traveling is cheap in South Africa when compared to traveling costs in the States and elsewhere. Peace Corps, of course, does not pay for us to travel while on holiday. While I have a teeny, teeny amount of money from the States, I’m trying to hang onto it in case I have an emergency and need to get home. (Peace Corps does fly us home when there is a crisis with immediate family members, but in my extended family, I have people I would need to get home to that Peace Corps would not cover.) I’m hoping to recycle this reimbursed money from my “tutor fund” into a holiday/traveling fund.

And lastly, 4% of my monthly living allowance has gone to banking fees. This is outrageous to me and completely unacceptable and I’m working like mad to decrease it. In the States, most of my debit card transactions are free. Not so here in South Africa: every time the card is swiped, a banking fee is deducted. Not only that, if you go inside the bank and use a teller, you are charged a FORTUNE!! There are also various banking fees charged each month. It would have been helpful to know this before we were turned loose with our debit cards shopping and withdrawing money all over South Africa. Again, this awareness will help me conserve funds in the future, but the FNB of South Africa has made quite a chunk of money off of me for two months!!

That’s it for my spending plan. Let’s see what the others offer that mine lack. South Africa rightly recommends saving 10% or more of monthly income and I certainly try to do this in the States. Peace Corps argues that we shouldn’t be saving money during our service here: we’re to be working and living modestly. Therefore, Peace Corps doesn’t pay us well enough to save any money, so other than the reimbursed tutor fund, I’m not. (I do try to “put away” any money remaining from my monthly spending, but this is a tiny amount.)

South Africa recommends 5% to loan and credit card debt. Since, as PC volunteers, we are visitors/guests to South Africa, we don’t have the credentials (length of employment, length of residence, etc.) to obtain credit, and therefore don’t have this expense.

Both Peace Corps and South Africa recommend 6% and 5% allotted for clothing expense respectively, and you’ll notice I do not. I hate shopping for clothes and struggle with buying clothes for myself in the States, so I need to adjust my spending plan here to allow clothing purchases and actually buy some clothes. Yuck!

Both Peace Corps and South Africa’s plans allot for incidentals and Peace Corps allots for work supplies and reading materials. While I don’t have a separate category for these, these costs are covered in my “household” allotment.

So, that’s me and money. Too much information? I’m sure. I’ll look for something more exciting for next time.

Soon, Karen


  1. You know me, I love details, so I think you wrote this just for me! It is wonderful to have this perspective and to imagine you working all of this out. You are really amazing and wonderful. Keep up the good work. Do you have other souvenirs like your bird-nest now in your room?

  2. No, I don't have other souvenirs... I send you anything I find! I was hoping to send YOU the bird's nest, but it is distegrating in my room... I wanted to keep it to make sure there were no bugs in it before I sent it, but now it doesn't look very pretty...