I quit my job and joined the Peace Corps

This guest post from Bon is part of the “reader stories” feature at Get Rich Slowly. Some stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success — or failure. These stories feature folks from all levels of financial maturity and with all sorts of incomes.

I've always been a bit of a capitalist so to speak, so when I decided to join the Peace Corps several years ago, not only was it a shock to my family and friends, it was a little bit of a shock to me. At the time I loved my job but knew that I would regret staying too close to the corporate path I had been following.

Calculating Opportunity Cost
One of Bonnie's young friends

When considering a major lifestyle change, ask yourself if you're really losing your entire salary when you take a break from work. When I was weighing the financial impact Peace Corps would have, I knew the program would cover my travel, living expenses, and health care, so I wouldn't really be giving up my entire salary for two years. I'd only be giving up what I might potentially have saved at the end of each year. Instead of my opportunity cost being something like $100,000 for two years, it was actually closer to $14,000 total. This seemed like a reasonable price to pay for the experience.

So, I did it.

I lived in West Africa for two years working as a small business advisor, and I loved every single second. Okay, maybe not every second, but as most volunteers will attest; although you join Peace Corps to serve others, you come away from the experience feeling as though you were the one who received the greatest service.

When I returned, my perspective on money, wealth, and consumption had changed. I had lived extremely simply, and this dramatically impacted my spending habits. (An early trip to Banana Republic brought me to tears.) I've always been frugal, even before my service, but living in a developing country on $150/month makes it much easier to see the line between Wants and Needs. Years after my service, the savings I've gained from my modest lifestyle have easily made up for that initial opportunity cost.

Standing Out From the Crowd

I had never considered that international volunteer work could be advantageous for my career; in fact, I always considered it a bit of a professional sacrifice. However, my experience set me apart from other job candidates. When I returned home, it took some time but I found an excellent position in the field I wanted. A bit further down the line when I wanted to live overseas again, my time in Peace Corps was a key selling point to my new employer, which was looking for someone with international experience.

I now live and work in Asia, and I'm happily back on that corporate path I was following before my service. But now I have confidence knowing that I can change routes and be successful.

Other Advantages

Aside from making frugal habits nearly automatic and gaining valuable international and cross-cultural experience, there are other potential financial advantages of programs like Peace Corps:

  • Time to let your nest egg grow. This isn't a planned benefit, but I can see great value to those near retirement who may want to leave their jobs but aren't quite ready to tap into their savings or social security. Why not spend two years volunteering and let compound interest work its magic? Peace Corps has been trying to attract older and more experienced volunteers recently. A caveat to this: One of the older volunteers in my group needed to end her service early for health reasons, so be sure to have a backup plan.
  • Experience. Rather than waiting out the economy unemployed or in a job outside of your field, this could be a unique option for those who need to build experience for their careers (or before applying to a graduate program).
  • Graduate program affiliations. Peace Corps has affiliation with several universities that allow you to either take part in the Master's International program, where your service counts towards your master's degree, or the Fellows/USA program, which provides eligibility for generous scholarships upon your return from service. Definitely look into this early as offerings are limited and application timeframes can be long.

Words of Warning

Just as there are potential benefits, there are also several cautions and considerations:

  • I'm not advocating that anyone should join a program like Peace Corps that hasn't already considered it strongly. I simply want to help people understand that long-term volunteer service can have a neutral and sometimes positive rather than a negative impact on your finances.
  • I believe most of the benefits I discussed above can be gained from any experience where you are able to spend significant time living at a similar income level to a disadvantaged community. Peace Corps is a U.S. government-based program; if you don't like this or it wouldn't apply to you, consider VSO or IESC. Local options based in the U.S. include AmeriCorps and Teach for America.
  • The Peace Corps support post-service (financial, medical etc.) was, in my experience, not very strong. Unfortunately, many of my peers were un- or under- employed for several months after service; so it's important to have a solid plan for this period. (Grad school is a common next step.)

There are several things that can make Peace Corps difficult or impossible:

  • You can join as a married couple, but you cannot take kids with you.
  • Having significant debt or a mortgage will not disqualify you, but will make things harder on you if you are living on a local salary.
  • You will have to pass a medical screening, but many times known medical issues can be accommodated.
  • Unless you have strong work experience, you will need a college degree.

Finally, if you do decide to do international volunteer work, don't be tempted to spend a lot of money on Stuff before you go. I spent too much, and most of my “essentials” ended up under my bed for two years!

Bicycle parts dealer

A Chance to See the World

Full-time volunteer work isn't for everyone. That said, if you're longing to see the world, but don't see yourself being a blogging nomad or specializing in “lifestyle design” — and if you genuinely want to push yourself and serve others — your finances shouldn't stand in your way.

Are there others who have participated in similar programs with very different experiences? If you're considering a program like this, what else might be preventing you from taking action?

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Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

My grandma did two peace corps experiences soon after she retired from nursing. She loved her experience in Figi, but didn’t have as good a time in Antigua.

I’ve never done anything like this, but there are many opportunities for graduate students who are doing work on developing countries through grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other nonprofits. Such experiences are an asset for many graduate programs and employers.

Great article!

Leslie M
Leslie M
10 years ago

I am a “Peace Corps kid”.
My father joined the Peace Corps in the early 70’s, and ended up building his life overseas – got married, then my brother and I were born…
7 years ago, I came to live in the US, and my brother soon followed.
So, although I’m not exactly connected to the program, I am very fond of it, and thought I’d share 🙂

leslie
leslie
10 years ago

This is something I am VERY interested in doing at some point. Can’t right now because I have two young children. I love the idea of doing this when I am ready to retire though.

Thanks for sharing this!

Everyday Tips
Everyday Tips
10 years ago

What a great story! I cannot envision having the ability to take 2 years off at this time as I have kids, but what an experience for those who can do it. As you said, having debt would make it very difficult, so I am sure there is only a small part of the population that could actually take 2 years and go abroad for volunteer work. It would be great for a college grad though.

Thanks for sharing.

Kristen
Kristen
10 years ago

I LOVE this idea! I have considered this possibility before, though only in a cursory manner. What a wonderful way to have a life changing experience. Congrats!

Steven@hundredgoal.com
10 years ago

Peace Corps is my next logical step, so this article was great for me! Thanks! When I began college it was because I knew that is what I needed to do in order to get into the Peace Corps. Without a college degree, my chances of getting in would be next to impossible. I started out taking classes part-time while working full-time. Five years later and I’m almost finished with my undergrad in Environmental Science. I’ve been working to eliminate all of my debt before graduation so that I can leave without the worry and stress of having financial responsibilities… Read more »

Michele
Michele
10 years ago

I am all for this but see where if you have family responsibilities it can tie you down. I have volunteered locally with a non profit that send kids to Latin America to do service projects modeled after the Peace Corps. Mostly High School and College age go for 8 weeks in the summer to do clean water, healthy household and reforestation projects. The statement you made– “although you join Peace Corps to serve others, you come away from the experience feeling as though you were the one who received the greatest service.” could apply to our program as well.… Read more »

Josh
Josh
10 years ago

I strongly agree with your post. When I graduated college in 2007, I was so focused on obtaining a high-paid job with prestigious firm (which I did). After two years, things didn’t work out well, the firm suffered greatly due to financial meltdown and I was let go. I strongly considered Peace Corps as I am very involved with community services and volunteering programs, but ended up getting a job with a Federal Agency – which I love. I still am trying to get involved with programs like ‘habitat for humanity’ and ‘engineers without borders’ so I can look into… Read more »

Jan
Jan
10 years ago

Nice job on the article. I have a number of friends who have worked in the Peace Corps (including a guy I almost married who now heads the US side of a large African bank). I have my application ready. I am just not sure- yet. It is coming. Maybe for my birthday!

Mike
Mike
10 years ago

What a great story! this article was great for me! Thanks!

Carol@inthetrenches
10 years ago

Very interesting post. I have always thought of the Peace Corps for college age people, not empty nesters. Why is a college degree required? What type of work did you do overseas?

Kaitlyn
Kaitlyn
10 years ago

Great article–I did the domestic alternative by joining the AmeriCorps program last year. During that year, I lived on a $10,000/year salary but still managed to get married and buy a house with my husband before the year was over. It was a very tough experience–living in poverty and serving others in poverty–but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I start my graduate program in the fall, and the AmeriCorps education award is more than covering my first quarter. And I would definitely agree that employers look kindly on non-profit work experience. I’m working part time as a receptionist in… Read more »

momcents
momcents
10 years ago

One of my friends applied for the Peace Corps after college, but was turned down based on having too much debt and not enough experience. It’s a shame, she was really enthusiastic about the opportunity.

I like the idea of applying at retirement. Seems like a great way to kick off the next phase of one’s life.

hugh
hugh
10 years ago

I’m a returned Peace Corps volunteer, and I share many of your views on the experience. Financially it may be slightly less lucrative than staying in the workforce, but LIFE IS TOO SHORT! The life experience more than makes up for that. Regarding the Peace Corps and frugality, it has definitely affected my views on money and what it takes to be happy. I’ve been out 8 years and I can’t say I still appreciate a hot shower as much as I did when I first got home, but some of the effects have stayed with me. One point you… Read more »

Dolly
Dolly
10 years ago

I am so glad that there are people like you. When I was younger I thought that I would want to do something of this nature but the truth is that I have a major mental illness and I fear that I would end up in a state of severe depression/anxiety if I were to disconnect that radically from my home base. As I get older I hope perhaps I will not have to work so much and can do some volunteer work on a more local basis.

friend
friend
10 years ago

I joined the Peace Corps right out of college. While teaching in Africa, I met the love of my life, also a volunteer. Our son want to join when he’s old enough–I guess we have talked it up quite a bit!

Judy
Judy
10 years ago

Thank you for writing this! I am currently serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala. I was fortunate in that I served two years as an AmeriCorps Volunteer before coming here 15 months ago. I arrived with budgeting skills and I made the conscious decision to live a frugal and purpose driven life here in Guatemala. Upon arriving, I decided to focus on accumulating experiences instead of “stuff.” I have been able to save $100 USD a month so I am actually better off financially then I was in the states. I also have access to high quality medical… Read more »

Lindsey
Lindsey
4 years ago
Reply to  Judy

Hi Judy!

I had trouble reaching your blog because it might be private. I am just out of college signed up for Peace Corps but also interested in Americorps. Would you mind speaking to your experience in both organizations?

Lindsey

David/moneycrashers
David/moneycrashers
10 years ago

That’s some courageous stuff!

Its sure to give you a diffeent perspective on money.

You can even get that by visitng any other foreign country with a standard of living less than ours.

Just see how people live.

Its almost embarrassing when you compare it to how we live here.

Eye-opening

Emmy
Emmy
10 years ago

I did a year of AmeriCorps right out of high school. In many ways it really changed my life and helped me to grow up. I would absolutely recommend it to anyone else. Even though I didn’t end up going into a nonprofit career I still put it on my resume, and I still get asked about it in interviews. If you’ve been through a program like that, you’ve been tested. You’ve pushed yourself. And any time I feel like the challenges in my life are too tough I remember what I’ve already accomplished, and I know I can get… Read more »

Nawang Geljen
Nawang Geljen
10 years ago

Hi Bon. I loved you article. 2 of my friends did the same thing and had a great experince. I am moving to Nepal to do the same thign (minus the peace corps) part in Oct. Last year I did it for a few months and was able to build a orphanage for kids with Aids. this year I plan to stay for years and do a whole lot more. I get funding help for the school from a western donor, but all other expenses where paid from my personal savings. Can you have you permission to use your article… Read more »

Carla Briceno
Carla Briceno
10 years ago

Great blog! And very well summarized and sincere. I was a volunteer in Guatemala (89-91) and feel incredibly fortunate to have had the experience. There are many intangible benefits to serving in the Peace Corps, including being part of a large tribe of Returned Peace Corps volunteers. What I’ve seen as we grow our business is that when I reach out to fellow RPCVs, even if they served on a different continent, on most occasions they are warm, friendly and helpful. That is something hard to quantify, but it’s very valuable to say the least. Thank you again for a… Read more »

Tom
Tom
10 years ago

I’ve been teaching ESL for a couple of years now. It’s another route if people want to spend an extended amount of time abroad but still want to be earning an income. All you need is a passport from a native English speaking country and a degree in any discipline. An ESL/EFL certificate is helpful, but not mandatory. East Asia is a good place to start. South Korea is a popular choice and it’s where I began my teaching. The wage is low compared to Western standards (about $2000 a month) but your airfare will be covered and you’ll be… Read more »

Anonymous
Anonymous
10 years ago

You forgot to mention UN Volunteers, which typically takes more senior professionals. I worked in a developing country in SE Asia right out of college. (My post was arranged through an organization associated with my alma mater.) I worked with a lot of UN Volunteers and traditional UN workers. One of the volunteers was formerly mayor of a city in New Zealand and was positioned in one of the Prime Minister’s major advisory offices.

bon
bon
10 years ago

Thanks for the kind feedback and helpful comments(and yay for the RPCVs)! @Steven#6: Since PC is such a major goal for you, I would apply to an MIP program after graduation and see how it goes – can’t hurt, just don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t go through this round. @Carol#11: PC likes to send people with measurable skills to new communities – typically communities will donate housing or other assets, so being able to say “this volunteer brings XYZ credentials” makes the volunteer’s value easier to demonstrate. I was doing small scale business and tourism advisory while in PC.… Read more »

John Coyne
John Coyne
10 years ago

If you are interested in what a lot of RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) have to say about the Peace Corps you might want to check out http://www.peacecorpsworldwide.org, a website full of blogs on all types of issues, from writing your own book(s) on the experience to living back in the U.S.A.

Larry
Larry
10 years ago

Much respect to people who decide to join the Peace Corps after establishing themselves in the corporate world.

Nester
Nester
10 years ago

Good for you. Liked the feedback on international experience. Glad everything panned out. Thanks for sharing!

Steve
Steve
10 years ago

Bon – I’m also an RPCV, exited from the corporate world in 1986 and returned to it after service. I appreciate your examination of the financial consequences of service. As someone who considers oneself a capitalist, I’m guessing you’re pretty comfortable with taking risks? The risk/reward equation might also factor into the outcome after one’s service, no? Accomplishing and succeeding during 2+ years in a challenging environment might make one more likely to succeed stateside? I wonder if there is any data available on the income status of returned volunteers. Anyway, nice article. Thanks!

eileen
eileen
10 years ago

When I was a junior in college and deciding to join Peace Corps, an RPCV professor of mine said during a pitch/presentation about PC, “Show me one other job you can get right out of college where you have your living expenses paid, you get health insurance, and after 2 years you have $7,000 in the bank.” That convinced me.

Eileen, RPCV Guinea, 98-01

Brian
Brian
10 years ago

Seconding what Hugh wrote, Peace Corps is not for everyone. This post would have been more useful if it told people what to look for in any overseas volunteer program to protect their financial interest: travel expenses, health care, stipend, resettlement allowance. My advice: find a program that can assure you that you will be working in your area of interest or using your skills. In my experience, Peace Corps places unqualified generalists and lacks adequate supervision. Despite the hype at home, many volunteers treat PC like a two year summer camp between undergrad and grad school. While serving, I… Read more »

Erica Burman, National Peace Corps Association
Erica Burman, National Peace Corps Association
10 years ago

Great article, and so true what Carla says: “There are many intangible benefits to serving in the Peace Corps, including being part of a large tribe of Returned Peace Corps volunteers. What I’ve seen as we grow our business is that when I reach out to fellow RPCVs, even if they served on a different continent, on most occasions they are warm, friendly and helpful.” When you finish your Peace Corps service, the National Peace Corps Association (http://www.peacecorpsconnect.org) is here for you! NPCA) is the nation’s leading 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization supporting Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. We can connect… Read more »

Cyndel
Cyndel
10 years ago

I am finishing up a year as an AmeriCorps VISTA in two weeks, and I must say that the experience was a good one. I really enjoyed my experience working in Adult Education and ESOL program and hope to stay in the field after my term is up. However, like you said about the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps does not offer much help after your service. In the end, I still wouldn’t suggest anyone join a program like this unless they’re serious about volunteering. Living in poverty and working at non-profits isn’t something you should do to ‘just have a job.’… Read more »

Carol@inthetrenches
10 years ago

Bon, I guess I did not phrase my question correctly. If a person had 5 years experience as a sheetrocker, plumber, truckdriver, or data entry operator and was currently unemployed, would those skills be of benefit to the Peace Corps?

Kristin
Kristin
10 years ago

While I was not a PCV, my sister was and I am always impressed by the tenacity that she showed to go when everyone else was shocked that she was even considering it. I had a few friends say to me “XXX is going to Africa? Are you sure she’s going? Does she know that its a 3rd world country?” I was lucky enough to be able to visit her with our father, during her service and fell in love with Africa as a consequence. Financially, I think there are a number of things to consider, including having enough in… Read more »

Jessica
Jessica
10 years ago

Great post! Was it hard to leave Corporate America to join the peace corp?

Ely
Ely
10 years ago

Wow, I like the idea of a pre-retirement stint. I lacked the courage for such adventures after college, and I’m quite happy with my life as it is now, but it’s nice to know I could still go back and do this later.

MegW
MegW
10 years ago

Wow!! What perfect timing!! My sister joined the Peace Corps and left yesterday for Kazakhstan. I’m so excited for her and hope that one day I can do it too.

Joshua Fahler
Joshua Fahler
10 years ago

I am teaching English in Taiwan, so I’m currently having an experience like this, but a bit different in that I’m teaching rather *wealthy* students. My decision to move was big – but even with my lower salary, the cost of living balances things out. I can pay my student loans and live in an up-and-coming city on the cheap. And learn Chinese while I’m at it.

At the same time, I’m able to easily travel through the region without breaking the bank. Not bad for a mid-20-something.

LJ
LJ
10 years ago

I served in a Peace Corps environmental education program in the Philippines 2001 – 2003. Events in my life had shifted — divorce, need for new perspectives on life, probably a mid-life crisis entered in there, too. I remembered JFK and the Peace Corps from when I was a kid, but it had never been the right time. Well, in 2000, it felt like the time had arrived, and I’d better do it NOW or the stars might never align again. I’m still very glad I did it. I hadn’t thought about the economic costs in quite the way Bon… Read more »

Phillip Sauve
Phillip Sauve
10 years ago

My sister and brother-in-law just returned West Africa on the Peace Corps, and for all the complaints and gripes they had about life over there I think they certainly feel the wiser for what they did. An experience like that is immeasurable.

I on the other hand chose the ESL route and spent three years in Japan, which proved to be a very fulfilling experience and one of the best things I’ve ever done.

Joetta Obradovich
Joetta Obradovich
7 years ago

An added important area is that if you are an older person, travel insurance regarding pensioners is something that is important to really think about. The old you are, greater at risk you might be for permitting something terrible happen to you while abroad. If you are not necessarily covered by some comprehensive insurance policies, you could have a few serious issues. Thanks for sharing your suggestions on this web blog.

Ashley
Ashley
7 years ago

I appreciate how honest your article is! Thank you so much for sharing your experience!

Ryan
Ryan
6 years ago

Thanks for the post. I’ve always thought about and wanted to join the PC during and after college, but never did. I’m now 30 and applying for the PC despite my age. That being said, I’ve been a bit hesitant because I feel on some level I should be more focused on advancing my career, and that I could lose significant time to establish myself by going. After reading your post, though, I feel more assured that the experience itself, and the professional advantages you received on your return, will more than make up for the initial “opportunity cost”. Thank… Read more »

Brian
Brian
3 years ago
Reply to  Ryan

I’m in the exact same boat as you are and after reading this article and your comment I feel a lot more confident about potentially doing this.

Nick
Nick
3 years ago

Thanks for sharing your Peace Corps experience! It is great to hear more about your budgeting thoughts, and how service abroad really allowed you to better distinguish between wants and needs. I just wanted to add that for readers who are interested, the application process is lengthy, and can take 9-12 months to complete. I am a former recruiter who served in the Philippines, so simply wanted to give those motivated to serve a heads up. Such a great surprise to read your article on Get Rich Slowly!

Aisha
Aisha
3 years ago

My mortgage and my daughter are the only reasons I can’t do it 🙁

Nixster
Nixster
3 years ago

I had assumed there was an age limit for joining PC. Working corporate has burned me out. I’m looking ways to give back without breaking the bank. Thanks for sharing. Really enjoyed this read!

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