Updated on 06.18.07

Financial Planning For A Life Of Volunteerism And Social Work

Trent Hamm

One of the most amazing people I’ve ever met has chosen a path of volunteerism and social work for her life. She’s taken the gifts and talents God has given her and chosen to forsake several much more lucrative opportunities to participate in a social work program fraught with challenges that I wouldn’t face for all the money in the world. That she has the spiritual strength to spend her days helping those who cannot help themselves is amazing to me – but considering that it’s also going to be a strong financial challenge as well makes her choice all that more impressive.

Let’s see what we can do to offer her some useful financial advice – and also give similar advice to anyone else who may be choosing a path like this one. For starters, her income is going to be low with relatively minimal benefits for quite a while, and it’s likely that her exact position will change regularly over time. What can be done to ensure the most financial stability over the course of her life? Here are my suggestions – I’d love to hear more in the comments.

Build an emergency fund. In a field where jobs are often in flux due to changing fund situations, many people engaged in social work hop from job to job regularly and an emergency fund is often vital for bridging the gap. It’s simple – just put small amounts of money away in a savings account somewhere every single paycheck and then tap it when you really need it, like when you have to switch positions, your car dies, or something else disastrous.

Many volunteer workers know the benefits of doing this, but they go about it all wrong. They keep a nice hefty account in their hometown bank or in a local branch bank near where they do their volunteer work. A much better approach is to find a nice high-interest online savings account to conduct their business, provided of course that the volunteer has regular internet access. HSBC Direct is a reliable one and gives a 5.05% APY return with no minimum balance, which basically means if you have $5,000 you’d like to sock away before leaving on a twenty seven month stint in the Peace Corps, you’ll come back and find that it has earned $572 while you’ve been away.

Make a Roth IRA your friend. At some point as a social worker, you’re going to face old age and some form of retirement. You’re also a relatively low income worker who will need some flexibility in how much to contribute from time to time. A Roth IRA is a perfect retirement vehicle for anyone in this situation. In a nutshell, a Roth IRA allows anyone to contribute $4,000 a year ($5,000 a year starting in 2008) to a special individual retirement fund. What’s special about it? Once you’ve made the contribution (and you can remove your contribution at any time if you really need to), any investment growth on that contribution can be taken out tax free after you are 59 1/2 years old. No income taxes at all. Even better, once the money is in the Roth IRA, it can easily earn 10% a year, which means that $4,000 put in at age twenty five can build to $112,500 at age sixty. Contribute that amount every year and you’ll have $1.2 million in the account when you’re 60. Hold off retirement until you’re 70 and you’ll have $3.17 million in there.

How does one get started? Lots of investment houses offer Roth IRAs and make it quite easy to invest in them. I personally recommend Vanguard (http://www.vanguard.com) – their investment choices are all quite good and are based on very simple logic. I have almost every investment of my own through them.

Cultivate a strong network of friends and family. If you’re considering a life of social work and volunteer work, realize that you’re likely going to need support in various ways for a long time. Talk to friends and family and be sure that they will support you in this choice – not in a financial sense, but in a sense that they understand the choice you’re making and may be able to provide a couch or a guest bedroom on occasion.

On the other hand, if someone you know is considering making such a choice, offer such help to them. Make it clear that they’ll always have a bed and some meals in your home. They’re making a very difficult choice to do something that will make the world a better place – show how much you support their difficult choice.

Know how to live frugally. She was lucky in that her orientation gave substantial training in frugal living, but some social work situations do not. The first and best move is to know how to cook from yourself from staple foods – this is the simplest way around to save money. Also, check your ego at the door and be willing to shop at Goodwill and the Salvation Army and other places for clothes and other items. You can get pretty detailed with frugal living – search around The Simple Dollar or elsewhere online for all kinds of additional tips.

If you would like to help even more than giving advice in the comments, please consider giving a donation to an exceptionally worthy cause. The link goes to a page for the charity that she’s involved with which details the charity’s financial state, the work they do, and also gives a link that you can use to donate to the charity. If you have a few dollars to give, please do so – the charity is a 501(c)(3), which means that your contributions are tax deductible. If you’ve ever wanted to help out The Simple Dollar with a small donation, give to this charity instead – you’ll be helping out an amazing organization and a group of people that really need the help.

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. Dan says:


    Thanks for another great column. I just wanted to throw out an alternative viewpoint on the subject of where to save your emergency fund. I have made a conscious choice to leave my emergency fund in my local community credit union. I know it would earn me more money elsewhere (especially with an HSBC account), but I place a high premium on having my money stay in my community instead of going to bank-owners in some distant city.

    In the last few years, I have gone from being in the Peace Corps to working in corporate marketing and I like that even when my job isn’t making the world a better place, my savings can be doing a little good work on my behalf. I would never argue that everyone (or anyone) should share this position with me, but this column seemed like the perfect place to point out that there is a downside (however small) to the online accounts.

  2. Monica says:

    L’arche is awesome. Those people are really living out their faith. I applaud her and others who have chosen to put helping others above financial gain.

  3. Al says:

    As someone in the social work field, I think this is great advice to those who are starting out or are thinking about getting into social work. To often I have seen excellent co-workers have to leave the field because they can’t endure it financially. My own personal advice is to maximize what benefits and entitlements you may have. So many people I work with don’t utilize work related tax exemptions, 403(b)(mainly because they don’t know it’s like a 401(k)),or other benefits offered to them.

  4. Mardee says:

    It seems like a worthwhile organization, and I will send them some money. Readers also might be interested in http://www.kiva.org, a non-profit that allows individuals to lend money to struggling entrepreneurs in third-world countries. You can lend as little as $25 and choose who you want to lend to. I first heard about it on NPR (Nicholas Kristoff of the NYTimes has also written about it) and think it’s a wonderful opportunity to help others by “teaching someone to fish.”

  5. Jeanette says:

    As a social worker myself, I found these to be very good points to share with others. I am lucky in the fact that I have a very supportive fiance and he is understanding of what my career choice will mean for our future family, but it is still good to keep many of these ideas in mind. It also helps that he’s very frugal himself.

  6. Heather says:

    I really appreciate this column. I wish more people understood this choice as well as you seem to. Currently, I work as a researcher but my goal is to pursue a career in medical missions abroad. You can visit my website to see pics from my previous stent in Africa. Thank you again! :o)

  7. deRuiter says:

    Don’t run up $100,000 plus in student loans for education before deciding on a career which pays peanuts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *