Editor’s Note: Missioner Allison Dethlefs reflects on the challenges of living on a stipend in Bolivia and how it has made her more mindful of those around her who are struggling with financial matters to a very serious degree.

When we signed on with Franciscan Mission Service as missioners, we knew that while we were on mission we would be living on a stipend. I had no idea that this would end up playing such an important role in my time on mission.

Back in February, my fellow missioner Catherine and I had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. Neither of us had had much previous budgeting experience, and we certainly didn’t know what the cost of living was going to look like in Cochabamba.

So, naturally, we created a system: the jars. We decided to take out the entirety of our stipends on the first of every month (except for a portion left in savings). Each amount went into its corresponding glass jar: Food, Transportation, Household Necessities, Just for Fun, Allison’s Personal, and Catherine’s Personal. We figured we would take it month by month and adjust the amounts as needed along the way.

Allison and Catherine's jar system

Allison and Catherine’s jar system

Thus began the great “financial simplicity” adventure. Never in my life have I talked or thought so much about money. Every grocery-shopping trip begins with a list and an estimation of prices to see if we’ll fall within our weekly range. Every time one of us mentions something we want to buy for the house, we add it to a “things we want to invest in” list so that we can figure out what we can buy each month and what will have to wait.

Each new project is a chance to be creative and get better at reusing what is around the house instead of simply buying new supplies. Every special purchase has to be accounted for and figured in. Every end of the month has become a game of holding out and making our last bolivianos count. Budgeting and living on less has made me so much more aware of how I spend my money and where my true priorities lie.

And it has made a world of difference.

Not only has it increased my awareness of my own relationship with money, but it has also helped me to understand the struggles of those whose jars are almost empty. It has encouraged me to reflect on the reality of those whose choices are not whether or not they can afford a dinner out or whether they can get both the mop and the laundry detergent, but who must rather decide between feeding their families or paying rent, between needed medications or their children’s school supplies.

While we have the privilege of seeing budgeting as a fun challenge and never have to worry about being able to meet our basic needs, for many people here in Bolivia and worldwide, budget choices are a lifelong necessity and struggle.

As for me, I have two years to live out of jars. I have two years to practice this intentional simplicity. And then I have the rest of my life to learn how I want to apply this new mindset to my lifestyle back in the States—how I can step out of our materialistic consumer society, how I can live on less, and how I can make my money matter. 

Reflection Questions: Are you intentional about how you spend your money? What is your “jar” system?