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The concept of minimum wage is quite easy to understand.
It’s meant to provide you enough money to be able to afford necessities.
It isn’t meant to be a livable form of income.
Sadly though, many Americans stuck working these low paying jobs are trying to live on this income.
As a result, most of these people struggle to survive on minimum wage.
The question is, if you are trying to live on minimum wage, how can you break free?
What can you do to make your life easier financially now and in the future?
In this article, we’ll highlight the minimum wage life and what you can do to live on a low pay as well as how to make things better
How To Survive On Minimum Wage
What Is Minimum Wage?
Minimum wage was established by the U.S. Congress in 1938 as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA).
It came about after the Great Depression as a way to stabilize the economy.
By creating a minimum legal wage, the hope was to get people back on their feet after the tough economic times the country recently went through.
The major problem today with minimum wage is that it is not indexed to inflation.
What this means is it does not increase annually as prices do.
The only way for a minimum wage increase is for Congress to pass a new law.
How Much Is Minimum Wage?
The Federal minimum wage in the United States currently stands at $7.25 per hour.
It important to note that each state can set its own minimum wage laws.
This allows them to pay a higher minimum wage than the Federal Government rate.
However, no state can pay less than $7.25 per hour.
Below is a chart showing the current minimum wage for each state.
As you can see, the rate at which state’s pay varies greatly.
Understand that many states change their laws every few years, so these numbers are subject to change.
Minimum Wage Statistics
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2019, roughly 1.5 million workers in the U.S. workforce earned wages at or below minimum wage.
Some might be wondering how there can be a pay rate less than minimum wage.
Employers are allowed to pay less than the national minimum wage for workers who earn tips as part of their salary, as well as full time students and other situations as outlined by the U.S. Department of Labor.
This is referred to as subminimum wage.
What does a typical minimum wage worker look like?
They tend to be young, think teenagers, and work in the leisure and hospitality industry.
This mostly makes up service jobs, like restaurants and food services.
But it doesn’t just mean McDonald’s.
Waiters, servers and other workers at many other restaurants and resorts earn wages under the established minimum.
And more people working minimum wage jobs work part time hours versus full time hours.
Finally, ethnicity doesn’t play a major role in minimum wage rates.
Regardless if you are Hispanic, African American, or Caucasian, about the same percent of workers earn minimum wage.
Can A Family Survive On Minimum Wage?
This is a complicated question to answer since each state sets its own rate.
For simplicity, we will use the $7.25 per hour rate.
At $7.25 per hour, assuming both spouses work a full time job, the minimum wage annual income would be $30,160 combined or $15,080 for an individual.
At this rate, it would be hard, though not impossible to live.
Here is a sample budget for minimum wage earners to live on.
Sample Budget For Minimum Wage
Taking our example above of a couple both on minimum wage, earning $30,160 annually, here is a sample monthly budget.
I am basing this off the 50/30/20 budget where 50% of your income goes towards needs, 30% goes towards wants, and 20% goes towards savings and paying off debt.
Needs (Basic Expenses): $15,080
Wants (Extra Expenses): $9,048
The problem you will see is that many people cannot survive with $15,000 going towards needs like shelter, food, electricity, etc.
As a result, you should make adjustments as needed.
The catch here though is to not just make adjustments to the budget works.
What I mean by this is, don’t eliminate savings so you can cover more household expenses every month.
Or don’t just accept that your needs cost you as much as they do.
You need to be proactive here.
Try to lower some of your expenses.
I go into more detail with how to do this below.
Once you do this, you can create a budget that works for you.
In the end, you might have this as your budget.
Needs: $19,604 (65%)
Wants: $7,540 (25%)
Savings: $3,016 (10%)
Finally, whatever you do, do not completely remove the savings part of the budget.
Instead of looking at it as saving money, look at it like another monthly expense.
The reason for this is because you need to start building your savings so you have money for emergencies and unexpected expenses.
And you need savings to help you get ahead as well.
So do what you need to do so you can save money every month, even if it is $20.
6 Tips For Living On Minimum Wage
Here’s more details on how you can make living on a low income possible.
#1. Look For Assistance Programs
Search for financial help for low income families online to find both government and private assistance as well as government subsidies.
When you are searching, be sure to include your state in the query so you get programs for your area.
You should also go through the guidelines provided by The Department of Health and Human Services and gauge if you’re eligible based on your individual and household incomes.
Individuals who make less than $12,491 are considered below the poverty level and usually qualify for assistance and subsidies.
For households with a spouse or child, the amount stands at $16,910.
If you qualify then apply for the program.
One of the most popular programs is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that offers food assistance.
There are also housing programs, healthcare assistance and more.
When you are looking for aid programs, be sure to do your due diligence before applying.
There are a lot of scams out there.
Make sure you are on federal or state government websites and call to make sure it is legit.
Finally, take advantage of the many tax credits offered.
This includes the income tax credit and the child tax credit.
Even though they are claimed on your taxes, they are government benefits to help you.
#2. Consider Developing Your Skills
Developing your skills can provide you better opportunities in the future.
Most people accept a low paying job because they do not have the skills required to perform a job that pays more.
Most cities and states have skill development programs to help people improve their lifestyle and find better opportunities.
Search for a suitable program in your area and see if you are eligible.
Some programs are designed for specific individuals or communities such as single mothers, differently-abled individuals, etc.
These organizations can even help you with other things.
For example, if you need a certificate to get better pay, they might pay your fee.
However, you will have to prove you’re needy in order to qualify.
#3. Reduce Your Expenses
This one’s obviously easier said than done but there’s no better way to live on minimum wage than to reduce your expenses.
The easiest way to reduce your expenses is to create a solid budget.
However, we know that budgeting on minimum wage can be difficult, especially when you don’t know how much you will have in your account at the end of the month.
If you’re struggling then follow these tips to reduce your expenses:
Housing makes up a large portion of one’s expenses.
Luckily there are some options for you to find affordable housing.
The first is an assistance program.
The Housing Choice Voucher Program (formerly known as Section 8) helps low income people and families afford housing.
Another option is to find roommates to live with.
Doing this not only cuts your housing costs in half, but also your utilities as well.
Of course, you want to vet any potential roommate to make sure they will pay, otherwise the entire amount is yours to pay.
Alternatively, you can talk to your landlord.
While not all will be open to the idea of not increasing your rent, if you are a good tenant and pay on time, they might put off an increase for a few months or a year.
Finally, you could consider moving to another part of town or into a smaller house or apartment.
There is the option to make a major move to another city were the cost of living is lower, but this is not something most people are willing to do.
Reduce travel costs by using public transportation or carpooling, especially to work or school.
You can also find special discount cards if you are a regular traveler.
If there isn’t public transportation where you live, buy a reliable used car.
You can find some great older cars that need minimum maintenance for good prices.
Additionally, if you have a car, you can apply for programs that offer gas cards to help cover the cost of fueling up.
- Related: Here is how to get free gas
To many people’s surprise, there are a handful of options to lower this cost.
Education is an expense but also a necessity.
A lot of people drop out of college because they can’t afford expensive degrees.
Thankfully, there are many options out there aside from a college degree.
If you are good with your hands, you could become a trade apprentice.
Here you will learn on the job such things as plumbing or carpentry.
As your skills improve, so does your pay.
There are other options out there too for people not interested in the trades.
You can look for online courses that will teach you a new skill or even improve upon your current skills.
The more skills you have, the greater the chance you have to increase your income.
The average person spends about $660 per month on food costs including $372 on food at home.
You can reduce this amount by using food stamps, growing your own food, and buying in bulk as it comes cheap.
- Related: Learn how to get started with indoor gardening
- Related: Click to find out the best tricks to save money on groceries
- Related: Learn how to save the most money at Costco
Also, make sure to waste nothing and use leftover food if it’s edible.
When it comes to dining out, this would be considered more of a want than a need at this point.
But this doesn’t mean you can never eat out.
You just have to be smart with your budget and make it work financially.
Using these tips, you can slash you food budget so more money can go to other areas of your budget.
Everything that is not a priority is a luxury including a dinner date and a movie night.
You can enjoy a nice meal and watch a movie at your home with your loved ones.
Remember the most important part is spending quality time with those you care about.
You don’t have to spend money in order to do this.
So think outside the box when it comes to entertainment costs.
What can you do cheaply or even for free?
For other luxuries in life, like a new phone or other wants, you need to be patient and save for them.
Until you are able to get your finances in order, you simply cannot afford everything.
Make it a point to start saving for what you want and in the meantime, look for ways to get the item on sale or on a discount.
By thinking creatively, you can usually find ways to save money on many of the things you want to buy.
Utilities include your energy bills, telephone bills, etc.
The good thing about most utilities is that the bill depends on usage, which means the cost is largely under your control.
Of course, in most cases you can’t drop your usage to zero.
But many utility companies offer programs for low income households, so you should reach out to yours to see if a program exists.
Health care costs can be very expensive in the US.
Your best option is to find programs that support those in need.
One of the most popular options is the Medicaid Coverage program that offers affordable or free coverage to those in need.
Combine this with the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and you have options for healthcare coverage.
When it comes to getting prescriptions filled, make it a point to use generics instead of name brand drugs as they cost less.
Finally, one of the best things you can do to lower your health care expenses is to take care of yourself.
Make sure you exercise daily, even if this is simply going for a 20 minute walk and try to cut out refined sugars.
Doing this will lower the odds of getting major health problems later in life.
#4. Avoid And Reduce Debt
We know that life on minimum wage is hard, which is why a lot of people go into debt to survive.
While in the moment this helps you to make ends meet, in the long run it makes improving your finances that much harder.
And not to mention, the debt adds a lot of stress to your life.
Therefore, the challenge is to avoid credit card debt and live according to your budget.
Using the sample budget for minimum wage earners I shared above, you should be able to achieve this.
If you are already in debt then look for forgiveness and consolidation programs and make sure to meet all deadlines.
The best place to start is with your creditor.
Simply tell them you are have trouble financially and if they have any programs to assist you.
From there, you should look into debt consolidation help.
The catch here is that many of these companies are slimy and you get into more financial trouble.
To avoid this, find a credit counselor at the National Foundation For Credit Counseling (NFCC).
They are a nonprofit that will help you best with your debt.
At the end of the day, the longer you can avoid debt the better off you will be.
And if you are in debt, the sooner you can pay it off, the better.
Lastly, make sure to avoid predatory loans and payday loans at all costs.
Nothing good will come from these types of loan agreements.
#5. Increase Your Income
When the money you’re currently making is not enough then you need find ways to earn more.
Your first step is to figure out how to increase your income with your current employer.
Schedule a meeting with your boss and ask what you need to do to earn a raise.
They will give you insights on how to perform your job better and additional responsibilities you can take on so you can earn a higher wage.
At the same time, you should be looking into the future.
What job would you like to have? What skills do you need to get that job?
Luckily you can do a lot of learning for free online to get many skills you need.
If you are really interested in a position, you can talk to someone that hires for that position.
Ask them what skills you need to get the job and what would make you stand out from other job seekers.
You might even consider offering to work for free on a trial basis, like college students do with internships.
This allows you to learn on the job and possibly even getting the job.
Another option to look into is a side hustle.
You can make good money from many side hustles.
Before you start looking however, you need to figure out how much extra money you need.
For example, you look at what your income and expenses are currently and if you are not making enough, you want to take note of this amount.
Then add 10-15% to that for money to go into savings.
Finally, if you have debt, add a little more to your ideal income total so you can pay extra on the debt every month.
Now that you have an idea of how much money you need to make, you can start figuring out side gigs.
Ask yourself what you enjoy doing.
Do you like driving around? Maybe a food delivery job is for you.
Do you love posting on social media? You could become a freelance social media assistant for websites.
The point is, there as almost a job for anything you want to do.
#6. Get Rid of What You Don’t Need
Finally, if you need money then consider selling what you do not need.
Almost everything can be sold from old furniture to books to clothes.
The good thing is that you can do it from the comfort of your home.
Go to websites like eBay and Facebook and put up a nice ad.
Those interested in your offer will get in contact with you.
If this is too much work then you can even hold a garage sale and sell items that you no longer want.
Doing this could bring in a couple hundred dollars to help in the short term with making ends meet.
Frequently Asked Questions
There are a lot of questions about living on a minimum wage income out there and a lot of confusion as well.
Here are some common questions to help you understand this concept better.
When was the minimum wage created?
It was created in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act to help people get back on their feet and set a living wage after the Great Depression.
What is the current minimum wage?
The current Federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.
However many states have enacted their own laws and pay higher wages.
Note also that some employers are allowed to pay wages less than the stated minimum if certain criteria are met.
What if minimum wage kept up with inflation?
If the minimum wage was indexed for inflation, it would be over $13 per hour today.
Understand though, even if it were kept up with inflation, people living on this income would not be drastically better off.
This is because the prices of the items they buy would rise at the same rate, making it still very difficult to get ahead.
Why should minimum wage be raised?
The simple fact is a family cannot survive long term on a minimum wage yearly salary today.
As a result, the minimum hourly wage needs to increase and it should be automatically increased.
This can be done simply by using an approach to tie it to the productivity growth.
Doing this would allow income to slowly rise over time.
Another option would be to tie the minimum wage and the cost of living together.
As the cost of living increases, so does the minimum wage.
The problem here however is that this doesn’t help people get out of poverty, it simply keeps their financial lives the same every year.
Why doesn’t the government enact a minimum wage hike?
The last wage hike was in 2009 and there are talks now to increase it again, this time to $15 per hour.
The simplest answer is because many politicians are influenced by lobbyists.
These lobbyists are the voice of businesses who want to keep more profit for themselves instead of paying higher wages.
They cite studies showing a loss of jobs, higher operating costs, and more to scare political leaders into not taking action.
Minimum wage life is tough but it isn’t impossible.
The key lies in on budgeting and enjoying life on minimum wage while working to improve your standard of living.
Creating and sticking to a budget can be tough for those who earn a low income.
Start out by using the sample minimum wage budget I explained in this post and modify it as needed.
It won’t be easy to get by, but using the ideas I gave you will put you on a path to break free from living on minimum wage.
The sad truth is Federal minimum wage history shows that the government rarely does something to increase the minimum wage annual income.
As a result, you will have to take the control of your life into your hands.
Remember that there’s a connection between minimum wage and the cost of living and you’ll have to improve your income if you want to break free from poverty and improve your finances.
3 thoughts on “How To Survive On Minimum Wage (And Get Ahead)”
Carrie, I really enjoyed reading this post. I like the outlined bare bones reality of living on minimum wage. You do so much in your writing and lifestyle to banish illusions. Thank you.
Great tips and advice here Carrie. I think this should be required reading for the welfare class. Good to know that it is possible to survive and thrive on such little money without government assistance!
Thankyou Terri and Matthew for your kind and thoughtful comments. I am glad you have enjoyed this post. 🙂
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