Surviving on minimum wage is an endless struggle. People who live on minimum wage use words like “hopeless”, “depressing”, “suffocating” and “drowning” to describe what it’s like. Making ends meet is nearly impossible. Any unexpected expense is an absolute nightmare. But people make it work. In fact there are 3.3 million people living on minimum wage, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics.* How do they do it? Below you’ll find 37 strategies for surviving on minimum wage.
How to Survive On Minimum Wage:
There are six different sections in this post. Five sections are centred around the largest buckets of spending at this income level. You can probably guess where the largest percentage of spending goes. There is housing (40%), food (16%), transportation (15%), health care (10%) and entertainment (5%)**. There is also one section at the end on how to boost your income.
When earning minimum wage you will certainly qualify for a number of government programs. These programs were designed to help make ends meet. There isn’t one specific section on government benefits in this post. But each section below includes a few government programs to look into. Don’t be shy about using these programs, they were created for this very purpose.
If you are still hesitant about using these programs then just make a pledge to pay forward whatever you’ve received. This could be through volunteer work or through donations once you’re more established. Not only does this help you get back on your feet faster, it will also help someone do the very same thing in the future.
Housing is a major problem when trying to survive on minimum wage. Housing represents anywhere from 35-50% of a minimum wage earner’s budget. This is about $450-$600 per month. Any money that can be saved here will go a long way towards making ends meet or even creating an emergency fund.
Housing and Urban Development: HUD’s public housing program offers housing to low-income earners. Once approved you’re eligible for rental housing at a cost of no more than 30% of your income. Visit HUD Rental Assistance to find a local field office and get more details on the public housing program.
Find A Roommate: An obvious one. Splitting costs doesn’t stop at rent. Having a roommate will reduce the cost of utilities, internet, maintenance/cleaning & furnishings. Having a good roommate is also great for support. When shit gets tough, it’s comforting to have someone to talk to. Even if it’s just about nothing.
Downsize: Of course renting a smaller space is going to be more cost effective but this also helps to reduce your want/need for additional stuff. In my experience the amount of “stuff” I own always seems to grow/shrink to fit the space I’m living. In the end having more or less “stuff” has never had an impact on my lifestyle. Try to go small and avoid all that extra cost.
Rural Assistance Program: USDA Rural Development office grants housing and community assistance for people who live in rural areas. This program includes apartments for people with low-income. For more details on their rental assistance program and local contact information visit USDA Rental Assistance Program.
Veterans Affairs Housing Program: The veterans affairs supportive housing program offers help to homeless veterans through their Housing Choice Voucher Program. For more information and to see if you qualify visit the VASH website.
Negotiate Your Rent: Been living in your place for a while? Then consider negotiating for a decrease in rent. This is especially useful if there is a high vacancy rate in your area. Or, if you’re already considering moving, then you have nothing to lose by negotiating. If you’re a good renter who pays rent on time, then your landlord may want to avoid the hassle of finding a new renter and possibly missing a few months rent. Play it right and you could score a 5-15% reduction in your monthly rental expense.
CoAbode: This is a not for profit program that is aimed at single mothers. Their goal is to pair up single mothers so that they can help support each other and split costs. This is a neat program that offers additional support for single mothers but the main concept of sharing costs can be applied to anyone by just finding a good roommate.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families: The TANF program provides limited cash assistance for basic needs like food, clothing, housing etc. To be eligible for TANF you must be pregnant or have a child below the age of 19. This assistance is limited to a lifetime maximum of 60 months (5 years). TANF also varies greatly by state, from a few hundred to over a thousand dollars per month. For more details contact your local Office of Family Assistance.
Get Discounted Utilities: There are government programs like WAP and LiHEAP that can help with utility bills. Also, some utility companies have income based pricing that could reduce your electric/gas bill by over 50%. Ask your local utility about reduced rates for different income levels.
Discounted Phone/Internet: Government programs like Lifeline help pay for land line phone and internet service. This is sometimes administered through your phone company so call and ask about programs for low income earners.
Try Sharing Internet: Share wireless internet with your neighbor and just offer to pay them a certain amount each month in cash. An increase in the bandwidth and download cap may be required but even with the extra $ you and your neighbor should still come out ahead. Just check the terms of service to understand the risks of sharing internet.
Pre-paid Cell Phone: Lets face it, cell phones are a huge drain on your monthly income. Getting a prepaid phone with wifi calling capabilities is a much more effective option. Use the wifi most of the time for calls/texting and the cell only for emergencies.
Food & Beverages:
Food is the second largest area of spending for a minimum wage earner. About 2/3 of this is spent eating at home. Monthly spending on food can range from $200-$300. Here are some strategies to maximize your food & beverage dollars.
Eat Cheap And Healthy: Focus on inexpensive ingredients that can be purchased in bulk. Create a meal plan using inexpensive recipes. There are many sources of inexpensive recipes online. (here and here) Try all the recipes and find the ones you enjoy. Then create a shopping list and don’t deviate. No impulse purchases. Try to keep meats to a minimum. Per pound, grains, beans, fruits and vegetables are way more cost effective. Find the right recipe and you’ll never notice the difference.
Get SNAP/Food Stamps: This is a federal program focused on providing nutritional assistance to low-income individuals and families. To qualify for SNAP you have to have less than $2,000 in “countable resources”. The definition of “countable resources” varies by state and may or may not include your primary vehicle. To see if you qualify you can use the SNAP screening tool from the USDA.
Apply For WIC: This is a special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children under 5 years of age. WIC provides supplemental food as well as healthcare and nutrition training for mothers who are pregnant, breastfeeding or postpartum. Use the WIC screening tool from the USDA or contact your local WIC agency.
Grow A Vegetable Garden: If you have the space then create a full blown vegetable plot. No space? Look for community gardens in your area. At the very least get a small flower box and some fresh herbs. This will greatly improve the taste of meals and will help save money.
Food Pantry/Food Bank: Local food banks often have large packages for people in need. These packages include essentials like rice, pasta and canned foods. They often include enough food for 4-6 days. These packages can help you free up money for other needs. If you’re in a tight spot then use a food pantry to free up money for other things. Then just donate some food/money later when you’ve got some extra cash. Find a local food panty here.
The third largest area of spending is transportation. Vehicle costs absolutely dominate this category at $200-$300 per month. Vehicles are not only expensive to operate but they’re a liability. An unexpected repair is a budget blowing nightmare that could eat up a month’s worth of income or more. An accident could result in expensive repairs as well as possible medical issues and higher insurance rates in the future. Vehicles should be avoided if at all possible.
Walk Short Distances: It’s possible to walk 2-3 miles in an hour. If your accommodations are well situated, this means that most required services are within your walkable area. My wife does her daily commute on foot. She walks for 50 min each way. She even did this while pregnant! It’s healthy and inexpensive and if my pregnant wife can do it then there aren’t many excuses left.
Bike Medium Distances: When you’re biking it’s possible to reach 10+ miles within an hour. This should allow you to bike to and from work. If this is not the case then perhaps it would be possible to move closer to work or find work closer to home? By losing the car you could free up anywhere from $200-$300 per month. Biking is how I choose to commute. It’s 5 miles each way and I go all year long. No matter the weather. It could be raining or snowing. The only difference is how many layers I’m wearing.
Public Transit For Long Distances: Although cheaper than a car, using public transit is still expensive. It’s best left to longer trips or during bad weather. Public transit is honestly just slow and less efficient. In my experience biking offers the best balance between $ and time. To reach some places in my city the bike is faster than public transit.
Car Pool/Ride Share: Are there other employees who live in your area? Would it be possible to car pool to work? Whenever you rely on another person to get to work it’s important to have a backup. Don’t rely on just one individual, try and find a few people in your area to car pool with and split costs. Ask around at work or use Craigslist to find ride shares.
Car Sharing: If you only need a vehicle periodically then consider doing a “car share” with a friend. Offer to pitch in for gas or insurance so you can borrow the vehicle once in a while.
Relocate: This applies to both home and work. If it’s not possible to ditch the car due to the location of either home or work then would it be possible to move either of these? Find a new place to live? Or find a new job? Even finding a new minimum wage job closer to home will help free up $200/month in vehicle related expenses. It’ll also help you avoid that inevitable repair bill. More importantly it will help free up a bunch of money that can be used to make ends meet or build an emergency fund.
The fourth largest area of spending for those earning at/near minimum wage is health care. About 60% of this spending is on health insurance and another 15% on prescription drugs. There are a myriad of options and strategies when it comes to health care but there are four in particular to highlight.
Prevention: A little bit of preventive health care can go a long way. This means getting regular exercise. Learning proper stretching to avoid sore or pulled muscles. Getting free blood pressure checks at your local pharmacy. Brushing and flossing daily. Eating a balanced diet. Etc, etc.
Medicaid: Eligibility for medicaid will depend on the state you live in. Each state has different income requirements with some being at the poverty level and some at 133% of the poverty level. To find out more about your state’s medicaid eligibility requirements and application process, visit benefits.gov.
Get Part Time Employee Benefits: Maybe not an option for everyone but there are a few employers who offer full benefits to part time employees. This is great for anyone who can add another 20hrs to their weekly schedule. One of the best known employers offering part time benefits is Starbucks. To varying degrees there is also Home Depot, Lowe’s, REI, Costco, Whole Foods, Nike, Lands End. To find out more visit the employment section of these companies websites.
Prescription Drugs: Costco is a great option for prescription drugs. Their pricing is extremely transparent. You can search drugs and pricing on their website. Another great website for researching prescription drug costs is GoodRX. They provide information on generic alternatives, manufactures coupons and they do cost comparisons at pharmacies in your area. The price can differ by as much as $100 for the exact same prescription so there is a lot of opportunity to save.
Everyone needs a little fun in their life! Skipping entertainment expenses will have an impact in the long run. It will suck the fun out of life and increase your stress levels. This can lead to short lapses in financial control and big budget overruns. It’s important to find cheap or even free entertainment in your area so you can have fun without killing your budget.
Hobbies: Find hobbies that are at least cost neutral. It’s even better if you can make a few dollars with your hobby. Make and sell stuff on Etsy or Craigslist. Grow a garden & sell extra food or fresh flowers. Learn how to program and turn that into a small side business. Start a blog! There are lots of hobbies that can produce a little side income or can at least be cost neutral.
Cheap Entertainment: This could be a whole post in itself. Finding cheap entertainment isn’t too difficult. Here are some ideas, bike rides, picnics, swimming at a pool/lake, Netflix, dinner parties (potluck is easy), city wide scavenger hunts, house crawl, art gallery showings, board games, library books etc, etc.
Free Stuff: Learn how to find the free stuff happening in your city/town. Look for public movie screenings, public concerts, free museum days and free festivals. Bring snacks/drinks to avoid the temptation of high priced confectionary.
Learn A Cheap Instrument: Ukuleles, harmonicas, recorders, these are all cheap and small musical instruments. A good starter uke is $60. A good starter harmonica is $30. They’re also portable so you can easily take them around your city/town and practice in odd and inspiring places. Plus once you get to be half decent you can share your musical abilities with others (maybe even do a little busking!)
Learn To Cook: Not your quick dinner, I mean really learn to cook great meals. Learn how to make vegetarian dishes to save on food costs. Learn to bake breads, cakes, pies. Learn to make candy and other treats. Cooking isn’t just frugal it’s also great entertainment. It’s a great way to bring people together.
Obviously “earn more” is easily said. But sometimes it can really be that easy. Plus, even earning an extra $100 a month could be the difference between a cloud of despair and some small bit of happiness. Making a little extra money on the side can help create a much needed buffer. Use this money to make ends meet or ideally to build an emergency fund.
Second Job As Safety Net: Having a safety net is important. This goes for work too. Even if it’s one shift a month, having a second job can help protect from sudden job loss or reduced hours at your first job. If the unexpected should occur then at least there’s some additional income coming in. Better still would be if you’re able to quickly ramp up the hours at the second job to fill the gaps. Try working at Starbucks and you can even get some health benefits (see above in Health Care)
Donate Plasma: Donating plasma for money can help you earn anywhere from $50-$100 per week. You can donate up to twice per week so that creates quite a bit of extra cash, up to $5k per year. Find one of 482 places to donate across the country.
Babysitting: For those who like children babysitting a few nights a month can be a great source of cash. Post signs in libraries, community centers, grocery stores and on Facebook. Get certifications like CPR to increase your baby sitting rates.
Odd Jobs: Doing odd jobs can bring in small amounts and usually in cash. Ask around your neighborhood. Put up some signs. Place some Craigslist ads with your services or reply to some Craigslist gigs. Find something you’re good at and check every day. Common needs are lawn maintenance, raking leaves, shovelling snow, cleaning houses, moving help, construction.
Better Yourself: Learn a new skill or improve the skills you already have. Educate yourself by going to community college or a state college. Earning minimum wage will qualify you for a large number of scholarships and bursaries… find them, it’s free money! But most of all bettering yourself will help drive you. It’ll help you beat the feeling of hopelessness and desperation that comes when it’s hard to make ends meet. It’ll help you escape the struggle of earning minimum wage.
How to Survive On Minimum Wage:
My hope is that you’ll find these strategies useful. If you have anything to add, something you feel is missing, or a program that I’ve overlooked, please make a comment below. The more info we can share the better!
Are you living on minimum wage? Have you lived on minimum wage before? What tips can you share?
Please comment below and I’ll add them to this post.
* http: //www.bls.gov/cps/minwage2013.pdf
** http: //www.bls.gov/cex/2013/combined/income.pdf
Photo by peddhapati via Flickr