Can You Live On Minimum Wage? (Yes, Here’s How To Do It.)


Bronze Wordsmith
May 17, 2018
If you’ve ever wondered how it is to be living on minimum wage, you’re not alone. So many people start off with this kind of salary bracket, and it’s often a struggle to make ends meet with it. I’ve been there and done that. Factor in inflation, debts, emergencies, and other unexpected expenses, and things can quickly go awry as far as your finances go.

In the USA, the federal minimum wage is still $7.25 per hour, though some states have upped the rate to around $10. Whether you still live with the current or improved rate at the moment, the question remains to be how to survive on minimum wage. This post aims to answer that, as well as give concrete examples on achieving it. As a disclaimer, these suggestions are based on my personal experiences as a minimum wage-earner and are not meant to disregard other factors which can render them ineffective such as inflation, having dependents, zoning permits, cost of living, and other various personal circumstances.

Make a monthly budget and expenses list

As a college student who basically was paid in tips, I was barely even living off minimum wage. What I earned from the service industry whenever I wasn’t studying, though, I usually blew off on beer, going out with friends, and generally useless indulgent stuff.

It was when I started a more stable job with a minimum wage that I realized the importance of having a monthly (even weekly or daily) budget if only to keep track of my expenses. Gone are the days of just blowing off my earnings in one hedonistic night. Thank goodness I learned to sit down and divvy up my monthly income into rent, bills (credit card, utilities, medical and insurance coverage, etc.), groceries, transportation, savings account, and other recurring expenses. Sticking with it can be a challenge, but it has paid off over the years, especially since I learned to start building a reliable nest egg (more on this later).

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Plan your grocery shopping well

Along with sticking to a grocery budget, I had to avoid ordering food when I’m feeling too tired to cook. The answer to that was advanced meal prepping. I’ve reserved Sundays for cooking up batches of food for the rest of the week and storing them in microwavable containers for convenience. When I computed how much I’ve actually saved by not getting food delivered all the time, I was amazed at the amount I was spending on ordering out, compared to what I spend to make food by myself!

These days, I’ve also started to take advantage of grocery promos and sales, especially on certain food items I typically consume. For instance, in the supermarket near my house, I know that they have end-of-day 50% off sale on all bread products and that every third Wednesday of the month is a buy-one-take-one promo on whole chickens. Make sure you also compare the prices on Walmart and Amazon .

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Look for affordable housing options

Before I could finally afford an apartment unit on my own, I had to do the entire roommate situation. It wasn’t ideal because I’m a very private person, but it was the only affordable housing option at the time I was making minimum wage. With today’s unheard-of housing and rental costs, some more compromise might be in order, but I do recommend rooming with people who more or less share your housekeeping and lifestyle preferences.

I also made sure not to live beyond my means. This means choosing to live somewhere I can still afford if I pay for half the rent while another person pays for the other half. Of course, I had to deal with some discomfort, such as loud noises from the next-door neighbors’, people who can’t seem to learn to recycle, and other minor inconveniences. But at the end of the day, it’s still a roof over my head and general security and privacy, which I badly needed at the time. Zillow is a good way to find affordable housing in your area.

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Take advantage of free or discounted entertainment

There was a time when I thought I would never be able to watch a movie in the theater anymore. I just couldn’t afford the price of a movie ticket on what I was making. Thank goodness for creative family and friends! With their help, I was able to watch great movies projected on a white sheet in someone’s backyard at night (which was loads of fun!). My friends and I also took advantage of those group coupon deals that allowed us to dine out, see a movie, or watch a concert at a huge discount. We’ve also learned to hold potluck leftover dinners, so no food is wasted and we get to enjoy or criticize each others’ culinary skills (or lack thereof)!

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Slowly but surely build up a nest egg

Perhaps this is the most important lesson I learned while living on minimum wage. It was tough for me to give up a percentage of what little I was making to some future “need”. There always seemed to be some temptation to spend what extra I had leftover from paying rent and bills. But the need to build up a nest egg is so vital that I would immediately feel guilty for spending on luxurious stuff like restaurants and clothes. I had to learn the hard way when I was sent to the emergency room for food poisoning and had to borrow money from my parents to pay for the hospital expenses. After that, I learned how to save for a rainy day.

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Consider transportation alternatives

Thankfully, I lived in an area where I can take the train anywhere. I didn’t have a car at the time (and even if I did, I probably couldn’t afford gasoline, anyway), and couldn’t afford Lyft, Uber, or taxicabs. To stretch my transportation budget, I made sure to get a monthly boarding pass for buses and trains, or biked or walked everywhere I can.

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Don’t give in to tech upgrade temptations

The biggest and hardest lesson I’ve had to learn on how to live on minimum wage is to avoid keeping up with the Joneses who have new smartphones every other year and can afford the latest gadgets to come out in the tech market. I realized that I don’t really need to have the latest phone as long as I can text, call, and have functional apps on them. As a result, I am still using my five-year-old mobile phone and thankfully, it hasn’t conked out on me yet!

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Find extra sources of income

I call these my side hustles, and though they don’t pay as much as a regular job would, I do end up getting some extra money for sudden expenses. I discovered GPT (“get-paid-to”) and survey sites which offered rewards in cash or gift cards in exchange for answering surveys for partner companies. GrabPoints is my personal favorite online rewards site at the moment. They pay fairly and fast – I can cash out as soon as my account hits $3! So far, I’ve been pretty satisfied with how fast they process my payment via PayPal, which is convenient for me since I seem to need petty cash all the time.

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Be as healthy as you can be

Surviving on minimum wage also means not getting sick because you’ve been scrimping on healthy food and exercise. As I mentioned, I got food poisoning once because I decided to eat some expired takeaway in the fridge (because I thought I was doing the right thing by not “wasting” it). That was a big mistake with even bigger financial consequences.

The secret is in keeping healthy by preparing and eating whole foods and avoiding chemical-laden processed food. I also don’t smoke, which saves me so much money I would have spent otherwise on cigarettes and tobacco products. I’ve also learned to avoid fizzy beverages and reduced my alcohol consumption to special occasions only. And, since I don’t have a car, my biking and walking exercises have ensured a good cardio workout overall.

The verdict?

So yes, it is possible to survive on minimum wage, but it takes some discipline and compromise. There is nothing romantic about struggling and avoiding poverty. The bottom line is, you’re going to have to put in a lot of work and stick to a budget honestly if you expect to even make ends meet.

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