How to Survive on Minimum Wage

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Young man working minimum wage job at coffee shop to make ends meet

In 2018, nearly 434,000 American adults who earn an hourly wage were paid America’s federal minimum wage of $7.25, according to this government report.

Earning seven bucks an hour when you’re sixteen and living at home with mom and dad is one thing. However, earning minimum wage when you’re an independent adult is entirely different.

Having to pay rent, eat, get to work each day and have basic medical and other needs covered on $7.25 an hour is no easy task. But it can be done with some effort.

Here are some suggestions for spending, saving and living while earning minimum wage.

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*We’ve amended this post as of December 4, 2018, to update national statistics. And the final paragraph shows a suggested budget for a single person living on minimum wage.

Keep Housing Costs Low

Housing is most people’s single biggest expense. If you’re earning minimum wage, it’s important to keep housing costs reasonable. With a take-home pay of roughly $1,000 a month, that’s going to take some work.

Here are some suggestions for keeping housing costs affordable:

  • Find shared housing if you can. Rent an apartment with a friend. Rent a room from someone who owns a house. Find a family with a finished basement available for rent.
  • Look for a “work for rent” option. Look for an apartment where you can exchange landlord duties for rent costs. Or find a single family home or duplex where you can exchange or reduce rent costs for jobs such as mowing the lawn, painting, etc.
  • Live in an inexpensive area of town. Try to find a safe but cost-effective housing area.

Finding affordable housing on $1,000 a month won’t be easy. However, it can be done if you’re willing to do some research. Negotiating with property owners/landlords can help as well.

Consider Transportation Costs

Transportation is most people’s second biggest expense. If you’re living on minimum wage, transportation expenses need to be kept at bay. The average new car payment is $547 a month.

That’s simply not an option for those earning minimum wage. However, there are ways you can get from point A to point B more affordably.

How to Keep Transportation Costs at Bay

  • Live and work in an area that’s walkable so you can walk or bike to work
  • If walking or biking aren’t options, live close to public transportation
  • Get the best public transportation deal by purchasing a monthly pass
  • See if you can carpool to work or get rides from others on occasion

Owning a car is likely not the best option for those earning minimum wage. Gasoline costs, insurance costs, parking costs and upkeep costs can easily add up. It’s not uncommon for car owners to spend a few hundred dollars a month on these costs.

If you can find a way to own a car for as cheap or cheaper than what public transportation costs, go for it. Just remember to have extra money set aside in savings for insurance deductibles. Setting aside cash for unexpected auto repairs is important too.

But I’m betting you’ll be better off financially if you look for other options than owning a car.

Keep a Lid on Grocery Costs

Grocery costs can also take a big bite out of a person’s monthly budget.

Fortunately, there are several ways to keep grocery costs low. In our case, our family of six spends no more than $500 a month on groceries. That equates to a maximum of $83 per person a month.

How do we keep grocery costs so low? Here are some tips.

  • We menu plan carefully. When there are options for dinner in the house, we’re less tempted to order pizza or go out to eat.
  • We plan our menu around the week’s upcoming sales. For instance, when chicken is on sale, we’ll have chicken casseroles, chicken soups, fajitas, chicken tacos, chicken salads, etc.
  • We don’t buy a lot of snacks. Very rarely do we buy soda, chips and other snack items. Those items are expensive and are a detriment to one’s health as well. Instead, we save soda and chip purchases for special occasions such as movie nights.
  • We cook from scratch. Processed foods are often much more expensive than cooked-from-scratch items, especially when it comes to desserts. Therefore we make items such as cookies, cakes, flour tortillas and specialty breads from scratch.
  • We buy produce on sale or grow our own. Even if you don’t have the room for a big garden, you can save money by growing your own produce. Do you eat a lot of tomatoes? Buy a potted tomato plant and put it on the balcony. Or take part in a CSA or community garden. Prices are often much cheaper than store produce prices, and the food is much fresher as well.

By working to keep food costs at bay, you can help make survival on minimum wage much more pleasant.

Look for Cheap or Free Entertainment Options

Going out with friends can be costly. As of 2015, the average household in America spent $266 a month on eating out.

That’s a lot of cash no matter how much money you earn. But if you’re earning the minimum wage, $266 a month is enormous. In fact, it equates to over twenty-five percent of your take-home pay.

Do you want to add in trips to the movies and other entertainment? You’ll be eating up a large chunk of your income quite quickly. Here is a list of low-cost activities to keep expenses to a minimum.

  • Have game nights or movie nights at your place or a friend’s place
  • Split a meal with a friend when going out to eat
  • Use coupons where possible or Groupon deals to cut entertainment costs
  • Take advantage of movies and books at the library
  • Hike, bike or walk with friends
  • Share a potluck dinner at someone’s house or a local park
  • Start a book club and choose reads from your local library

Make Restaurant Meals at Home

One of the other ways we keep entertainment costs low is to make our favorite restaurant meals at home. Many online resources share popular restaurant recipes.

One of our favorites is called Better than Olive Garden Alfredo Sauce. This recipe gets rave reviews when we serve it to friends or family members.

Bonus: it costs a small fraction of what we’d pay purchasing it at a restaurant.

There are many options for free or cheap activities that you can take advantage of. This is a good idea no matter how much money you earn.

Try hard to keep entertainment costs under control. This will help make living on minimum wage exciting without breaking the bank.

Keep Health Care Costs Under Control if Possible

Health care expenses aren’t always controllable. However, many of today’s most common diseases can be prevented, delayed or even reversed. With a change in diet and exercise habits, you can improve your health.

And as a bonus, those changing to a healthier lifestyle can save money on health care costs as well. Here are some things you can do to keep health care costs affordable when living on minimum wage.

Ways to Minimize Healthcare Costs

  • Don’t smoke. Smoking is expensive. The average cost of a pack of cigarettes in America today is $5.51. And you’ll pay more if you live in a state that hosts an additional “sin tax.” Smoking has been shown to cause cancer, emphysema and other maladies such as COPD.
  • Eat whole foods. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not more expensive to eat whole foods. We feed our family of six on primarily whole foods. Yet we still keep grocery costs to $83 a person per month. Eating mostly whole foods will help your body to function better. In addition, it’ll increase your energy levels and help you to sleep better too.
  • Get and stay active. Exercise is listed as one of the top five things people can do to prevent heart attacks and other diseases. When a person exercises, they help their body to release toxins from organs and the bloodstream. Also, they strengthen their lungs, muscles and bones and improve overall health. Exercise doesn’t have to be expensive, either. Try a daily walk around the neighborhood or weight-bearing exercises at home. A daily series of pushups, squats, sit-ups and calisthenics will do the trick.

Other Tips for Staying Healthy

These additional tips will help you cut down on healthcare costs and stay healthy too.

  • Drink plenty of clean water. The human body is more than two-thirds water. Therefore, it only makes sense that drinking plenty of water will help your body stay in balance. The general rule for water consumption is half your body weight in ounces per day. So if you weigh 150 pounds, you should be drinking 75 ounces of water each day. Increase this amount if you have heavy physical exertion at your job or during workouts. Dump the soda and coffee and start drinking water. You’ll save your health AND your money.
  • Floss and brush regularly. The American Dental Association recommends brushing 2-3 times per day and flossing daily. By taking good care of your teeth, you can avoid expensive dental repairs.
  • Minimize alcohol consumption. Alcohol is expensive. And it can also wreak havoc on your body when over-consumed.
  • Get enough sleep. 7-8 hours per day is what the average person needs. Sleep has been shown to have healing properties as well, so be sure to get enough of it. Work to create a schedule of going to bed and waking at about the same time each day.

Try following the above steps to improve your health. You’ll keep medical and dental costs affordable, even on a smaller income.

Save Something Each Month

Even when earning minimum wage, it’s vitally important to establish a habit of saving money each month. The reason is two-fold. First, choosing to live beneath your means – no matter what your income – will help you to be a better money manager in general.

Second, working to build up a solid savings balance – no matter how long it takes – will help assure you more financial stability. This is important for you in the event of an expensive emergency or job loss.

How to Save More Money

Here are some tips for ensuring you save at least some of your paycheck each month.

  • Set an amount you think you can afford to put aside each month, even if it hurts a bit. Even seemingly smaller amounts such as $5, $10 or $20 a month will begin to add up.
  • Automate your savings when possible, either through your employer or through your local bank. By treating your savings amount like a bill, you’re more likely to forget about it.
  • Make it a rule to not touch your savings except in the case of an emergency. And don’t use it for spontaneous goings out with friends or sales at the local clothing store.
  • Put all “found money” into savings. Tax returns, gifts, etc. qualify as “found” money.
  • Put at least 25 percent of all raises into savings. Allow yourself the gift of having more money to live on. But commit to putting some of that money away each month. After all, you’re used to not having it anyway.
  • Consider contributing something toward retirement, no matter how small. If your employer offers a 401(k) program, consider contributing some of your pre-tax dollars to an account. You likely won’t miss it. If it’s not offered, think about opening up a Traditional IRA or Roth IRA. Most IRA’s require an opening deposit of as little as $50. From there you can contribute monthly or quarterly as you are able.

Keep Electronic Costs at Bay

Instead of buying a $600 iPhone, get a pay-as-you-go phone. It won’t have all of the bells and whistles, but it will suit your needs and provide less stress on your budget.

Cut the cable. Search for affordable Internet service. Or cancel Internet service altogether and use free Internet service at your local library.

Work to Find a Side Hustle

There are many options for side hustle jobs for people in nearly any situation. Consider your talents and interests and write them down. Then work to find a side job that will help you to utilize those talents and interests. Some ideas? Deliver pizzas at night or newspapers in the morning.

Walk dogs for pet-owning neighbors or find a virtual assistant or freelancing job that you can do online. Any extra income you can bring in during the week will help ease your financial situation. This will make paying the bills more comfortable.

You can also start taking surveys online with Survey Junkie. You won’t get rich quick, but any increase in your income is a good start!

Choose to be Grateful

So much of surviving in tough circumstances boils down to attitude. No matter how bad a person has it, someone, somewhere always has it worse.  Choose to focus on the things you do have instead of the things you don’t have. Give and serve where you can to help others. Those who have an attitude of gratitude live a happier life in general.

Suggested Budget for Minimum Wage Earners

Here is a suggested budget for someone living on minimum wage. The numbers are for a one-person household. This budget assumes a $1,000 per month take-home pay after deductions for taxes and benefits.

Cell Phone$60

Total:                             $1,000.00


Those who live on a minimum wage income know it’s not easy, but it isn’t impossible either. With a little creativity and a lot of hard work, you can live a good life on any wage.