How to Survive on Minimum Wage

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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.

*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 at Bay

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 Can Minimum Wage Earners 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.

CategoryAmount
Rent$500
Groceries$100
Transportation$100
Cell Phone$60
Entertainment$50
Utilities$60
Savings$50
Other/Misc.$80

Total:                             $1,000.00

Summary

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.

What are your tips for living well on a smaller income?

34 COMMENTS

34 responses to “How to Survive on Minimum Wage”

  1. Brad @ MaximizeYourMoney.com says:

    This is a good post, Laurie. Living on minimum wage is quite a challenge. These tips should be useful to those in that position.

    • Laurie Blank says:

      Thanks, Brad! Yes, it’s definitely tough. When I was a kid my mom supported our family of four on less than that and it was tough.

  2. John says:

    While these ideas are great, I’d love to see a full budget with the actual numbers. A family of 6 living on $1k per month and spending $550 on groceries leaves very little for anything else. Public transportation depends on what state you live in. Massachusetts, for example, has great public transportation,but in Florida…not so much. Also, some of your ideas mean that you would not be earning minimum wage. For example, working for rent means that you are earning more than minimum wage. Even if your landlord doesn’t have your rent in your W2, you are still earning that money back. There is just no paper trail to document that.

    • Laurie Blank says:

      Hi, John. I’ve added a suggested budget to the post. I wasn’t speaking of a family of six living on 1K a month in the post, I was just sharing our family’s personal grocery numbers of $500 a month to show that it is possible for one person to eat on $100 or less per month. The goal of the post was simply to show people who are struggling on minimum wage how to make things easier.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Thank you. I just got my first full time job and I’m a little anxious about moving out and living on minimum wage. The suggested budget at the end helped me breathe a little easier, so to speak.

  4. Steven says:

    Clearly the author has never had to live in California. Budget $500 for rent? I WISH! If you double that, you’re close.

  5. Tabitha says:

    It’s easier said than done. I doubt the author ever lived like this.

    • Laurie Blank says:

      There’s no arguing that it takes some serious effort. I’ve actually lived like this both as a child growing up (my single mom lived on food stamps and a $300 per month child support stipend, supporting three kids) and as an adult. Most of the tips shared here are from my own personal experiences.

  6. Denise says:

    That budget is, for lack or care of better phrasing, “whacked”. Let’s all embrace the poverty-stricken amenities of our grandparents’ youth (sarcasm).

    The oppressed are already well-aware of ways to make extra cash and finagle. Thus, painting an inaccurate methodology of how to achieve the “American Dream” as a marginalized American seems…futile.

    If Americans were really meant be prosperous, congress would work harder to implement better wages across the entire nation. I’d welcome an article on investing in better political candidates/campaigns.

    • Deacon says:

      Hi Denise,
      Thanks for weighing in. Unfortunately, some people do have to live on minimum wage, so we thought this post would be helpful for them.

  7. Matthew says:

    I’m sorry. I lived on more than minimum wage each month and struggled horribly – to the point of now being a 30 year-old living in my parent’s finished basement that I built for them. Your first 2 suggestions for living is in your parents basement paying rent, or living in the South end. Well, what you didn’t consider is that living in the South end means renting run down houses or apartments. There is no way your utilities are $60. The windows in the place I could afford were old, aluminum, drafty windows. My heating bill was outrageous. By the way, they don’t put businesses that are easy to walk or bike to in the worst part of town, which is what I could afford. Plus, I don’t know where you can rent for $500 a month. I paid $540 for a tiny studio apt in Illinois. I’m afraid to know what people pay on the coast. So, I’m sorry, it is nearly impossible to live on minimum wage. But, if you want to live in complete poverty, and maybe a meal a day, then yes, you could almost live on minimum wage. But, if the tax return isn’t good enough to catch up on winter bills, you’re not going to last long.

  8. william says:

    This is a joke. Speaking as a student that works full time as a bartender and still struggles, I can tell you it is almost impossible to live earning only minimum wage. The city I live in does not offer public transportation, so owning a vehicle is a must. The health insurance, that is mandatory, at my place of employment is $180 a month. My water/sewage bill is $48 a month, and my power bill alone is $140 in the summer and nearly $200 in the winter (this is while unplugging everything that isn’t being used and setting my thermostat at 75 in the summer and 68 in the winter). I clip coupons weekly and shop only sale items and still survive primarily on rice. I find it almost laughable that you recommend saving money while I struggle to pay off the $500 doctor bill I received when I had the flu and missed 2 weeks of work. $500 is what my cut rate, mandatory insurance would not cover and 4 months later, I’m still feeling the impact of not working for 2 weeks. I’m happy that your mother was able to make it. However, the minimum wage in 1968 was $1.60/hr, and if that was adjusted for inflation, would equal roughly $11.00/hr today. Although I understand this article was created in an attempt to help those earning minimum wage budget their money, it feels almost insulting. With your family of 6, how often do you shop at big box stores, such as Costco, where you are able to utilize the “save by buying in bulk” philosophy? In a single person household, the same economics do not apply.

  9. D says:

    Hi. I’m 23 years old, and I’m about to live on my own. I make $10.50 an hour, and I’ve found a place that’s $550 a month. I get paid every week. Would I be able to live off that?

  10. Angie says:

    This is ridiculous: putting money back in case of an accident? Have you lost your mind? POOR PEOPLE HAVE NO MONEY TO SAVE! Employers need to step up and pay a living wage. There is more than enough money in this country for everyone to live comfortably.

  11. gary hubbard says:

    I get $500 a month and you can not live off that. I have 1 child and a wife. The rent is $500 a month, the lights are $300, and water is $147.

    • Deacon says:

      I’m sorry to hear you are having a rough time of it. This post doesn’t take in everyone’s situation, of course, because each person’s circumstances are different. It’s just to show that it is possible to survive on minimum wage if you spend very wisely.

  12. Sisi says:

    The solution to having a minimum wage job: get a second job. WOW! GROUND BREAKING!

    • Deacon says:

      You may have noticed this was one small suggestion among many other tips and ideas that can help a person survive on minimum wage. That doesn’t mean everyone has to get a second job to make it on minimum wage, though.
      However, as stated in the post, it can make people feel more secure, build an emergency fund, and live more comfortably.

  13. Dani says:

    I just found this article. It’s 2019 and I earn about $1000-$1200 a month in Michigan working full time. I am a single mother, my daughter is 4 and we live in decent, low income housing. If we didn’t, there is no possible way I could afford an apartment. We don’t have cable, but we do have internet to watch Netflix and YouTube. We also get about $250 in food stamps every month and both me and my daughter have Medicaid. My biggest monthly expenses are actually my daughter’s daycare, car insurance, plus purchasing any food that food stamps didn’t cover. We basically just get by on this wage but without state benefits, I couldn’t imagine having those added costs. There is no way possible a single mother could live on $1000 month without state benefits. Maybe if people helped you out a lot or your parents gave you free room and board. Even a single person with no kids would struggle very hard to live on $1000 a month. The idea that someone could find the perfect roommate in the perfect location near a bus route is very unlikely. It saddens me that our government expects all people to have this kind of luck or that things will just work out for anybody and everybody. It doesn’t. A decent wage and budget for me and my daughter, here where I live, would be a minimum of $2800 before taxes.

    • Deacon says:

      I am sorry you are struggling. I’m sure it is not easy and everyone’s situation is a little bit different. The cost of living varies in different areas and so does the minimum wage. Your knowledge and job skills also play a part in what kind of job you can get and how much you can get paid. All of these things, and more, factor into whether or not you can survive on what you make. But of course, surviving on minimum wage doesn’t necessarily mean you are getting everything you want, either. I do wish you and your daughter luck, happiness, and good fortune as you make your way through life together. 🙂

  14. Kimberly says:

    I cannot think of a break down in groceries that you can eat off of (reasonably healthily) for $83 a month. My father explained to me that 10 or 15 years ago he ate off of $150 or so a month, but during this 5-10 year time he got diabetes, had a heart attack, heart surgery, and a pacemaker put in. So, those “discounted” groceries actually cost him a lot. If you even take just one of your categories (the rest don’t make sense either) can you elaborate on exactly what foods you recommend eating for this amount? I think you are dangerously misleading people. It seems as if you wrote this article to get a pay per click and didn’t actually pay attention to the numbers you were writing.

    • Deacon says:

      It also depends on the cost of food where you live as well as housing costs, etc in that area. But sometimes in areas where those costs are higher, minimum wage is higher as well. It may not be possible for everyone, but with diligence and creativity some can do it.

  15. Cody says:

    So…basically…life is going to suck and one should just hope for a quick, painless death?

    • Deacon says:

      Wow! That seems kind of depressing. I don’t think that’s the case at all. While surviving on minimum wage can be very hard, it isn’t impossible, which is the idea behind this post. At the same time, you could start a side hustle to make your finances better and maybe even get a better job. We have lots of posts about ways to side hustle or work from home to make your life better.

  16. Sam says:

    Living on minimum wage for one person is indeed doable. Most people are just too damn lazy to do what it takes. EVERY budget has room for cuts. A couple with both working minimum wage jobs should be doing OK. Stop complaining about your station in life and do something about it.

  17. kris says:

    Thank you for posting this and describing your experience. It’s very impressive. How polite and respectful your replies have been to comments that are not.

    • Deacon says:

      Thank you! I know it is frustrating to try to make it on either minimum wage or very low wages. With some creativity and carefully planning, it can be done for some people.

  18. Joel says:

    I don’t mean to be the negative Ned here, but even in California, where minimum wage is $12 an hour at full time, if I were to follow the advice of this article it would be impossible to work a side hustle and sleep a full night. It would also be nearly impossible to locate a place that is clean or safe enough to live, sleep, and store your stuff at $500 a month.

    If you already have pets when you are moving out of your family home, having to cover costs for pets, let alone a human child, would be ridiculously impossible and a joke on minimum wage. You’re basically pulling out your hair and crying yourself to sleep every night from hunger just to wake up and clock in at a random service job where you’re at risk daily from a number of chemicals and psychological traumas as well as generally getting treated as human waste by customers and employers.

    Then you get back to your $500 rented room in a random place to find your lock broken, your stuff stolen, your dog missing, etc. Life is great on paper or with a calculator. In real life if you get one thing wrong you get clipped by a car in a hit and run and that’s it. The party’s over and you’re homeless and in debt all because you couldn’t earn enough money to begin with. America.

    • Deacon says:

      As we have pointed out in previous comments, we are not saying this will work for everybody’s situation as well as in all parts of the country. Thank you for your comments, though.

  19. Nikki says:

    I appreciated this post. I used the tips from this post about a year ago when I moved to New York City. While everything did not apply in my situation, such as rent, which is ridiculous in the city, I tried a bunch of the suggestions from here. I ate out less, cooked most meals at home, planned my grocery runs down to the last letter, and spent a lot of time looking for discounts (yes I literally only spent $25 to $30 per week). I shared the apartment, so the rent and utilities would be cheaper, and got a second job that was super flexible, depending on my schedule for each week. It was a real struggle though, and it took a lot of discipline, but it definitely got easier. I must say it was difficult, but it was also temporary until I got myself situated. I don’t know if I could keep up with it for the rest of my life, but I definitely hustled on minimum wage for like six months! So, thanks a lot!

    • Deacon says:

      I’m glad you’re doing better now, but it sounds like you used the post exactly as it was meant to be used! You took what applied to you, used it, and tweaked what needed to be different for your own unique situation. I’m glad the post helped!

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