Living off of minimum wage in this country is extremely burdensome: mentally, physically, and financially. As one Redditor puts it:
A nice dinner out with your significant other might seem like nothing to people who make more money than I do, but that is something I have to plan for. I have to pick up shifts at work and skip a meal or two in order to take someone out and feel “normal” for a few hours. But I get up and I do it every day because I have to.
Here are seven ways to improve your life and lifestyle while living on minimum wage.
Create a budget
While I researched this piece, my friend Steph described a moment in the life of a minimum wage earner:
I used to love Campbell’s brand soup as a kid. Aldi stocks it right next to the generic brand soup, which is $0.40 cheaper. So I stood there for a good five minutes debating whether I could truly afford the name brand soup that I wanted. But eventually, I left the Campbell’s on the shelf.
Steph’s problem, as she put it, is that she doesn’t have a budget so she never knows how much she can really spend without feeling guilty.
It’s almost ironic that creating a budget can feel both scary and tedious at the same time. But having a budget on any wage is so critical because it provides two primary benefits:
- First, budgeting ensures that you don’t overspend and end up with net zero or negative earnings at the end of the month, which can jeopardize your long-term goals of financial independence.
- Second, when you create a budget, you’ll learn down to the dollar how much you can spend on nonessentials each month.
As someone who’s briefly lived on minimum wage (and no wage), I can assert that it’s really hard to live life when every non-essential purchase, like Campbell’s soup or a movie rental, is laced with guilt and fear of the unknown.
Part of designing a budget is determining how much you’ll allow yourself to spend on fun and happy things without feeling guilty. Even if it’s only $40 per month on nonessentials, that’s $40 you can spend guilt-free, which is so critical to supporting your mental health.
As for which budget to follow, consider the 50-30-20 budget:
- 50% of your income goes to essentials (bills, food, rent, utilities, etc.).
- 30% of your income goes to discretionary spending (entertainment, social life, etc.).
- 20% of your income goes to savings (investments, 401k, etc.).
Now, you might be thinking that well over 50% of your income is already going to your essentials. To be sure, you can use MU30’s 50-30-20 Budget Calculator to confirm your suspicions. If things are tight, consider shaving 10% off of the latter two categories so your budget plan becomes 70-20-10.
Once you’ve established a budget, it’s time to start storing your money in the right places.
Open some checking, savings, and retirement accounts
There are many American households that are either unbanked or underbanked, meaning they either have no bank accounts or they have an account, but rely upon outside/unscrupulous financial institutions like payday lenders to make ends meet.
Payday lenders are extremely dangerous places to do business and should be avoided, but more on that later.
The research found that the #1 reason why these households avoid banks is that they feel that they don’t have enough money. The #2 reason is that they simply don’t trust banks.
If you hold these beliefs, I get it. Banks do sketchy things, and overdraft fees are a pain. But the benefits of opening accounts with the right bank far outweigh the potential cons.
A checking account is critical for safely storing and accessing your money on a daily basis. It also enables you to make purchases with a credit card, which can help build positive credit. Lastly, having at least a checking account will enable you to set up direct deposit with work, which we’ll talk about below.
A savings account is a rainy day fund that accumulates a little interest (around 1.0% these days, compounded annually). If you have money that you won’t need immediately but may need before retirement, a savings account is a good place to keep it.
For a great starter bank, consider Chime. They offer checking and savings accounts, and I don’t hesitate to recommend them to someone making minimum wage because they help you build credit and charge zero fees (their whole mission is to make money off of banks, not customers). Plus, they make it super easy to get started.
Chime is a financial technology company, not a bank. Banking services provided by, and debit card issued by, The Bancorp Bank or Stride Bank, N.A.; Members FDIC.
Finally, I strongly recommend setting up a retirement account. Even if you can only contribute a few bucks a month (or a year), that money will still multiply by a factor of 10-15 by the time you retire, so it’s much better than not having any retirement savings at all. Plus, in my experience, just knowing that I was saving something for retirement was a stress-reliever.
To open a retirement account and put a few bucks in, I recommend Betterment. It’s a “robo-advisor,” meaning it’s an AI that never sleeps, optimizing your investments 24/7. You don’t even have to make a deposit to launch a free account, and Betterment charges an annual fee of just 0.25% of your account balance (so no “minimum balance” nonsense here).
Set up direct deposit and automated bill pay
I mentioned direct deposit earlier as a benefit of a checking account. Why is that important?
Direct deposit is where you give your employer your account info so instead of writing a check, they can just directly deposit your pay into your bank account. Direct deposit is awesome because it means no more lost checks and you can get your money two-five days faster, and anyone living paycheck-to-paycheck knows that getting cash faster can make a huge difference at the end of the month.
Next, a checking account will also enable you to set up automatic bill pay. Most banks will have online dashboards where you can input recipients like AT&T and your landlord and set up automatic payments to them each month.
Now, AT&T and your leasing company might offer to automatically withdraw from your account when your bills are due, but I wouldn’t recommend this for two reasons. Let’s say you give your account and routing numbers to AT&T so they can automatically withdraw $50 each month. Regardless of how much money is in your account, AT&T will always try to withdraw $50, which could leave you without food/rent money or worse, overdrafted. Next, AT&T might simply make a clerical mistake and withdraw $500, and it can take a lot of red tape to get it back.
So instead, keep control of your automatic payments yourself so you can always quickly turn off the taps if you need to save money.
Avoid bad debt and build good credit
Never try payday loans
If you’ve ever considered taking out a loan from a payday lender, just don’t. Beg, borrow (but don’t steal) from friends and family before you walk into one of those places, because statistically, most people who take payday loans end up owing magnitudes more than they borrowed.
If you’re short on cash and friends and family couldn’t come through, you can also try Earnin. Earnin is a community-sourced app that lets you withdraw up to $100 per day from your next paycheck amount in advance. Most crucially, they don’t charge fees or interest.
Build good credit simply by getting your credit report
Next, you’ll want to start building some good credit. Your credit score is an indicator not of your wealth, but how likely you are to pay back a loan in time. Building good credit is essential because having good credit lowers your interest rates on future loans. Improving your credit score by just 100 in your 20s can help you save thousands on your car payment, or even a mortgage.
To start, you can check your credit score for free, with no strings attached, at Credit Karma. Also, you’ve probably read in the news about unscrupulous tax filing companies that dupe Americans into paying to file their taxes when it should be free. Well, Credit Karma Tax doesn’t mess around and lets you file your taxes easily, 100% free. Put a note on your calendar to head to Credit Karma Tax next April.
Build your credit by using a credit card responsibly
Aside from paying bills and loans on time, a great way to build good credit is to put your bills and expenses on a credit card. Yes, having a credit card with a big line of credit is a slippery slope for anyone regardless of income, but as long as you stick to your 50-30-20 budget and set up autopay, you’ll be fine.
Having a credit card while you’re living on minimum wage is a good idea because it can generate cash back on your existing daily expenses. I’m a massive fan of my Chase Freedom Unlimited® card for this reason; it offers cash back in every category imaginable. You’ll start by earning 5% cash back on all travel booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3% on dining, takeout, and drugstore purchases, and finally, 1.5% cash back on all other purchases. So there’s a little something for every category I spend in.
Plus, there’s currently a $200 bonus if you spend $500 within the first three months, which is an attainable goal if you’re living on minimum wage.
Get some government benefits
If you’re struggling to make ends meet, you may qualify for some government support. The federal and state governments offer programs that provide food, utilities, healthcare, child care, insurance, phones, and more.
To see which benefits you might qualify for, visit benefits.gov.
You may also qualify to receive some help from a local non-profit group. For example, I recently did some work with Helping Mamas in Atlanta, Georgia, who supplies food, diapers, and other critical supplies to low-income mothers in need.
Do a little research and see what non-governmental resources might be available to you locally. You can also use Reddit and Facebook to connect with other minimum wage earners in your area to learn more about where others are seeking support.
Take classes, freelance, and increase your earnings
Did you know that some states offer community college for free, and most will offer scholarships to students with financial needs?
It may seem like an exhausting prospect to take classes on top of a 60-hour workweek, but learning an in-demand skill or trade at community college is the fastest way to transform your earnings into a liveable wage. According to CNN Money, graduates of a vocational program that took less than six months to complete earned an average salary of around $38,000 after graduation. If you get a two-year associate degree in STEM, you can earn twice that.
If you’re looking for a trickle of extra cash in the short term, ask yourself: is there one skill or favor that my friends keep asking me to do? Maybe it’s video editing, photography, public speaking, writing, moving, handiwork, etc. If so, start charging! Use sites like Facebook Marketplace, Nextdoor, and Upwork to list your services and start your fees above the minimums you see so people place value on your work.
Finally, if you’re already spending a lot of time gaming on your smartphone or surfing the web, you might consider earning a little extra cash on Swagbucks. Swagbucks is a safe, secure place where you can watch videos, take surveys, even play games in exchange for gift cards. It all equates to around $2 per hour so it’s less of an income stream than a trickle, but a little time on Swagbucks per day could cover a grocery bill or two.
Set some financial goals
Once you’ve taken the above steps to regain your financial footing and recoup some mental health, let’s set some financial goals.
There are plenty of “ducks in a row” apps out there that will help you organize your finances, stick to a budget, and set a reasonable goal (i.e. save for a down payment on a house) that you can track over time. However, my personal favorite and the one I recommend for minimum wage earners is PocketSmith.
PocketSmith is like a virtual financial assistant. In addition to helping you organize a crystal clear picture of your earnings and financial outlook, its most notable feature is financial forecasting. You can tell PocketSmith that you’re considering a big purchase like a new bike or a down payment on a car and it’ll actually show you how such a decision will impact your finances and savings goals.
Best of all, it offers these services, including forecasting, for free in its Basic Plan.
Living off of minimum wage is mentally and physically draining, but with some strategy, you can alleviate the stress in the short term and achieve financial independence sooner than you think.
For more on how to cut expenses and increase your earnings while on minimum wage, check out MU30’s article: How To Save And Invest When You Make Minimum Wage.