Is It Possible to Get By on Minimum Wage?

by Alexa Mason · 20 comments

Without my freelance income, I make what would be considered a “living wage” at my day job. This amount seems very low to me though. Some weeks, the income from my day job doesn’t cover my already bare-bones budget.

I’ll admit it: there’s even been a time or two when I’ve thrown a pity party for myself. (Not proud.)

Since I have such a hard time getting by on my income, which pays more than minimum wage, it makes me wonder how people who are actually earning minimum wage can survive. Let’s take a look.

My $2,000/Month Budget

My budget comes in at around $1,700 per month. While there might be an area or two where I could cut back if need be, I don’t have much wiggle room. Here’s how my monthly budget breaks down:

  • $356 = housing
  • $19 = phone
  • $400 = groceries
  • $400 = babysitting

This adds up to $1,175. The remainder goes to utilities, internet (no cable), gas, car insurance, and possibly some entertainment spending. Note that this budget doesn’t include a car payment, debt repayment, health insurance, or life insurance, which I’m currently without.

How Do Minimum Wage Workers Do It?

Minimum wage in Ohio (where I live) is $9.30 per hour. My hourly wage is a little higher than this. (Not double, but somewhere in between.) I can barely, and I mean barely, pay my bills on my wage. How does someone making minimum wage pull it off? Let’s make some calculations.

A person earning $9.30 an hour and working 40 hours a week would gross $372 a week. Let’s say a conservative 10% is withheld for taxes, which leaves us with a net pay of $334.80 a week, or $1,439.64 a month ($334.80 x 4.3 weeks).

Please note that my budget is low – a lot lower than the average in my area. But, if this minimum wage worker was living on my $1,900 a month budget, he would be $460.36 in the red! So, what are his options?

1. Use Credit Cards

Credit cards could be used to fill the roughly $460 budget deficit. Over a period of a year, this worker’s credit card debt would be nearing $5,524.32 – AND when you factor in this new credit card payment, his budget increases. This option is convenient but sucks for obvious reasons. It’s also not sustainable because the worker is just digging a bigger and bigger hole for himself until the debt comes crashing down on him.

2. Government Assistance

Let’s say the worker qualifies for food stamps. This would save him $300 a month, leaving a $160.36 deficit. If he qualified for food assistance and daycare, he’d be in the green by $239.64. I know there’s always debate on how much to help low income workers but there’s no question these programs can literally be life changing for some people.

3. Get Another Job

He could also work two minimum wage jobs. If he worked almost 60 hours a week, he’d bring home enough money to survive without debt or government assistance. Hopefully he can find two jobs where the supervisors are sympathic to his situation and will work with his schedule juggling two jobs.

4. Go Back to School

This isn’t always feasible, but he could go back to school and learn a new skill or earn a degree in order to get a new, better-paying job. However, if he’s currently working 60 hours a week, or working 40 hours a week plus caring for children, this might not be do-able. The cost of education also isn’t negligible for someone just barely scraping by.

It doesn’t seem to me like there are many good options for the minimum wage worker. What are your ideas?

What’s the best solution for minimum wage workers? Do you think the minimum wage should be raised?

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Allen P says:

    First of all you make the assumption that a minimum wage worker will always remain a minimum wage worker. In the vast majority of case minimum wage is for the entry level position. It usually doesn’t take long with hard work and a good work ethic to learn new skills and move beyond that minimum wage position and receive wage increases. Second, you also fail to mention simply looking for a better paying job. There are vast number of unfilled jobs out there just waiting for candidates to apply. The point is minimum wage is entry level low to no skill jobs. That’s why historically they went to teenagers mostly. They were never meant to be jobs one lived off of.

  • Caroline Bowman says:

    I loved that book, and though it speaks to the financial situation of around a decade ago, the points are exactly the same.

    ”Buy in bulk” type advice, whilst undoubtedly true, fails to take into account the lived reality of people who have next-to-nothing and no safety net. ”Don’t have kids you can’t afford” is another lovely one, and of course, it’s true that one should not knowingly produce dependents that one has no way to raise in a safe and decent manner, but life happens along the way. People get sick, people leave, people die, twins occur, economies tank. Blaming and berating people who have committed the crime of being poor, when many of us have no clue about their lived reality is hateful. I’m actually not particularly a socialist, nor do I approve of people living life to the max on government assistance, but the fact is, food assistance, rent assistance, subsidised childcare of some sort is hardly paying people to go on holiday to Bermuda. It helps children have a better, more stable childhood, and their parents to do the right thing. There will always be the criminal, shady types who are opportunistic, but most people, poor or rich, actually care about their children and their families.

  • steveark says:

    The cost of community college is free for almost any low income students. I chair the board of a community college and grants, not loans, are available that cover everything. However the availability of time to attend outside of work is a real hurdle as you pointed out.

  • Arminius Aurelius says:

    The facts are minimum wage is offered to high school kids or adults who never put in the effort to learn some skills or a trade . Those who put in the extra effort , more so than their co-workers , they will become valuable to their employer over and above the others . As a former owner of several restaurants between 1970 and 2004 with about 125 employees , to my great sorrow I found that a high percentage of the employees put in minimal effort . 34 years in business , I worked 12 hours a day , 6 days a week . 7 days when necessary . If I as the owner could work 12 hours a day in order to succeed , why can’t these people work an additional 4 hours a day …….. that would increase their income by 50 % …… either that or learn a trade . Or would you rather sit on your butt and cry how unfair the system is . There is no free ride.

  • krystal says:

    I think that you do have some valid points Arminius. However I think you may have forgotten a fairly large part of the working population, single mothers..they usually can’t work more than the normal 8 hour shifts because the after school program closes at 6pm and only on weekdays. Then you cant exactly work weekend to compensate because children need their mom around when they’re young..What about these women? Do they not deserve the help needed, whatever that really is. I don’t have the answers but hopefully someone does

    • Caroline Joanna Mary Bowman says:

      I have an idea! Make the fathers of those children, or at least the overwhelming majority of them (I appreciate it’s hard to get someone dead to pay) to contribute to the support of their children, or the mothers to, when the father is the one doing the majority of the child-wrangling. In this way, the parent with the least amount of free time will not have to work an undue number of hours (as in, they can work a 7-8 / 5 day per week, normal full-time job, I’m not suggesting much less than that).

      It’s a mad idea, but it might work. If at that point money was overly tight, then government assistance would be the fall back, so as to ensure the children did not suffer.

  • Joe says:

    If the minimum wage goes up, inflation goes up and things will cost more. So, what’s the point?
    How about finding ways to make things cost less, instead of bringing pay up?

    Wait! Isn’t that why most industries were outsourced to dirt-cheap-almostfree-labor countries? SHAME ON YOU, if you are still complaining. SHAME ON YOU, if you complain that your jobs were outsourced so you can, in the end, buy nice stuff for very little money!

    How about people realizing the basic fact that they really don’t need all their toys and luxuries to live a happy life?
    The average American, nowadays, live a life that would be the envy of some kings and queens in antiquity, yet, our ancestors lived through their lives and mankind has survived and thrived.

    There are billions living in luxury, while other billions live in need. Perhaps this world would be a better world, if those billions who have a little more, consistently took the initiative to help those other billions in need, not only with donations, but with support for those in need to ultimately be able to stand for themselves without help.

    It’s all a balancing act, some people would say… But, doesn’t this (a balancing act) sound like a lot of fun?

  • sld says:

    I made 8.49 hr 32 hr week. I live by myself, no credit cards, no car payment even though I own one. I spend about 150 a month on food, 55 on bare auto insurance, 70-120 electric and live in the south. I keep my thermostat up high so it doesn’t come on, 44 water, 50 cable and I don’t have reception where I live so I can’t get free tv. I live in an apartment and rent is 400 a month which is the lowest I could find which lets me have a dog. I also spend 100 on gas a month don’t go anywhere but to work, store and laundry. This leaves me with a little left over to put in savings just in case I have to get my vehicle fixed.

    • Arminius Aurelius says:

      Starting out as a 18 year old [ 1950 ] in the U.S.Navy , we earned about $ 120.00 a month . [ of course our housing , meals , medical , etc. were all paid for . But I still had $ 18.75 a month deducted for a $ 25.00 Savings Bond . [ 10 year ] After 4 years in the Navy , I wanted to visit Europe . I refused to cash in my Savings Bonds , so I worked an additional 4 hours a day / 5 days [ 60 hours a week. ] for 9 months . I then spent 3 months in Europe , bicycling thru various countries and staying at Youth Hostels . I worked 1 1/2 jobs [ 60 hours a week ] a number of times in order to bank more money. I never in my LONG life bought a new car , always bought a low mileage car from the previous year . [ 15,000 to 19,000 miles. ] I saved at least 40 % to 50 % . A low mileage car is like NEW . I suggest young people moving into their first rental apartment but used furniture but in Excellent condition ….. again you save many $ $ $ $ and yet have quality . Even Rich Folk buy used furniture ….labeled ” Antique ”
      The American citizen taxpayer works for a Corporation , works for the government [ taxes ] , works for the Banks paying off mortgages , loans and Credit Card debt ……what is left is yours . Tax yourself [ 10 % to 15 % ] on what is left and put that money aside for the future . Opportunities arise often in life , if you have the cash , you can take advantage of it. Money makes money . Over the years I bought bankrupt restaurants cheap. [ 34 years ] Now that I am retired , I still collect monthly rent , year after year . no fuss , very little work . It is FREE Money . ……… because I saved money when I was young. Life is an adventure or a bore , your choice .

  • Neal says:

    Do other things for income. Ebay, Craigslist, mow lawns in summer, rake in fall, shovel snow in winter, offer to wash someones car for a good price, drag up that old talent that you once used and turn it into money. When I retired I brushed up on my long stagnated piano playing skills and began to fill in as a pianist at churches that pay for such a thing. Funerals and weddings come up now and then as an opportunity for a little extra cash. Sometimes it can’t be all about a regular job with the same employer every day. I know some guys who can do carpentry work and do quite a bit of it for people for free apart from their non carpentry jobs. They could certainly turn that talent into money if they ever needed to. Childcare isn’t just for teenagers. If you need the cash there are many people that need their children cared for when they work their 9-5 jobs. Don’t expect a huge wad of money for this but it can help you make ends meet.

  • Dan says:

    By not having a kid. Also, it’s hard to make a meaningful suggestion when you don’t account for over 47% of your budget other than some hand-waving about utilities and gas. Speaking of which, not having a car would also help.

    • Alley K says:

      ^^OMG, THIS! It infuriates me to no end when I hear people beeyotching about the difficulties of living on minimum wage, then a study comes out that says “most minimum wage earners are the primary breadwinners for their families.” Gee, what’s wrong with that picture?!?!? Minimum wage jobs are for entry-level workers, i.e., single people, students, or those needing a little extra cash for whatever reason. They are not meant to support a family and the expenses that come with them. People must resolve not to have children until they are prepared to provide them with a decent standard of living. That means a two-parent household, with at least one of said parents having a decent-paying job. Bringing kids into this world with only the skillset to flip burgers or dig ditches is the ultimate example of putting the cart before the horse!

      • Caroline says:

        So true, so true, you are correct that people who don’t earn a lot should not have children, and if their circumstances change when they already have the children, well, too bad, so sad, amirite? They should have thought of the fact that their spouse would run off with someone else, to a different state and refuse to pay a cent. Honestly, that really, really lacks any sort of imagination, doesn’t it? Surely you can see that the sheer numbers of people on-or-close to minimum wage indicates that those jobs are plentiful and the higher-paid ones are not so plentiful. By your reckoning, this means that if one has children and is a breadwinner, one must resolve never to allow one’s earnings to fall below a certain amount over, say, a 20 year period.

        You know how people get sick? They die sometimes, they have accidents. Quite often, there are few good options.

  • kr says:

    This is more a question of our culture. The overall American culture and the family culture. Most Americans live luxuriously, honestly folks if you are spending $130 a month to watch 2+hrs tv a day something is wrong. Why is this our culture? Our able bodied people no longer know where to spend their time or trust their community enough to get out and do something. I don’t intend to encourage judgement, as I see it each person goes through different stages of life. The young, young at heart, young family with children 0-13yrs, and the grown family. If our culture could utilize our communities where there were able bodied people helping those in need, by programs.

  • Michael Kwan says:

    Minimum wage should not be confused by living wage.

  • Skilled Saver says:

    It’s very hard to get by on minimum wage, and I think they people that are able to do it have roommates or come from a dual-income household. Others may be on government programs. Minimum wage simply just isn’t enough by today’s standards. Try raising a family on minimum wage – it just isn’t possible without help of some type.

  • Darlene says:

    The more minimum wage rises the more everything else rises with it. People working minimum wage today are no better off than they were before the recent wage increase. We have to do something about inflation if we are to have a livable wage.

  • Michelle says:

    Getting by on minimum wage would be very difficult. It would be even harder if you had children (they of course need food and shelter, and possibly daycare), or if you had debt.

  • Bob says:

    I think it’s possible to get by on minimum wage (and I’ve done it for short periods of time), though if I were in that situation, I would like to think that I’d wake up every morning finding ways to make more than minimum wage.

    Obviously, outside circumstance could make this impossible, and I don’t blame anyone stuck there for not being able to get out.

  • Christine says:

    I actually read a book on this very subject recently. It’s called “Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America”. The entire book is based on a writer who does a (I believe) 6 month study by living as a minimum wage worker and not using her own wealth as support. What she found out was very sad. That you simply can’t get by on minimum wage. Most of the people she worked with had several jobs and/or lived with family. In a minimum wage household there HAS to be more than one income. It’s a quick but very enlightening read. Check it out! (PS, no one paid me to say this I swear, it was just really relevant to the topic! Lol)

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