There’s an individual who comments on Money360 (and a few other personal finance blogs) who identifies him- or herself as “Minimum Wage.” This person is singularly focused on the issues of low wage earners, and while his/her comments can be frustrating, sometimes Minimum Wage is really effective at pointing out how some advice simply isn’t appropriate for people in that situation. What good is portfolio advice to a minimum wage earner? What good does it do to talk about how to buy a $200K+ house when you’re making $7 an hour? Not much.
I know where Minimum Wage is coming from. I grew up in a household with a far below average income, and while we may have done all right for ourselves, I grew up around people who existed in true poverty. Thankfully, I was able to take advantage of the great opportunities that life offered me – and the great foundation that my parents gave me as a person – and was able to find a better, financially healthy life where I could raise my children without a regular sense of necessity underlying day to day life.
But what can a person do if they’re in Minimum Wage’s situation? Here are the ten things I would do if I found myself only able to earn minimum wage.
1. Go rural.
It is far, far easier to make a living on minimum wage in a rural situation. There are many small towns where you can find a room to rent for $100 a month and a small apartment to rent for $200 a month. Yes, these really exist – I see them fairly regularly when I get out in the more rural areas of Iowa. Even better, these areas often have lots of jobs for minimum wage workers – I see lots of help wanted signs around these towns and notices inside of town halls and gas stations looking for workers.
2. Don’t drive.
A car is a giant money suck. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it, if you’re working minimum wage, your car is killing you. Ditch the car – get whatever cash you can from it. Then choose a place to live where you can get to work by foot or by bicycle. In a small town, it’s pretty easy to reach any other place in the town (and many places in the nearby countryside) on foot or by bicycle, and it’s something that people often do to cut corners.
3. Find the free stuff.
In towns of any size, there are resources available for the impoverished, from free dinners at churches to food giveaways to soup kitchens. The library provides free entertainment in the forms of books, music, and internet access. There are parks, recreational activities, and countless other things even in the smallest of rural towns. Look around for the free stuff and use it – it’s there for everyone to utilize. When you must spend money, be as frugal as possible. Ramen is very cheap, filling, and full of carbs, for example.
4. Don’t be proud.
Pride often keeps people from walking into a soup kitchen. Don’t let it. That kind of pride is an obstacle ground into you by a life in a consumerist society. People who are there to help you want to help you stand on your own two feet – give them that opportunity. Look for every opportunity to help you with your situation, from consulting to WIC to Medicaid to welfare (regardless of my political feelings on it, it’s definitely a resource someone in that position should use). If you don’t know where to start, start off by asking a pastor or a clergyman for help.
5. Minimize your required commitments.
Repaying debts? Call the debtors and explain your situation and ask for an abatement. This won’t get rid of your debt, but it can minimize your requirements for the time being. If you have children that you simply can’t support, look for opportunities to help you with that burden – your family is a great place to start, for example. Don’t saddle yourself with burdens heavier than you can carry or you’ll do nothing but collapse. You don’t become strong by carrying 500 pounds of weight on your back – you become strong by learning how to carry ten pounds, then adding more as you go along.
6. Take every side opportunity you can.
There are all sorts of little opportunities to make more money if you pay attention. Doing things like helping someone shingle a roof for $10 an hour cash is an opportunity you can’t let pass by. Free meals? Take them. Twenty bucks for helping an old man clean out his garage? Do it. Ask around for odd jobs and other small-scale moneymaking opportunities – perhaps even get started on your own “handyman” business.
7. Minimize your possessions.
There are a lot of reasons for doing this. The biggest one is that the more stuff you have, the more money you’ve wasted. Also, fewer possessions mean that you need less room to live. For a while, all of my worldly possessions (clothes included) fit in a single Rubbermaid tub – and that made it extremely easy to actually live in someone’s living room for a while.
8. Make a steely commitment to succeed.
Even after you’ve done all of this, it still takes some serious commitment to make all of this work. You can get yourself in a position where you’re not spending more than you make, but it takes commitment to stay there. Remind yourself every day that you’re not going to waste money and that you’re going to spend less than you earn this week – and this month – and this year. That’s the one way you can get ahead.
9. Save automatically.
So what do you do when you are making more than you’re spending? Take that extra money and put it into a savings account. But just doing that every once in a while won’t cut it. Keep most of your money in a checking account, then go to the library and use the internet access there to set up an online savings account with a big bank, like ING or HSBC. Set up an automatic savings plan there to withdraw $10 a week from your main checking – or maybe even more. Then walk away and forget about it. What will happen? After a year, you’ll have $530 or so in the account. If you’ve put in more weekly, you’ll have even more.
10. Educate yourself.
While you’re putting yourself in a better financial place, spend your spare time educating yourself. Take classes at the nearest community college and work towards some kind of degree. If you need to, transfer to a state university – if you’ve been working on minimum wage for a long time and are actually making strong progress towards a degree, they will help you big time with paying for it. The key is getting started – see what your local community college has to offer.
One final tip: don’t give up the dream.
If you’re working a minimum wage job, either you’re very young, very lazy, or very unlucky. All of these can be overcome, but they take time and commitment and a lot of hard work. It’s very easy to give up the dream of a better life when you’re doing this. Don’t. You can succeed and you will succeed if you spend every day taking steps in the right direction. Surround yourself with people who are also fighting to go in the right direction. Don’t be resentful of people in a better situation than you – instead, use them as inspiration and realize that if you keep on the path, you’ll get there too.