It’s a choice no one should ever have to make, a question I should have never had to ask:
Do I buy a bus pass to help me get to work or do I pay for my prescription?
But there I was, fresh out of college, standing in line at the pharmacy and debating my life down to every last dollar.
It was one of the lowest moments of my adult life: underemployed, uninsured, and with $80 left in my checking account. And I was struggling to survive on minimum wage.
On one hand, I felt personally responsible for the situation I was in (did I not work hard enough in school?). On the other, I felt helpless, at the mercy of the economy while being denied a basic right to survival.
I chose the prescription. I left the pharmacy, walked back to my apartment and cried.
I knew in that moment that something had to change.
How I Ended Up At the Bottom
When I graduated from Boston University in 2009, I was more than eager to land my first “real” job. To me, a real job meant a modest paycheck that would help me start a life on my own, save a little money and pay down my student loans – $30,000 in loans, to be exact.
But as excited as I was to stop studying and start earning morning, the economy felt differently. I had graduated at the apex of the Great Recession, and by the time I entered the workforce, the job market had completely dried up – and my hopes for a “real” job with it.
On graduation day, I had nothing: no offers and no opportunities that would afford me a comfortable lifestyle I had assumed I’d earned by getting a degree. I wasn’t completely without work, however. I was offered a $1,000 monthly stipend to continue working at my nonprofit internship.
It meant that I wouldn’t have to move to the other side of the country to live with my parents. It also meant I would be living off of minimum wage.
But money was money, and I couldn’t refuse a paycheck while I searched for other work.
So with $30,000 in debt, I started my post-college career earning $8 an hour.
What Does $8 an Hour Feel Like?
Suffocating. Desperate. Drowning. Hopeless.
Those are the adjectives I’d use to describe my life the first few months on minimum wage. I just felt like I couldn’t breathe – that I was running out of air in a tiny room and I couldn’t escape unless I had more money.
I did what any person on minimum wage has to do – I began with a budget to see where my money was going and where I could be saving. Here’s my breakdown for each month:
- $1,000 stipend
- $500 for a room in a four-bedroom apartment
- $30 utilities
- $50 cell phone bill
- $100 bus and subway pass
- $120 groceries
- $80 prescription
Conservatively, that left $160 a month. $160 a month to save for the future. $160 a month for clothes, eating out and enjoying life with friends. $160 a month that would, shortly, be eaten up by student loan repayments after my grace period ended.
Feeling the pressure to find money somewhere in my measly earnings, I started to trim the fat.
But I started “saving” money in drastic and unhealthy ways: I skipped meals; I stopped going out with friends; I refused to buy a new mattress, knowing that the free futon I was sleeping on each night was excruciating on my back. I was miserable.
And then came the moment at the pharmacy.
I had spent $120 earlier that month on a roundtrip, 8-hour train ticket to a job interview in Washington, D.C. I was now faced with a terrible choice: what do I give up this month that I absolutely need to survive?
In that moment, I knew two things had to change if I was going to live on minimum wage: 1) my strategy for saving money and 2) my outlook on my circumstances.
How to Survive on Minimum Wage
Surviving on minimum wage is feasible. Enjoying life is a challenge. When you’re surrounded by a feeling of desperation, it’s hard to realize that having fun and saving money are not mutually exclusive. But I knew I had to do both, so I vowed not only to enjoy life but to save more money in the process. I took some small and meaningful steps to make sure I lived a quality lifestyle while making minimum wage:
Become the library’s best patron
I began walking to the library once a week, where I regularly checked out stacks of books and DVDs. I attended their quarterly book sales, where I could purchase a pile of novels, cookbooks and nonfiction for $3. The library was my social crutch when I felt like I couldn’t afford to go out or go shopping: I filled my weekdays with books, my Friday night with movies, and my craving to go shopping with the library fire sale.
When I made the choice to buy my prescription, it was at the cost of my monthly transportation budget – something I needed to get to work everyday. But even though my bus pass was listed as a “need,” did I really need it everyday? Did I need to take the bus and the subway to get to work? I decided to forgo the bus and walk 1.2 miles everyday to the subway. I still had to buy a subway ticket, but I ended up saving $40 a month. My morning and evening walks also became one of my favorite moments of the day.
Save, even if it hurts
I knew one unexpected expense would push me over the edge. A decent amount of savings was the only buffer between me and having to move back home. I vowed to save money monthly – even if it was just $10. It was the only way I was ever going to feel like I had room to breathe.
Choose to be happy
This was tough for me. It was easy to daydream, to say to myself, “If I just made $500 more a month, I’d be so happy.” But I realized that I had to be happy now. I had to choose to make due and find free and frugal ways to explore the city, hang out with friends and live my life. The choice of being happy had little to do with money, and it took me while to separate the two. The Happiness Project was an eye-opening book for me that helped me find other sources of joy. Things like my loving relationship with my family, my health or even something as simple as a walk outside in the sunshine. And when I started to choose to find happiness in what I already had, I started to feel like I had enough.
What I Learned from Making Less
My story ends happily: that $120 train ticket helped land me a job in Washington, D.C. – a real job with a real salary far above minimum wage. But I know that for some people, the escape isn’t as easy. For those people who feel like they don’t have a choice about where their money is going, remember this: you have a choice. In the face of financial adversity, you can always choose positivity and joy.
Every now and then, I remind myself of the financial pain of living on $1,000 a month. When I feel like I’m getting too complacent with my money, I remember what it was like to have to choose between a prescription and a bus pass. I think about these moments, and it helps me remember that I can survive and enjoy life on far less.
And while life is certainly easier when you’re earning a decent living, I know now that the choice to be happy doesn’t depend on your income.