living on minimum wage

When Finances Hurt: How I Survived on Minimum Wage


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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.

How to Survive on Minimum Wage

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.

Walk everywhere

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.

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31 thoughts on “When Finances Hurt: How I Survived on Minimum Wage

  1. David

    Great story. I am really sorry you had to go through that. My gf is currently in that bind. She is about to graduate law school and is looking for work with nearly 5 times the amount of debt you assumed. I am working with her to get through this but I will definitely forward along your post!

    1. Stephanie Halligan Post author

      Thanks for the comment, David. Sorry to hear she’s going through that, too. It’s tough. If she’s in that much debt, there are loan forgiveness options if she’s borrowed federal money and chooses to work in the public sector. Something to consider.

  2. Adam

    Wow that’s a tough read.

    The world can be a scary place especially if you don’t have job experience or a support system in place.

    I’m so thankful for my parents and the UK student loan system. I could work minimum wage after graduating, had a job that always wanted extra hours from me so i could work 7 a days a week, 12 hours a day, and only pay a small ‘rent’ at my parents house.

    And 8 months after graduating I got that proper grad job that’s the goal for many.

    Keep going kids!

    1. Stephanie Halligan Post author

      I’m also grateful to my parents, too – I always had the option to move home. But I was determined to live on my own and didn’t want to abandon the east coast (it would have been a 3,000 mile move). I’m also grateful I stuck it out – necessity and struggling on minimum wage was a big driver for me landing a salaried job as quickly as I did.

  3. Agatha

    Holy sh*t this is scary! All prospective or current college students should read this.
    And, in the end, I’m glad you learned a very valuable money lesson from all of this that you have carried with you into your adult life.

    1. Stephanie Halligan Post author

      Absolutely – I don’t want to scare any college students and crush their dreams, but it’s a reality a lot of grads face!

  4. Shannyn

    I know exactly how you feel! I was living on about $800 a month in graduate school and it was a really uncomfortable and sometimes, outright painful time. There were times I went over budget and while I was lucky to have savings to pay off my blunders (blunders meaning not budgeting for a friend’s birthday or wanting a new belt to hold my pants up and some pajamas, lol) it was tight for about two years.

    Overall the library (as you said) was a huge source of savings for me. I used them for my college books too if I could- it saved hundreds of dollars a semester while I was in school and even more for fun reading so I could read for free and feel less constricted!

    Great post, girl, I know how it feels!

    1. Stephanie Halligan Post author

      I still remember those blunders and purchases too. I bought a black dress and a pair of heels – both for $40. It was such a painful purchase at the time, that the price is burned in my brain – and I still have them in my closet!

  5. Grayson @ Debt Roundup

    What a story Stephanie. It is sad to see that this is happening, but it shows that nothing is guaranteed in life. Just because you have a degree, doesn’t mean there will be a job waiting for you. Congrats on pushing through it and landing on the other side. You learned a very valuable lesson from this, I am sure.

  6. Mira

    Sorry to hear that you’ve experienced this but what you’ve been through is probably one of the best things that happened in your life. If that happened to me I’d probably learned a lot which I do just by reading it. Thank you for sharing this and hope this serves as a challenge for those who are bind in this kind of situation right now.

  7. Peter

    The most successful people in the world all have one of these stories that drives and makes them stronger. I’m sure something like this will only make your better. Thanks for the post, and good to meet you Stephanie.

    1. Stephanie Halligan Post author

      Thanks, Peter. Really appreciate it. I believe it has made me a stronger, better person.

  8. Jassie

    The CEOS are the reason why we’re going through all this hell. I’m in nearly the SAME exact situation this blogger is except i’m able to live with my parents.

    Unfortunately my parents though can’t help me with a lot of things because their bankrupt. I ended up working two jobs in which I had to let my recent one go because the expensive of getting there was literally eating up my minimum wage paycheck. Plus it was stressful to work(got tired of the jerks) there and the managers kept messing with my hours (one moment I would get paid $220, the next only $140 for two whole weeks in a row. Twice.)

    So now I’m stuck at my dead-end job that I’ve been working for 6 years and not once got any promotion or ANY raise whatsoever. My hours are consistent but the pay is minimum and I feel like my job has clearly taken advantage of me (they made me work positions that cost $15 an hour but they still paid me minimum wage. Plus a lot of my colleagues old are arrogant old libraries and our job doesn’t treat part-time workers as real ‘staff’ despite knowing my good work ethics). Instead they hire a complete newbie that’s never been there before to work that $15 minimum job. Conveniently though, everyone who is minimum wage happens to be a minority. So we’re all getting paid $8.50 an hour positions and all the better paying jobs are positioned by non-minorities (Caucasians). Yet we do if not the same or exceed the work required of us but we never get recognized for it.

    I am so embarrassed and angry that after going to a private school and getting good grades and trying to achieve in life is this result. Thankfully however, I get to go to college FREE because my paycheck is a piece of crap.

    I’m just angry and frustrated that this is what life is giving. Scrambling around measly paying jobs that can’t give livable wages. I can’t even afford my own place to live or a car which makes me dependent upon my parents for survival as an adult. It’s not because I didn’t do enough in life, it’s just these limited jobs who are NOT giving young people like me a chance at life and instead put us into straight borderline poverty instead while they selectively “choose” whom they want.

    I’m a grown 24 year old adult, and I can’t even provide for myself and having to rely on parents for survival. There are some cases that as adults we NEED to move out the house, but with minimum wage jobs like this it pretty much leaves us to the mercies of our environment. I just get so tired of the unempowerment over my life as i’m just bullied and boss around at a whim, and if I don’t jump to what someone says then i’m considered homless.

    1. Me

      I agree with you. At my job, everyone who is Caucasian (there’s only 3 of them), even without degrees, they got a higher paying job than the rest of us who busts our asses to work as hard as we could to get a raise. It’s so sad!

      1. Stephanie Halligan Post author

        Jassie, thanks for your comment. I was not making a point about education or race. I was simply writing about how a change in my perception and mentality helped me thrive while earning minimum wage. I hope you can take that message with you, regardless of what you’re earning!

    2. Ray

      CEOs have nothing to do with your situation. CEOs work crazy hours, direct businesses that,in turn, employ thousands of people that earn a great wage, get health insurance and pay taxes. The one point missing in this article is mentioning what a minimum wage worker gets that others do not – food stamps, tax rebates, education credits, etc.

  9. Suzanne

    Hi Stephanie, I love your story and I am inspired by the fact that you took control of your debt and tackled it mercilessly. Often it takes a certain mind shifts to make that change and I applaud you for it! I am writing a post on mind shift changes when it comes to lifestyle expenses on a barely-make-ends-meet kind of budget and would love to attach a link to your post. Just wanna check with you first and to say well done on your progess.


  10. Shannon

    I am a college student and a young mom. I am in this kind of situation right now. But instead of medicine I’ve had to skip meals just to be able to buy diapers. My all time low was when I ran out of gas twice in the same week going and coming home from work. I am working it out now and have a small savings but with out moving back in with my parents I feel it would have never been better. Thanks for the post its good to know I’m not alone sometimes and congrats on the better job!

  11. Roxana Guy

    I feel for you. My husband and I have struggled on one paycheck before making only $8 an hour. We bought a house because where we lived, renting cost as much as a house. Our rent was $510 a month, utilities about $200 a month. Our new house? Cost $617 a month. Granted, we were both working when we bought our house and both making minimum. But then our son was born. My paycheck was going entirely to gas and baby sitting. Therefore, I quit my job to stay at home. We had no clue how we were going to make it. Mike was working at our local jail for $8/hr. One income. One car (luckily no payments), and that was it. We ate miserably like you did with no amenities. Family and friends gave us used furniture. Then when my son was about 18 months old, he looked at me and said, “I hungee.” I looked in my cabinets and had 1 can of beets and 1 can of peaches. My refrigerator was empty, not even condiments. I fixed him the peaches, and cried. My husband cried, too. I sucked it up and went to the food stamp office to ask for help. While I received it, it was a struggle, like pulling teeth as every fiber of our life was scrutinized. We were yet “another deadbeat” coming in for hand outs, as the lady stated. We walked and used the library religiously. It is only about 2 miles from our house. I stumbled across couponing and realized I could go to the store and look for in store coupons on the shelves and on displays. I started collecting. After researching, I realized I could do my food shopping at Rite Aid & CVS. I could get my milk and eggs, peanut butter, cereal and get rewards back. The rewards I’d get back bought shampoo, toilet paper, toothpaste, basic essentials. Then I learned about natural cleaning with vinegar and baking soda and making washing powders. I checked out books and learned gardening. Still terrible at it, but I refuse to give up! These places even sold clothes (sometimes) that I could get rewards, like socks and hosiery, sometimes tee shirts. I still have my $31000 student loan debt that I managed to have deferred. My husband is making more money now, but our car is messed up and we had to get a newer used car. Now we have payments. I keep trying to figure out a way to get rid of those evil student loans. I pray my children never have to have those things.

  12. Pujols

    To Stephanie and all the others. I know it is a sad thing to be given such a small amount of money and at the same time to be expected to be kind to others, let alone simply survive, but alas, this is the new U.S.A….

    USA 2.0 !

    In his quick-reading thriller, found only on some bookshelves, USA 2.0 is a hard-breathing page-grabber detailing a radio tower operator who also worked for Visa, the credit card company! Buy your copy today! That is, if it didn’t fly off of the shelves first and of course, if your credit card does not get denied!!!!

  13. LIsa

    i am living off $12 an hour and it is hard. Just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Paying off student loans and a bank loan. It really teaches a person a lot about budgeting. Library is great and doing free things with friends. No one wants to live this lifestyle but there is no choice sometimes.

  14. Kay

    How long was the poster employed at $8.00/hour? My experiences have been that all of my friends, who graduated from law school at the height of the recession with twice the amount of debt, struggled for at least a year to find a steady job, and since then, many have been laid off and suffered second bouts of unemployment with no or little income. Experiences like this no longer seem like character building life episodes but the norm.

  15. Joshua Garcia

    I was Googling experiences with death-promoting debt affecting young people until they’ve missed their youth and came across this shifty article on tackling it. The author mentions a three bedroom apartment for $500. Was this a shared living expensive or did you live in the 1970s and just lost all your credibility?

    At least this isn’t as bad as that ‘Business Insider’ piece from a young twenty-something who tackles his debt by obtaining a more than enough salary working for the oil industry and selling stocks worth thousands (you just gotta believe and work hard!). You know — he struggled and budgeted.


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