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10 ways to save when you're making minimum wage

Are you too poor to use any of the typical money-saving strategies? Here are 10 ideas that take cost-cutting to a whole new level.

By MSN Money Partner Mar 21, 2014 11:58AM

This post comes from Maryalene LaPonsie at partner site Money Talks News.

Money Talks News on MSN MoneyLast month, Money Talks News posted an article about how to save $1,000 by summer. It was packed with good ideas, but as one commenter mentioned, the list seemed mostly geared toward those making middle-class incomes.

U. S. banknotes on shelf in kitchen pantry © Supapixx, AlamyWhat about those of you squeaking by on minimum wage? Is there any hope for you to get money into savings? After all, working full time on the federal minimum wage brings in a whopping $15,080 a year before any taxes.

You only wish you had money for a monthly latte, let alone a daily one. And a gym membership? Please.

So let's assume you've already got your budget down to bare bones: You're reading this article on the library computer because there is no Internet at home, cable has been cut, and you have the thermostat set to slightly above freezing.

What else can you do? Here are 10 ideas worth considering:

1. Get out of debt

If you're only making minimum wage, you can't afford to be sending money to a car financing company, Visa, MasterCard or Discover.

Think about it this way: If you had no house payment, no car payment and no credit card payment, what's left? The only bills you may need to pay would be utilities, taxes, insurance, gasoline for your car and food for yourself. In many areas of the country, you could do that on $15,000 a year.

Now, housing is a major problem, I know. On your income, it might be easier to sprout wings and fly to Paris than own a home without a mortgage. We'll talk a little more about affordable housing options in a minute, but for everything else in your life, make living debt-free a priority.

2. Hoard gifts of money, tax refunds and other windfalls

To get out of debt and build up your savings, you need to make smart use of all those times you run into a little extra cash.

If you make minimum wage and have children, chances are you're entitled to the Earned Income Tax Credit. That could mean you get thousands of dollars from Uncle Sam each year. What are you going to do with it?

You might be eyeing the ripped couch in the living room and thinking it would be nice to have it replaced. Or maybe you'd like to buy the kids new bikes or even take a trip somewhere.

Until you get on firm financial ground, resist the urge to spend those windfalls. Put a couple hundred in the bank as an emergency fund and ship the rest off to your creditors. If you're debt-free (hooray!), bank at least half of it before you think about spending a cent.

Do the same with other unexpected money, whether it's the $5 you find in the parking lot or the $50 your aunt puts in your birthday card.

3. Save your pennies

Literally. Start a change jar and put your coins into it every night. At the end of the month, roll up the coins and put them in a savings account.

You won't retire rich off the money you collect, but you could end up with $10 or $20 a month to pad your savings account. That's not much, but when you're making $7.25 an hour, every little bit helps.

4. Skip processed food

Although I have never lived on minimum wage, I know all too well the feeling of barely scraping by. When you're living that close to the edge, I realize sometimes you want to be able to open a box and cook dinner or swing through the drive-thru for the dollar menu. After all, life is hard; can't one thing be easy?

It may be tempting, but you'll feel better and save money on health care costs in the long run if you say goodbye to the canned, boxed and frozen meals. If you need some menu inspiration, check out budget cookbooks from your local library. "Family Feasts for $75 a Week" and "The $5 Dinner Mom Cookbook" are two you may find worth reading.

5. Park the car

After housing, your car is probably your biggest money pit. You need to pay for insurance, registration and gas, plus you might even have a monthly payment on it.

You'll free up tons of money in your budget if you can get rid of your car or at least drive it less often. Depending on where you live and your personal situation, you may be able to do one of the following:

  • Sell the car and use public transportation exclusively.
  • If you're a two-car family, sell one vehicle. If both adults in the house work, see if you can get opposite shifts or find jobs close to one another so you can drive together.
  • If you have years left on a vehicle loan, sell the car and buy a cheaper one. If you owe more than it's worth, consider using your tax refund to pay down the balance so you can unload the car and its payment.
  • Carpool with a co-worker or friend and split the car costs.
  • Combine errands and appointments to minimize gas and parking costs.

6. Rethink child care

Child care is crazy expensive. If you have two income earners in your house and you are both making minimum wage, you might actually come out ahead if one adult stays home with the kids. Not only will that eliminate day care, you'll also save on gas and other work-related expenses.

If that's not possible, read this article about other ways to lower child care costs.

7. Sell what you can

Get serious about saving by scrutinizing everything you own.

You could have a yard sale to sell old clothes, trinkets and kitchen gadgets, but think bigger. Sell the furniture you don't need. Sell your movie collection. Sell the TV. I'm serious! The kids will find something else to do.

Having to sell your stuff may seem rotten, but if you put that money into savings, it can be incredibly freeing. It's a great feeling to know that if the car dies on the road, you have money in the bank and won't need to frantically call friends to help pay for a tow.

8. Find a roommate

Let's go back to the housing problem we mentioned earlier. Let's face it: Finding affordable housing can be a nightmare. Subsidized housing is available, but wait lists are long and the properties aren't always in ideal locations.

If you can't find a place with cheap rent, the next best thing may be to get a roommate. Another option might be to rent out a room if you are in a house. Either way, you get a break on your monthly payment as well as on the utilities.

You can find potential roommates on websites like and Sites like Craigslist or your local paper may be good places to place ads if you have a room to rent.

Regardless of how you find a roommate or renter, be sure to double-check their references. A background check, obtained through your local police department, may cost a few dollars but can be worth the peace of mind. Make sure you're not letting anyone potentially dangerous in your home, especially if you have children.

9. Move somewhere cheaper

Maybe despite your best efforts, you simply can't find an inexpensive place to live. In that case, it may be time to do something radical. You may want to move to a new city or a state with a lower cost of living.

That isn't permission to simply pack up and go without a place to stay or a plan for what to do when you get there. Instead, do your research first and line up a job in advance.

10. Make more money

Finally, if none of these suggestions sound like much fun, it's because it’s really hard to get by on very little income. You know that.

To make more money, you could work harder or you could work smarter. Choose the second option. Rather than spending your life working two or even three jobs to get by, get the right education and training for a career that will let you live comfortably.

Look at these jobs that require only a two-year associate degree. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these are some of the fastest growing jobs in the country. The incomes listed are the median wages earned by workers in these occupations in 2012.

  • Dental hygienists — $70,210.
  • Diagnostic medical sonographers — $65,860.
  • Web developers — $62,500.
  • Occupational therapy assistants — $53,240.
  • Physical therapy assistants — $52,160.

Wouldn't it be nice to be making $50,000 or $60,000 two years from now? It's not a pipe dream. You can do this.

Talk to your local community college to find out which careers are in demand in your area. Their financial aid office should also be able to help you learn about programs that can pay for your tuition and eliminate the need to take out student loans.

Those are 10 ways to maximize your money when you are living on next to nothing. Let us know what you think about these suggestions in the comments below.

More on Money Talks News:

Mar 21, 2014 4:44PM
So you've never lived on minimum wave yourself but you are giving out advice? Hmmm.... 
Anyways, I have been poor in the past and made below minimum wage (working at a restaurant)
While doing that, I essentially cut my living expenses to almost nothing. Here's some tips from me:
1) Buy food in bulk and don't eat anything else until you've eaten it all. You can buy big backs of frozen veggies, rice, chicken breasts, cereal, etc. at Costco or Walmart for cheap. Go grocery shopping once every 3-4 weeks and don't eat anything else except what you buy there.
2) Cut transit costs - Use Gasbuddy for gas (fill up for $20), Insurance Panda for insurance (I pay $30/month for full coverage), and Waze to avoid unnecessary driving in traffic jams.
3) Ask for rent discounts.. say you are going to leave unless they lower your rent. I saved $200/month on rent this way. 
4) When you go out... leave your credit card at home and only bring a small amount of cash. (Even better - cut up your credit card!) You can't spend it if you don't have it!
That's all I can think of now.
Mar 21, 2014 2:11PM
you lost your credibility in the article when you said "I have never lived on minimum wage"
Mar 22, 2014 3:45PM

another suggestion would be to move in with a relative.  Pay rent, help out with chores etc.  Families in other parts of the world do this and help raise kids together.  Cuts down on childcare and household expenses.  Just have a good written out plan of expectations.


If you are a single parent and your parents are empty nesters thinking about downsizing to save on expenses than perhaps they would agree to have you move in to share expenses.


Siblings who are single parents might find it helpful to move in and raise their kids together, cuts down on childcare considerably.


If you are single and your sibling has children then maybe you can rent a room from them in exchange for childcare.




Naturally this works best if you have a good relationship.


Mar 21, 2014 3:52PM
you do what you must at what level you are at.The fight is all on. So fight, and keep on fighting.....
Mar 24, 2014 3:26PM
It is really sad when the comments offer better advice than the article. 
Mar 21, 2014 12:57PM
How about you work two (2) more minimum wage jobs so you get ahead and finally out of the minimum wage job trench?   How about paying attention in school, reading, putting down the video game controller and getting out and looking for a real job?  How about taking responsibility for your future by learning to take responsibility for yourself?    Just do it.
Mar 21, 2014 1:25PM
Why all the articles on how to get by on rice and beans.  We need more articles on which yachts to buy and which private jet gets the best fuel economy.  This is where the real spending power and job creation comes from.
Mar 21, 2014 7:32PM
I earn a very good living and don't have to worry about barely scraping by -- and I find this article just plain offensive. Don't have debt? Earn more money? Really? Pretty sure those living in poverty have considered how much better off they'd be if they had zero debt and more income. The whole problem is they don't. Try offering some real help to minimum wag earners instead of regurgitating obvious savings tips from other bloggers' articles.
Mar 24, 2014 3:53PM
The article writer fogot to mention spinning straw into gold, Rumplestiltskin did it! Yes, just take nothing and by magic turn it into something.  
Mar 25, 2014 4:29AM
Don't vote Republican / GOP.  Their latest effort to "assist the middle class" is to DENY Federal Tax Credits available under the affordable care act law ("Obama Care").

• On February 6, 2014 Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette in Washington, D.C. to deny Michigan families federal tax credits to buy health insurance.

Other Republican states are doing the same thing.  Why?  Because they don't like black Obama.

The GOP can start a 12 year war in Iraq and Afghanistan and spend TRILLIONS of YOUR $$$$$ there - but they can't see fit to allow a FEW HUNDRED $$$$ assistance per month for YOUR health care ?!?!

GOP family values:  YOUR kids go to war in the Middle East - YOUR family gets no health care.

NICE !!!!

Mar 21, 2014 2:43PM
So why not do it the American way?  Get divorced.  Let your wife and kids live on welfare.  She can work a few hours at a part time job while the kids are in school and collect the earned income credit. Don't eat.  Live in your car and save rent.  Use a friend or family member's address so you won't appear homeless.  Don't buy insurance.  After all Uninsured Motorist insurance will take care of the other guy if you are in an accident, won't it?  And Medicaid will take care of the kids.  At that rate you should be able to invest about 10 grand a year and with a good investment counselor retire wealthy in about 25 years.
Mar 24, 2014 7:49AM
Get a second job. At least YOU won't get screwed by the government.
Mar 21, 2014 2:22PM

You don't live on min wage, you quit because you have Obamacare.  Life is good.

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