Living With Minimum Wage

by Bill on December 9, 2013

The Checkout Line

Living With Minimum Wage

Lately with the news focused on minimum wage jobs and the need for welfare there has been a lot of commentary on both sides. But what is it really like to live on minimum wage?

I can tell you from experience it’s hard. I found an article from Gainsville Florida concerning this topic and found it to be very true. But the problem I come across is the attitude of some people who don’t have experience with minimum wage work.

Those of us who were, or are still, underemployed do not intend to be on public assistance. I’ve never met anyone who considers going out for a job and thinks they will supplement their income with food stamps and free medical on purpose. Never. That’s not to say they probably aren’t out there; but I’ve never seen this happen. I’ve also never seen someone who is happy about it either.

Common comments from what I deem misunderstanding include “go get a better job”, “move to another location”, “get an education”, and the famous one that I will always hate “they’re just too lazy to do a real job”. If you have ever worked retail or fast food you understand first hand the amount of stress that can be found at the workplace. There’s a constant pace, quite a few dealings with disgruntled customers who want to blame someone for something, and the tediousness of the job in general at times.

Okay, I’m going to address each of the comments made above quickly. Yes, people can go look for a better job. Depending on their schedule, home life, transportation needs and physical condition this may take awhile for some to achieve. There’s a post here I can bring up that might help for anyone thinking of this route.

Next comes the famous idea to move. That comment I consider a knee-jerk reaction. Why? First comes the misconception that you can just pick up and move. Not possible these days without serious savings for both rent and security deposits. Where I live now, you need at least $1,500 – $2,000 just to move into an apartment; this does not include moving expenses. Yes, you could just pack up clothes and move in with parents; but if there is a lease involved, or you get charged for leaving things behind, you can’t get around that.

Learning more is always something I will endorse, within reason. It is never a good idea to put yourself deep into debt, even for learning, when you are not sure how you will pay for it. Getting an education can be done with grants, some student loans and available time. For someone earning minimum wage this may not be feasible in more than one way. Take student loans for example; while they help pay for education they do not guarantee a better job at the end. They also don’t generate the job right after college. There is also another set of problems with student loans. You still have the scheduling problems, transportation issues and such that were there before; but now, you also must include time to job search and you have picked up a debt payment you already can’t afford on minimum wage. While it is possible to get a job soon out of college, you are not guaranteed a better job than you have now. There are scores of college grads working for retailers and fast food. They just don’t advertise it to everyone. Would you?

And then there is the basic complaint that people are just too lazy to find better work. The unemployment statistics published by the Department of Labor do not take into account those who have given up seeking work, nor do they compensate for those working two or more jobs, nor do they consider the underemployed who can only get so many hours from one job.

Most minimum wage jobs, especially retail and fast food, require flexibility in scheduling. While they may offer some leeway in regards to someone needing time to get kids to or from school, there is often the assumption that employees will work any shift assigned. I’ve been there. Unless you are working for a small mom and pop shop you cannot count on having the exact same schedule each week; you can count on basically the same amount of hours per week, but usually not the same scheduling.

So how are the underemployed and minimum wage workers expected to find better work that fits into an already fluid schedule? Yes, they could take on another low wage job opposite to their schedule if they work mostly nights or days; but then you eliminate any chance of better opportunities through learning and most of the hours available for job interviews and active job hunting.

The article from Gainsville also does a fair description of an actual budget; where as the McBudget put forth by McDonald’s is honestly a joke of some accountant I think.

What’s your opinion on this? Am I off the mark here?


William Swan, writer

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Jenn @ Spend Less, Shop More December 10, 2013 at 4:03 pm

I completely concur with your take on this, Bill. I think people assume that low-wage retail or restaurant employees are people who lack ambition, and aren’t interested in a typical “career”.

I used to manage a chain coffee shop, and I can tell you that’s not the case. Many of my employees had degrees — I had several nurses and even a lawyer working for me at one point. They worked there part-time because their ‘real’ job didn’t offer health insurance or didn’t pay enough to cover their student debt and other expenses.

My full-time employees, on the other hand, were almost entirely college students or graduate students, who were also taking a full course load while working 40 hours a week on their feet. They prioritized study over sleep, and the biggest perk I could offer them was free espresso while at work to keep them going.

These folks aren’t lazy — they’re just exhausted from their weekly schedules. It’s a big difference.
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Daisy @ Prairie Eco Thrifter December 11, 2013 at 2:01 pm

It’s really unfair to judge people or to make assumptions unless you’ve been in their shoes or know their specific circumstances. I am uncomfortable forming an opinion as I haven’t been in the situation where I am making minimum wage, but I know that it can’t be easy.
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Bill December 11, 2013 at 8:33 pm

Jenn, Hi!

The point you make about people being exhausted and not lazy is my point exactly. You don’t know who is behind the counter, what their lives are like, or the reasons they are there in the first place.

And, from experience managing pizza stores I can tell you stories that would make people wonder. The food industry and retail are, to me, two of the most underpaid and undervalued jobs today (along with teachers and day care).

Bill December 11, 2013 at 8:45 pm

Being both a minimum wage employee for a number of years in fast food, and being a manager in both food and retail, allows me some leeway in this topic. Working minimum wages is tough, and those who either have never, or haven’t for a long time, seem to forget that.

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