Breaking the Shackles: How to Escape from Minimum Wage

Earlier today I provided a statistical snapshot of minimum wage earners. The numbers indicate that in the United States:

  • Most minimum wage earners are young.
  • Most minimum wage earners work in food service.
  • Most minimum wage earners have never attended college.

Statistics are one thing, but real-life is another. There are still millions of older college-educated Americans who earn minimum wage in jobs outside the food service industry. Many of these people want to escape their situation, but don’t know how.

More than pinching pennies

Over the weekend, Trent at The Simple Dollar shared ten steps to financial success for a minimum wage earner. His advice is excellent, but emphasizes frugality and cutting costs. I want to look at another approach to escaping minimum wage — earning more money.

Here’s what one minimum wage earner once wrote at Get Rich Slowly:

There are definitely [minimum wage earners] who casually spend beyond their means without regard to or serious consideration of consequences. There are also those who are living frugally yet are squeezed financially, perhaps by high rents and utilities (the homeownership rate of the working poor is close to zero), falling real wages, or health and medical expenses…I make minimum wage and have student loan debt. I can’t think of any spending I can cut out without feeling deprived.

The fundamental law of money still applies to those who make minimum wage: to gain wealth, you must spend less than you earn. But it’s more difficult for a person making minimum wage to spend less than she earns. Even after cutting luxuries — cable television, eating out, etc. — there are certain minimum costs associated with living in our culture. If you’re in a situation where you’ve reduced expenses as far as they will go, it’s time to focus on the other component of the wealth equation: increasing your income.

Breaking free from minimum wage

A minimum wage job can seem like a prison — you can’t imagine you’ll ever break free. You can’t imagine you’ll ever earn more money. However, opportunities do exist. Here are several approaches to escaping the shackles of a low-wage job:

  • Work two jobs. If debt or living expenses are keeping you down, take a second job. This may not help you escape from minimum wage in the short-term, but it will alleviate some of the financial pressure you’re facing, which will eventually allow you to focus on long-terms solutions.
  • Seek a promotion. Find a way to advance in your current job. What would it take for you to move into some sort of management position? What about moving to another department where the pay is better? Be the sort of employee that managers can’t live without: show up on time, be efficient, do quality work. Watch for advancement opportunities with your current employer.
  • Change companies. If there’s no path to higher income at your current job, what about a similar job with another company? Not all employers have the same pay structure. Scout the competition, and see if they can offer a better opportunity.
  • Change professions. You may need to leave your current field altogether. If you’re working at the counter in a convenience store, you’re better off taking another line of work. What sorts of jobs are you qualified for? “None,” you might say, but many employers need unskilled laborers. An unskilled laborer who shows up for work on time, is agreeable, and makes an effort will usually be earning more than minimum wage in just a few months.
  • Steer clear of corporate giants. As a small business owner, I’m biased against big corporations. Publicly held companies have huge motivations to keep worker wages and benefits low. It’s true that your top-end advancement may be limited with a small business, but they’re generally more flexible than corporate giants. Many small business owners go out of their way to look out for their best employees.
  • Educate yourself. Finally — and most importantly — do what you can to increase your education and marketability. Make yourself appealing to employers. Develop skills that they can use.

In fact, education is so vital to escaping minimum wage that it deserves a closer look.

The importance of education

Education makes a huge difference in your earning potential. The median income for a U.S. male who dropped out of high school is $18,990. The median income for a high school graduate is $28,763. The median income for a man with even some college is $35,073. Education opens doors. And it’s not just about the piece of paper — if you take practical classes, you can learn skills that will have a direct effect on how much you can earn.

I am a huge fan of community colleges. They’re an excellent place to pick up additional training. What can you learn at a community college? Here are a handful of the programs that my local community college offers:

  • Alcohol and drug counseling
  • Automotive service and repair
  • Business administration
  • Computer programming
  • Construction
  • Dental hygiene
  • Electrical trades
  • Graphic design
  • Landscaping
  • Real estate
  • And much, much more

Make no mistake: these classes will not get you a top-paying job in the field. They will, however, help you land entry-level positions, positions that will pay more than the minimum wage, positions that will help you find a career path with advancement opportunities. It might take you a couple years to reach this point, but you can reach it. How do I know? Because I did it myself.

In 1998, I was fed up with working for the box factory. I decided to become a computer programmer. While still working full-time, I began to take classes at the local community college. Most of the time I could only afford one class per term, but sometimes I squeezed in two. Within eighteen months I had developed the skills to be hired as an entry-level computer programmer. My pay was $25 an hour, which was at the low end of the spectrum for that kind of job (but appropriate for the skill-set I had acquired).


If you decide to use education to break free from minimum wage, be sure to choose practical classes in order to increase your earning potential. A philosophy class might sound cool, but it’s not going to get you a job. Nor will creative writing.

Don’t forget that school is an excellent place to make contacts with people who might serve as references for future job applications. Most community college instructors have connections in their fields. Make a good impression, and follow through with class requirements. Meet deadlines. Take pride in your work. People will notice.

Ask yourself the hard questions

If you’re in a minimum wage job and would like to escape, it’s important to ask yourself why you’re in a minimum wage job. Are the reasons obvious? Is it because you’re young? If you’re just out of school, minimum wage is a rite of passage. It’s something most people experience. Keep moving in the right direction and you will leave it behind.

Are you in a minimum wage job because you lack education? Make education a priority. Pick a career that interests you and is in demand. Obtain the skills necessary to enter the field.

But if you don’t know why you’re in a minimum wage job, or if your answer is that your boss, co-workers, or life won’t give you a break, then you may need to look inward. I had a friend who was trapped in a low-paying job that he hated. He had a long list of external forces that kept him stuck there (and in the crummy jobs he’d had before). He couldn’t understand why he wasn’t able to break free. To everyone around him, the reasons were obvious, but he didn’t want to hear them. He’s still trapped in a low-paying job.

Final thoughts

Perhaps I’m naive, but I believe most minimum wage earners can find a path out of their plight. In most instances, hard work, patience, and education can counter the forces of history and bad luck.

I’d love to hear how former minimum wage earners managed to graduate to higher incomes. (Or how they didn’t, if that’s the case.) If I collect enough stories, I’ll post them in a separate entry. If you’d like to share your story, please drop me a line, or post it in this forum thread.

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There are 65 comments to "Breaking the Shackles: How to Escape from Minimum Wage".

  1. sir jorge says 09 October 2007 at 11:19

    I work 2 jobs, run blogs, and still am barely making it to pay off my student loans.

    I have a degree in interactive media design, and work for a small company and it’s hell.

  2. Mrs. Micah says 09 October 2007 at 11:22

    I think, for example, anyone who knows an average amount about computers–how to use Word & Excel, could do my job (if they were hired). If you’re of an older generation, this might require taking a computer skills class.

    A lot of the rest of the stuff–how to work our particular phone, putting postage on envelopes, faxing, and our particular filing system I’ve mostly learned about since getting here.

    There’s also lots of opportunity for self-education and advancement. I read leases and tenant files in some of my spare time, it helps me know the business. At least two building managers have started in my position.

    $15 an hour isn’t a fortune, but it’s a lot easier to live on than $7. I’m not saying anyone could get hired, but I think most adults could do this job.

  3. maxconfus says 09 October 2007 at 11:24

    I think it is hilarious that there is a minimum wage meme going around the p.f. blogs today because of the minimumwage meme commenter that has been posting how do I save when I only make minimum wage and you are affluent p.f. blog owners… 🙂

    So in the spirit of minimum wage commenter, I ask, because I truly want to know, how does one save for retirement when they are a minister and make minimum wage? Also, please don’t bother with one of those in your spare time you could start a part-time ebay dvd business garbage either because often these people are up at all hours of the day handling people issues. How about some real advice for people who provide a critical service to a community but don’t earn a high wage.

  4. J.D. says 09 October 2007 at 11:44

    I think it is hilarious that there is a minimum wage meme going around the p.f. blogs today because of the minimumwage meme commenter that has been posting how do I save when I only make minimum wage and you are affluent p.f. blog owners…

    I don’t know about *hilarious*, but it I do like it. It’s an issue that doesn’t often get discussed.

    The thing that many people are missing, though, is that not all pfbloggers have always been affluent. From what I’ve read, Trent at The Simple Dollar grew up poor. I *know* that I grew up poor — living in a beat-up trailer house, wearing second-hand thrift store clothes, a father often out of work — and I know that the reason I’m where I am today is partially due to luck, but also partially due to my own desire to get out of the lifestyle I was living. I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way. It hasn’t been easy. But it can be done — maybe not for everyone, but for most people.

    So in the spirit of minimum wage commenter, I ask, because I truly want to know, how does one save for retirement when they are a minister and make minimum wage?

    I don’t know that it’s possible to save for retirement if you make minimum wage. That’s why Trent wrote about cutting costs, and why I wrote about boosting income. From my look at the numbers, saving for retirement just isn’t going to happen if you’re earning minimum wage and leading a normal lifestyle. You have to make changes. It’s up to you which changes to make, but if your choice is to be a minister and earn minimum wage, that may come with sacrifices. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with that choice — but it’s a choice.

    If you really want to save for retirement, then you will have to wait until you’ve moved beyond minimum wage. Not all financial goals can be accomplished at once. Sometimes goals have to wait.

    How about some real advice for people who provide a critical service to a community but don’t earn a high wage.

    I feel like that’s the kind of advice I try to provide every day!

    • P says 17 June 2012 at 04:46

      I worked a min wage job for about 2 years giving it (what i thought was my best) pretty darn good work ethic, (thou a fatal tardyness flaw killed any progress i was making). people pay attention when u mess up not nessarily when your doing great.

      I met a new friend and he provided me with a high paying job close to 30$ hour for labor.

      after working with him in the summer, i had gained some nice insight on work.

      later when he no longer required my assistance due to seasonal changes, he advised me to pick up another min wage job or better and i was able to find a 2nd job.

      althou im in some pretty bad debt i am finally getting out and moving up in the company, my longer term goals are to get some education and work for my self for anywhere from 35-100+ an hour.

      basically you have to bust your ass 16 hours a day 7 days a week if u really want to get out of these min wage positions.

      perhaps there are some other methods but people [your bosses] will notice if u show up early , work hard and fast entire shift, and are pleasant and think quickly and intelligently before you speak and hopefully if they can , they will move u up. im no expert im almost 30 and dealing with these problems and ive made tons of mistakes and shot myself in foot plenty of times, but i am doing better.

      also .. i can advise to find a way to eat healthy and inexpensives, and yes this means lots of time cooking.

      its very important that you eat healthy and inexpensivley and you work out.

      the goverment has a nice website about food

      but i can summarize quickly : 1 portion of fruid / 1 portion of veggie 1 portion of meat /3 portions of carbs 3-4 times daily 2000-3000 callories + work out 3 times a week for like 3 hours hard work if not more, and then REST next day. besides work i mean.

      anyhow hope im helpfull to someone , ifn othing else writing it out may help myself.

  5. Gregory says 09 October 2007 at 11:56

    I think there is a lot of great stuff here. As a former minimum wage employee, who has gone down the road of working multiple jobs I have to disagree with one comment from the piece. While big companies may offer lower wages and less benefits the do offer some things that small companies can’t. However, you have to find the right company. A great resource is Money’s “Best Companies to Work For”.

    Large companies give you experience, training, and credibility that transfers well to a small company. Think of it as a better paying stepping stone to a greater paying career. Not all small to mid-sized companies do all they can to retain employees and they have their own problems to deal with.

    Another great resource for young employees is Penelope Trunk’s blog/book on career development. While her opinions might not always match your sentiments she does make interesting points and I find her posts encouraging, much like this blogs.

    Lastly, remember that raises, compensation, and employment is really sales and marketing of self. So put your best self forward at work and when networking and remember that on average in sales the door is closed six times before one remains open. Expect several rejections but keep applying and improving.

  6. Anne says 09 October 2007 at 12:21

    For those who live in cities, one approach would be to identify a company (a big company, most likely) that plans to open several locations in your city. Get an entry-level position at the first, work hard, then try to get promoted when the next location opens. This way you don’t have to wait as long for an opening. Prove yourself at the first location, and move up at the next.

  7. SJ says 09 October 2007 at 12:30

    Another opportunity, if you live near a college or university, is to look for jobs there – most will offer some tuition rebates that can help you move onward and upward without paying out of pocket. And there are usually many per-hour jobs doing a variety of tasks.

  8. plonkee says 09 October 2007 at 12:57

    One of the things that strikes me is that most of the comments are aimed at the relatively young on minimum wage. It becomes much harder to work up as you get older, because you have less time to play with. At some point, it may stop being cost-effective to pursue education particularly if your budget doesn’t leave any room for manouever.

    Similarly, if you have poor health then you’ll find it difficult to work at multiple jobs or go to college at the same time as going to work. You need to weigh up the overall costs and benefits of possible actions.

  9. Ashley says 09 October 2007 at 13:17

    So, this might be rude, but I’ll just say it. Maybe the ones who keep complaining that they are only making minimum wage should stop playing around on the internet and be looking for a second job?

    If they have time to harass all the pf bloggers, maybe they could use that time for something else?

    I’m just saying! 😀

    • caitlin says 30 June 2013 at 05:06

      I have to say, I make 8.50 an hour and work full time and also go to college. How dare you tell people on a low income what they should do! The real question is, why should someone work a full time job (I make $800 less than I would need to to get food stamps. I make 1060 a month people who make 1800 a month in my state are eligible)have to struggle to meet their bare necessities of living (shelter, utilities, food, and clothing)? Isn’t this a moral problem. The higher ups would not have any income if they didn’t have lots of people on the lower end of the totem pole doing the work. In fact, they would have no business. Things have changed with globalization, but that’s also a poor excuse to let Americans live in abject poverty who work full time. Ford wanted all his employees to be able to afford to buy a Ford car and help the company. I wish we could do a little better, it’s just greed, but we’re blaming the victim here, the powerless low wage earner.

  10. David says 09 October 2007 at 13:54

    I definitely agree with going the community college route especially if you’re trying to break away from minimun wage. Also, the comment about landing a university job to gain tuition rebates is great too. Be very careful when you’re taking the student loan plunge. There are many horror stories out there of people being in $100K+ student loan debt.

  11. Sam says 09 October 2007 at 14:08

    I agree with your advice on getting additional education via the local community college. I would add to that advice and suggest that in most situations that community college is a much better “buy” than your local vocational college (which can be very expensive). I would also suggest that if you are a working parent/single parent in a low paying field (i.e. your child qualifies for assistance in one form or another or you qualify for assistance) that you probably can qualify for some type of tuition assistance so do some research and ask for help (financial aid, grants, etc. long before you seek loans). There are some really great programs that help single moms (mentoring programs that pair up working moms with prof. women) that also have scholarships associated with them.

  12. Minimum Wage says 09 October 2007 at 14:41

    A creditor is squeezing me for $200/mo, I can’t even afford to take community college classes.

  13. Tim says 09 October 2007 at 14:57

    moot point Minimum Wage, but who got you into the position where your creditor wants $200/mo? The creditor didn’t rack up the bills. Hey, I’ve been there with $90k in unsecured debt.

    fear is a big motivating factor, and many people just can’t get away from it. there is no difference between two people other than one made steps to improve his/her situation, while the other did not.

    there are plenty of people who work 1-2 jobs working through school. some are even married and have kids, too. it’s about improving your situation and taking the risk. people simply do not have the risk tolerance to improve their situation.

    another option that was missing is change your venue. If rent and everything else is too high for your job, then move. again, risk.

  14. Minimum Wage says 09 October 2007 at 15:05

    An extended uninsured illness got me there. The bill is padded with a ton of junk fees, what did I get for those fees?

  15. icup says 09 October 2007 at 15:26

    I have 2 points.

    1.) I disagree that its not worthwhile to take some courses because they are ‘worthless’ like philosophy. I have been in the position to hire people, and know others who have been too, and given the same skillset, I might prefer the person who took a few philosophy classes on the basis that they might be more ‘well rounded’. Granted, your mileage totally varies on this one, but I’m just saying I don’t think its an automatic dream killer. Also, such classes might expand your mind in such a way that you discover something about yourself that allows you to transcend your situation another way.

    2. Joining the Army (Navy, USAF, etc.) is an excellent way to get out of poverty and get educated. And you can enlist older than you might think. I think the cutoff now for enlised personnel is somewhere in the neighborhood of 42 now (which allows for a 20 year service before retirement). There are also signing bonuses. Don’t automatically discount it because you are afraid for life and limb either. Most if not all people that enlist at that age do not get shipped off to iraq, but rather fill admin positions stateside or in europe, to free up other younger people to go to the front.

  16. Mrs. Micah says 09 October 2007 at 15:26

    MW it would be really interesting if you started your own blog. On living on the minimum wage, how you get by, what frustrations you encounter, positive steps you take, how your balance is (maybe use Networth IQ and update it every time the balance goes down), that kind of thing. I’m sure you’d get a lot of traffic–you’re rather famous in the pf blogging world. 🙂

    If you can find a sponsor (perhaps one of the better-known bloggers could help you with that) you could make some extra money.

  17. icup says 09 October 2007 at 15:33

    RE: University jobs, it depends highly on the university. At mine, we get 75% tuition reimbursement, which sounds pretty good, but since you are paying by the credit and can only take 1 or 2 classes at a time, you actually end up paying quite a bit out of pocket. When I was taking 2 classes per semester in 2003, it was something like $800 per semester just for tuition and fees. Although I did make out better on my taxes that year because that is totally deductible.

    That said, even those few classes helped me land a promotion that probably paid all that back and then some in a few months. Although working a full time job and taking classes alongside 18 year olds kind of sucks, IMO.

  18. Michelle says 09 October 2007 at 15:36

    I’m one of those who went the community college route to get out of the minimum wage route. I was a young, single parent when I decided that working minimum wage jobs would not ensure a secure future for my daughter and I. I decided to go to community colege and earn my licensed vocational nurse certificate, a one year program. My husband and I married right before I started back to school and he worked 6 days a week at a service station while I attended classes full time. It was difficult, but it was the best thing I could’ve done. I am now a home health LVN, making $20/hour. My husband works part time and stays home with our son who is eleven. Once our son is in high school, I plan to go back to school for my RN.

    My daughter, on the other hand, may be another story. She is 19 years old and had a brain injury at birth which caused learning disabilities. She is attempting to get through college, but has been unable to pass a basic math class due to her disabilities. She works part-time as a dietary aide at a nursing home for minimum wage and, if she is unable to advance her education, may not be able to find a job much beyond the minimum wage level. This is the other face of minimum wage workers–those with disabilities which prohibit them from advancing their education to obtain jobs which will take them beyond the minimum wage rut.

  19. Peachy says 09 October 2007 at 15:45

    I’m an engineer, and I still found time to take classes at the community college. I am now a certified pharmacy technician (if I ever need it), and I have taken classes in anatomy, microbiology and accounting.
    The community college offers great classes with great costs, and is helping me broaden my horizons.
    I was unemployed for 3 months, and instead of spending money on taking classes, I volunteered in a math class. The teacher thought I was a wonderful volunteer and asked why I wasn’t teaching. I told him that I didn’t know anything about teaching. He put me in touch with the coordinators, and now I am teaching math part time to supplement my income. It’s great, and I never taught one class in my life, beforehand.

    You can really go places by being nice (and networking). Perhaps your teacher sees your potential and offers you a job in their field. You never know what’s around the corner. You can’t get anywhere with a closed mind.

  20. J.D. says 09 October 2007 at 16:03

    MW it would be really interesting if you started your own blog. On living on the minimum wage, how you get by, what frustrations you encounter, positive steps you take, etc.

    Minimum Wage, I would gladly host and maintain such a blog for you, as well as provide advice as needed. Seriously. No strings attached. We even live in the same city, so if we needed to meet up, we could. Just say the word. I’m easy to contact.

  21. SusanO says 09 October 2007 at 16:30

    Peachy, you make a great point. Volunteering is a wonderful way to
    * gain experience, possibly marketable
    * make valuable contacts
    * improve and maintain emotional/spiritual health

    Congratulations on your teaching job!

  22. JenK says 09 October 2007 at 16:56

    As an aside: If you’re young and working minimum wage, it’s easier to move on if you don’t acquire expensive accouterments like:

    * Cable
    * Car payments
    * Smoking or drinking habit

    Also, it can really pay to delay childbearing. Every girl I knew from high school / college who got pregnant before age 20 and kept the kid? Did not get a non-retail job for 10 years. Seriously.

  23. Money Socket says 09 October 2007 at 17:00

    The minimum wage blog idea just might work! Seriously, MW is becoming quite popular.

    Great post by the way JD, for minimum wage earners its likely better to aim to earn more than to spend less.

  24. Tim says 09 October 2007 at 17:05

    MW, having had plenty of various fees (and no I never read those terms and conditions) in my $90k credit debt, it’s personal responsibility for taking on the debt no matter what got you there. what did you get for the fees? You got the credit you wanted, the overdraft, the late payment, the over credit limit, etc, and without knowing what you consider “junk fees”, I can only presume they are the standard fees that every creditor informs you about. Can they be high, yes, but you do know about them.

    Do I feel for you and you uninsured extended illness? Yes, however, it is a completely separate issue from the debt. did you have debt prior to the illness? Blaming the creditor for fees (and these fees are normally associated with some other decision we made), or feeling sorry for yourself and how mean the creditor is will not get you out of debt PERIOD. you have to stop blaming and start improving your situation.

    BTW, I have to take your word for this uninsured extended illness, but it does come up all too often as a reason for debt as a means of gaining sympathy, when the underlying problem for the person was living beyond their means in the first place. The last straw did not break the camel’s back, it was the aggregate weight of the straw. So my reply may seem skeptical, but I’m sure you were not in debt prior to the illness debt. However, my reply also comes from having gotten out of a huge debt, too, so it may sound a little unsympathetic, because i know it can be done.

  25. Steve says 09 October 2007 at 17:23

    “Steer clear of corporate giants….Many small business owners go out of their way to look out for their best employees.”

    I’d say the opposite is true.

  26. J.D. says 09 October 2007 at 17:28

    Interesting, Steve. I’d love to hear more about your experiences. Though my own experience led me to make this claim, it’s possible I’m way off base.

    My family owns a small business. We consider our best employees to be gold. We do whatever we need in order to keep them happy. I have many friends who also own small businesses. They, too, report the same thing: when you have an employee that makes life easier for you, you’ll do whatever you can to keep her. Obviously, you’re not going to offer a million dollar salary, but I’m certainly not opposed to paying my best employee more than I earn if by doing so it earns more money for the business in the long run. And non-financial benefits are certainly open to discussion: flexible time off, strange benefits, etc.

    But, as I say, I may just be in a weird pocket of Oregon…

  27. toes says 09 October 2007 at 17:36

    Another good resource for people earning minimum wage are temp agencies. Some temp agencies give basic computer classes to make their people more attractive to employers.

    A good skill to have that can pretty much be self taught is typing. 5 years ago, I was working for a printing company making about $7 an hour. The job sucked and I hated it. I went to a temp agency and they told that they had a great job but that I had to be able to type 70 WPM to get it. They tested me and I only typed 50 WPM. Two days later, after hours and hours of practicing, I came back and tested at 75 WPM. I got the job as a typist, earning $11 per hour. I a still with the same company but I have been promoted several times.

  28. BG says 09 October 2007 at 18:06

    I suppose learning to live in the underground economy is an option. Not nice to the IRS, but whatever. If you are that hard down, you need to do whatever it takes. Take cash only jobs and do just enough over the table jobs to keep the IRS off your back.

    Barter, trade and use as much as possible given to you. If you have access to a facility that has frequent luncheons, eat for free. Dumpster dive, give blood, semen, plasma, be a guinea pig.

    Nothing I’ve said is particularly original. They have been mentioned here many a time.

    I found the best paying jobs that require no “skills” to be babysitting, driving and house cleaning. Rich people love to be pampered, so whatever eases their “workload” is money to someone else.

  29. Minimum Wage says 09 October 2007 at 19:00

    Actually, FWIW, it was the extended uninsured illness which brought me cross-country, as I was unable to work and had no income and family (which had moved out here earlier) took me in until I could go back to work. I was in hospital the first two months and needed a walker for about a year after that.

    Oh, and since I have nothing to wear to an interview, temp agencies won’t send me to an office and all I could get are janitot or industrial type jobs.

  30. Skellie says 09 October 2007 at 19:47

    I’d recommend Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich to anyone wanting to learn more about life on minimum wage. The crux of the problem is that so much time and energy is devoted to working long hours, or multiple jobs, that there’s little time/energy/money left over to invest in self-improvement.

    The real answer would be for minimum wage to be raised to a decent level!

  31. RJ says 09 October 2007 at 20:20

    “If you decide to use education to break free from minimum wage, be sure to choose practical classes in order to increase your earning potential. A philosophy class might sound cool, but it’s not going to get you a job. Nor will creative writing.”

    Like ICUP, I believe that courses in subjects such as philosophy can be beneficial to students with utilitarian ends. A major goal of such courses is to get students to develop analytical skills as well as communications skills. Skills such as these not only can help a student snag a job in his/her new field, but can also help the student keep the job or network/interview into better positions later on.

  32. Jon says 09 October 2007 at 20:46

    I have a Bachelor’s in History, and did not go beyond that because I hated college. After school, I couldn’t find anything besides minimum wage jobs. I have been at my retail job for close to four years, started at minimum and now am over 11 an hour. I love my job even though it doesn’t pay well. I have decided I can have whatever I want if I am frugal. I don’t spend unless it is absolutely necessary. I have no debt and actually have a lot saved up.

  33. mapgirl says 09 October 2007 at 22:07

    Even cheaper than community colleges are adult education classes. Often they are run by the school district. Where I live there are a great many practical courses like ESL and cooking as well as serious vocational courses like cosmetology, MS Office, IT, Food and Nutrition, Housekeeping, business networking/interviewing, Myers-Briggs testing. They are short term courses, like only 1-6 weeks long so you can make a small commitment to them. Discounts to county residents, but all are welcome for a slightly higher price.

    Even when you work a white collar day job on salary, sometimes you have to suck it up and work a second job. I did that several times in my life without any regrets. I did what had to be done to keep up with the debt payments or get ahead at work. I even did some of that while going to school at night after work. On the go, 7 days a week. And it’s not like a was really young. I was pushing 30 at that time and sure, I was tired. However it catapulted my salary, so education is worth it.

    Anyone making less than they want, minimum wage or not, has to ask themselves what they are willing to do to make more. Really, that’s all there is. If you’re tired and exhausted after work and feel you can’t study, you need to look deeper within to find motivation to keep going to reach your goals. Sorry, but it’s true. I ate fast food for 12-weeks during the semester, lost weight from work stress, etc. But I was determined to get through it and make my life better overall. It’s tough, but you have to get over yourself and get the job done. Don’t give yourself an option to to fail.

    The irony of this is that I was never willing to put in the i-banking hours to work on Wall Street, but it’s probably comparable to where I was at during the period I described above. I reflect back on that and think I was an idiot for not understanding what I really wanted out of life and how to get there. I like making lots of money and I thought that I couldn’t hack the life of a banker when I was 22. Now that I’m much older, I realize I could have but was simply afraid of hating the job to the point I didn’t even try.

  34. Andrea >> Become a Consultant says 09 October 2007 at 23:38

    Here’s a real minimum wage profile. 50-y-old woman. Grade 9 education. Severe dyslexia. IQ probably around 90. Unable to read more than simple text. Unable to do simple math. Unable to write even notes that are understandable. Unable to learn to read. Kind guidance counsellor got her into a job training program usually designated for mentally challenged. She learned to work in a cafeteria, institutional laundry and janitorial work. After 30 years working at a hospital for, at most, $14 an hour, she was laid off as part of massive downsizing. Now she makes around minimum wage for a cleaning service. She is reimbursed for mileage at 30c/km, when gas alone is $1.00 litre. She has trouble tracking and organizing mileage, due to skills problems. She sometimes cleans houses for $20/hour as self-employed cleaner, but she’s unable to figure out any taxes, set aside money for medical, etc. Not able to even understand grocery costs.

    Aside from people going through a bad job search or those who are too inexperienced to do better, the above is a far better profile of a typical minimum wage earner.

  35. Rika says 10 October 2007 at 00:52

    “You can really go places by being nice (and networking).”

    Peachy, these are such wise words! Thank you.

  36. plonkee says 10 October 2007 at 01:47

    That’s one of the things that bothers me. I reckon that most of the suggestions so far work well for people of at least average intelligence and health. But what if you’re below average in either?

    Most bright people do in fact get out of minimum wage, but if they are above average, that implies that there are people who are below average who might not be capable of pulling themselves out of minimum wage hell.

    And to those who are criticising Minimum Wage for being in debt, and pointing out that he is likely to have contributed to his own position. That may well be true, but short of inventing a time machine, I’m not sure what can be done about it. Everyone has to start from where they are now, not from where they should be.

  37. MossySF says 10 October 2007 at 04:01

    Interesting how in Trent’s blog, you posted that you couldn’t do anything because a creditor was slurping $300/mo out of your pocket. But here, you say it’s only $200. I personally would think someone making $1250 a month before taxes would be right on the dot considering what a huge percentage that is of your salary.

    The strange thing is why you would even pay this bill. From your postings, it sounds like it’s either a medical bill or credit card bill to pay medical. As such, these can be eliminated with bankruptcy. If you can’t afford bankruptcy (although there are plenty of do-it-yourself BK instructions available), just don’t pay for a few years. And since you are below the poverty line, you would be exempt from wage garnishing. So what could the creditor do? Call you once a day to remind you of your debt?

  38. Ben says 10 October 2007 at 07:21

    My first job paid $4.75/hr after taxes I would net $50-$60 a week. I now make $56.89/hr. This amount excludes other benefits such as health insurance, paid sick leave, etc.

    A long, long time ago for a few weeks all I had was rice and tomatoe paste in the house and I ate only once a day. I swear that’s what I had to do to survive.

    After getting food stamps I found a better job and worked my way up from there. The biggest leap was a college degree. All paid for with night jobs and side work.

    Anyone who tells me it’s impossible to move up is a fool only to themselves.

  39. Dave says 10 October 2007 at 09:40

    For those who may be looking for a way to move up from the basic minimum wage job, particularly if you have any type of customer service or cash handling experience (which covers a pretty big chunk of minimum wage jobs), look for jobs at banks.

    Teller positions pay more than you might think, and the qualifications are pretty low as far as experience and education are concerned, and there are clear job advancement opportunities if you perform. Office managers who started as tellers are common.

    Banks generally have decent benefits, often including some form of tuition reimbursement. As a bonus, rare is the bank that is open past 6-7pm, and weekend hours are also limited, giving more time for family/education/side business.

    I personally started as a teller at a regional bank with no previous customer service experience for $10/hr plus medical/dental/vision. Teller turnover is pretty high, so there are pretty much always openings at multiple local banks. Check it out!

  40. Cat says 10 October 2007 at 10:33

    I’d like to reiterate what toes said about temp agencies and office work. Not only is the work easier on the body than most retail/fast food/etc. jobs, the ability to move ahead by developing skills/contacts is (imho) better. If you don’t have the clothes for it, go to a second hand store – for most jobs all you need is a couple pair of dress slacks and dress shirts (buy the best ones you can find/afford). If you are reliable, personable (smile, don’t whine, etc.) and can type, you’ll be an asset to most temp agencies. And, in most offices, if you are willing help with the grunt work, most people will also teach you how to do the more skilled (and better paying) work.

  41. Jordan says 10 October 2007 at 13:33

    great post.It is great hearing ways to save money and spend smarter, but sometimes you really do need to just earn more. And I like that you mentioned getting a second job. Where I live, having 2 jobs is almost a necessity Fortunately for us we also have a 2% unemployment rate so getting those jobs (or 1 good job) isn’t that hard.

  42. bethh says 10 October 2007 at 16:26

    Looking for a job at a bank is a great idea; I would add looking at a hotel, especially if it has local operations offices. My sister started at the front desk of a hotel and is now at a high level in the corporate office.

    It seems to me that any company that is decent-sized and works with the general public is going to have a range of openings from entry-level (front desk, teller, college) up to more corporate-level jobs.

  43. Beth says 10 October 2007 at 18:15

    J.D., I’ll e-mail you with my story. Short version: 1.) education, education, education. 2.) after way too many years in food service, I got my foot into a professional door via a volunteer position and subsequently moved to working twelve hours a week at fifty cents above minimum wage, with nowhere to go but up. On the job training works, especially when paired with education!

  44. bob says 11 October 2007 at 01:32

    Ben what did you get a degree in?

  45. maxconfus says 11 October 2007 at 09:49

    trent, I am not missing any points, it’s just hard to make everyone in a blog comment. 🙂

    I asked you an impossible question. One that I knew there was no answer. The result though I am certain of in that the idea of the minister who sacrifices a lifetime of pay to provide critical social services to a community will go the way of the buggy whip manufacturer as fewer are likely to take this path due to the resulting hardships later in life.

  46. pam munro says 11 October 2007 at 12:37

    Using your wits it’s easier to get out of a minimum wage trap – I agree that with a below-average degree of wits, it’s much more difficult. However, I would like to note that there are adjustments that can be made even at the college level for those with learning disabilities. That should be definitely looked into by any advocate.
    I, too, learned on the job while working as a temp, and taught myself multiple computer programs from on-the-job training and computer manuals, and I couldn’t have afforded to take anly classes at that point in my life. Even now, years later I am taking a FREE class at Santa Monica’s Emeritus College. There are deals out there…Don’t get yourself into job tracks that are mostly deadend – like being a foodserver or retail. Even with the limited scope of my temp jobs, there was always someplace upward to aspire to. And later, when I, too, met illness, I was able to work for less than full time because hourly I was making many times the minimum wage.

    As for the minister, doesn’t his/her denomination provide some support later in life in which service would be factored into care? I would investigate all those options, too…There are part-time ministers for whom parishes cannot afford full-time wages and other options….I would recommend being frank with the parishioners and then looking for some free-lance work – perhaps writing? to supplement the minister’s salary…And get as much as you can gratis on the value of your ministerial service….Again, thinking out of the box…It may not give you an upper middle class retirement, but even Social Security is something…

  47. Minimum Wage says 11 October 2007 at 17:56


    To be freaking specific, a creditor is slurping $250 and I am also paying $44 on student loans. Now are you freaking happy? Do I have to be freaking specific about everything???

  48. Tim says 11 October 2007 at 18:31

    MW, lots of anger there. This is the first I’ve seen of you, but it sounds like you’ve been around. I don’t know your whole story or if you posted every detail about your financial situation and asked for help in how to manage your situation; however, getting angry about your situation rather than doing something about it is rather off base, especially when Mossy brought up some good suggestions. Moreover, being specific, completely honest, and open are very important if you want other people to help you out of your situation.. Presumably you are posting and reading PF blogs, because you want/need help.

    So far I’ve seen that you have blamed everyone in the world for your financial problems (especially the creditor), but haven’t seen anything about what you have or are doing about getting yourself out of it. You use words like a creditor is “squeezing” and “slurping” money from you. If you want to demonize them, that is fine, but it doesn’t get you anywhere. Have you talked to them? Have you gone through credit counseling to payoff? Have you thought about bankrupcy? Have you thought about just not paying them (I’m not for this, though)?

  49. Minimum Wage says 11 October 2007 at 18:44

    How on earth could credit counseling help now? I am being squeezed by lawyers who specialize in squeezing. I don’t think they are amenable to negotiation. Right now I’d say bankruptcy is more likely than full collection. They are not slurping money yet, I am delivering it to them every month. If I ever stop then they will slurp it out of my account.I probably should have done bankruptcy last year when I would have been able to discharge my student loans as well as this debt.

  50. Minimum Wage says 11 October 2007 at 18:54

    I could have used a lawyer to seal with the other lawyers, but I couldn’t afford my own lawyer (you can be assured I am paying for their lawyers) so I guess I got hosed. Just part of the price of being poor.

  51. Zoe says 12 October 2007 at 06:05

    I promised myself midway through high school that I’d never flip burgers. I came close, taking a job as a check-out chick in one of those small shopping centres that open at ridiculous hours (much like a 7-11 i guess). I started at 5:30am every Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, and I cannot imagine a more mind-numbing, soul-destroying job than selling bread and cancer at that hour. After 10 months I walked away from that to persue a career as a Multimedia Developer, which I started 6 weeks ago. As I’m 8 weeks away from being technically qualified for the job, I’m actually paid slightly less to code some pretty hairy ActionScript all day than I was manning a checkout. However, I know that at the end of my contract this February, with Diploma in hand and 5 months experience at a well-known, reputable company, I’m in an excellent position for a promotion to a higher pay level or a role in another company.

    I’ve taken a job knowing full well that I’m not being paid enough, and can make a little more elsewhere, however the reward for sticking it out for the next few months are huge and will set me up for life. I’m working for the opportunities, not the payslip.

  52. Bob says 12 October 2007 at 11:32

    To those uninitiated: Minimum Wage is a commenter who frequents many Personal Finance blogs and usually just throws out one liners along the lines of, “How can I save when I make minimum wage”, “How can you invest when you make minimum wage”. From what I have seen, Minimum Wage has never added to any discussion with his comments, and pretty much complains and shoots down people’s ideas. As such, I have two theories, either Minimum Wage is an epic troll, trolling the untapped resource that is the helpful community of Personal Finance bloggers for his amusement, or he is an incredibly miserable, angry, and depressed older man.

    Although I believe it to be unintentional, MW has brought up the issue of minimum wage workers which is an interesting topic. I especially enjoy the stories people have of how they escaped it as I find them interesting and inspirational. But really, I think MW just wants to complain. People have offered so many suggestions and he has reasons why they won’t work for everything, but not very good ones. If you really are in the situation you say, and not just a very talented troll, then take the steps you can to better your life. You cant shoot down everyones suggestions and have a large excuse for not getting a better job to be clothing. You admitted to paying $10 a month for internet access previously, if you can’t swing a couple of dollars for a pair of slacks, shoes, and button up shirt / polo then I don’t know what to say. Between charities, church give always, garage sales, second hand stores, and asking if anyone has old clothes they don’t want, I know that you could get AT LEAST two complete outfits for $10. I’ve seen great slacks for .25 a piece at garage sales, and know a ton of people who have huge piles of clothes they don’t want. If you really can’t squeeze out the $10 to get some clothes, then cancel your internet for one month, get the clothes, and get the job. Also, if you make so little money, you should easily qualify for grants and loans for school. Try applying for scholarship as well, I am sure you could swing a good letter to win some money.

    There has to be a better option available than a minimum wage job. I never had a job making minimum wage, my first job was bagging groceries for $.75/hr over minimum wage, and then after a year I got a promotion to cashier and was making $1.75/hr over minimum wage. After a year as cashier I found a job as a bank teller making $2.50/hr over minimum wage, and after a year there I was making $4/hr over minimum wage, all while either in high school, and eventually having just graduated. That number has continued to go up as I attended college and I hope for it to go up in the future. There are opportunities everywhere to those willing to find them. I know many people working jobs with no education making $14/hr doing such things as packing boxes, print making, sales, cleaning, etc. You can find a way, but complaining on PF blogs and trolling their board sure isn’t the way to go about it.

  53. Minimum Wage says 12 October 2007 at 13:55

    Between housing, creditors, and bus pass,my money is almost all gone. I’ve been selling stuff to stay afloat but I’m almost out of things to sell. My $10 dial-up connection is my connection to the outside world. It’s how I find job listings and keep somewhat informed.

  54. MossySF says 12 October 2007 at 15:34

    $69 to file bankruptcy. Get that $250 back.

  55. Greg C. says 13 October 2007 at 00:55

    Posts like this one are why I love this site. Haven’t had much time to read lately ( have been taking practical classes lately myself).

  56. Eric Monse says 15 October 2007 at 14:04

    I think the minimum wage could be raised in this country.

  57. Tim says 16 October 2007 at 04:30

    again, MW doesn’t show the whole picture. “almost all” your money means there is money left over. It was creditors squeezing, now it’s lawyers squeezing. Just don’t get it. Do you want advice and are willing to take advice? If so, post your entire story and your budget.

    nothing you have posted suggests your options are limited.

  58. Mister E says 07 December 2007 at 12:22

    I myself worked in very low paying jobs (food service mainly but i had multiple “careers”) for 10 years from the time I dropped out of high school (16yo) to just last year. Aside from my very first job washing dishes I always did better than the minimum wage though. In fact very, very few companies I worked for (I worked for sole proprietors as the only employee right on up to multi-million dollar corporations and everything in between) payed anyone other than brand new hires the minimum.

    If you are in truly dire straights with no options then learn how to cook, it’s a terrible, dirty job where you will work long hard hours, be disrespected by almost everyone and make low wages, but not minimum wage. I made as much as $21,000 one year cooking at 1 restaurant full time and a second part time.

    If you can get yourself a serving job at an even half way busy restaurant you can actually do not bad at all factoring in tips, I would often make $20+ and hour doing that but it is tempered with some days when it is slow and you only make your hourly wage (which in my neck of the woods anyways is LESS than the standard minimum wage) and also by the fact that many serving shifts are only 4-6 hours long and 3-4 days a week. This option is more plausible the younger and better looking that you are and if you are neither young or good looking it may be more difficult. Again the hours are bad and you will be talked to by some as if you are lower than dirt but it does pay the rent.

    I worked in a couple of factories both through an agency and just walking in and applying and I never started at the minimum ever. Factory work is unbelievably soul crushing but again, pays the bills and depending on the factory there can be some upward mobility.

    In fact most everyone I know is a very low wage earner but not minimum wage, I don’t know any company (outside of WalMart or Zellers and the like) that pays minimum wage to anyone that has been there over 3 months. My girlfriend works at a national toy store chain as a cashier and she started slightly over minimum and has a salary review at 3 months. My brothers girlfriend works at a national coffee house chain part time and she started at $10/hour serving coffee! She also gets a salary review every 6 months (although the increases are pretty small) and limited health benefits after a year as well as generous company-related benefits (free stuff, discounts).

    I can attest from personal experience that it is VERY hard to get out of the world of low paying jobs but I didn’t find it at all difficult to get out of the world of MINIMUM WAGE jobs. I’m in the Toronto area and I’m sure things are different in other areas (I’m assuming many of you are in the US, I don’t know how it works there) but I just can’t imagine it being that hard to get above minimum wage even if only slightly.

  59. BM says 28 April 2008 at 11:34

    In BC where I live, people here are just miserable. A lot of them from my high school got stuck in some dead end jobs. They got their diplomas, but they’re bagging my groceries and serving my coffee. These guys are rude because they lack an education. They threw away so many opportunities to buy houses. Unlike my classmates, I picked up the pieces and am now in college working towards my career in the school board.

  60. kwsventures says 04 September 2008 at 16:59

    Get a 2nd job or income. I got a 2nd job 17 years ago, working about 10 hours per week extra. It is a consulting job averaging about $40.00 per hour. My hours are very flexible. I usually work a couple of hours a night on weekdays only.It has given me about $19k of extra cash every year. I have made over $300k in extra money in the last 17 years. I have never spent this extra money. I have tracked every dime I have made. I have invested it in stocks that raise dividends every year. My cash flow is great now. What did I give up? Well, I have watched no stupid sitcom TV shows in 17 years. I have never seen American Idol or Dancing with the Has Beens. I am not familiar with any of those shows. I hear people talking about those shows during the workday at my day job. I basically gave up nothing and set myself up with financial independence.

  61. Janet says 20 October 2008 at 14:48

    I think that some great points were made here.

    –Live with a roommate or parents if you can’t afford your own place.
    –Figure out what is a NECESSITY, rather than a WANT. You need clothes for work, but what does it matter if it comes from Target, Macy’s or the Goodwill?

    Also, as far as getting an education, there are many programs out there to help fund schooling. There are grants and scholarships for those who are eligible. It never hurts to go poking around and find out what’s available.

    Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

  62. Dana Seilhan says 20 October 2008 at 22:46

    These are all great ideas for *getting out of* earning minimum wage, as far as any individual person can make them work for him or her. Individual situations vary, of course. But I think people who are *currently* on minimum wage need a bit more than that, because they can’t put off living until they’re making that extra money.

    Again, survival vs. actual living.

    I’m not seeing single parents (usually moms) addressed much here either–it is a LOT harder then. I know there’s always one who wants to show up to these conversations to put every other single mama down because SHE made it, goshdarn it, so what is wrong with THOSE stupid [expletive]s, but they’re kind of the exception that proves the rule, usually.

    We get the double whammy of not only having to scrape by with less than what the middle class would consider a viable standard of living, but also having to forego seeing our children for more than a few waking hours a day, instead leaving their raising to strangers and outside institutions. Society questions our right to exist and to be parents. Politicians take away every mean little half-arsed “benefit” we have, the first chance they get. We do not just face financial woes, and our problems do not just stem from our own attitudes and choices.

    In fact, I think it’s kind of a mistake to address systemic/universal issues with individualist solutions. The latter work as kind of a stopgap, I guess, but the messed-up system is still there. I have some ideas about fixing it, including single-payer healthcare and encouraging the existence of cooperatively owned businesses (not to mention downscaling businesses in the first place) but all of that is way beyond scope here. Suffice to say I think the system’s busted.

  63. GK says 24 August 2009 at 09:48

    There is one important difference between minimum wage women and men – children! Don’t get pregnant! If you do, have an abortion or give it up for adoption. If you keep it, make sure you get the baby daddy’s name on the birth certificate so that you can get support.

    I once helped out with a pre-Clinton welfare-to-work program. Of the seven I interacted with, all but one woman were not married/shacking, and the married one would have been better off w/o her husband. All had kids, and the six single women were not getting support.

    It was clear to me from what I learned about those women those women would have been OK financially, even at low wages, provided they didn’t have a kid to support. You’re all but destroying the possibility of a decent life for yourself if you don’t remain childless. Succeed first, then become a parent; you’ll be setting a good example for that kid.

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