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Living on Minimum Wage

Living on Minimum Wage

  Photo credit: Lance Taylor photography    @lance_taylor4

Photo credit: Lance Taylor photography   @lance_taylor4

The minimum wage rate has been a controversial issue. People are polarized to one side or the other on the issue of whether to raise minimum wage or not.

On one hand it forces businesses to spend additional money on their employees for generally lower skilled jobs. On the other hand employees making minimum wage barely make enough to get by and they may be forced to rely on government services such as food stamps to survive.

It isn’t clear to me which side is correct. However, I did want to learn what living on minimum wage is like.

So for the last four weeks I have lived on a minimum wage budget. I wanted to see what challenges I would face and what life would be like living on the minimal amount possible.

The minimum wage in Chicago is $11 an hour and I decided I would be working a 40 hour week. For the challenge I needed to figure out a reasonable amount for monthly expenses. It was not possible for me to switch my rent, cable, phone, etc. to make them cheaper for one month. I decided to do some research and come to some “Guesstimated bills” that I thought I were realistic. After subtracting all my monthly expenses I had $70.75 a week to spend.

If you enjoy math and seeing how I came to $70.75 per week  here is that info. Otherwise feel free to skip ahead:

11$ an hour X 40 hours X 4 weeks= $1,760  -amount earned pretaxes.

Using an IL tax calculator I found I came to $1412 for the month  

Link to Calculator

 My weekly budget for the minimum wage challenge

My weekly budget for the minimum wage challenge


During the challenge I journaled about the experience of having 70.75 a week to spend. Here are some entries:


My plan is to grocery shop at Aldi and buy all the food I need for every week. I have found them to be the cheapest option for me and quality of food is comparable. After buying the food for the week I realize that I won’t be getting Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. My ice cream addiction will be on hold for the challenge because 5$ for a pint of ice cream is expensive.


Not having a car is helpful for this challenge. Gas would eat up the rest of my money after food. It is business as usual for me riding the bus and my bike everywhere. Which I have found more enjoyable than driving anywhere because I can read or play games on my phone when riding public transit and bike riding is free exercise.


I took an uber today because I wanted to get home and it was night and riding public transportation at night is a hassle because buses don’t come as frequently and I find the crowd that rides the bus late at night a little unsavory. I am down to $18.13 for the week.


The grocery store causes anxiety. I realized after the first week I need to buy additional food. Buying food for the week left me with $14.08 to spend. My hair is starting to get long I could use a haircut, but it will put me over budget this week.


I had an eye doctor appointment today. The bill ended up being $60 after insurance.They gave me a  $50 rebate, so I have to wait to get that money back. This put me over my weekly budget, but I needed contacts to see and couldn’t put off the exam any longer. I am $45 over my budgeted amount, but I should get that back in a rebate. It would be so difficult living on minimum wage and have medical expenses. My eye doctor exam with an order of contacts would have been over $600. Today was a strong reminder how crazy expensive medical bills are.


I got a haircut today. Tipping is complicated on minimum wage because I still wanted to leave an adequate tip, but I didn’t have the money to do so. The tipping portion of the haircut hadn’t crossed my mind and when I went to the cash register to pay I freaked out and tipped two dollars more than usual….My hair cut and groceries today used nearly my entire budget for the week.


Today I had pub theology, it is an event where people from my church gather, drink some beer, and talk God and life. Riding my bike there saved money, but I didn't have enough money to order a drink. It is awkward going to a bar and not having a drink. I sat down at the bar ordered a water and the bartender gave me an odd look when I didn’t get a drink.


When I go to work I have to be careful not to forget my lunch. I don’t have money to buy a meal around work. A couple of other purchases I have cut down are buying mints and the occasional pop. Those purchases add up quickly so that has saved me money. I found that I can  buy mints at ALDI for $1.50 as opposed to 2-3$ at convenience stores.


My fiance bought me lunch and beer to watch football today with her friends. It made me feel like a real bum not being able to buy things for myself. This is a reminder of how when you can’t afford anything it affects your social life. You are forced to find cheaper solutions for spending time with friends.


Today is the last day of min wage challenge. There is a list of things I have been waiting to buy. Some new books, shoes, and a beer. It has been an experience. I am proud that I was able to succeed without going over my budget too much. Other than the eye doctor appointment costing me an extra 50$ I stayed close to my budgeted amount.

Some things I learned about minimum wage thru this challenge:

  1. It is hard. If you are an adult with bills and all normal living expenses. You will struggle to survive on minimum wage.

  2. You are screwed if you have a major expense. If you have a medical emergency or have an unexpected expense you will not have enough money to handle that situation.

  3. You can't afford to add skills. Having a student loan on my budget for the challenge would have bankrupted me. There are ways to get free skills using youtube and free classes on the internet, but I would speculate that most skills required to get you out of a minimum wage job would require some paid training.

  4. It puts you in a survival mode. When you are worried if you will have food or make rent for the month you will be focused on the immediate future as opposed to the thinking long term. By long term thinking I mean saving money, preparing for emergencies that you might run into, and adding skills to get a better job.

I would recommend to try this challenge. See what it is like to have work on a tight budget and to deny yourself of luxuries. Here are some steps to get you started:

  1. Figure out how much minimum wage in your area is.

  2. Calculate the minimum wage rate by 40 hours and remove taxes.

  3. Add up your monthly bills to find your monthly expenses. I recommend doing this at a reduced scale. Since you are not going to cancel your subscription services for the challenge. For example my rent is $880 but I found some reasonable rent rates in my area for $600. I used the reduced rate for the challenge.

  4. Set an amount of time for the challenge I did four weeks. A month gave me enough time to take in the experience. I would recommend at least doing a week.

  5. Take your wages for the amount of time you are doing minus your monthly expenses to get the amount you will to spend for the week.

  6. I would recommend planning on how you are going to spend your budget for the week. This will help you to stay honest with the challenge and not overspend on accident.

This challenge helped me to appreciate the blessings I have in my life. It gave me realization at how difficult it can be to try and live on minimum wage. I was forced to find ways to save money, which I will continue to use after the challenge. You should give this challenge a try and see if it changes your perspective on minimum wage.


I did some research to help me understand the pros and cons for raising minimum wage. I found this article helpful.

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