minimum wage

A Quick Primer on How to Live on the Minimum Wage

Fast food workers in at least seven cities around the country – including New York City – are striking over the federal minimum wage.

Here’s what all the fuss is about and what you can do if you’re living on the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

A Brief History of the Federal Minimum Wage

The federal minimum wage has been around for 75 years – since 1938 – but it doesn’t go up every year.

In some periods, the federal minimum wage only gone up every five or 10 years. During other years, the minimum wage has risen annually.

But overall, since the minimum wage has been increased just 22 times in the past 75 years, it means historically the federal minimum pay rate goes up roughly every 3 ½ years on average.

Here’s a chart that shows how the federal minimum wage has slowly risen over time, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Why Are Fast Food Workers Striking Now?

Lately, there haven’t been any boosts to the minimum wage. The most recent increases in the federal minimum wage occurred in 2007, 2008 and lastly in 2009.

So those living on minimum wage haven’t seen it rise in more than 4 years.

That’s a long time to go without a pay hike, especially since we’ve gone through the recession during that period and the economy still isn’t strong.

Salaries have obviously not kept pace lately with the average person’s rising expenses. The cost of nearly everything has risen over the past four years, including housing, food, healthcare, gas, not to mention the price tag of a college education.

So even if these striking fast food workers wanted to get jobs in another industry, they probably feel like they can’t because they wouldn’t be able to afford to go back to school, if necessary, to get a college degree or earn a graduate degree.

What to Do If You’re Living on Minimum Wage

The Fair Labor Standards Act, or FLSA, is the federal law that sets minimum wage, overtime, recordkeeping, and youth employment standards.

With some exceptions, employers must typically pay overtime (“time and one-half”) to those who work for more than 40 hours a week.

Child labor laws prohibit those under the age of 18 from working in certain jobs, and also dictate the hours and times employees under 16 years of age may work.

In total, more than 130 million American workers are earning the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, and are protected or “covered” by the FLSA, which is enforced by the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor.

It’s no doubt difficult to make ends meet on such a modest salary, but unfortunately it’s a necessity in these tough economic times – at least for now.

President Barack Obama has proposed to raise the national minimum wage to $9.00 an hour and to tie it to inflation (i.e. the rising cost of living), in order to create more financial security and decent wages for individuals, couples and families.

It remains to be seen if the president’s proposal happens any time soon.

Meantime, here are four tips to help you and your family survive if you’re living on minimum wage.

Tip #1: Get a Side Hustle

I know you’re probably already tired and feeling overworked. But the truth is that even if you put in 40 hours a week at your main job, you’re probably going to need to pull in some extra cash to make ends meet.

A full time worker earning minimum wage makes only $14,500 a year, assuming two weeks of vacation. Very few people can stretch those dollars sufficiently to be able to pay for all their basic needs – let alone any extras.

So since the job market is so tight, and it’s no guarantee that you’d be able to get a second job, think about creative ways to earn money on the side.

Your side hustle can be anything you’re good at and have time, expertise or the willingness to do: from babysitting or pet-sitting service to tutoring and consulting or even doing legitimate work-from-home businesses.

Tip #2: Take Advantage of Freebies

If you’re getting paid minimum wage, you also have to work harder to explore all your options, and know what free resources are available to you.

For example, can you take a chunk of healthcare costs out of your budget, by signing your children up for free healthcare offered in your state?

Alternatively, do your kids qualify for free lunch at school or for other no-cost social services and public benefits?

Tip #3: Share Costs When Possible

On a salary of just $14,500 annually, you’ll fare much better and slash your living expenses if you share your recurring, monthly costs with others.

For example: try getting a roommate to cut down on rent or mortgage costs, carpooling to work if possible, in order to save money on gas and transportation expenses, or even doing things like going in with others to buy food through local co-ops or by getting discount memberships at warehouse clubs.

Tip #4: Eliminate the “Extras”

You probably already know you shouldn’t be spending money on frivolous or outrageously expensive things if you’re getting paid minimum wage. But at a basic level, you also need to prune your budget to cut out any and all “extras” if you’re having trouble paying for necessities, like food, clothing and shelter.

Take a look at your actual spending and categorize everything into “needs” versus “wants.” Is cable TV really a “need” or can it be eliminated for now until you’re in a stronger financial position?

By looking at your budget with fresh eyes, and following the tips mentioned above, you can get by on minimum wage. Will it be pretty? No. Will it be fun? No.

But the four strategies above can at least help you survive what is undoubtedly a very, very difficult financial dilemma.

Here’s hoping politicians, employers, business leaders and others will wake up and realize that anyone working 40 hours a week or more definitely deserves to have a decent, livable wage. And right now, a paltry $7.25 an hour doesn’t cut it.

U.S. workers shouldn’t have to worry about barely surviving and scrimping by with paltry paychecks. Those responsible workers who toil day in and day out – in all kinds of industries – should also have the chance to thrive, and live a happy, secure life, with a decent shot at achieving the American Dream.

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