4 Important Money Lessons We Learned While Working for Minimum Wage

Five Guys Burgers and Fries location in the Metrotech Center in the New York borough of Brooklyn
I'd say there's a good chance I inadvertently messed up a few orders at my first minimum-wage job. I was a freshman in college, still learning the basics of burger-grilling as the resident grill cook at an on-campus restaurant. On my first day at work -- much to my horror -- half-eaten burgers started trickling back in to the kitchen, completely raw in the middle. So I improvised by nuking each burger in the microwave before sending it back out.

Though that was possibly -- OK, definitely -- not the best solution, the lesson was still learned: Sometimes things don't go as planned, and you've got to improvise rather than huddle in a corner in the fetal position.

But that's not all I learned while making minimum wage. The jobs that paid me the least are also the ones that taught me some priceless financial lessons.

1. Track Your Spending

Two things I'm bad at in life are multitasking and math -- both essential skills for a cashier. Just my luck, when Johnny and I were servers at a Mexican restaurant during our first year of marriage, we had to take shifts cashiering -- all while making $5.85 an hour. At the end of the shift, we'd count every cent in the money drawer and pray to the accounting gods that it matched what was in the computer. We won't talk about the time I was off by $50, but we will say that we use similar skills to track every cent we spend today. At the end of every month, we put our tracking skills to the test and balance our budget.

2. Know the Difference Between Wants and Needs

Not all of my minimum-wage lessons were learned on the job. When Johnny and I were living on minimum wage, we couldn't afford many extras. In some ways, Johnny considers that a blessing, since our furniture wasn't littered with all the unnecessary pillows it is today. But our tight budget also helped us learn what we could live without. We didn't have smartphones or cable, we shared one (barely functional) car, and we limited our Christmas spending on each other to $50. Because we learned then how to live on a tight budget, we're able to keep our spending minimal today, while maximizing opportunities for saving and investing.

3. Make Your Money Go Farther by Reducing Waste

Johnny and I both worked multiple stints in the food industry, where it was essential to minimize waste. Johnny worked at Jamba Juice his freshman year of college. He was charged with the task of rotating ingredients -- putting the old in the front, and the new in the back.
To this day, he rotates our own items in our fridge after every grocery trip. The old milk comes to the front, as do the eggs, sodas and bread. On top of that, we write out each and every needed item before each grocery trip and plan our meals two weeks in advance -- all in the name of avoiding unnecessary spending. (Jamba Juice, this is all your fault.)

4. Stick With It, Even When It's Hard

I loathed flipping hamburgers. Before that job, I'd always just quit if I hated something. But I couldn't quit because I really needed the extra dough. And I doubt Johnny enjoyed walking around on sticky floors all day at Jamba Juice or regularly stepping in manure when he painted fences one summer. But we stuck to it (no pun intended), and we're better off because of that. Similarly, we find ourselves sticking with our budget even when we kind of hate it, because we know it's what we should be doing.

Admittedly, my burger-flipping skills have since gotten rusty. But I hope someday my children develop some burger-flipping skills of their own. Because alongside learning to hate hairnets, they'll also learn some unforgettable financial life lessons.

Joanna and Johnny are the writing duo behind OurFreakingBudget.com, a personal finance blog documenting the joys, pains and realities of living on a budget. Here are a few popular posts from their blog:

Increase your money and finance knowledge from home

How much house can I afford

Home buying 101, evaluating one of your most important financial decisions.

View Course »

How Financial Planners go Grocery Shopping

Learn to shop smart and save.

View Course »

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum


Filter by:

my Aunty Charlotte just got a nearly new silver Mercedes-Benz E-Class Convertible by working part time online from home... best site Bar29.COM

November 25 2013 at 2:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

These is a good way to live even if you are making more than minimum wage.

November 25 2013 at 12:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

the only lesson NEEDED LEARNING HERE IS EASY - minimum wage IS NOT ENOUGH! OH BY THE WAY, feed yourself lst.

November 25 2013 at 10:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

If you are on social security and medicare thank a democrat, if you want to end these 2 fine programs vote republican. For that is how they voted when these 2 bills were on the floor. In a few years Obamacare will be there too.

November 25 2013 at 7:03 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to toosmart4u's comment

Obamacare will ne where, insolvent like SS and medicare? If you lost your health insurance and your doctor due to obamacare, thank a democrat. Not a single Republican voted for that POS.

November 25 2013 at 9:23 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to willypfistergash's comment

Malarkey, mac and cheese.

November 25 2013 at 10:15 AM Report abuse rate up rate down

If you are being decieved, lied to, or are paying high taxes and watching the money being wasted be sure to thank a Democrat!

November 25 2013 at 9:27 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jrb359's comment

So true.

November 25 2013 at 10:15 AM Report abuse rate up rate down
Sales Energy

you Know they shoyld teach this in school but they don't ,it took mr yr's to learn what Want In need's were . I still have the same P.C Fread flint Stone have me in as for my cell lol lol wel let's just say it's very old .
My car run's great in it has over 230,000 Mile's on it BuTT it's mind.
I just wish I learnd how to conserve many yr's ago

November 24 2013 at 8:20 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Mature adults still working for minimum wage are losers. Don't feel sorry for you.

November 24 2013 at 1:56 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to crimeslawyer's comment

In my book anybody who works and supports themselves is definitely not a loser.

November 24 2013 at 3:28 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Sales Energy

there not working for the Money you JERK there ""BORE " to death

November 24 2013 at 8:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What we learned from working minimum wage is that it's good to outwork your peers and move up to not make minimum wage. We also learned we need an education to prevent us from working minimum wage.

November 24 2013 at 1:47 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply


November 24 2013 at 9:53 AM Report abuse -6 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to eye.feltersnatch's comment


November 24 2013 at 10:52 AM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply

I've done everything from food service to building Space Shuttle parts.
Each occupation had advantages and dis-advantages. There were some beautiful things about the "loathsome" jobs. To start with I didn't need a union or seniority - there wasn't a line of people nipping at my heels to get my job, so it was low stress. I always worked for good people that wanted to pay me more, but couldn't.
If you buy solutions to everything, you'll always be broke.

November 24 2013 at 5:43 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to alfredschrader's comment


November 24 2013 at 9:28 AM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to eye.feltersnatch's comment

Or... just keep smoking crack - doing what you know best!

November 24 2013 at 9:55 AM Report abuse rate up rate down

started work at 14 tossing hay-bales from a flatbed trailer into a barn loft for $250 per month.
eventually started working for a precious metals foundry for $5 per hour.
through hard work, loyalty, and realizing that i'm ENTITLED to NOTHING, now 29 yrs later I have one of the best paying jobs in my county, with the same foundry.
you CAN advance and improve your own working life situation, but you have to be willing to WORK, at work...not stay on your cellphone, play w/your handheld gameboys, overstay your breaks, and do absolutely as little as you can get away with.
the world owes us NOTHING, neither does our govt.
this is falling on deaf ears though, as now we've become a nation of self important, self entitled leeches.
thanks Dr.Spock ! you were WRONG.....we're not all "special"............

November 24 2013 at 3:47 AM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply