It’s been a while since I worked in a job that would be considered “low-wage,” but that doesn’t mean I don’t remember what the low-wage lifestyle was like. Quite the contrary, really. I actually remember exactly what it felt like to be broke until payday, struggling to come up with money for anything extra – like birthdays, clothes, and even shampoo or conditioner.
I also remember being really embarrassed from time to time, like the time my sister invited me to Applebee’s and I didn’t even have $10 to pay for dinner and a tip. I’m not sure she believed me when I said that I didn’t have the money, and that almost made it worse. When you have a regular job and earn and nice living, it can be difficult to understand how anyone could have less than $10 in their account.
5 Things I Learned From Working Low-Wage Jobs
Fortunately, it’s been a long time since I lived the early 20’s poor student lifestyle, and I can now to go Applebee’s without breaking the bank. Still, I learned a lot of lessons from the days when I worked low-wage jobs that asked so much, yet paid so little. Here are a few of those lessons:
Lesson #1: Low-Wage Job = No Benefits
I worked in several low-wage jobs over the years with stints in childcare, restaurants, and group homes for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Not a single one of those jobs offered any kind of benefits at all – no retirement plan, no paid vacation, and no health insurance. I had a health insurance plan that was purchased off the open market, but it had gotten crazy expensive. At one point, I even remember my healthcare premiums consuming close to 25% of my take-home pay. Ouch.
I probably would have qualified for Medicaid easily, but it didn’t cross my mind at the time. Instead, I paid for my health insurance with post-tax dollars and just hoped and prayed that I didn’t get sick. The bottom line: Not having benefits sucks any time, but it’s especially hard when you’re a low-wage worker.
Lesson #2: A Low-Wage Job Made it Hard to Get Ahead
When I worked low-wage jobs, I was lucky in the fact that I always had a place to live. I lived with my parents at first, then transitioned to living with a boyfriend that allowed me to share living expenses. But even then, I could hardly afford groceries, my stupid car payment, and anything else that came along. And I definitely couldn’t afford to eat out at Applebees, as my sister found out.
But what made it worse was the fact that I couldn’t save a dime. It didn’t matter how hard I tried or how much I wanted to get ahead either; saving was simply impossible. It took every dollar I had to put food in the fridge and gas in my car so I could make it to work and earn enough just to get by.
Lesson #3: You’re Totally Expendable
When you work in a low-wage or low-skill job, it doesn’t take long to figure out that you’re totally expendable. I found that out a few times, as I hopped from crappy job to crappy job, hoping to find a better deal. One situation in particular sticks in my mind. I was working in a group home for mentally handicapped adults when they suddenly moved me from one group home to another – without even asking. I complained and was basically told to “take it or leave it.”
I was making something like $8.25 per hour at the time, which was actually more than most of the other jobs I had considered. I went ahead and lived with it. Still, it sucked to know that they cared so little about my opinion and were more than willing to fire me on the spot.
Lesson #4: You Get Treated Like Crap and No One Cares
One of my first low-wage jobs was at Walmart. Since I was such a good worker bee for them, I was Employee of the Month twice and promoted to the returns desk.
Unfortunately, the fact that they rewarded me for hard work didn’t mean that they didn’t want to rip me off. At the time, the Walmart where I worked closed at 10:00 p.m. Those of us who worked ’til close were asked to face shelves and do some general clean up until around 11:00. That was fine with me, until I realized that we were only getting paid to work until 10:00 p.m….even though most of us clocked out at 10:45 p.m. or later. When you’re not making much more than minimum wage, it’s pretty dehumanizing for a huge corporation like Walmart to blatantly rip you off like that.
I complained, and was basically told they would look into it. But of course they didn’t…until several years later when a bunch of their employees took part in a class action lawsuit. And you wonder why I hate Walmart?
Lesson #5: I Didn’t Want to Live This Life
After years of working low-wage jobs, I finally decided that I’d had enough. I no longer wanted to live the lifestyle I was living, and I realized I was willing to do anything to improve my situation. I didn’t care what I had to do to dig my way out. Being broke all the time had taken its toll, and I knew deep down that I wanted more out of life.
Fortunately, some of my hard work was finally starting to pay off. Eventually, I transitioned from low-wage jobs to jobs that would actually allow me to get ahead for the first time in my life. I proved myself time and time again, until I started earning relatively decent wages.
After several years in a really good job, I also started a side hustle and began putting my writing skills to work. We eventually started this website, which has led to other opportunities. And now that I am self-employed, I no longer let other people dictate how much I should be paid.
I Wouldn’t Change a Thing
Even though I spent years living paycheck to paycheck, I wouldn’t change anything. I’m actually glad I struggled the way I did. My experiences made me who I am today, and struggling for a few years gave me a perspective that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
Now that I work for myself, I just have to focus on working hard enough that I never have to work a low-wage job again. And if I keep working hard, I know that I will never have to.
Have you ever worked in a truly low-wage job? What did you learn?