5 Lessons I Learned While Working Low-Wage Jobs

5 Lessons I Learned While Working Low-Wage Jobs - picture of hands delivering open pizza box

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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?

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  1. Oh, I can remember exactly what it felt like to get the credit card statement in the mail, realize it was maxxed out and that I couldn’t pay the minimum. Or buy groceries. I was a student. My parents and grandparents had all passed away. Kinda alone, just trying to get buy until I could graduate and make enough to pay the bills…

    But those low paying jobs taught me how to be professional. How to have a work ethic. How to be polite to the VP who is yelling at me for something that isn’t my fault. I learned all that as a carhop at Sonic, a cashier at a grocery store, a mall clerk. While I hope my children never have to scrape by, I do hope they hold several minimum wage jobs. They are character (and profession) building.

  2. Been there! Working low wage jobs throughout high school and college was fantastic motivation to complete my degree. I did NOT want to have to clean motel rooms for the rest of my life!!!

  3. I remember when I worked at Target as a kid and the minimum wage was increased from $4.75 to $5.25. I was pumped! And I experienced everything you mentioned, so it was a win-win.

  4. I worked a couple low wage jobs. Like you I learned a lot. Unlike you, I would NEVER work off the clock and made that perfectly clear (helps my sister is a labor lawyer so I know enough to be a problem). I remember the time I got jury duty and Target said I needed to find someone to cover my shift… I walked right into the store managers officer and said he couldn’t penalize me for doing my civic duty. After that he actually treated me like an adult (which was funny because I was all of 18 at the time).

  5. I wonder why it is that working low wage jobs motivate some people to do better but other people are satisfied to just stay “down” and play the victim. There are some people who are at least happy enough doing what they do to not bother trying to better themselves. You knew what you had then was never going to be good enough for you, but others are content as long as they manage to get a big screen TV, or a new smart phone (which I bet you never would buy in your former circumstances). It is certainly curious how different people respond to the same circumstances.

  6. I worked my share of low wage jobs as well and remember very similar things myself. One thing I noticed was almost a feeling of this was as good as it was ever going to get amongst many of my co-workers. While I of course didn’t know the future, it just didn’t seem to make sense to me. Looking back I’m thankful for having gone through it.

  7. I’m happy that I learned these from observation rather than practice! Though I don’t think I was ever in any danger of dropping out of school to work.

  8. I worked in low wage jobs and it taught me that I better do something with my life, otherwise, this was it. I didn’t want to live that way so I made sure I went to college and graduated and busted my butt to find a good job. Once I got it, I made sure I worked hard to keep it, so I wouldn’t have to go back to working low wage jobs.

  9. That’s great that you were able to learn from your experience while working a low wage job and use that to drive yourself to do something else. I have worked some low paying jobs before and it definitely engrained in me that I wanted better for myself.

  10. I fortunately have never worked a job for minimum wage. I got my first “real” job (was on the books) when I was 15. Minimum wage in my state at the time was about $7/hour and I was getting paid $8. It was a manual labor job, and I bust my butt and my superiors took notice. I received at least a dollar an hour raise every year because of it, and left making $12.50/hour at 19 years old, which wasn’t too shabby.

    I also noticed that when I was working in this job that I always made more than my friends in retail. Therefore a lot of my friends saw the same thing and would take on more manual labor work where the pay was better. It also kept you in shape.

  11. Like Dee said, working a low-wage job is what helped motivate me to get through college so quickly. I knew I didn’t want to live that life forever!

  12. You know, I boycotted Walmart for over a decade and then gave them a chance again when we blew a tire in the middle of nowhere AZ (well, Yuma), on a Sunday, and they were the only tire store in town open. I figured, hey, Walmart gave us a hand…we’ll occasionally shop there.

    But your anecdote put the ban back on. Thanks!

  13. I worked in a bagel store through high school and the whole experience definitely made me want to work hard and go to college to make something of myself so that I didn’t have to work in a bagel store for the rest of my life. I was definitely treated like crap, but it gave me a great perspective and makes me appreciative of others who do it now.

  14. I worked a low wage job in my teens, and it was an ok experience with no real issues. The pay was low, but I still lived at home with parents. I cant imagine anyone making it on minimum wage while paying for rent and groceries. IF they do make it, its very hard to do anything else like save for the future or have some fun with the money.

  15. I remember working in low paying jobs too, but even still now I still live a little bit check to check and will continue to do so until the debts are gone. I do save some and am able to afford some fun things, so I’m not as bad off now as what you describe though.

  16. Yep. I think it’s great that you wouldn’t change the experience, though.
    I used to be the same. Before I got a ‘proper job’, I worked for 5 years earning next to nothing (luckily, though, I loved my job). I was 16 when I started working full time, and I earned £85 a week. That was it. I went on to earn £150 – £180 a week, which is still next to nothing, but I always got a roof over my head provided for me too.
    It meant that I didn’t go out much. I had to think before going into Starbucks and spending £5 on coffee and a cake. That was a lot of money. I didn’t learn to drive til I was 22. I cooked all of my meals from scratch. I lived in a caravan for a year.
    And you know what, I don’t regret a single day of it. Learning to live like that made me resourceful, and incredibly independent. Going from that to a well paid job was a massive shock to the system- suddenly I could afford a nice car, a house, and coffee every day. But I was absolutely miserable- so I recently left. Apparently poor (temporarily) and happy wins out!

  17. Valuable lessons to learn at a young age. I often think having these kinds of experiences is what motivates people to seek something more. My low-earning wages happened in high school and college so I was fortunate to not have to pay rent, etc but I did have to carefully stretch my paycheck, which I wasn’t always able to do. I worked for my Dad so I don’t think I was ever expendable to him, but he wasn’t going to give me an advance on my paycheck either. 🙂

  18. I worked a number of low-wage jobs, but mainly in my teens and early 20s. I spent most of my time in college working for the school’s paper. It wasn’t minimum wage, exactly, but you were paid per article, no matter how long it took. Even when you became editor, it was kind of iffy.

    My own health issues kept me from working full-time crappy wage jobs. I had the additional stress of being a landlord. I was renting rooms in a house in the university district. All the rents together still didn’t cover my mortgage payment.

    So part-time kind of decently paid work was about the same as full-time crappy wages. And it was tough, especially when you had to deal with things breaking. A $350 stove set me back a couple of months.

  19. I always love your honesty, Holly and I found this post really quite insightful. I feel fortunate that my tenure in “low-wage” jobs only lasted a year (my first in NYC). Even though I complain that I was drastically underpaid at my PR job on cost-of-living, at least I had benefits and didn’t get treated poorly.

  20. Working minimum wage jobs during high school taught me I didn\’t want to do that for the rest of my life and it made me go on to post secondary and then on to get a professional accounting designation. Great lesson and I wouldn\’t change it if I could

  21. I´d also add to the list that it´s hard to side hustle with jobs like that. Usually minimum wage jobs go hand in hand with odd or ever changing hours, so it´s extra difficult to commit to second jobs or side hustles.

  22. I agree with the lessons you’ve outlined. I experienced them myself when I was just starting out. But I would rather have had a low-paying job than none at all.

  23. Working a low wage job has taught me a lot as well. I learned to make ends meet and budget what I had, but I also didn’t want to settle and it made me more motivated to graduate college, network, and secure a better paying job with a boss who would treat me like a valued and respected team member.

  24. It makes me absolutely batty that healthcare aides and the like are so poorly taken paid when they are so damn important! You want those who are helping our elderly and disabled to not have to worry about how to survive on so freaking little. UGH, it’s horrible!

    Lots of people work low-wage jobs when they are young, but I think the negatives of that lifestyle magnify the older you are. There is also a world of difference working in those kinds of situations when you aren’t trapped in it by generational poverty. It’s really hard to work to get yourself out of that kind of living when it is all you know and there are things actively trying to push you down. 🙁

  25. Yes I did. What I learned is that I had to stayed longer so that I could have more experience for me to be qualified in the next job I was aiming for.

  26. I was working three low wage jobs whilst being a student, and it made me appreciate my own time more; I barely had any time to myself during the day and although it was good to have an income, the amount of hours for the income gained was insane, looking back on it. I am grateful I don’t have to be in that position anymore.

  27. Love this post so much! working low wage jobs is a hard way to live and you really don’t ever get ahead until you leave it behind. The people that pay you to work these low wage jobs really don’t care at all about you because they know they can easily replace you.

  28. This article is insightful. Yes Holly I feel you. I have been in that situation many times in the past. I’m proud I got to work on low-wage jobs and even struggle just to earn a bit. This has helped me develop and prepared me to become a successful sales professional. We must be proud we persevere and became what we are now. I wanted to share to you that even I have a regular job and a high paid job right now, I don’t limit myself. Instead, I looked for extra job or gigs to earn more and make myself even more productive. It happened that I found out about Invisume.com. This platform for sales individuals and job seekers makes it easier for us to sell ourselves and show our real worth and market value as salespersons. Now I get to work with my regular job and earn more because of my other jobs or gigs. It gives freedom to work confidentially protecting me from watchful eyes of my current company.

  29. I’m not sure you’re ever NOT expendable, unless you work for yourself. My last job paid over $30/hour, I’d been there over a decade, I was the only one in the organisation who could do what I did (even management didn’t know how to do it), and they decided they wanted to demote me. When I said no they said, basically, take it or leave it. I left. It was a real wake-up call to me. I’m between jobs now, but I’m not sure I’ll ever really feel comfortable in the workforce again – I think I’ll always feel on-edge, like they could just pull that crap on me at any time and I wouldn’t have any recourse but to walk away.

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