4 Important Money Lessons We Learned While Working for Minimum Wage

Alamy 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:

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