6 Ways to Maximize a Minimum-Wage Salary

Tips for new workers looking to make the most of a meager paycheck.

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4. Bring your lunch to work. Even those office-cafeteria club sandwiches and daily specials can get expensive if you buy them more than two or three times a week. Home-prepared meals are as good for your wallet as they are for your health. Torigoe says she and her friends generally prefer home-cooked meals over fast food. "Being a vegetarian and preparing my own meals helps a lot—eating food that's lower on the food chain like beans, grains, and vegetables is not only ecologically sound, but financially more affordable," she says."I save eating out for really special occasions."

5. Get your morning coffee at the office. If you've got to have a steamy cup of joe before crafting that deposition or marketing proposal, consider raiding your office coffee stash instead of paying for a latte at the nearest java house. Torigoe says the lure of tasty tea and coffee drinks can be difficult to resist; still, she consumes them in moderation. "I love chai lattes and cappuccinos, but expensive drinks really add up fast," she says. "So I treat myself once in a while and then it becomes something really special."

[See How to De-Stress from Student-Loan Debt.]

6. Use credit cards sparingly. Remember that every expense you charge eventually must be repaid. And if you're earning a paltry $8 to $12 an hour, repaying thousands of dollars might prove an insurmountable challenge. "Don't go into debt if you can avoid it," says Torigoe. "A lot of my friends graduated with huge loans that will take years to pay off, and have that burden hanging over their heads." Piling up credit card debt can trigger aftershocks for years to come. "Don't make mistakes now that will kill you five or 10 years down the line when you're trying to negotiate a down payment for a house or a car," she says.

Tim Maurer, vice president of Financial Consulate in Hunt Valley Md., and co-author of The Ultimate Financial Plan: Balancing Your Money and Life, agrees. "The biggest financial hurdle faced by minimum-wage earners is avoiding debt," says Maurer. "The first line of defense against consumer debt is margin, often in the form of personal savings, sometimes referred to as emergency reserves. Because there is often so little margin in the minimum-wage earner's paycheck, it's especially difficult to avoid debt when emergencies or perceived emergencies are presented."

Above all else, Michelle Vedder, an intern at the Student Conservation Association in New York City, urges her fellow interns and entry-level workers to remember that their financial straits are only temporary. She also encourages her peers to give their all to their work—raises and other benefits will inevitably follow. "It gets hard to remember why you're doing what you're doing when you're right in the middle of it, especially for people working towards a cause like restoring and raising awareness for the environment," she says. "My advice would be to keep the bigger picture in mind, and this can go to anyone living off a small paycheck. When you wake up in the morning, you should always remind yourself that you're doing this in hopes of better things to come."