Entry-level workers typically earn between $10,000 and $30,000 annually, according to Salary.com—not a whopping amount by any stretch of the imagination. And if you're in this boat, you know how difficult it is to make ends meet. Sure, you may have nabbed that golden paid internship or entry-level job, but the victory is bittersweet—because while your co-workers, supervisors, and assignments are ideal, your paycheck is not.
If you're wracking your brain over some easy ways to maximize your meager salary, consider these six suggestions from finance experts and first-time employees:
1. Trade duties. Having trouble starting your car in the wee hours of a workday morning? To save money, ask a friend or roommate for help before reaching out to an auto repair shop. If you can't repair your car, maybe he or she can. "Trade things like oil changes or fixing things around the apartment with friends to cut down on repair bills," suggests Erin Baehr, a financial adviser at Baehr Family Financial in Stroudsburg, Pa. "Paying attention to where your money goes and how much you have is critical when you have a small margin of error," she adds.
2. Shop at discount stores. Name-brand shoes, designer jackets, and fancy belts might seem to call out to you when you pop into your nearest shopping mall. And while it's tempting to delve out hundreds for a pricey piece of clothing or accessory for Monday's big meeting, that's usually not an option if you're on a shoestring budget. "Use the library for magazines or movie rentals or thrift shops for clothes," Baehr suggests. "There are some nice places out there with brand clothes for cheap." Baehr also encourages interns and entry-level employees to keep frugal company. "Try not to hang around people with expensive tastes, as that can make you feel dissatisfied or pressured into spending money you don't have."
Stacey Kehaulani Torigoe, a Seward, Alaska-based intern for the Student Conservation Association, echoes Baehr's sentiments. She says discount-store shopping can be enjoyable if done right. "Shopping at thrift stores and garage sales is ... a lot of fun," she says. "I didn't bring that much with me to Alaska, so I pretty much stocked an entire new wardrobe from thrift stores in town and in Anchorage, and from neighborhood garage sales. There's this place called Ray's Reusables a few streets down—people bring in their used jackets or fishing poles or electronics or books, and Ray sells them, with a cheerful, 'What treasures did you find? Come back again and I'll have something different!'"
Torigoe says interns can find just about anything at thrift shops like Ray's. These shopping trips can even turn into fun group outings with peers. "I love going on rainy days with my roommates, whether it's trying on the craziest clothes we can find, or looking for rope [to hang a bear bag while camping]," she says.
3. Get creative with your work commute. Not having a reliable car to transport you to and from your new gig can present a challenge. "A younger worker may have an older vehicle, perhaps one he got in high school or college, that may need repairs that he can't afford. Yet he has a tough time saving for a new car, or affording a car payment," says Baehr. But all hope is not lost—even if you're stuck with a jalopy. When it comes to car maintenance, a little responsibility can go a long way. Baehr says her son encourages his fellow entry-level workers to be smart about gas and repair, and she agrees: "Take care of your car. Even though maintenance costs money, in the long run, it's a savings [benefit]."
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Carpooling and biking to work are other viable options because they save money and help preserve the environment. Torigoe bikes to work regularly. "I'm riding a loaner bike from the National Park where I work, so I don't have to pay for gas or insurance and it's earth-friendly, too," she says, adding that using alternate modes of transportation has other benefits. "The park has an awesome alternative transportation program where employees log the miles that they bike, walk, or carpool, and at the end of the season, you can cash in miles for a gift card or leave time," she says.
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."
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."