Advice From the Minimum Wage Front Lines

Mysti Reutlinger has been through tough times. Although now in the process of starting her own business in the Cheyenne, Wyoming area -- the third in six years and the result of two prior successes -- she raised two children while working a minimum wage job. She and the children lived with the bare minimum, no cellphone or cable TV, and occasionally relied on an understanding landlord come rent time.

There are millions of people like Ms. Reutlinger who struggle to make ends meet on meager pay. Today, a full-time worker earning the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour grosses approximately $14,500 a year. As Ms. Reutlinger can attest, that doesn't go very far. Getting by demands a good hunk of creativity and resourcefulness. Here is her advice from the minimum wage front lines:

"Don't be afraid to ask."

Although many government assistance programs are mired in political controversy, they can be essential lifelines for individuals or families. Across the country, sweltering summer heat or frigid winter temperatures can lead to skyrocketing utility bills. But low-income families may be eligible for benefits provided by the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which provides assistance during crises with bills and with weatherization projects and energy-saving upgrades that decrease monthly costs.

Other government programs also ease the financial stress of minimum-wage living. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helps low-income families with food assistance while the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) helps families find subsidized housing. Families with children can benefit from programs like Head Start, the National School Lunch Program, and free after-school activities or classes that nourish kids' minds and bodies.

Local organizations, such as churches, often host free lunches and dinners. If you don't feel comfortable joining as a guest, many welcome and feed volunteers. Ms. Reutlinger notes there were times when reaching out to local food banks helped her fill the household's food gap. Her children also participated in after-school programs run by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. She advises minimum-wage workers to ask a local case worker what programs are available. The options may be surprising. Meals on Wheels, for example, sells steeply discounted furniture and clothing in addition to delivering food.

"Invest in yourself."

Investing in her own education enabled Ms. Reutlinger to launch her first business, a social media marketing and press relations consultancy. Christian Karayannides of New York did something similar. He lived on minimum wage earnings for several years while working as an intern for the Hudson Valley Renegades and Brooklyn Cyclones, two minor league baseball teams. His parents provided some financial assistance and he logged 60 hours a week with overtime. The free lunches and dinners at the stadium were a staple. "It was a struggle," he says, "but easy when doing what you love."

But Mr. Karayannides couldn't land a full-time position and was forced to leave baseball. He leveraged the investment he had made in himself during his time as an intern, and together with the funds he was able to save, started his own press relations firm. The Self-Employment Assistance Program (SEAP), a joint federal and state program that provides entrepreneurship training and support to people receiving unemployment insurance benefits, helped him get going. Mr. Karayannides's first clients were contacts he had made in the sports world and he soon began specializing in the fantasy sports industry. Several years later he joined a family friend's startup and today is the communications director at the travel and photography website Pictoura.

Not everyone has the time, knowledge, or resources to move from working a minimum wage job to starting their own business. People who want to make the leap to self-employment, like Ms. Reutlinger and Mr. Karayannides, must hone their expertise and mine their networks. Regardless which path is chosen, assistance programs targeting low-income workers are invaluable resources worth drawing upon.