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7 Truths You Need To Accept To Survive An Entry-Level Salary

If you’re about to graduate from college or graduate school in a few months, prepare yourself: the entry-level salary discussions are coming. Specifically, the ones where (hopefully!) an employer calls you up, tells you that you scored the job, congratulations!, and here’s your new salary. Personally, that happened to me in the middle of a tutorial, and I felt rude AF leaving the room to answer my phone, but also incredibly grateful because they offered me more money than I ever thought I’d earn as a marketing grad: $37,000. Canadian. (I.e. a little more than $28,000 USD).

So obviously, I didn’t do any of the things I was supposed to do, like negotiate or ask for more. Nope, I said thank you as quickly as I could, and thanked my lucky stars for landing any job in a city not necessarily known for its marketing careers. However, the year that followed was a crash course in how much money real life costs, and how to manage all of it on a decidedly entry-level salary. Since I lived to tell the tale, with no credit card debt and very few packs of ramen noodles, I know you can survive your entry-level salary, too — as long as you’re smart about it.

If even one person reads this and avoids credit card debt or hunger in their new grad years, I’m a happy camper.

1. Hustle is a good thing.

If there is one thing I wish someone had told me as they handed me my diploma, it’s:

You are not above taking a second job just because you landed a 9-to-5.

Whether it’s a freelancing side hustle or a part-time retail gig, I can’t stress this enough: the extra money will make your entry-level life a lot easier. You have the luxury of a steady paycheck that, if you plan it right, will cover your basic necessities. Give yourself a bit of leeway on how you want to earn that extra cash, but then go earn it. I wish I had back then, beyond just signing up for overtime shifts when they were available because I needed new running shoes (true story).

2. Living at home is not a death sentence.

It’s not an option for everyone, but if your parents are being gracious enough to offer you below-market rent and a warm bed, there is no shame in taking it. It is a privilege to have family who are in the position to support you like that, and in the city you’re living in, to boot. (Know that this is a real option, not a punchline.)

3. If you need to put it on a credit card, you can’t afford it.

Feeling like you can’t afford the life you want is tough. It’s really, really tough. Like, burst-out-crying-because-you-ripped-your-one-pair-of-nice-jeans-and-can’t-afford-to-replace-them tough. I know from deeply personal experience, because that’s a real thing I did.

But you know what else is tough? Having debt. Especially the kind of debt that comes with a 20% interest rate and eats up hundreds of dollars, just to make a minimum payment. If you find yourself thinking, as a new grad, that you want to buy something, but you don’t have the money? Then you don’t have the money. Do not put it on a credit card and hope for the best. Because you still don’t have the money.

As hard as it may be at the time, if you can’t pay off that credit card at the end of the month, don’t buy it. Your future self will thank you so hard, all the time.

4. Where and how you live matters as much as your salary.

Some places are more expensive than others. This seems like it shouldn’t have to be said, but paying attention to this fact will make your entry-level life a lot easier. If entry-level salaries are, by and large, comparable between different cities, but one city’s average rent is through the roof? You’re going to have a harder time making your money stretch there. I’m not saying don’t move there, or stay there. I’m just saying be aware of the choice you’re making, and how much it will cost you.

Until expensive cities start paying new grads $75,000 a year for entry-level roles in their fields, you should consider this factor before moving to them. And before you put the entire move on your credit card.

(P.S. This article, about a man who makes a six-figure base salary and “can’t afford” to live in Vancouver is my jam. Dude is wise, and makes the point that “No one has a God-given right to live in a particular place. We all have to tailor our expectations to our income.” Preach. I’m going to cross-stitch that and put it on a freaking pillow.)

5. Don’t expect to be out of an entry-level role in a year.

Listen, a year is a pretty reasonable amount of time to do an entry-level role. When I got out of school, I had no idea how much I still had to learn, and I relished every second I was paid to learn it. Trust me when I say that my on-the-job learning still hasn’t plateaued, and I don’t see that happening anytime soon. If and when you’re expected to stay in a role for a year or more and learn the ropes before advancing, you should be grateful for the opportunity, and not bank on a $20,000 raise in the first six months.

If your salary over that year won’t support your life, see my first point, or reconsider whether the job is a good fit for where you are right now and the choices you have made. It might not be. But don’t take it as an unreasonable situation. It isn’t.

6. When you get your salary offer, make a budget before you make big decisions.

Here’s a quick gut-check budget you should do on your first full-time salary offer. Sure, the offer you just got might be more money than you’re making now by a factor of 10, if you’re still a student. You still absolutely need to check your expectations against the reality of the life after graduation, and this two-step budget check is a great way to do that. (It’ll take you all of five minutes, tops.)

First, go put your salary and location into a calculator like this one. It’ll give you a rough estimate of your yearly take-home pay, after taxes. Divide that by 12 for now, to estimate your monthly take-home pay.

Second, calculate a rough budget based on percentages of that take-home pay, like the ones in my One-Minute Budget, which advises:

  • 30% of your income goes to housing
  • 10% goes to food
  • 15% to transportation
  • 10% to fun and life
  • 20% to savings
  • 15% to debt repayment

Let’s say your take-home pay is $2,000 a month (which is not much less than what I earned post-grad). That gives you…

  • $600.00 for housing (This includes utilities, internet, rent, etc. This is not just rent.)
  • $200.00 for food (Buying your own groceries is and always will be A+. I love food, and I think you might, too.)
  • $300.00 for transportation (This includes a bus pass, bicycle repairs, and anything you spend on a car. Spoiler alert: you might not be able to afford a car and a bus pass. Or a car payment and car insurance and:)
  • $200.00 for fun and life (That’s clothes, happy hour with your friends, technology, travel, pet care, hobbies, gym membership, etc. The great part? You can do whatever you want with this money. The downside? You probably can’t do everything you want. It’s still only $200.)
  • $400.00 for savings (At this point, save for what matters to you most, but keep reading for point #7 about emergency funds, please please please.)
  • $300.00 for debt repayment (If you have debt — if not, feel free to allocate this elsewhere. But try to send a bit of it to savings.)

Even if you tweak the categories, doing a quick calculation like this will help you make better decisions, like where you can afford to live, and how you can maintain your ability to buy your own groceries.

Combining this budget with a tiny bit of research on the city you’ll be working in, and your options when it comes to things like rental apartments and transit passes, will give you a great guide about how affordable — or not — your choices are. Because nothing says “I’m an adult” like buying your own groceries. You want to be able to buy groceries. Trust me.

7. You need an emergency fund. Even a tiny one.

In the above example, there’s $200 allocated to savings each month. If I were that new grad — and I was — I’d throw some of that money into an emergency fund. Not only will it make getting fired way better, it’ll give you peace of mind. When you’re just starting out, there can be a lot of little emergencies, especially if you’re figuring out how to be in the world as an adult for the first time. Which, okay let’s be real, is all of us, and me to this day. Who knew you had to renew your license plate every year on your birthday in Canada? Adults, that’s who, and none of them ever told me about it.

Even if your emergency fund is teeny — like, $20 teeny — it might be the difference between paying the deductible on your medical benefits and getting the treatment you need, or suffering through something in silence. Have a $20 emergency fund. Grow it from there. But have one. You will not regret it.

Desirae blogs about money at Half Banked, and spends altogether too much time onTwitter. She takes “money nerd,” “no chill” and “crazy dog lady” as compliments.

Image via Unsplash

  • Maria

    It’s so refreshing to have this broken down numerically. When I started budgeting out of college, I struggled with getting started because I was so overwhelmed by all of the variables that it took me longer than it should have to take the first – albeit tiny – step. The $20s example here really hits home and is the reassurance I wish I had 3 years ago. Bravo!

    • Desirae Odjick

      Oh that is so awesome to hear Maria, thank you so much! I’m so so glad it was useful – and for real, $20 is more than enough to get started! I’m all about the first step, and making it easy to take – it’s way easier to take a ton of steps that feel like not a big deal than it is to like, Face Your Money. It’s better to sneak up on your money, lol, at least in my experience.

  • Lauren K

    Love your writing, Desirae. Thanks for the budget breakdown, although 10% to fun and entertainment is a pipe dream to me (no debt repayment though, so it works)

    • Desirae Odjick

      Thank you so much Lauren! And it’ll happen someday – or, like me, you’ll wildly overshoot that 10% number because you got a dog and he’s Expensive As Heck, haha. It’s just all about finding the right balance for your life right now (I balance it out by spending way less than I “could” on transportation and housing). If you’ve got a set up that’s working, screw what everyone says about percentages, haha.

  • Alexis

    I LOVED this article! More more more please!

    • Desirae Odjick

      Ahhh thank you so much Alexis! Way to make my day!

  • Judith

    This article was much needed! I have this feeling that I “will be able to afford this and that” once I earn more than my entry-level salary. That doesn’t help when I have to budget for my current financial situation though, but your perspective totally does. Thanks!

    • Desirae Odjick

      Thank you so much Judith – I’m so glad it’s helpful! (And to be entirely transparent, I totally did a few lifestyle-inflation-y things when my salary rose. The two biggest were my gym membership and my dog, and tbh, I regret nothing, lol. I do have to remind myself to keep those additional lifestyle things in line with what I really care about, which right now means cooling it on the takeout, but there are definitely some that can be totally worth it!)

  • Squiderous

    I kind of disagree about moving home, with a caveat. I think if you’re like me and super fortunate to have no school debt, your parents have given enough. Pay your own bills, get a roommate, make it work.

    • Desirae Odjick

      That’s a totally fair point! My mom always charged me rent, albeit less than market rent, but had I stayed I would have kept paying ~$400 a month to her. It was also a unique situation in that we’re basically they Gilmore Girls (it’s always been just her and I) but I definitely concur that not all parent-kid relationships are that way, and some parents might appreciate you getting out of their house eventually, lol.

  • Katrina

    Looooved this! All these ‘how to do life after college’ posts are so awesome to read as I’m not graduating for a couple years. Yay to figuring out how to navigate the world before you actually have to do it!

    • Desirae Odjick

      Oh man Katrina, you’re going to be SO prepared! For real, if I had known *before* graduating what I know now? Gamechanger.

  • Morgana Barbknecht

    This would be great if I didn’t have nearly $1000/month in student loan payments…

    • Desirae Odjick

      Hey Morgana – that’s a super fair point. Student loans can be really hard to balance with an entry-level salary, and they’re 100% one of the things that will automatically make any “recommended percentages” type budgets not work for a given situation. I’m really sorry that’s something you need to work with right now.

      • scryberwitch

        It’s not just her. Anyone who is applying for a salaried job (as opposed to an hourly, lower-skilled job) is required to have at least a Bachelor’s. Unless you’ve got rich parents, that means student loans.

  • Deborah Swaitkewich

    This is a good article, but the $600.00 for housing including utilities is too low for where I live. Even a one room bachelor apartment is around $700 and you have to pay for lights and electricity above that. The only utility included in the rent is heat. You would have to share with someone. Be careful who you choose, as there are horror stories of people who picked the wrong person.

    • scryberwitch

      I agree. The old “30% of your income goes for housing” is ridiculous in most areas, even places that are touted as “affordable” (like my hometown, Fayetteville, AR). The unfortunate fact is that about 50% of your income is eaten up by housing costs, unless you make bank.

  • scryberwitch

    Great article – I’d include some tips like, shop at thrift stores for stuff you need, like clothes, dishes, etc. Also learn to cook, so you don’t spend all your money on eating out.
    But I really hated that article’s line you quoted: “No one has a God-given right to live in a particular place. We all have to tailor our expectations to our income.”Fair enough, but isn’t it just as true to say, “No city has a god-given right to price their entire labor pool out?” The price of housing is skyrocketing, and pay isn’t keeping up. It’s a real problem, and we need to stop excusing it away.