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An Honest Breakdown Of What I Made As A Server Vs What I Made At An Entry-Level Job

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One of my first blunt realizations, upon landing a full-time job in my chosen field (advertising), was that I wasn’t making much more than I had at the serving job I worked throughout college. In fact, i was making less, and I felt a little robbed. Not in a big way, just in that I felt like I had played right into the hands of false advertising. I’d bought into the notion that getting a job in my field after graduation would mean some sort of pay raise, and I was disappointed to learn that wasn’t the case.

I think there’s huge value in starting out in your field as soon as possible, and would never discourage it. However, narrowing our perspectives enough to see that as the only acceptable route isn’t productive either. I honestly believe that though my professional experience is invaluable to me, I made more as a server than I did at my entry-level job. That is, of course, unique to my experience in the workplace. But for some of the notoriously low-paying industries (publishing, for example), a server or bartender’s salary can be well above what employees make even after they’ve gone up 2-3 pay grades.

The Entry-Level Salary Breakdown

As a starting point, I did the following calculations with the salary I earned at my first full-time job: $37,000/year. Most of my good friends have worked entry-level jobs in LA and NYC in advertising, media planning, PR, publishing, fashion, writing (online or at small newspapers), and in sales. Each one of them made between $30,000 – $40,000/year.

So, going off my salary, which translates to $17.78/hour, let’s say I made roughly $18/hour.

This would make my overtime rate of time and a half $27/hour. And overtime is a luxury that not all entry-level employees are offered.

In addition, I had the benefit of a 401(k) with full matching, which made me exactly $2,000 in one year of work. I worked 2-10 overtime hours per week. I had an excellent benefits package that came out to about $40/month for medical, dental and vision. And I got an incredibly fair amount of vacation days and sick days. (The vacation days were paid out when I left the company, which was incredibly generous.)

So, for 40 hours/week, I made $720/week.

If I was working 5 hours of overtime, that would be an additional $135, bringing the weekly rate to $855, all before taxes.

The Server Salary Breakdown

The last serving job I had was at a popular bar in a college town where the entrées were moderately priced ($10-$18). The earning potential wasn’t as high as it would’ve been at a fancy restaurant. However, on a good night, I could make $25/hour, maybe more, bringing my earnings to about $200/night.

I’ve also served at a restaurant in Boston, where the prices were higher. It’s been a while, so to provide accurate numbers for what a server would make in a major city, I had an in depth conversation with a coworker who, until recently, served in Washington D.C. She worked at a fairly expensive restaurant where the entrees are $25-$35 and the appetizers are around $12. She said that working a closing shift, which would be approximately 7-9 hours, depending on when your tables cleared out, she could make $300 in one night.

That factors out to: $37.50/hour, including the amount D.C. pays servers hourly, which is roughly $3.66/hour. (This is fairly typical, when I served in Boston, it was $2.35/hour.)

Obviously, not all nights are as busy as a Friday closing shift. In my experience, income fluctuates heavily based on what night you’re working. To work a grand total of 40/hours a week, I would have to work five 8-hour shifts. Let’s say on a Monday night, I would make $100 in 8 hours, instead of $300, or would work fewer hours because I got cut early. And then for 3 other nights per week, I might make $200-$250 each night (or it would even out to about that much).

With one night at $100, three nights at $200 and one night at $300, I could make $1000/week serving in a major city. (This would include a small hourly wage, which goes straight toward paying a large portion of your taxes as a server.)

If you served at this rate, working every week out of the year, that’s $52,000/year.

Even if you are a full-time server, you aren’t typically paid for sick days or vacation days, so it’s more likely that the projected salary would come down to $50,000/year, if we allow for 2 weeks of vacation time.

When I worked at corporate restaurants, I was offered health benefits if I chose to work full-time, so serving has the potential to be comparable to an entry-level job in that respect. Of course, there is also the question of upward mobility. Perhaps entry-level jobs and serving jobs aren’t on perfectly even footing in this category. It depends on what industry you’re in and what restaurant you work at. Career servers can be poached to better restaurants, and if you go from working at a local bar and upgrade to working at a popular seafood restaurant, your salary can increase by an additional $25/hour. I’ve also seen servers who excel go on to join the management team of the restaurants they’ve been loyal to for so long.

Of course, it’s perfectly fair if you prefer a 9-5 job, because you like that structure and stability. And there are many other entry-level jobs which pay at much higher levels than ones that my communication major peers and I were exposed to. But as someone who worked an entry-level job at an advertising agency for a year, and as a server for 4 years, this was an exact breakdown of my financial experience during each opportunity.

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  • Cashville Skyline

    I remember thinking this exact same thing when I left a server job for my first full-time record label gig! A lot of my Nashville entertainment industry friends have experienced similar things, but without the benefits (health insurance, retirements accounts, etc.)

  • I know a lot of restaurants won’t let servers work enough hours to allow them to qualify for benefits. They’ll work them right to the cusp. And that makes a huge difference.

  • Unicorn fart

    Yay, an article that explains why people might actually stay in serving positions despite having the option to switch to a more “adult” field.

    However, just a note on this, these numbers aren’t typical everywhere or with every type of serving job. I’ve been a server in Texas for a few years now, and the pay varies wildly even within a city. Also, this article didn’t mention tip-out, or how illness and stress will negatively affect a server’s earnings. So as much as I hate to admit it, these numbers aren’t applicable to most people working in the service industry.

    • Maya Kachroo-Levine

      Great point. It’s also true that this number isn’t typical of a serving job at a 5 star restaurant in NYC. These numbers are based solely on my experience and my coworker’s experience in D.C. Every serving job is different, and this number is likely representative of the median income for servers in major cities.

      For the number provided for the serving side, it’s after tip-out, but you are absolutely right that I should’ve said so. I also briefly address the fact that sick days are not offered to many servers, but I do agree that the drawback to that isn’t coming down with a common cold for one day, but rather if you were to deal with sickness in the long term. At a major company, even at an entry level job, you could file for paid sick leave, but a server is unlikely to get that benefit. Thank you for bringing that up.

  • Sara Lew

    I graduated with my undergrad when I was 21, and my Masters when I was 26, and continued serving up until 2 months ago (I’m 28 now) and would still be doing so had the microbrewery where I worked not caught fire. I’ve been at my current nonprofit employer for six years now, and love it, but the appeal of those $100+ shifts going to grad school loans is mighty tempting.

    I maintained a spreadsheet tracking my tips per shift as opposed to an hourly range, and in 2014 I averaged $83/shift. (Keep in mind that I live in the Midwest, and I also chose to work Sunday and Monday nights which meant only working 5-9 PM, knowing that my tips would take a hit accordingly.) Even at that rate, I was able to put an additional nearly $7700 away in a year, which is a substantial chunk of change when you’re throwing it directly at student loans.

    One factor that I always took into consideration though is my body in terms of wear and tear and if that’s going to “cost” me in the long run. When your knees and ankles are screaming, you wonder if the extra money will be worth it when I’m unable to move when I’m 70.

  • jdub

    I have a friend who went from nannying full-time to serving/bar managing full-time, and she’s making more working at her (admittedly higher-end, in a great location) restaurant job than she was as a childcare worker.

    I wouldn’t have the patience for serving the kinds of folks she does, but I think about it all the time when she mentions her pay or what kind of tips she made in any given night.

  • cynthia curran

    Yeah, some of these jobs pay better than factory work but there is always a pushed for factory work.

  • Spring Baxter

    I love this article! I am finishing my B.S. in Psychology and planning to pursue my MSW degree. After moving to a city I compared and interviewed for a lot of different jobs. In the ended I took the offer to become a server on the weekends and weeknight shifts as a down town restaurant.
    Maybe this fall finding a P/T job in my field during the day or waiting for the interships for my masters progam will help find more acceptable income in my field. For now, I can’t imagine living one $9 hr. instead of waiting tables.