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How to Stretch an Entry-Level Salary


By Susan Johnston

For the class of 2010, finding a job is only half the battle. In addition to competing with more experienced workers who’ve been laid off, recent grads also face the challenge of surviving on an entry-level salary. For instance, administrative assistants with one to two years of experience earn an average of $29,200, and teacher aides with the same experience earn around $17,800, according to online salary database

Anya Kamenetz, a staff reporter for Fast Company and author of Generation Debt, says high unemployment and student loan debt add to these harsh financial realities. “Student loan debt is upwards of $22,500 dollars on average,” she says, adding that “students may find themselves working part-time or short-term jobs or being asked to ‘intern’ at low to no salary.”

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What’s an overworked, underpaid worker to do? Get creative! Here’s how to stretch that entry-level salary.

1. Adjust your housing expectations.
Forget what you saw on Friends. Most recent grads aren’t living it up in fabulous Manhattan apartments. Many live with Mom and Dad or take live-in jobs like nanny (average salary for 1-2 years experience: $21,400) or handyman (average salary for 1-2 years experience: $27,900) to cut housing costs, as Kamenetz points out. Others double or triple up with roommates.

2. Beg or borrow. Buy only if you must.
Need a new date outfit? Swap clothes with your roommate or ask to borrow one of her purses to punch up an outfit you already own. Instead of getting your own Costco membership, share one with your roommates, ask your parents to use theirs, or request membership as a birthday gift. Also ask for samples from the cosmetics counter or fill out online surveys so can try out new products for free. And if you must buy something, make it last. Ryan Ribstein, a recent grad working as a communications account executive in Los Angeles, CA, says he “[mixes] my conditioner with water to get the most out of it.”

3. Plan your meals.
Convenience foods like vending machine snacks or lunches from the corner deli will cost you, so if you learn to cook (or befriend someone who’s a good cook), you’ll save big time. Alternatively, you could steal this strategy from Rachel Doyle, an Atlanta-based marketing coordinator who says she’ll “go to supermarkets that offer samples (like Whole Foods) and walk up and down every aisle tasting a little bit of everything that is out there.” By the time Doyle finishes her grocery shopping, she’s filled up on samples.

4. Don’t drink away your paycheck.
Alcohol certainly adds up, but so do other beverages like soda, juice, energy drinks, and bottled water. Consider cutting out these out of your diet or only ordering when someone else offers to pay (company-sponsored happy hours, anyone?). David Roth, a bartender/musician in the Boston area, vowed to go from January 1 to March 1 without paying for alcohol, and it saved him a bundle. The recent grad adds that you can often score free food or drinks (not to mention entertainment) by attending art gallery openings or friends’ music recitals.

5. Consider moonlighting.
There’s only so far you can stretch $23,200 (average salary for bank tellers with 1-2 years of experience) or even $34,000 (average salary for lab technicians with 1-2 years of experience), so many recent grads work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Some do it out of necessity and others for more social reasons. As Kamenetz adds, you can sometimes “combine entertainment with work, for example by moonlighting as a bartender or event promoter or volunteering at summer festivals.” Check with your employer first to make sure they don’t have a no-moonlighting policy.

Boston-based freelance writer Susan Johnston has covered career and business topics for “The Boston Globe,” “Hispanic Executive Quarterly,”, and other publications.

Source: All salary data is from, a leading online provider of employee compensation data. The salaries listed are median, annual salaries for full-time workers with 5-8 years of experience and include any bonuses, commissions or profit sharing.”

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