5 Ways You Can Manage Low Pay

Millennials have been called the cheapest generation. But with the recent economic recession, tremendous student debt, and an increase in urban migration, the truth of the matter is we’re a broke generation. 

It’s great that millennials are ready to roll up our sleeves and make a difference through public service. But it can be especially difficult navigating unpaid internships, entry-level positions, and lower-paying government jobs when we’re desperately trying to save and even survive.

Some of us may be fortunate enough to still be supported by our parents or are able to move in with them to save living costs. But for the rest of us who don’t have such flexibility, how do we navigate careers in public service when we’re financially struggling and completely on our own?

I certainly don’t have it all figured out. What I do know is that everyone’s situation is different and that even though it can hurt our budgets (or lack thereof), starting with the low paying entry-level jobs or voluntary internships in government, it certainly seems to pay off in the long-term for career development.

We’re all at different financial capacities in our lives. Anyone can use these tips, however, from a compilation of posts out there and my own personal advice to help you when you’re struggling to make ends meet, but determined to make it in government:

Set a budget

 It’s definitely easier said than done. You don’t have to track every penny you spend or balance your checkbook before bedtime. Just know how much of each paycheck should go towards bills, savings, and then personal spending like happy hours or shopping. Remember that your first priority should be taking care of your basic needs: food, rent, Internet, phone, and transportation. Use these popular apps to help you plan your finances, whether you need a monthly budget, savings plan, or are looking to get out of debt.

Pay yourself first

This is probably one of the most difficult rules for most millennials. The idea of putting money aside when your paycheck barely covers your immediate expenses seems pretty futile. But even if it’s just forgoing a Starbucks coffee and saving $5-$20 a month, it’s good to start getting into the habit as soon as possible. As your paycheck increases, try putting more aside, until eventually you can put as much as 10% of your paycheck into a savings account that is a “no go zone.” It’s important to preserve that savings for rainy days and especially important for building your own financial wealth down the road.

Apply for a side-gig

For those working 40-hour weeks and juggling school, this may not be the most ideal, though many have done it. If you’re only working right now, there are a number of side-jobs you can apply for to make a little extra money, whether you only have time on the weekends or evenings during the workweek. A lot of part-time jobs, like waitressing, working in a library, or dog walking can be helpful for meeting expenses or making money to put aside if your current position only provides half of a living, or doesn’t pay at all. Freelancing for blogs is also a great way to make extra income without having to commit too many hours. Additionally, a lot of government employers appreciate candidates who can speak to working in the service industry or in any industry that requires strong customer service skills.

Increase your tax and 401(k) literacy

A lot of millennials still don’t understand how retirement funds work or how to properly file their taxes. As a young professional making a low income, you could be missing out on making the most of your tax refunds and getting the most out of what your work offers for retirement plans. Make sure you understand exactly what you can deduct and save when filing your taxes. Chances are you probably could be getting way more in refunds than you think. Make sure you always contribute to an employer-matched 401(k) or similar retirement fund. Otherwise you could be leaving hundreds to thousands of dollars on the table.

Ask for help

This is probably the hardest of all, and something that I still struggle with. Transitioning to life after graduating college or finally moving out on your own can be overwhelming. But just take heart that many have been there before and still made it and many are in your shoes right now. Reach out for help or guidance from people you trust. They can be friends, parents, professors, or co-workers. You don’t have to beg for money. It could be as simple as asking for advice, or sharing a helpful book or website.

They say you don’t go into government for the money. The good news is you don’t have to let that scare you off from pursuing your passion in public service. With a little discipline, willingness to learn and hard work, you can earn a comfortable living while doing what you love in government.

For more reading about millennials in public service, check out this weekly GovLoop series, First 5: Advice from millennial to millennial.

This article was originally posted in January, 2016.

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Rebecca Schreiber

Great post! I’ve been working with young D.C. professionals for the last 10 years helping them tackle debt and get a handle on their finances. What a lot of people don’t know about Federal service is that it actually helps you develop the skills you need to achieve financial independence – a long-term approach and day-to-day persistence. The federal retirement plan is also a great program, if you know how to use it. So serve your country and grow wealth doing it!

Francesca El-Attrash

Hi Rebecca, thank you for your comment! I can imagine how helpful your services must be during times like these. That’s also a great point you made about Federal service actually being helpful in achieving financial independence.


I’m a state employee who is just a little older than the Millenials but shares their situations. I am the reason you now can get coverage under your parents’ health insurance until you are in your late 20’s – we didn’t have that and it was terrifying.

I have climbed the chain to a mid-level state job. I am still in the same financial boat due to ridiculous student loans that I will never get a handle on, even with the forgiveness program. I still do not get to take any vacations, save, or have a car because I do not get to live with my parents (hence the urban migration) as this article states.

I chose to educate myself well, and I choose to apply my skills to public service at this point. I would not have this job now if I had not educated myself well – it’s a catch-22. I am very responsible with my lifestyle and finances ($4 for coffee? Are you nuts? And what is shopping aside from groceries?), excellent at taxes, and it is compulsory for me to contribute to my retirement plan. Many of us are the same. I still do not see the opportunity for building “wealth”… whatever that means.

Thank you for bringing this issue to light, anyway. Feds, please help us. You have done reform before. Prove me wrong about my future.

Francesca El-Attrash

Hi Liz, thank you for sharing and thank you for your honesty. I wish I had some better answers. At least we know this is a big topic that government is focusing on.


Very good advice. Remember, time is on your side. Make sure you put a portion, no matter how much of every pay check into savings for retirement and emergencies. It will make life so much easier if you pay cash/debit card for items. There are several good books about small changes you can make that will really add up over time. Watch out for credit card debt…..And remember the difference between wants and needs. It is very important to have an emergency fund in place…start small, but put some aside, so when the emergency happens, and it will, you won’t have to run up your credit cards causing more expense.

Marilynn Jones

I will definitely share with my daughter who is living the low pay and student debt life while trying to make her mark in a highly competitive industry. Great information that reaffirms what “Mommy” says!


The situation you describe has to do with many people, of all generations, in this economy! I’m 52 with a Ph.D., was long-term unemployed for 5 years, broke that cycle with a local government job that is part-time. So, my earnings have taken a nose dive–I haven’t earned this little since my late 20s. I did negotiate for health insurance and have a very marginal retirement contribution, but based on my $28K salary. This is really a full time job, and as a department head, I put in for full time but my local government is also operating in cost savings mode. What to do about this situation? Anyone in my age bracket knows ageism and likely sexism, though I think this economy has been hard on many people! Your thoughts?