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Living on $15/hour in Austin: Here's how it can be done

Many Amazon warehouse workers make $15 an hour, a tough wage to make a living in Austin. (Amazon/Facebook)

When University of Texas student Ben Patterson graduates this spring, he'll join the large group of Austinites who make $15 an hour at their main place of work.


Once the "livable" salary that thousands across the country fought to make the national minimum wage, living on $15/hour is now a near-insurmountable task in many urban metros, including the booming tech hub of Austin, where the median home price pushed past $600,000 in March.

Charles Mitchell, who owns Capital Budgeting Strategies, knows the perils of recent college graduates all too well. He's worked with clients with as little as $67 to their name and says living on your own is doable—if you're willing to sacrifice some luxuries or time.

Here's the key to budgeting that $15/hour income in Austin, according to Mitchell:

Find your hidden housing gem

Aside from paying off debts early, avoiding high-interest loans like payday loans and sacrificing some luxuries in life, Mitchell told Austonia the key comes down to finding cheap housing.

Affordable housing may seem like an element of old Austin legend, and it would be hard to find a place to stay within Mitchell's ideal range—housing that costs within 28% of your monthly budget. For a full-time employee making $15 an hour, that income amounts to $2,217 per month.

That allots $620 per month for rent. Pickings may be slim—just two complexes offer four-bedroom apartments for that range in Austin on ApartmentFinder.com—but with enough roommates, certain specials and the help of apartment locators, it's still very narrowly possible within the city.

The more likely scenario, like Patterson's, may be finding other budgeting areas to cut. Mitchell recommends skimping on luxuries, like payments for nicer cars, and cutting out on savings if needed.

"I'll more or less be able to prioritize paying "X" amount for rent each month," Patterson said. "Trying to be mindful of not just exuberantly spending or being impulsive with buying habits... just knowing that in the next few months, I need to start being able to hand out an additional $1,000 bucks each month just to live."

But $15 an hour may no longer cut it even for Austin homeowners. Fae, an Amazon and Whole Foods employee who is using an alias since she is going against the company media policy, has owned a house in Pflugerville for 20 years, when it was worth half of its current value.

But like virtually every other coworker she knows, Fae has picked up multiple supplemental jobs in order to eke out a living in her city.

Get a side hustle

Fae recently had a bittersweet celebration as her hourly wage increased to $15.25—a 25-cent increase after three years with the company. Wages like hers put Amazon workers' median salary at just over $31,000 in Austin—less than half of the median pay at Google, Meta and Apple.

"Even full-time (employees), it doesn't matter, they cannot rely on Amazon as a living job," Fae told Austonia. "Everybody I know has a side job."

Before he even goes out on his own, Patterson is preparing to work extra for a second flow of income that works with his hours at his current job at Austin FC's Q2 Stadium without running his energy into the ground.

A side hustle may be essential to paying off loans early and beginning to save for retirement (Mitchell recommends a high-interest IRA), but it doesn't have to be too taxing: Mitchell said anything from picking up food delivery shifts to having a garage sale could revitalize your budget.

Find a sustainable employer

Patterson didn't take his current job for the money—instead, he's hoping his current gig at the stadium could lead to his breakthrough in the sports industry.

Taking a job with clear upward mobility is key, Mitchell says, and bonuses like matching 401(k) plans or other benefits are a huge plus. If your job offers neither and still pays too little, however, it might be time to consider switching to a more sustainable job.

Mitchell said many people aren't taught the financial literacy tools needed to afford a living in Austin, and many others are never made aware of the employment options that are available. While Austin hasn't had much praise for its affordability in recent months, it does boast a swelling job market, with over 58,000 more jobs created from February 2020 to February 2022.

If your debt is low and you've got extra time, investing in a marketable skill online or at a local community college is always advisable. And while it may not be as desirable, some restaurants and entry-level positions, including McDonald's, have raised starting pay for some positions to over $15 per hour.

To stay or to leave?

Even with these tips in place, both Fae and Patterson agree that their current wage is hardly doable in Austin.

"The way that rent and real estate just continue to become more and more expensive... I don't think it's in a sustainable spot," Patterson said. "Even today, it's kind of on the fringe with people who still make ends meet."Patterson says he wonders if he made the right decision to stay in the capital city in what is looking like its most expensive era yet.

"There's probably not a week that goes by where I don't second guess if I'm making the right call," Patterson said. "But I'm also pretty confident, just knowing me as a person, that I'll be able to... grind it out and find a way to make things work."

Fae plans to stay too, even as other Austinites she knows could get pushed out, as she collects workplace horror stories—and unlivable wages—at Amazon before her homemade skincare product line takes off.

"Everybody who's originally from Austin can't even afford to live in Austin (anymore) and they're just moving out," Fae said. "My question is, how do they get away with this?"

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