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5 money moves when wages aren't growing

Economists promise us that any day now, wages will start to rise again. The economy is adding jobs at a steady clip, unemployment is down and even cost-obsessed Walmart (WMT) is raising its workers' pay.

In February, though, average wages rose just three cents an hour for private nonfarm workers -- about enough for a full-time worker to buy one more beer every month.

In reality, tighter job markets don't always translate into higher wages. Hourly earnings are up only 2 percent over the last year. And in fact wages for most workers have been flat or falling for decades, regardless of job gains and losses, according to the Pew Research Center. Workers with high school educations or less have fared the worst.

Rather than hold your breath waiting for rising productivity and profits to trickle down into higher pay, consider the following to help you cope with a stagnant paycheck:

Don't stretch. When wages are rising, it can make sense to stretch a bit to buy a home or a car. Debt payments that seem so formidable at first start to feel more manageable as your pay increases. With stagnant wages, on the other hand, big loan payments can feel more burdensome over time as other costs of living rise and eat up more of your check. Good rules of thumb are to limit your housing costs to 25 percent of your gross pay, while car costs (payments plus gas and insurance) should equal 10 percent or less.

Pay down high-rate debt. Using credit cards to fill the gap between paychecks is a losing game. Paying interest to credit card companies just leaves you with even less money to live. Using payday loans is even worse, since the effective interest rates are so much higher (as in 300 percent, and up).

Consider a side hustle. A second job or sideline business may be your best shot at boosting your income in the short term. Using your current job skills to freelance is one option, if your employer allows that. Another possibility: providing services to people who have more money than time as a virtual assistant, dog walker, housecleaner, errand runner or similar helper.

Invest more. Wages may have stagnated, but the stock market sure hasn't. Over the last 30 years, stocks have offered an average annual return of close to 10 percent after inflation. Investing through a workplace retirement plan or on your own allows you to grab a piece of the economic expansion.

Move on -- and up. Loyalty doesn't pay if your employer is stingy with wages. If your skills aren't in demand, consider a strategic investment in more marketable ones. But don't overpay -- your local community college often can educate you for a fraction of what a for-profit school may cost. Among the best-paying two-year degrees, according to Payscale: information management, information technology, computer science, computer engineering, electrical engineering and dental hygiene.

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