I graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in English in business management, so I knew a great deal about metaphors, marketing, and even Russian literature. What I didn’t know was how to manage my money.
Although I’ve learned a lot about personal finance since then, I’ve also realized that many graduates enter the workforce feeling just as lost as I did. “Should I get a credit card?” “How much should I spend on groceries?” “Do I really need to start saving for retirement?”
Providing for your own financial needs and responsibilities can be overwhelming at first, but there are plenty of practices you can implement now to manage your money well! Here are seven healthy financial tips I wish someone had shared with me after I graduated from college.
Consider a Variety of Jobs
After college, my dream was to become a writer. Plan B was “pastry chef” (I watched one-too-many baking shows in high school). And yet, despite my aspirations, my first job was as an admissions counselor—at my alma mater.
For many careers, it isn’t easy to find your dream job immediately after graduating. You might need to start with an internship. Or, perhaps you’ll find an entry-level position in an industry or company where you could rise to the job you want.
Fortunately, there are multiple ways to make a living and pursue your dream job. My position in admissions may not have been a direct step towards a writing profession, but the experience I gained in sales ultimately prepared me for my job today as a writer in marketing. I also gained some “real-world,” office experience, and a clearer understanding of how a business operates—which could help me manage my own bakery in the future!
All this said, don’t be so focused on finding the perfect job that you miss a unique opportunity to advance your career.
Learn to Budget
Early on in our relationship, my husband, Steve, and I were giddy to discover our personalities were quite alike. But, for all our similarities, we did not share the same approach to personal finance. He’s the saver, and I, sadly, am the spender.
Steve and I recognized early, however, that consistent budgeting would protect both our money and our marriage. Every month, we sit down with a cup of tea or glass of wine and review our expenses. It has taken years to nail down a budget and routine that works well for us, but I can say with certainty that the habit has spared us many arguments.
Whether you’re single or in a relationship, budgeting is essential for maintaining financial health. However, thanks to tools like YNAB, you don’t have to be an expert at money management to do it well. YNAB allows you to set up categories to plan and track your spending. It’s unique take allows you to “live on last month’s income” so you can break the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle. You’ll always know exactly how much money you have to spend.
Start paying student loans NOW
Many college graduates receive a six-month grace period, during which they don’t have to start paying back loans—but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t.
Experts suggest you start paying back loans immediately, if you’re able—even before graduation! By paying that debt down sooner, you can decrease your principal and potentially save thousands of dollars in interest over time.
You may also be able to save money by refinancing your loan(s) to a lower interest rate. Try researching options through Credible, an online marketplace that lets you compare rates from multiple lenders. Each quote is based on your unique credit profile, and rates are updated in real-time so you can get an accurate assessment of your offers.
Build an emergency fund
It’s easy to see the value of an emergency fund, and yet more than half of Americans could not afford a $400 surprise expense.
The trouble is many people don’t understand the significance of an emergency fund until they need it. Only a few months after I married Steve, I got a ticket for running a red light. I was mortified and ashamed and embarrassed—until Steve reminded me that we had an emergency fund. In a moment, all my stress slipped away.
To help you build your own emergency fund, consider a resource like the Wealthfront Cash Account. You can earn 2.00% APY on all of your cash—which is five times the interest from your average savings account! Wealthfront can even get your paycheck to you up to two days early, when you set up a direct deposit, so you can reap the rewards of that rate ASAP! As you start to save towards specific goals, organize them into buckets to track your progress.
Wealthfront is also a great option for individuals who want an easy segue from saving to investing. Many financial advisors won’t even talk with you, let alone manage your investments unless you have tens of thousands of dollars to work with. Wealthfront, on the other hand, lets you start investing with as little as $500 and will diversify your portfolio to match your unique risk tolerance. You can also integrate your Cash Account with your investment portfolio and have any leftover income automatically invested to maximize your time in the market.
Live on less
After receiving your first paycheck, you might assume you need that full amount each month to live comfortably—but every person is different, as is every salary.
My brother graduated from college this year with a degree in computational engineering (nerd alert!). His first job pays nearly three times what my first job paid me! So, before he splurged on a new TV, car, computer, etc., I gave him one small piece of advice: learn to live on less.
Instead of determining how much you can spend based on your salary, start with small budget categories and alter them when necessary. Steve and I began budgeting early in our marriage and thought we would need $200 each month for groceries, based on how much we’d spent on our own. As the months progressed, we recognized $200 wouldn’t meet our needs (and also that I love cooking), so, we added a little more every month until we reached a total that worked for us.
Those first few years out of college will set the stage for your financial health (or lack of) decades into the future, so start by learning to live on less. It will be much easier to increase your budget categories later, rather than limiting yourself in the future.
Begin saving for retirement
If you’re anything like I was at 22 years old, retirement might feel like a topic that’s easy to ignore. However, saving for retirement early can mean thousands of additional dollars for you and your family later in life.
Fortunately, there are companies that understand young people like us. For example, blooom is a retirement management company that provides a free analysis of your IRA and/or employer-sponsored retirement plan—whether you decide to sign up and pay for their services or not. After answering a few questions on their site, blooom offers professional advice on how you can adjust the allocation of your funds to avoid hidden fees and save more for the future.
Another reason blooom is especially useful for 20-somethings is that, unlike many investment management companies, they don’t require a minimum investment to manage your retirement plan. In other words, if you’ve just started your first job out of college and have barely contributed to your retirement plan, blooom is still ready to help. They can also manage your funds no matter where they’re located, so you won’t have to move your employer-sponsored plan to utilize their services.
Get a credit card
Let me be clear: what I am NOT suggesting is that you drive down to your favorite department store and sign up for their fancy rewards card that offers 10% off on your first purchase.
While a credit card can certainly have its perks, the better benefit for college graduates is its effect on your credit score—if you use it well. A good credit score can impact your ability to get a home mortgage loan or qualify for auto insurance. It may even influence a potential employer’s decision to hire you!
Start with just one card, at least for the first year. Search for options with low interest rates that require low spending levels to receive rewards. Finally, once you begin using the card, set up automatic payments with your bank and continue to monitor your transactions and payments often.
Remember that merely possessing a credit card does not improve your credit score; it’s how you use it. Credit cards can have a negative or positive impact on your life, so make sure you choose and use them wisely.
Taking steps toward healthy money management as a college graduate doesn’t have to be complicated—you just have to start off on the right foot.
As you search for jobs, consider a wide variety of options. Building a career takes time, and your dream job may require some entry-level positions or even an internship for you to get started. Once you’re settled into the workforce and begin receiving paychecks, develop a budget immediately! Be sure to include important goals like paying off your student loan(s) and saving for retirement. Finally, create habits like living on less and saving for unexpected expenses to help you better prepare for situations, expected or not, in your future.
Procrastination may have served you well in college, but it won’t help you achieve financial health. Act intentionally. Learning to manage your money well now will help you provide for your family, pursue new experiences, and prepare for whatever lies ahead.