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Don’t blow it all at once: financial tips for recent graduates

You’ve worked your butt off for the past four or more years, and it is finally time for graduation. Your gown has been purchased, you’re finishing up finals, and you may even have a job already. But with the joys of graduation come the frustrations of the expenses associated with living on your own, paying student loans, and having a full time job.

The most common mistake that new graduates make is not planning their finances. You’ll be making more money; so many graduates spend their extra dough as though they are millionaires. The first time a newly employed graduate touches their first professional paycheck, visions of new cars and shopping sprees at the local mall start dancing through their heads. For recent graduates, the old saying of “earn more, spend more” usually holds true. Don’t allow yourself to fall into this trap that can create greater debt and keep you from reaching your financial goals. Follow these few tips, and you’ll be well on your way to financial independence after graduation.

1. Pay off your debt. Most college students leave with at least some amount of student loans and/or credit card debt. Make paying off this debt your first priority after getting a job. Think about consolidating your student loans, so you only have to worry about making one payment each month. In addition, the sooner you pay off this debt, the less money you’ll be throwing away on interest accumulations. The longer you wait to pay, the more interest you’ll have to pay down the road.

2. Manage your expectations. All throughout college we’ve been hearing about the “real world” we will be launched into upon graduation. This brave new world includes new cars, apartments, independence, lots of money, and maybe even weddings. What we sometimes forget to think about is the expenses associated with all of these great things. New car? – Try $200 per month at least. Apartment? – Think $500 per month at minimum (not including utilities). All of these great things cost money, so try to temper your expectations from the start so you don’t set yourself up for failure. Yes, you’ll be earning a lot more money when you begin working full time, but you will also have many more expenses that you expect to go along with that newfound cash.

3. Automate your savings. Automation makes creating good saving habits easy. Odds are your new employer will have a direct deposit system for your paycheck. This allows your money to be directly input into your checking or savings account. Direct deposit systems will usually allow you to specify a certain amount of money that can be transferred into each account. For example, rather than having all of your money transfer to your checking account (where it will probably get spent), have $200 per paycheck automatically go into your savings account. Commit to spending only the money in your checking account, and leave the money in your savings account to earn interest and use only in case of an emergency. Using direct deposit to your advantage can take the money for savings out of your paycheck before you even miss it – making saving money easy.

4. Invest in a 401(k). Once you’ve automated your savings and are in control of your bills, you may have noticed you have money left over. Rather than buying a brand new car with your saved cash, think about investing. Most employers will offer a 401(k) plan to help you save for retirement. Take advantage of this option as soon as possible. In many cases, companies will match your contributions to the plan up to a certain percentage of income or dollar amount invested. This is free money, and you should accept it without question. Invest in your 401(k) at least to the limit of your employer match. So for example, if your employer matches 50% of contributions up to 3% of income, invest 6% of your income into your 401(k) in order to take full advantage of the matching funds.

5. Make a plan, but be flexible. It’s important to think about your future and have a vision of where you want to be financially in two, five, ten, and even 20 years. Come up with a number of goals to attain for each of those time frames. For each goal, determine what you will need for its achievement. This doesn’t have to be exact, and without much experience in the workplace, you shouldn’t expect it to be. Now that you have your plan, expect obstacles preventing you from reaching your goals, but also expect things that will require you to change your expectations, much like the first point above. It’s important to be flexible, because life has a habit of finding its own course.

6. You only live once. It’s important to think about the future and make the wisest financial decisions. But this is your life, and it’s the only one you get. Balance your future plans with making the most out of today’s experiences. Remember that money isn’t the most important thing in the world, but it does let you do some amazing things.

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