7 “first financial steps” college graduates need to make and the sooner the better
With newly-minted college grads on the job hunt and looking for some much-needed income, what are the key first financial steps they’ll need to make, once they secure a good job and earn some regular income?
It’s a fair question, as college graduates need all the financial help they can get right out of the gate.
According to a new study from Sallie Mae entitled “Majoring in Money,” U.S. 20-something college graduates don’t “know much” about basic financial concepts, like credit or interest.
That indifference to personal financial education has real world consequences.
According to Sallie Mae, while 83% of college grads carry a credit card (or two), a full 40% don’t pay their monthly balance every month. Furthermore, while young college graduates struggle with the concept of interest owed on credit, 70% of college graduates have taken out student loans, Sallie Mae reports.
It’s not like college graduates are running away from the concept of personal finance, and what it means in their life.
A separate study from Laurel Road, an online lending service, shows that 94% of college-educated Americans believe personal money management should be mandatory teaching in both high school and college. Additionally, 75% say that “personal finance education courses would be a more useful college graduation gift than a check for their first month’s rent.”
Consequently, the interest to learn is there, if not the actual effort, for today’s college graduate set. The reality is that getting a grip on some top-tier personal concepts can pay off for the rest of a young American’s life.
These concepts are at the top of that personal finance “get to know” list — and young college graduates should make understanding each one a big priority.
#1 – Start a 401(k) immediately and save more than you think you can save.
If you’re gainfully employed, get rolling on a 401(k) plan right away. Investing early and making regular contributions in a 401(k) plan pay off big down the road.
“Invest in a diversified growth–oriented portfolio as time is on your side and the ups and downs of the market don’t matter in the short-term,” says Eric C. Pritz, senior partner at Signature Estate & Investment Advisors, LLC. “This money will grow tax–deferred until you begin withdrawing in retirement, and the compound growth component of this investment is magic,” Pritz says.
“Albert Einstein once said “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it… he who doesn’t… pays it.” Albert Einstein was smart. Listen to him.”
#2 – Pay off your student loan debt.
Yes, paging Captain Obvious, right? But the thing is, paying off your student loan debt is a big deal, and you need to be passionate about doing so.
After all, graduates leave school with an average of nearly $40,000 in student loan debt, which means payments of $444 per month for ten years.
“Being saddled with these payments can keep you from fully taking the leap into adulthood after graduation,” says Anthony O’Neal, teen and millennial expert and national best-selling author of The Graduate Survival Guide: 5 Mistakes You Can’t Afford to Make in College. “Get out of loan debt as quick as you can. Find ways to use extra cash toward your debt — sell what you don’t need and get a second job if you have to.”
#3 – Create an emergency fund.
A recent survey showed that 70% of college students feel stressed about personal finances, O’Neil says. “That stress can get worse when you walk across the graduation stage into adult life. That’s why saving is so important.”
O’Neil advises saving a starter emergency fund of $1,000. “It’s not a matter of if an emergency will happen, but when it will happen,” he says. “Next, once you’re debt-free, you should build up the emergency fund to three to six months of expenses.”
Don’t be tempted to spend the money unless you absolutely have to. “If you want to have money, you need to learn to save money,” O’Neil adds.
#4 – Build your credit.
While you’ll probably want to wait a few years after graduation before deciding to buy a home, it’s important to start establishing credit now so that you’ll be able to secure a mortgage when the time comes.
“Prompt repayment of your student loans will help with building your credit score up, but it may also be a good idea to apply for a credit card and use it to pay for some of your regular purchases,” says Patricia Russel, a financial planner and founder of Financial.Marvel.com, a personal finance empowerment platform. “Be absolutely sure to only buy what you can pay off at the end of the month on credit, though, because carrying additional debt will be detrimental rather than helpful.”
Aiming for a FICO credit score of 700 or above will help you get better terms on loans and credit, saving you significant cash in the process.
#5 – Start investing on your own.
While a 401(k) plan through your employer is a great start on saving for retirement, you should also learn how to invest money on your own, Russel says.
“Begin learning about the stock and bond markets, as these are the major traditional instruments in which most investors choose to put the bulk of their capital,” she advises. “For tax benefits, you may want to consider starting your investment activities with a Roth IRA. As time goes on, you should also start building up a balanced stock portfolio to ensure that you are financially stable and free by the time you reach retirement.”
#6 – Live below your means.
Make sure you spend responsibly – you’ll be glad you did.
“I personally found that making sure my monthly income more than covered all my expenses including housing, food and fun budget was one of the best decisions I made financially after graduating college,” says Stacy Caprio, a millennial and financial blogger at FiscalNerd.com. “My salary was low and I chose low-cost housing right out of college, living with four other roommates in a tiny house.”
“That way I ended up not having to worry about a budget because I was paying so little for housing – only $435.50 a month in Boston, Mass.
#7 – Be a disciplined financial consumer.
Stay in control of your finances, even as you begin to make good money after college.
“Don’t go crazy with spending your new income, just because you’ve been “deprived” and living like a college student for so long,” says Beverly Miller, a personal financial coach based in Pittsburgh, Pa. “It’s so easy to get out of control and into consumer debt if you don’t use a written monthly budget to make sure you are living below your means.”
Those with student loan debt, which these days are most college grads, unfortunately, especially need to aggressively attack it with their new-found income, says Miller.
“You need to be debt free in order to have your income available to you for the rest of your career, to save and invest, buy a home, and build wealth for your future,” she notes. “Keep living like a college student for just a little longer to become debt free, and soon you will be far ahead of your peers in net worth and lifestyle.”