There’s a lot to manage when you graduate college: Moving to a new city, starting a new job, meeting new people and paying new bills. It’s like a never ending to-do list of very important life tasks.
While juggling the transition, you’re also expected to ace the test of managing your money even though few schools teach the subject. Seven out of 10 graduates leave college with student loans, a study from Chime found. The average debt load is $32,000, which translates into payments of a few hundred dollars a month. It’s a big chunk of your paycheck, and you still have to figure out how to cover your living expenses and have a life at the same time.
Making mistakes is normal, but minimizing the damage is within your control. Here’s a crash course on money after college, to help you survive the learning curve.
Cheap rent is your friend. Unless you live at home, housing will be the single most expensive part of your monthly budget. Keeping that cost low frees up money so you can afford to hang out with your friends as well as stay on top of student loan payments and savings each month.
“One of the best ways to live cheaply is to move to a location with a lower cost of living,” said Andrew Josuweit, CEO of Student Loan Hero. “I moved from New York City to Austin for just that reason — not only are rent and utilities cheaper, but Texas also has no state income tax.” Depending on where you live, state and city taxes can take an extra 10 percent out of your paycheck.
If you decide to live in an expensive city, be prepared to sacrifice in other ways. “You should feel comfortable and safe where you live, but not having a window or living in a closet-sized room are the apartment realities of recent grads,” said Kristen Euretig, a certified financial planner and founder of Brooklyn Plans. “Take comfort in knowing that it’s temporary.”
Roommates are a good option, especially if you’re used to living with them. Keep your living conditions as close to what they were in college, assuming that’s within the budget. You can, and will, upgrade in the future.
Rip off the student loan Band-Aid. “New graduates should make student loan payments a priority right from the beginning. It can feel easier to put payments on deferment or simply not make them at all when you’re figuring out your post-college finances, but that will only result in a bigger loan balance and potentially, a hit to your credit,” Josuweit said.
You do get a grace period of six months to figure out the best repayment plan, but don’t leave it until the last second to decide. Start the research now. “If you truly can’t manage payments on the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan, there are a number of options to lower payments such as income-driven repayment, refinancing and more,” Josuweit added.
Euretig recommends the Revised Pay As You Earn plan when you first graduate, if you can’t afford the Standard Repayment Plan. Your payments will be much smaller, and after 20 years the remaining balance is forgiven. You’ll have to recertify the plan each year, which is a good opportunity to re-evaluate what you can afford at that point.
Budget by the day or week, not month. If you’ve ever had one slice of pizza too many or ordered another drink when you really should have stopped, then you know hindsight is 20-20. The same rules apply to money. Figuring out what you’re spending limits are — in the same way you figure out your pizza or alcohol limits — will help you avoid buyer’s remorse and budgeting pain later.
Break your budget down weekly, rather than monthly, so it’s easier to keep track of your spending. Let’s say you get two paychecks a month, for a total of $2,200. If your rent and cell phone and other recurring bills add up to $1,500, that leaves you with $700 a month to spend on dining, shopping, entertainment and whatever else. That comes out to about $20 a day, or $140 or so a week. Unless it’s February, then you get more. Understanding that makes it easier to pack a lunch for work instead of buying a sandwich that costs half of your daily budget.
Spending decisions are always a tradeoff, so it also helps to have bigger goals in mind. Buying lunch everyday for a year will cost you the same as a trip to Thailand, for example. Know what your priorities are and make choices accordingly.
Learn how to talk about money with your friends. In college, everyone is in the same boat. Once you graduate, some of your friends are likely to earn more than you, and some will earn less. Social plans might become stressful for those who are struggling to get by, so try to be sensitive when picking a restaurant or a travel destination. If you’re the one who is low on cash, don’t be afraid to speak up. Nobody wants you to feel anxious when the bill arrives.
You may have a friend who always seems to forget to bring a wallet wallet, or asks you to put up the money and promises to pay you back. Before you say yes, figure out if you’re financially able to help. If you can’t, someone else will. If you can, make sure you are clear in what you expect.
“Both sides should know exactly how much money is involved, the purpose of the exchange and whether or not it’s recurring. Don’t enable yourself or others to make spending decisions that aren’t aligned with your goals,” said Erik Almon, a certified financial planner with Society of Grownups.
Save money so you always have options. At some point, you will probably have a job you do not like. Or, even worse, you might get laid off from a job you love. Whether it’s a nightmare boss or an unfortunate bout of unemployment, having money in the bank will give you security and peace of mind to weather the storm.
The sooner you start saving a little each month, the sooner you’ll have enough to safeguard yourself if a big challenge shakes up your life. Start with a savings goal of $1,000 and eventually work your way up to $10,000, or six months of living expenses, whichever is greater. Call it your “Follow Your Heart” fund, or whatever works for you, but everyone should have a few thousand dollars in a savings account to carry for hard times.
“Savings will give you a huge advantage going forward and will free you financially to make exciting choices with your career and life,” Euretig said.
When money is tight, it’s tough to keep socking away a little bit here and there. Use technology to your advantage. Budgeting apps like Mint, Sweep and Level are free and very helpful. To automate and simplify the process of saving, download a savings app as well. Euretig’s clients have had success with Digit, and similar apps like Qapital and Chime work well too. The important thing is to find something that works for you and stick with it.
Don’t let them call you entitled. You believe in yourself. That’s a good thing. But not everyone will notice how much you bring to the table. They will tell you now is the time to pay your dues, and they might call you entitled if you aren’t willing to stick to their script.
Being young at work often does mean proving yourself, but do it in an environment where you can expect a return on your investment. If you aren’t excited to head to the office everyday, keep looking for other opportunities and submitting resumes. It could take 100 resumes and networking events before you find the right job, but it’ll be worth the effort once you do. You’re writing the first chapter of your career story, so choose your adventure wisely.
“Post-college life can be tough financially between loans and finding a job, but your 20s should be about figuring out who you are and what you want to do long-term,” said Ethan Bloch, CEO and founder of the savings app, Digit. “Start saving a bit, and just enjoy the freedom that comes with this phase of life.”