This is a tough time to be graduating from college. Your student loan bills, averaging over $22,000, are likely to arrive before a job does. And once it does, that job may not come with benefits.

The career you went to school for may not seem a reasonable path right now -- companies that typically recruit on campus have spent the last few months rescinding offers and hiding from the resumes piling up in their mailrooms.

The unemployment rate among 20- to 24-year-olds is pushing 14 percent, almost double the overall unemployment rate. That whole 20-something task -- figuring out what you want to do with your life -- may seem like a luxury you can't afford.

But hang on -- there are worse situations to be in than young, smart and educated. New programs will make those college debts easier to manage, and employers will eventually want to hire a new generation of workers. You can use the slow economy as an opportunity to prepare for your next stage. Avoid the debt-and-discouragement abyss by organizing your own finances and building a job-search strategy. Here's a checklist for the new grad.

-- Consider consolidating your student loans -- but don't rush into it. For most borrowers, loan consolidation isn't the great, low-cost deal it used to be, though it does offer some advantages. New government programs will allow you to stretch out your payments as long as 30 years. The Education Department also offers a new plan that will make the size of your loan payments contingent on your salary -- a boon to graduates who have trouble finding work or who want to enter low-paying fields or do internships and volunteer work. (see for details.)

The minority of students who still have pre-2007 variable-rate loans should move to consolidate right after July 1, suggests financial aid consultant Mark Kantrowitz. Others should check the calculators on his website here to see whether consolidating makes sense for them. One reminder: The longer you stretch out the loan, the lower your monthly payments will be, but the more interest you'll pay over the long term.

-- Get educated. Now that you no longer have to memorize Beowulf, the periodic table or Latin verbs, use those study habits to get smart about money. Read as much as possible about credit, investing, saving and taxes. Start, if you haven't already, to keep track of your money; just keeping those records will help you understand the big picture. You can use free online financial websites like and to track your expenses.

-- Get health insurance. Industry pros sometimes call new graduates the young invincibles because of their belief that nothing can happen to them. Young people are healthy, but even a surfing accident can push you over into bankruptcy if you're not protected. Allergy medication, birth-control pills, physical therapy for sports injuries -- they're all expensive if you're not covered. Some states and professional organizations (such as the freelancers union, offer programs specifically aimed at the young, poor and healthy. Check out online broker, but also get competing offers from a broker in your state who may know of local regulations and programs that work for you. You can also buy a short-term, six-month program to bridge the post-graduation gap from Golden Rule (

-- Avoid taking on debt just to live -- even if you have to move back home for a while. Piling everyday expenses on the Visa or MasterCard will just limit your freedom to do what you want. Live like a starving student for a little while longer; it will allow you to do that extra internship or take that post-college trip.

-- Set financial goals. A car? A job-interview suit? Spring break 2010? A house? Do the legwork so you know what you really want and how much it costs. Just having the goal will help you earn and save to meet it. Use an FDIC-insured bank account to build up some savings for these short-term goals.

-- Go after the career you want, not the one you think you should have. Job placement powerhouse Adecco is telling grads to pursue careers they care about. Just looking for jobs you think are lucrative doesn't really work; ask all the newly unemployed Wall Street wunderkind from the Class of 2007.

-- Fill gaps. Beef up job skills you didn't get in college by learning the computer programs, procedures and lingo used in your chosen industry.

-- Network like crazy. Hunt for a job by telling everyone, especially former professors in your department and past bosses, that you are looking, says John Challenger of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. The current job market requires a much more aggressive approach, as well as some creativity. He also tells newly minted graduates to use their social networking skills to research jobs and possible employers via FaceBook (, Twitter ( and LinkedIn ( Join the professional association that fits the career you want to have, and go to meetings. Find a mentor -- or two -- in the career you want and soak up all they have to share.

-- Avoid the angst. Stress about money, work and life are a typical part of the post-graduate experience, so use proven techniques to calm yourself. Exercise, get together with friends and think about the bright side: No more term papers and tests.