Smart financial planning in the first few years after graduation can make a big difference in the years ahead. Here are five tips to help new grads prosper.
1. Make (and Follow) a Budget
You don’t have to be an economics major to know that you shouldn’t spend more than what you earn. However, if you really want to get ahead, do an inventory of your income and expenses. Differentiate needs from wants. For example, eating is a necessity, but eating out at restaurants should only be an occasional splurge.
When drawing up your budget, figure out how much you need to live on. Give yourself an “allowance” for discretionary items and set a monthly savings goal. Beware: You don’t want to overextend yourself and then live paycheck to paycheck. This can cause stress if you unexpectedly lose your job, become disabled or incur a major medical bill or car repair.
Allocate a predetermined amount from each paycheck to go directly to a separate savings account. By keeping your savings separate, you won’t be tempted to spend that amount on discretionary items, like a new jacket, concert tickets or a trip to Europe.
As a rule of thumb, you should have a “rainy day fund” of three to six months of net take-home pay. If an emergency happens, you’ll be grateful for your savings.
2. Build Your Credit
Following a budget doesn’t mean you have to live an austere lifestyle. It should include a little “mad money” for fun and for discretionary spending, such as vacations, dining out, pets, clothing and personal pampering. Credit cards can be a convenient way to pay for these items and track the expenditures. Plus, credit cards often accrue rewards points that can be redeemed in the future.
Most college students already have a credit card in their names. If you don’t have a card yet, sign up for one immediately and pay the charges on time every month. Doing so puts you on the road to establishing a solid credit score, which will come in handy when you apply for a car loan or mortgage.
Never let your credit card balances spiral out of control. If you continue to pay off your balance every month, you’ll avoid high interest charges on outstanding amounts.
You can also establish credit by:
- Renting an apartment or home (instead of living with your parents),
- Paying monthly bills (such as utilities, phone and cable Internet) and
- Buying or leasing a vehicle.
Another financially savvy way to save money and build credit is to take advantage of interest-free financing offers on large purchases. These are often available for furniture, electronics and major appliances. But there’s a catch: Pay off the balance in full before the deal expires or you’ll likely incur high interest charges going back to the date of purchase.
3. Save for Retirement
How soon should new grads start saving for retirement? The sooner, the better. So, when you start your full-time job, take advantage of any employer retirement program as soon as you’re eligible. If you’re lucky, your employer might also contribute funds to your retirement up to a predetermined matching limit.
Most employers allow workers to participate in a qualified retirement plan, such as a SEP or 401(k) plan. These programs allow you to contribute pretax dollars to the account and allow them to grow, tax free, until you withdraw funds during retirement. You also may supplement your company’s plan with IRAs and other tax-favored retirement accounts and investments.
4. Find a Place to Live
Deciding where to live is tied to many variables, including your job, family and personal preferences. But finances are the top consideration.
Depending on where you live and how much you earn, you probably can’t move into your dream home right away. This is especially true if you work in a high-cost area. For instance, the cost of a studio apartment in a major city could be the same or even more than that of a 3-bedroom, single-family home out in the country.
Be realistic about how much you can afford. As a rule of thumb, you generally can spend up to a third of your monthly net pay on housing. If your starting income is modest, you may have to pay a higher percentage of your take-home pay.
When you have enough money for a down payment, consider buying a condominium, townhouse or single-family home. Interest rates are currently near historic lows. Plus, home ownership still offers tax benefits, especially if you expect to itemize deductions on your tax return after a purchase.
Warning: The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) limits itemized deductions for mortgage interest and property taxes for homeowners for 2018 through 2025. The state and local tax (SALT) limit is most likely to affect taxpayers in states with high tax rates and/or those who have significant taxable income.
Other options, such as sharing an apartment with a roommate, may allow you to save more money until you can afford a place of your own. Alternatively, if you can, you might live with your parents for a while and accumulate even more savings until you’re ready to move out.
5. Get Your Wheels
Depending on where you live and work, a vehicle may be a necessity or a discretionary purchase if you can get from place to place by walking, bicycling or using public transportation. Often, recent grads can’t afford their dream cars right away. So, some may lease; others choose an economical vehicle that they can finance at a reasonable interest rate. To facilitate a car loan application, follow these steps:
- Check your credit to ensure that you’re entitled to a favorable rate.
- Obtain quotes for loans. Get at least three rates at banks, credit unions and car dealerships.
- Find a willing co-signer, such as a parent or grandparent, if your credit rating is subpar or you haven’t established any credit yet.
If you end up financing through a dealership, mainly because it’s convenient, you may decide to pay off the original loan rate later with a loan at a lower rate. If you choose this path, make sure the original loan doesn’t include any prepayment penalties.
When budgeting for a new or used vehicle, remember that expenditures extend beyond the original purchase price. That is, you’ll have to pay for auto insurance, gas, maintenance and repairs. These costs can quickly add up — and may eat away at your savings.
From credit scores and retirement to housing and transportation, there are a lot of major decisions to make soon after graduation. Fortunately, your financial advisors can mentor you as you enter the workforce and later as you progress in your career and personal life.