It’s no secret. Money can be a struggle when you’re young with thousands of dollars in student loan debt, and working as the “low man on the totem pole” at your new company for very low pay.
I’m not going to sugar coat it. For many, money only gets a little easier to handle. It’s not their fault either. For whatever reason, money and how to use it responsibly is not something we are all taught. Only those who have mentors with knowledge on the subject or those who research articles like this ever actually understand money in a way that makes it easier to deal with.
Fortunately, that means since you’re reading this article, you are on your way to becoming one of those people and are likely to be someone willing to learn what it takes to understand money and how you can make it a stress-free fact of your life.
Here are six simple tips for handling personal finances independently
1. Set a budget
You don’t need to track where every penny goes and have your checkbook balanced every night after dinner.
Setting a budget means keeping track of each paycheck and how much of it goes towards your expenses, savings, and then fun things like happy hours, vacations, and shopping.
Your first priority when setting up your budget should be making sure your basic living expenses are covered. this includes things like food, shelter, and utilities.
Most graduates also need to budget for debt payments, most likely in the form of student loans. And some also need to take expenses like transportation and child expenses into consideration. Everyone’s situation is different so look at every aspect of your life. Look at how much the expense costs you and prioritize what is most important.
Any remaining money can then be viewed as excess funds to shop, watch movies, go on a date or take a trip.
When first starting out, excess funds might be minimal or nonexistent altogether. But stay disciplined and it will be worth it in the long-run.
If you are lucky enough to make big bucks right out of college, it’s incredibly important to set a budget to avoid lifestyle inflation and debt.
2. Pay yourself first
Start saving money from the very first paycheck, in addition to contributing towards retirement.
Put money in a savings account to build an emergency fund. You should aim to have three to six months of living expenses in savings and easily accessible (i.e. not invested) in case the unexpected happens (such as job loss, medical emergency, car wreck).
Three to six months of living expenses might seem excessive or unreachable, but all you need to start is a small amount. If just $5 from each paycheck goes to the fund, that’s okay. Something is better than nothing if you find yourself out of a job.
It’s about building an important habit of saving. Just be sure to increase that $5 as paychecks increase.
3. Contribute to your employer’s 401(k)
Except under certain circumstances, always contribute to an employer-matched 401(k) or similar retirement fund.
By waiting to do this, or failing to do so at all, you are leaving hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands of dollars of free money on the table.
Pensions are starting to be less common so a 401(k) is often the preferred way to start saving for retirement.
4. Don’t accumulate credit card debt
Credit cards are an effective tool for building credit history and even earning some lucrative rewards, but be careful. It’s tempting to buy more than you can afford and this will only lead to you spending more money because of the high interest that accumulates on your charges. If you insist on using a credit card it’s best to make sure you pay off the balance in full each statement.
Don’t get into the habit of paying the minimum amount due on a credit card. It does nothing but charge interest.
Paying only the minimum doesn’t help improve credit scores. Pay the credit card bill on time and in full each month.
5. Create a strategy to pay off student loans
Look at your student loan debt and create a plan for paying it off. Fortunately, many loan providers give a grace period for recent graduates. On average this is the first 6 months after graduation where the newly grad does not have to make a payment, If you are fortunate enough to land a job right off the school, start paying off your loans right away. You’re only going to help yourself pay down the debt faster so why not. This should also be the case if you are pulling in enough income through a side hustle or temporary position while looking for permanent work.
Does it make sense to consolidate? Are student loan forgiveness programs available? Which loans have the highest interest rates? Can you afford to pay a bit more than the minimum to help pay down the principal faster?
Take the time to create a strategy and explore the resources you can find (for free) on the internet.
6. Ask for help
Transitioning to life after college can be overwhelming. A lot of growing-up happens in this period of life. While it may not be as care-free as when you were in school, it is still a ton of fun. The party is not over as they say. So it doesn’t matter if you’re freelancing or landed a job with a six-figure salary (think petroleum engineers), handling life’s finances can be daunting but stay disciplined and remember you’re not alone. There are so many others in the same position as you. Talk to them. Find out what they are doing and what is working or not working for them. Ask your family and mentors how they handle their money. And just remember to enjoy life’s other aspects because unlike money, time is not an asset you can make up.
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