First off, congratulations to all college graduates! You survived those hard years in a classroom and endless nights of studying just to make it into the the real world where your financial future awaits. We’re not putting any pressure on you, but the decisions you make in the next few months and years could affect the rest of your life.
It’s really not that bad, and these eight tips from professionals on campus, courtesy of Denver Post, will help get you started down a money-smart path.
Tackle your student loans
In 2012, 71 percent of students graduating from four-year colleges had student-loan debt, with the average graduate owing some $29,400, according to the Institute for College Access & Success.
Be active and engaged in the repayment process, whether it takes five years, 10 years or more, said Joseph Donlay, associate operations director of student financial services at Colorado State University.
Read and save all correspondence — yes, those snail-mail letters — and if you can’t afford a payment, contact your lender or servicer before it becomes “that monthly problem.” Federal loans have more flexible payment plans available.
“A student loan cannot be written off in bankruptcy,” Donlay noted. “It follows you forever.”
Negotiate your first salary
Asking for higher pay can be a scary prospect at any age, but the financial implications of leaving money on the table at your first job could affect you forever, said Lisa Severy, director of career services at the University of Colorado.
Think of it this way: Every raise you earn moving forward will likely be a percentage of your salary at that time. Even small differences in starting salary compound over the course of a career, with those who didn’t negotiate never catching up to those who did.
“The importance is monumental,” Severy said. “If one group of people is asking for 2-3 percent more every time they get a job, that adds up.”
Prepare by doing research on salary expectations in your field and area of the country. Practice ways to broach the subject. And remember, she said, they want to hire you.
Enroll in a retirement plan
You have roughly 45 years to earn enough money to live off for 60 years.
Let that sink in.
Then, enroll in a retirement plan immediately, whether it’s an employer-sponsored 401(k) or an Individual Retirement Account, said David Estabrook, a certified financial planner and branch manager at Raymond James in Englewood.
The more you sock away for retirement early, the better, thanks to the magic of compound interest.
Say you start saving for retirement at age 25, Estabrook said. You save $3,000 a year until you turn 65, at a 7 percent rate of return. Your future value would be $598,905.
Start at age 35, save the same annual amount at the same rate of return, and you’ll only have $283,382 by age 65, a difference of more than $300,000, he said. (For the record, you’ll need a lot more than either scenario if you want to retire comfortably.)
“No one has ever regretted saving too much,” Estabrook said. “But as I run retirement numbers, so many people say they wished they had started right after college.”
Save for an emergency
Prepare for the unexpected by creating an emergency fund, setting aside enough money to cover three to six months of living expenses.
Building up your fund should be a top priority after graduation, Estabrook said, before any other savings goal.
“Often times we meet people who need a few thousand dollars, and there isn’t that bucket — they have to go to their IRA or 401(k) or credit card,” Estabrook said.
Build a budget
Rather that letting your newfound income fall prey to your “black hole” college spending habits, come up with a budget and stick to it, said Niomi Williams, associate program director of CU Money Sense.
Maybe start by tracking your spending for a few months to give you a baseline. Apps and websites like Mint.com can be helpful, as can a simple pen-and-paper approach.
“Work it into your routine,” Williams said. “Every morning, I check my e-mail. I check my social media. I check my bank account.”
Be smart with credit
Having a credit card in your name is important to establishing a good credit score, something you’ll need when it’s time to make a big purchase, like a new car or house.
Don’t fall into the trap of carrying a balance and making only the minimum payment, said Sandy Kemper, a certified public accountant in Westminster.
If you don’t have the money in the bank, don’t put it on your credit card. Leave your card at home so you’re not tempted to use it. Pay your card off every month.
“A healthy respect and/or fear of debt is probably a good thing,” she said.
Embrace your inner cheapskate
You don’t have to eat ramen every day anymore. Or ever again.
But there’s nothing wrong with still looking for ways to save money, said Anna Newell Jones, the Denver-based writer behind the blog
Ask for lower rates on your cellphone contract and gym membership; learn to cook, and buy store brands and in-season produce; drink at home, rather than going out; find free entertainment.
Jones paid off nearly $24,000 in debt in 15 months by going on a “spending fast” and limiting her purchases to the bare essentials.
“It’s really easy to increase your lifestyle and habits to meet your new income,” Jones said. “If you can just pretend you’re still a broke college student, it can really be beneficial.”
Getting your financial house in order can seem daunting, but know this: The alternative is worse, Kemper said.
“You can run up debt, but then you have to work a whole bunch to pay it off. Do you really want to be working that much? I want to have time to do other things,” Kemper said. “If I can manage my finances responsibly, I can have free time.”
Be intentional, through goal setting, budgeting and smart spending, and you will get the most out of your resources, time and money.
After all, your future’s up to you now.
CU Money Sense provides a number of tools and resources for college students and recent graduates, at cumoneysense.colorado.edu
For more information about student loans, including repayment calculators: studentaid.ed.gov
Salary research: payscale.com
Compound interest calculator: investor.gov/tools/calculators/compound-interest-calculator
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