Contributed by: James Smiertka
It hasn’t been too incredibly long since I trekked the campus of Western Michigan University and I’m not alone. The Center has more recent graduates, including Clare Lilek and Nicholas Boguth, who are now gracing our office with their mental gifts and unmatched wittiness. Even Matthew Trujillo himself, isn’t yet a full decade removed from marching across the stage to lay hands on his college degree. At some point in our lives, many of us have traded textbooks, studying, homework, and a lucrative job as a barista for a career, pantsuits, ties, and taxes. If we could offer financial advice to our excited yet somewhat horrified, newly graduated former selves, what would we say? I’m sure we would all have a lot of good advice, financial and otherwise, to offer. To help avoid unsavvy decisions during your first steps into the great financial unknown, here are a handful of good financial tips for new graduates.
Tip #1: Don’t upgrade your lifestyle too quickly.
So you have just graduated and found your first job, which hopefully is a great first step in your career path. Congratulations! Now it’s time to make a plan, and then, as Tim Wyman likes to say, “Live your plan”. But don’t try to upgrade too quickly! It can be easy to get carried away moving into the nicest apartment, buying expensive furnishings, and purchasing a new car right away. You may believe that your new income will keep up with your increased spending, which may or may not be the case. Removing uncertainty, it’s a lot easier to take some time and lay the groundwork for a good spending plan than it is to scale back spending dramatically after you realize you’re living beyond your means. The best choice is to slowly increase your spending as your earnings increase. One of the best tips that I’ve heard, is to keep your “broke college student lifestyle” as long as possible. Keep a modest apartment and your old beat up car, or ride your bike to work if possible. This will allow you to save more now towards things like emergencies, a first home, and becoming financially independent in the future. Every little bit saved now can make a great impact in 30 to 40 years thanks to the compounding interest.
Tip #2: Start saving.
Aim to save around 10% of your income right away. It’s a great starting point. If your employer has a retirement plan in place, it is important to contribute at least enough to take advantage of the full amount of savings that your employer will match. This is usually around 3-5%, and it’s free money that you would be foolish not to take advantage of – a great incentive to start saving for your future retirement. No matter where you start, you should try to gradually increase your contribution rate every year by 1-2%. Some plans can even be set up to increase this amount automatically, and you won’t even notice the difference from year to year. You should also aim to build an emergency fund during your initial savings endeavor. This account should eventually contain 3-6 months or more of living expenses which will allow you to be prepared for unforeseen circumstances & also provide you with assurance. Some will even utilize this account, if needed, to allow for freedom as they establish their careers, using the money to help fund moving to a new location and the other costs associated with changing jobs.
Tip #3: Make a budget. And stick to it.
There are things that you need to pay for like medical and renter’s insurance, gas, and utility bills & then there are unessential, discretionary items like clothes, concerts, and going out for dinner & drinks. Track your spending, look for savings opportunities, and also for areas to cut back. For most young people, food is the largest expense after housing and transportation costs. Learn to cook, and you could find yourself potentially saving 50% or more on your food costs by doing something that could become a worthwhile hobby. This can easily save you $1,500-$2,000 per year. The time spent cooking will also keep you from wasting time perusing unessential Amazon Prime purchases (which I may absolutely be guilty of). Bottom line: Look at your net income. Subtract out your fixed/essential expenses. Then allocate the leftover money towards savings goals and discretionary spending. Consider an online budgeting tool/app to help you achieve this.
Tip #4: Understand your debt & credit.
Know the real cost of your credit cards, student loans, and other debts. Your credit score is a powerful tool, and it can be friend or foe for your lifetime. A bad credit score can make it more difficult to land your dream job or be approved for an apartment lease. A good credit score will allow you lower interest rates on credit cards and loans and a better chance for approval with those items. It is very easy to get carried away with credit cards, and credit card companies target young adults more than any other demographic. Remember: If you are consistently carrying a balance, the credit card company is the one being rewarded. Credit cards can frequently have annual interest rates of 15-25%, and higher, especially for many young borrowers who haven’t had time to build up their credit scores. Many credit card companies also reserve the right to increase your interest rate if you are late with your payments, heaping on additional debt on top of your existing unpaid balance. Bottom line: be smart & manage your debt. If you already have credit cards, in addition to student loans and/or personal loans, try to pay off balances with higher interest rates to keep them from becoming unmanageable. Some people find it easier to completely pay off a smaller balance first as it gives them a sense of progress and accomplishment. This is a more than acceptable start to proper debt management.
Tip #5: Save more.
If you are able to make the maximum contribution to your employer’s plan – amazing! If you want to save more early in your career, consider a Roth IRA. It’s a great savings vehicle for tax-deferred growth and tax-free withdrawals in retirement. You contribute dollars that are taxed at your current marginal rate which will, with any luck, be lower than your future marginal tax rate. This will allow you to avoid the taxes later in life in addition to taking advantage of tax deferral. Many employer 401(k) plans will allow for after-tax contributions, as well as the more common pre-tax contribution. Obtain information on your specific plan to find out.
Now is the time to build a great foundation in the journey towards financial independence. By making smart decisions now, you are positioning yourself for future success. Use these helpful tips, and keep progressing toward the ultimate goal of a worry-free financial future and retirement. Feel free to contact your team here at The Center with any questions. Take control now, and you will rule your finances – not the other way around.
James Smiertka is a Client Service Associate at Center for Financial Planning, Inc.
The information has been obtained from sources considered to be reliable, but we do not guarantee that the foregoing material is accurate or complete. Any opinions are those of Jim Smiertka and not necessarily those of Raymond James. 401(k) plans are long-term retirement savings vehicles. Withdrawal of pre-tax contributions and/or earnings will be subject to ordinary income tax and, if taken prior to age 59 1/2, may be subject to a 10% federal tax penalty. Roth IRA owners must be 59½ or older and have held the IRA for five years before tax-free withdrawals are permitted.