Young people are freaked out about money.
As Business Insider’s Tanza Loudenback previously reported, one LendEDU poll found that 48% of a sample of 3,770 college students say that “paying taxes and budgeting are the scariest part about graduating college.”
And they’ve got good reason to be nervous. It’s not as if many schools are offering classes on filing taxes or managing a personal budget.
So, how can individual grads set themselves up for post-college financial success? First of all, it helps to reflect.
“Forget what you’re supposed to want — a spouse, 2.5 kids, a Labrador retriever, that CEO job, a house in the Hamptons, and a Tesla,” John Folley, a CFP and VP at online lending website SoFi, told Business Insider. “Nothing wrong with any of these, but what do you really want? Most importantly: write your goals down. If you have a short list of the things you want to do with your life, you’ll have a good start at actually doing them. Some people write the obituary they hope they’ll have. Yes, that’s kind of creepy — but it’s one way to envision your future.”
Here are some other crucial financial steps that 20-somethings should take in the first six months after graduation:
1. Get a job
Sure, it’s great to travel when you’re young, but be practical. Don’t plan your dream trip at the expense of landing a job.
“Yes, we know, you want to go to Tierra del Fuego and there will ‘never be a better time than this,'” Folley said. “It’s okay to take a vacation, but you’ll enjoy it more if you have a job waiting when you get back.”
So, focus on finding a job in the first six months after graduation. If you’ve got a bad case of wanderlust, negotiate a two to three week buffer before your first day — that’ll give you enough time for an adventure before you dive into the workforce.
If the organization refuses to give you that time off, “they might not be a firm you want to work for, or there is a long line of people who want this job, so you’d better grab it now and travel later,” said Folley.
2. Focus on benefits
Salary and stock options are incredibly important, but don’t forget about benefits when taking your first job out of college.
Before you take on a new role, “be sure they offer health insurance and, ideally, disability,” Folley said. “If you have dependents, life insurance is also important.”
While you’re at it, make sure the company offers a match on part of your 401(K) contribution.
“This is free money, and it encourages you to save,” Folley said. “If your employer matches any part of your 401(k) contributions, be sure to contribute enough to get the full match. Invest more if you can, but don’t lose out on that free money.”
3. Track your spending
If you don’t pay attention to what you eat, you might set yourself up for some health issues down the line. If you don’t pay attention to what you’re spending money on, that disorganization can really take a toll on your finances.
“Make a budget, so you’re keeping track of where your money goes,” Folley said. “You don’t need to get crazy with details — you can nerd out if you want — just be sure you are not spending more than you make.”
4. Step away from the credit cards
Credit card debt is endemic in the US. Don’t become dependent on your card, and rack up a ton of debt.
“It’s really easy to screw up if you’re new at this, and end up with a couple of thousand in credit card debt,” Folley said. “Don’t let it build up. Pay in full each month. If you can’t, stop buying stuff until it’s paid off.”
While you’re at it, keep on top of your credit score.
“Late payments and missed payments are torpedoes that sink your credit [score],” Folley said. “Set up your payments in bill pay as soon as you get the bill, so you don’t forget. This also helps you estimate how much you can spend each month.”
5. Start saving now
“We get it that you have student loans, and you need to buy a bunch of stuff because you’re just starting out in life,” Folley said. “But it’s important to form the saving habit now — it will get easier as you get raises.”
So how much should you be saving? Folley recommends growing an emergency fund to the point where you have three to six months of living expenses saved up.
“That won’t happen overnight, but if you sock away even a few bucks each month in an FDIC insured savings account, you’ll get there,” Folley said. “Set up a transfer to savings from your checking account every payday. It’s okay to start small — 10 or 20 bucks — but start.”