A couple of months ago, BuzzFeed produced a video called “Adult Things You Didn’t Learn in College,” in which college seniors were quizzed about financial terms, such as IRAs, credit scores and 401(k)s. While the seniors initially said college had prepared them for the real world, the video showed that many did not know much about important financial matters. The point was clear: A lot of colleges don’t do a great job educating students about topics that often have real-life implications.
When I was a college senior, I was in the same boat. I hardly knew anything about money and was woefully unprepared to handle my finances. Fortunately, I’ve learned a lot since then. Here are some tips I wish I had known when I graduated.
1. Live within (or below) your means.
I know how tempting it can be to spend all your income on gifts for yourself. After all, you’ve worked hard and deserve to be rewarded, right?
However, spending your entire paycheck can be a dangerous habit to fall into, especially if you’re buying things just to impress others. Resist the urge to keep up with the Joneses — you may never be happy if life becomes a competition about who can accumulate the most stuff. Instead, do whatever you can to spend less than you earn, whether that involves bringing your lunch to work, couponing or not upgrading to the latest smartphone.
You should still have fun and enjoy your life, of course. Just keep in mind that your actions now could impact your future. Saving for retirement while you’re young could enable you to retire early, while spending your entire paycheck on the latest gadgets today could result in bankruptcy down the road.
2. Start building your credit early.
If you haven’t already, now’s the time to start building your credit. Many credit scoring models factor in your age of accounts, so it’s beneficial to start using credit as soon as you can. This is partially why my credit is excellent today. While I’m only in my 20s, my oldest credit account is over seven years old, which shows lenders I’ve been a responsible borrower for a significant amount of time.
Luckily, building your credit can be easy if you learn what factors affect your score and develop good habits such as paying your bills on time, not using all the credit you’re granted and spacing out applications for more credit.
3. Prepare for the future.
You can never fully prepare for the future, but saving for emergencies and retirement now can help reduce potential stress when you’re older. If your employer offers to match your 401(k) contributions, take full advantage — passing on this opportunity is like giving up free money. Also don’t let your money just sit in a checking account. Instead, consider investing or putting your money into a savings account. Even if you only get a 1 percent annual percentage yield, that’s still more money than you would have had otherwise. And when it comes to saving for the future, every bit helps.
4. Monitor your spending.
Monitoring your spending is beneficial for a few different reasons. By regularly looking over your credit card transactions, you can quickly catch fraud and take action before it goes too far. I personally make sure I look over each transaction before I pay off my credit cards (twice a month). This came in handy when I found a few fraudulent charges on my statement last month, and I was able to dispute them and replace my card the next day.
Regularly looking at what you’re buying and how much you’re spending may also help you figure out areas where you can cut back or motivate you to spend less. This is especially helpful when you’re young, not making much money and are on a tight budget.
5. Pay down debt.
You may be one of the 40 million Americans who left college with student loan debt. Don’t be afraid or ashamed — student loans can actually help build your credit history as long as you handle them responsibly. The key is to know your options and make a plan for attacking your loans.
If you have credit card debt, it may be prudent to make minimum payments on your other loans while putting more money toward paying off your cards, as they probably have higher interest rates. This could save you money and shorten the amount of time it will take to pay off your debt.
6. Get educated.
If you recently graduated, this probably isn’t what you wanted to hear. You’ve spent many years in school and just want to rest your weary brain. And I’ll admit it, even I find finances boring.
However, the learning shouldn’t stop when you leave school — especially when it comes to topics that could impact your financial life. You may be able to use the technical skills you learned in college to excel at your job, but learning how to manage your finances wisely may be the most important thing you can ever learn, as it could save you a lot of money and stress throughout your life.
If you don’t know what a 401(k), credit report or W-4 is, now’s the time to start learning. Don’t wait until these terms apply to you. Instead, proactively read up on how you can improve and grow your money. Knowledge is power, and with so many news publications and blogs out there, there’s no good excuse for being unprepared for the future.