Congratulations! You've worked hard for the past four (or five) years and it's finally time to graduate, get a job and start living in the 'real world.'
But that doesn't mean you have to stop living the good life, you just have to do it with more responsibility. After all, there will be many, many bills to pay. And falling behind on bills is very easy if you don't know how to manage your money.
Sure, you may or may not have landed that great job right out of school. But as long as there is a stream of income coming from working at the local coffee shop, you can get ahead of your peers by following some of these simple steps to successful rock star money management.
1. The 'B' Word
I don't mean anything derogatory here, but some may think the word 'budget' is a bit nauseating. Most people don't like this part of their lives, but you have to know how much money you're making and where it goes after you've cashed your long-awaited paycheck.
Income: This month, add up all of your paychecks and other sources of cash you bring in regularly -- this is your income. If your paychecks are different every time, try to estimate how much you'll likely make this month by finding a happy medium between your best and worst case scenario. For example, if you are a waitress, and your tips usually bring in anywhere between $500 to $1,000, set your income around $750 for the month.
Expenses: Find last month's bank statement and add up your big monthly expenses first. Your top items will probably be rent, utilities (water, electric, cable, internet, etc.), loan payments, car insurance, credit cards and any other expenses you may need to make on a regular basis.
Next, add up your variable expenses such as gas, groceries, clothes and money you use to go out with friends or dates. These expenses may change from month to month, but try realistically guessing how much you spend in these categories on average. If you want to be even more accurate, write down every penny you spend in a notebook every day for a month. Add up every expense to get your monthly expenses.
Income - Expenses = Extra cash for saving and spending
Subtract your expenses from your income. If it's a positive number, put that money in a savings account every month (maybe right after you get paid). If it's negative, you must either achieve a higher income or cut one or more of your expenses.
[Need ideas? Check out 25 Ways to Save Hundreds on Your Monthly Expenses]
2. Secure a Credit History
Ever been turned down for a car loan or apartment because you didn't have a credit history? Having good credit will help you get the lowest interest rates on car or home loans, lower your car insurance premiums and may even help you land a job for employers who run credit checks. All these translate to more cash in your pocket, so you should go for it!
An easy way to start building credit is to apply for a 'secured credit card' at a bank that offers them. Once you have been approved for a secured credit card, the bank has you put in a security deposit, usually around $300, to use as collateral in case you fail to make payments.
When you use the card to make purchases, you will get a monthly bill that you're expected to pay back just like a normal credit card. If you pay on time every month, for the next six months to a year, they'll give you a regular credit card and your $300 back.
Keep making your payments on time to continue to raise your credit score. For best results, make a promise to yourself to never spend more on the card than what you have in your bank account. If you want to check your credit-building progress after a few months, you can visit annualcreditreport.com (you can check it once a year for free).
3. Live on a Shoestring Budget
The lower your expenses, the more options you will have in life. A great way to cut your expenses is to get a roommate or two to help share the cost of rent. If you can get your rent down to less than 33% of your income, you'll have a lot more cash to work with.
Drivers should try to hold onto their cars for at least five years. If you haven't bought a car yet, you should research and buy a reliable used car. A brand new car loses 60% of its value on average in the first four years of ownership. A car you'd buy today at $20,000 will be worth only $8,000 four years from now. That's a loss of $12,000 -- ouch! If you buy a four-year-old car, however, it's like getting 60% off of the original price, which isn't such a bad deal.
Older cars may require more maintenance, so try to put away $50 per month for repairs and oil changes. Skip the collision coverage if your car is over seven years old, and buy liability auto insurance only to save a lot of money.
Now let's talk about your phone. If you have plenty of access to WiFi during your day or live near a city, consider a less expensive phone plan that doesn't use so much data. T-Mobile, Virgin Mobile, Google Fi, Wal-Mart's Straight Talk and many other carriers charge just $30 per month for service per user. Just make sure you know the data, text and talk limits and decide if you can make life adjustments for them!
4. Start an Emergency Fund
What happens if you lose your job, your car needs a big repair, or you want to take that unpaid internship for a while to break into your dream career? At the end of the month, you'll still have bills to pay.
So you need an emergency fund. Cut your expenses down to what you really need, and pay the bills and the loan payments on time. Look at what you have left. Every paycheck, give yourself some money to have fun with, but strive to save more than 10% of what you take home each month. Put this money in a savings account with a high interest rate, usually offered through an online bank.
Ideally, you want to build up your savings to eight times your monthly expenses. Be patient; it'll take some time, but you'll be glad you put the money away when you finally need it. Be sure to contribute to your emergency fund before putting extra money toward anything else. You may feel like using that extra income to pay down a credit card balance, but if you lose your job tomorrow you won't have any money to even keep a roof over your head. Your emergency fund comes immediately after the bills are paid.
5. Start a 401(k) and/or Roth IRA
If your work offers a 401(k), enroll in the plan and contribute every month. Some companies offer to match your monthly contribution dollar for dollar up to 5% of your income. If you get a $1,000 paycheck and contribute $50 (or 5%), your company may also contribute up to $50 towards your retirement. That's a 100% return on the money you put in without any risk! Don't leave free money on the table. Take advantage of your employer's 401(k) plan if they offer a match.
If your company does not offer a match and you have put away a comfortable amount in your emergency fund, open a Roth IRA at a discount brokerage firm. Online brokerages are great, inexpensive tools. (Learn more on this in The Best Way to Start Investing When You're Young.]
Getting a handle on your money situation after college takes some time and effort. But learning to start a budget, lower your expenses, build credit, and bulk up your savings will put you on solid footing toward financial success down the road.
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