After you graduate from college, it may feel like you’re pretending to be a “real adult.” You’ve spent years following a clearly paved path, and now it’s unclear how to navigate uncharted territory: a new full-time job, moving into your own place, and dealing with your student loans.
But you don’t have to pretend — you can get a lot of mileage out of learning some personal finance basics. Here’s a road map for managing your money after college: building a career, dealing with student debt, investing in your future, establishing credit, and more.
Career and budgeting
1. Negotiate your first job offer.
You may feel uncomfortable negotiating your first job offer, and that’s natural. But know this: Most employers expect it. More than 80% of employers are willing or able to pay more than their initial offer, according to a 2015 survey of 708 employers by NerdWallet and recruiting platform Looksharp. And even if the employer says “no,” it will likely admire the confidence it took to ask.
» MORE: Salary negotiation guide
2. Live on a college student’s budget for a few more years.
You’re already used to living like a poor college student, so live a bit below your means even after you land your first job. If you can limit expensive shopping trips and meals for a few more years, you’ll have extra money to build the financial foundation you need: an emergency fund and retirement account (more on those things later).
» MORE: How to build a budget
3. Research the cost of living in your new city.
If you’re moving to a new city, use a cost of living calculator to see what you can expect to pay for housing, groceries and transportation. Use those estimates to create a realistic budget and factor it in when you’re negotiating your salary.
4. Going to grad school? Consider the cost.
Graduate students often pay more than undergraduates for student loans. The federal direct unsubsidized loan interest rates for the 2015-16 school year were 5.84% for graduate students and 4.29% for undergraduates. Still, grad school could be worth the investment if getting a second degree increases your earning potential enough to offset the cost.
» MORE: How to pay for grad school
5. Get to know your student loans.
You should be able to answer these questions about your student debt: Do you have federal or private loans? Who is your loan servicer? What are your interest rates? Your answers affect which repayment plans and forgiveness programs you’re eligible for, which company you’ll be making payments to, and how you should prioritize paying down your debt. Check the National Student Loan Data System for information about your federal loans. If you have private loans, you’ll hear from your lender directly.
6. Pay off any accrued student loan interest.
Most student loans give you a six-month grace period between when you graduate and when you have to start making payments. And unless you have federal subsidized direct loans or Perkins loans, interest has been accruing while you’ve been in school. That interest will be capitalized, or added to your balance, at the end of your grace period, increasing the total interest you’ll have to pay. To avoid that, pay off the accrued interest before your first payment is due.
7. Understand your student loan repayment options.
If you’re struggling to afford your federal student loans, there are four income-driven repayment plans that can lower your monthly payment. Each of the plans caps your monthly payment at a percentage of your income and forgives your remaining loan balance after you make payments for 20 or 25 years. However, income-driven plans also increase the total amount of interest you’ll pay. These plans are available only to borrowers with federal loans. If you have private loans, ask your servicer about repayment options available to you.
8. Let your employer help you repay your student debt.
If you work for the government or a nonprofit and have federal student loans, you’re eligible to have those loans forgiven after 10 years of making payments through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Additionally, some private employers, including PricewaterhouseCoopers and Fidelity Investments, now offer to repay a portion of employees’ loans.
Savings and investments
9. Build an emergency savings account.
At a minimum, you should have $500 set aside for unexpected costs, such as an unplanned car repair or replacing a lost phone. Ideally, you should have more — three to six months' worth of living expenses — in case you lose your job. Keep the money in a savings account and replenish it as you use it.
10. Start thinking about retirement now.
Retirement is probably the last thing on your mind when you’re first entering the job market, but knowing about the magic of compound interest may change your tune. There are two main ways to save: 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts, known as IRAs. Aim to eventually contribute 15% of each paycheck to retirement savings, but it’s OK to smart small. Investing even a little in your 20s is better than waiting until later in life.
11. Take advantage of a 401(k) match if it’s offered.
A 401(k) is an employer-sponsored retirement investment account. You can set it up so a portion of each of your paychecks will go into the account. Many employers will match what you contribute up to a certain amount, and that’s free money for you. If your employer offers a match, contribute at least up to that amount each month to maximize your savings.
12. Open a Roth IRA.
If you don’t have a job that offers a 401(k), you can open an IRA. A Roth IRA (as opposed to a traditional IRA) is typically the best choice for recent grads because you’ll pay taxes on the money now, before it grows, instead of when you withdraw it in retirement. Even if you have a 401(k), you should consider opening an IRA after you contribute up to the maximum percentage your employer will match to grow your savings.
Credit and more
13. Get a credit card to start building good credit.
You need good credit to do most money-related things, such as rent an apartment, get a car loan and even sign up for a cell phone plan. Start establishing good credit by getting a credit card and paying off your balance each month. You may need to start out with a secured card, as an authorized user on a parent’s card or with a co-signed credit card until you build up enough credit history to qualify for a card on your own.
» MORE: How to build credit
14. Learn how to check your credit report.
Your credit report is a record of the credit cards and loans you’ve had, how diligently you’ve made payments on that debt and the parties that have checked your credit (think: lenders, landlords and insurers). It’s good habit to check your own credit reports periodically to be aware of what’s on them and ensure that there aren’t errors. You can get three free reports each year — one from each of the three main credit bureaus — at AnnualCreditReport.com.
15. Check in on your checking account.
If you have a student bank account, your bank may change it to a nonstudent checking account after you graduate. That could put you on the hook for extra fees, like monthly service charges, that were waived with the student account. Re-evaluate your banking needs and decide whether it makes sense to stick with the same bank or open a checking account elsewhere. In making your decision, consider fees, ATM access and minimum balance requirements.
16. Get renters insurance.
If you’re renting an apartment that gets robbed or damaged in a fire, it’ll be on you to cover your losses — unless you have renters insurance. The average premium costs $188 a year, according to 2013 data from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, but that’s a small price to pay for peace of mind. If the unexpected happens, your personal belongings will be covered.
Try using these tips to make a list of your personal finance goals, and check each item off as you accomplish it. Soon, you’ll feel in control of your finances, and you can move on to something that's more fun: enjoying the 20-something life.