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Ask Brianna: I Just Got My First Job. What Should I Do With My Paycheck?

July 25, 2016
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“Ask Brianna” is a Q&A column for 20-somethings, or anyone else starting out. I’m here to help you manage your money, find a job and pay off student loans — all the real-world stuff no one taught us how to do in college. Send your questions about postgrad life to [email protected].


I just graduated from college and I’m starting my first full-time job soon. Is there a breakdown of how much of my paycheck I should save and spend?


My first paycheck after I graduated college felt like a gift from the gods of adulthood: The magic of direct deposit meant money suddenly appeared in my bank account every two weeks. But no one told me what to do with it.

I didn’t know how to balance saving for a house in the future with buying a ticket to Lollapalooza now. I didn’t sign up for my workplace retirement account and missed out on crucial years of retirement savings. I carried a hefty credit card balance.

I’ll never forget seeing the Decemberists play Lollapalooza during their brief foray into prog rock. But I do wish I’d booked a cheaper early-bird ticket and paid it off right away instead of letting it languish on my credit card, racking up interest charges, for months. If you know you should be responsible with your money but you’re not sure where to start, follow this three-step plan — as I wish I had.

Step 1: Know how much you earn

The Class of 2016 is more likely to get a job that pays decently than I was when I graduated in 2009, in the teeth of the recession. Just 4.6% of bachelor’s degree holders ages 22 to 27 were unemployed in December 2015, down from a high of 7.1% in February and March 2011, when the economy was slowly recovering, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Median annual wages were $43,000 in 2015 for the same group, the highest since 2003.

To start using that money wisely, take a look at how much you bring home. After taxes and deductions for things like health insurance, the amount you see in your bank account is likely to be 65% to 70% of your gross pay, says Bruce Elliott, manager of compensation and benefits at the Society for Human Resource Management.

Comb through your paycheck or look at your bank statement and find your net pay. That’s how much you have to work with when you’re deciding what to spend and what to save.

Step 2: Use a loose guideline — not a spreadsheet

I don’t keep a tight budget; it’s time-consuming, and Excel scares me. But you don’t need to use a spreadsheet or a fancy budgeting app to know where your money goes.

The 50/30/20 rule can give you a rough idea of how much to spend on rent if you’re planning to move, or how much to save for retirement as you sign up for your first 401(k). Say your salary is $43,000 a year, and that you take home about $30,000. That’s $2,500 a month. Here’s how you’d split it up:

  • Spend 50% of your take-home pay (in this case, $1,250) on necessities: rent, food, transportation and bills. That includes student loan bills. Look into alternative student loan repayment plans if what you’re paying now isn’t affordable.
  • Spend 30% of your paycheck ($750) on fun stuff like concert tickets or your Netflix account.
  • Put 20% of your income ($500) toward savings or getting rid of debt other than student loans. Your priorities? Setting up an emergency fund, saving 10% of your income for retirement and paying off your credit card balance.

Step 3: Make saving automatic

Big expenses, like furniture for a new apartment, might start to eat into that 20% savings number. Instead, set up automatic transfers from checking to savings so the money adds up when you’re not looking. Put another way, “Pay yourself first after every pay period,” Elliott says.

For instance, put at least $50 in a high-yield online savings account every month to build a cushion for emergencies. It will be there for you if you get laid off, or if your current job is crushing your soul and you decide to freelance for a while. Another chunk should go to your work-sponsored 401(k) or an individual retirement account. Your money will grow like crazy the more time it has to sit there; trust your elders on this.

» MORE: NerdWallet’s top high-yield online savings accounts

You don’t have to think of the 50/30/20 plan as a budget, if that word makes you want to take a nap. It’s a way to be mindful of the cash you bring in — and prove to your parents at Thanksgiving that there’s at least one part of this adulthood thing you’ve got down.

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by The Associated Press.

Brianna McGurran is a staff writer at NerdWallet. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @briannamcscribe.