Graduates of the class of 2015, it’s time to further your education. Yes, you just spent four years amassing a crazy amount of knowledge. But despite all you’ve learned, you possibly still have an incomplete in one subject: money. Suddenly you’re at a financial turning point, facing challenges like finding a place to live and starting a new job. At the same time, your college friends have scattered across the country, the clock is ticking on your student loan grace period, and you are feeling broke, really broke.
Don’t worry. The basic money skills you need to get on your feet are easy to master. And by doing so right out of the college gates, you’ll have more opportunities off in the future—and greater peace of mind right away. So, drawing from the advice of recent graduates and experts familiar with your challenge, MONEY offers you this cheat sheet for launching your post-college financial life.
Make Technology Your Friend
Remember life before college? Seasonal wardrobe updates, lots of dinners out, new cellphones on a regular basis? Well, Mom and Dad worked a good 20 years or so before they could afford that lifestyle, so don’t expect to carry on as you did when you lived at home.
If you play it right, though, you can enjoy a taste of what’s important to you, with enough left over to start building a cushier future.
The plan: Automate. Direct deposit and auto-deduction make it easy to set aside money before you can spend it. To make sure you have enough for large, regular monthly outlays like rent, savings, and student loans—more about those expenses later—set up your pay-check for split deposits. Put money for big necessities in one account, cash for everything else in another.
Then it’s just a question of making those remaining funds last until your next paycheck. To do that, you don’t need a life of self-denial; just think about spending in terms of tradeoffs: Would I rather buy x now or y later?
Handy tool: The Mint app tracks your cash and can build a budget from your past spending.
One grad’s story: When Sean Starling, a 2013 Morehouse College graduate, started his first job out of school, he thought he was set. “I was like, ‘I’m making money now, and I can spend whatever I want,'” says Starling, 25. Repeatedly running out of cash—and failing to save enough—changed his mind. He used Mint to track his spending, then moved to Excel for more detail. With his budget now under control, Starling, a cost analyst, is repaying student debt and saving up for his September wedding. “Whether you use a piggy bank or Mint or an Excel spreadsheet,” he says, “find a way to make the savings process your own.”
Share and Save
Most likely, you’ll share your first home post-college with a roommate or two. And there’s a good chance their names will be Mom and Dad. Whomever you’re living with, make it a time for saving money.
The plan: Moving out of your childhood home? Aim to spend no more than one-quarter of your income on rent, advises Ben Barzideh, a financial planner with Piershale Financial Group in Crystal Lake, Ill.
Moving back in with the folks? Be sure to wash your dishes. But you’ll really warm their hearts if you take advantage of your rent-free digs and set aside at least 25% of your salary—the money you might have paid for rent—to start a getaway fund.
Handy tools: Splitwise makes it easy for roommates to figure out who owes whom for different housing expenses. “It’s super-fast and streamlined,” says Zach Feldman, a 24-year-old New York University graduate living in Brooklyn. “It takes maybe 10 minutes out of the month to get my bills done.” The Venmo payment app makes it simple to settle up and verify that everyone has paid up.
One grad’s story: Kristine Nicolaysen-Dowhan, 24, moved in with her mom and stepdad in Grosse Ile, Mich., after graduating from the University of Michigan in 2012. Her first paycheck went toward clothes for work; her second paid off debt. Within four months Dowhan was saving a whopping 75% of her salary. “The rest I just had as fun money,” she says.
Handle With Care
Credit cards are great—in moderation. They’re useful as backup in emergencies, and paying on time helps build your credit score—good for lower rates on future home and car loans. (Employers and landlords also use your score to gauge your reliability.) The downside: Plastic makes it easy to spend money you don’t have, at a high cost.
The plan: Get a card—just one—and use it sparingly. (Starling reserves his card for emergencies and online purchases.) Activate text alerts in your account for upcoming bills. To help your score, pay on time and keep charges to one-fourth of your credit limit. And pay each month’s bill in full; if your card charges interest of, say, 20%, keeping a balance for a year means that every $100 you spend will cost you an extra $20.
Handy tool: MONEY’s credit card guide points you to the best available cash-back credit cards—good if you pay your full bill each month—and the best card for first-time card users.
Pick a Plan
You can’t wriggle out of repaying student debt, but you can choose how you pay. Instead of a standard 10-year plan, you have other options: lower initial payments or more time to repay, in return for higher interest costs. You have six months after graduation to choose a plan (which you can change later).
The plan: Run numbers to see what you can manage. On the average federal loan balance of $27,000 for a four-year public college, you’d pay $272 monthly under the standard plan; under another one that bases payments on your income, a person making $35,000 would begin paying just $146 but owe $3,100 more in total interest. Automatically deduct payments from your bank account; paying on time helps your credit score. At tax time, deduct your interest payments, up to $2,500, on your return (the deduction is phased out for singles making more than $80,000). Tax savings: up to $625.
Don’t Say Yes So Soon
Relax. Based on horror stories of recent years, maybe you’ve decided you’re lucky to get a job, any job, at any salary. But you may have more bargaining power than you think. In the best market for new grads since the financial crisis, nearly two-thirds of employers—an all-time high—plan to raise starting salaries over last year, reports the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
That positions you well for a salary negotiation, which can pay big dividends over time. A bump in pay of $5,000 by the time you’re 25 years old translates into a $634,000 boost in lifetime earnings, according to a study out of Temple and George Mason universities.
The plan: Don’t accept an offer right away. Salary.com says 84% of employers expect applicants to negotiate their salary. And compensation data provider PayScale found that 75% of workers asking for more money got at least some of their request.
When you do ask, tie your case (politely) to other offers you may have or to experience you bring—say, a previous internship—that will help you hit the ground running.
Handy tools: PayScale, Salary.com, and Glassdoor will give you a realistic sense of salary ranges, taking into account factors such as company size and location.
One grad’s story: When Kirk Leonard, 24, a 2013 graduate of Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, was offered a job as an office manager at a local dialysis facility, he laid out the case for his future boss as to why he deserved higher pay: Having worked for the company before, he knew its operations. And he could start right away—saving the company the time and hassle of a job search. The payoff: a salary 10% higher than the original offer.
Another reason to worry less this year: Thanks to Obamacare, it’s easier and cheaper than ever to get health insurance to cover major medical expenses. Any plan you sign up for should include a free annual checkup and access to prescriptions for birth control.
The plan: The cheapest route is probably to stay on (or return to) a parent’s plan—open to you until you turn 26. You may not want to, though, if you live far from your parents; finding in-network doctors and hospitals might be difficult, says Carrie McLean of eHealth.com.
Insured through work? Since being young means you’re (probably) healthy, you might pick the company plan you’re offered with the lowest upfront cost and highest deductible (the amount you pay before insurance starts kicking in). But, warns Karen Pollitz of the Kaiser Family Foundation, be sure you can quickly scare up the deductible, which can be as much as $6,600 this year; a broken leg, for example, can easily cost thousands.
On your own? Hit the government exchange. Plan labels range from Bronze to Platinum, based on premiums and out-of-pocket contributions. You’re likely eligible for subsidies if you make less than $46,680 in 2015. The silver plan is a good pick, since a break on out-of-pocket costs (if you earn less than $29,175 this year) is available only with that choice.
Handy tools: To buy through the government exchange, start at healthcare.gov/lower-costs and see if you qualify for discounts. Making less than $16,105 this year? Check the map at kff.org/medicaid to see if your state offers a free plan.
Stash a Little Cash
Stuff happens—stuff that costs money. Your car might break down… or a friend might invite you to his spur-of-the-moment Vegas wedding. Be ready without having to fall back on a credit card you can’t pay off.
The plan: An emergency fund of about $1,000 is enough for you, says Barzideh. Set a little money aside from any graduation checks you might receive, and add $50 or so a month into a bank account—one that’s separate from your day-to-day account, so you won’t be tempted to raid it for everyday needs.
Handy tool: Keep your money in an online bank like Ally.com. There’s no minimum balance or monthly fee; the interest rate is now 0.99%.
Get Richer Now
You too can be a millionaire later in life. The earlier you start saving, the easier it is, and the more freedom you’ll have later on. “You don’t know what choices you’ll be considering in 20 or 30 years, but you do want to have choices,” says Brenda Cude, a professor of financial planning at the University of Georgia.
The plan: The best place to save long term is in a 401(k) retirement savings plan, offered by employers of nearly 80% of workers. You aren’t taxed on the money you put in that 401(k), and it grows tax-free over the years (you’ll pay taxes on withdrawals). Most employers will match a portion of your contributions, typically 50¢ for every dollar on the first 6% of pay. Start small, putting aside $50 or $100 a month.
If you don’t have a 401(k), you can put up to $5,500 this year in an individual retirement account called a Roth IRA, where your investments will grow tax-free. (You can open one up through any major fund company, such as Vanguard, Fidelity, or T. Rowe Price.) You get no upfront tax break, but you won’t be taxed when you take money out. And that’s good, since your tax rate will probably be higher later on than it is now.
Wherever you save, the best starter investment is a mutual fund called a target-date fund. It will give you, in a single investment, a package of stocks and bonds that’s right for your age.