Top Financial Decisions for Recent College Grads

I read a report recently that said nearly one-third (32%) of college students reported that COVID-19 had made their families more stressed out financially. Nineteen percent expected to take out more student debt than they had originally planned. One in 10 lost a job due to the pandemic, while 16% had reduced work hours.

So, I know I’m not alone in feeling a bit flustered by the tough season we’ve just been through. But I’ve learned a few things about finances, and I know that I want to leave a meaningful legacy someday. I’m choosing to plan well and make a few smart money moves now—even if they’re difficult—so that someday, I have the funds I need to retire well, care for my family, and also make a difference for the nonprofits I care about.

Here’s my game plan:

1. Set a Budget 

This one seems like a no-brainer, but living within one’s means comes before anything else: even saving or giving. I’ve found that the 50/30/20 approach is a good budget starting point:

  • Spend 50% on needs like rent, groceries and minimum loan payments.
  • Spend 30% on splurges like trips, takeout and concert tickets.
  • Spend 20% on savings and extra payments on high-interest debt.

It’s also prudent to plan for contingencies, such as automobile accidents, personal injury, lay-offs, and other unforeseen expenses, so that when the unexpected happens—and it will happen—you’re prepared.

There are a slew of budget apps and tools out there, including this one from Ramsey Solutions. Or, if you’re into Google Suite like I am, check out the free Google Sheets budget template. Just open Sheets and look for the “Monthly Budget” spreadsheet at the top of the screen. If you don’t see a thumbnail, click on “Template Gallery” and it should be under “Personal.” It’s super easy to use, you can set all your own line items and projected expenses, and it might help you rein in spending in areas you didn’t even know were a problem. Additionally, you might consider a part-time, second job to boost the income side of the ledger. Fun fact: I make sugar cookies to help pay off school debt!

2. Set Some Goals 

No, I’m not talking about the $1 million vacation home or the round-the-world-in-80-days dream vacation. I’m talking the essentials here, like saving for retirement. I’m aiming to put aside 15% of my pre-tax income. That money comes out of my paycheck before I even see it, so I don’t really miss it, and it feels good knowing that I have a little nest egg invested and growing interest for my future.

Goal two, for me, is to grow my emergency fund. Last month, my car died unexpectedly. I’ve had housing needs come up, and I’ve had to make spur-of-the-moment trips to visit relatives. Life is unpredictable and expensive, and it’s a good idea to set aside between three and six months’ worth of living expenses in an FDIC-insured savings or money market account. This can serve as a “rainy day” fund you can tap into if you have a financial emergency, like a car repair, hospital bill, or extended time of unemployment.

3. Make Extra Loan Payments

The first micro-step here is to pour a cup of coffee, log in to your various online accounts, and get real about your debt. Tally up how much you owe, note the various interest rates, and understand what type of student loans or consumer loans you have taken out and what the repayment terms are.

According to The Institute for College Access & Success, the average college graduate in 2013 owed $28,400 in federal and private loans. Add in a car payment and a modest credit card balance, and it can mean some serious monthly obligations!

If you’re looking at a lot of student debt, know that you might qualify for deferment of your federal loans if you go back to school, participate in a service program such as the Peace Corps, or are unable to find a job. But if that’s not you, figure out how much extra you can afford to pay on your debt per month, and pay down the highest-interest loan first. And the most important thing: don’t add to your debt, if you can help it!

4. Start a Retirement Fund

We touched on this in step two, but no matter what your employment situation is, time is the retirement saver’s best friend. Your employer may match up to a certain amount that you put into a retirement fund, so take advantage of the free money by maxing out that benefit, if it’s available. If it’s not available, or you don’t have a job yet, set up your own Roth IRA or IRA through BairdFidelityThriventVanguard, or another trusted company. (We’re doing a whole post this fall about the types of retirement funds, so more to come on that soon.) Then set aside money monthly, even if it’s just $100 or $200. Every bit helps!

5. Build Your Credit 

A good credit score will help you make major purchases and borrow money more easily down the road. Building solid credit history takes time, but it’s essential to make your minimum payments on loans and credit cards on time every month, and use less than 30% of your available credit.

You can request a free copy of your credit report once each year from the three major credit reporting bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Review these reports closely, and report any mistakes in your information or activity, to help keep your credit report and score on track.

From there, pay on time. Don’t use credit if you can’t pay it. And be careful of signing up for too many accounts, because your score usually takes a hit every time you open a new account or miss a payment.

6. Give What You Can

At Apex Legacy Consultants, we’re all about legacy. We help families think through the “long game” of becoming financially stable so they can support their loved ones and give incredible gifts to charity, even long after they’re gone. But even if you’re young, you can start giving now! Learn about different nonprofits by checking out their financial stewardship and history, and once you’ve found one (or several!) that you trust, set up a gift. By establishing the discipline of giving away money early in your life, you’ll adopt a more generous attitude in other areas of your life, too. And you’ll feel great knowing that you’re helping make a difference in the world.

7. Consider Your Legacy

Though it seems far off, once you’ve figured out your immediate financial needs, you can start laying the groundwork now for what will happen after you’re gone. In all likelihood, that’ll be decades from now…but what if the unthinkable happened, and there was no plan in place? I wrote an entire blog post recently about creating a basic legacy plan, thinking through guardianship for pets/kids, making sure debts are paid, and transferring assets to the people and organizations you love. Here’s the whole post about legacy planning basics for young adults. Better safe than sorry, right?

8. Splurge a Little

This one’s important. Live simply. Invest and save. Plan for the future. But also live your life! Whatever your budget, and whether you’re living in your parents’ basement or well on your way to financial independence, figure out what you love to do and start building a lifestyle you enjoy. I love the way this article frames it: you can avoid “Frugal Fatigue,” and even overcompensating for a strict budget by overspending in other areas, by finding a few inexpensive luxuries to build into your life and budget. Adulting can be fun!


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