How College Grads Can Take Control of Their Finances


Growing up is tough enough without the worries of your financial future, so Money101  is here for you. E-mail us your questions and let us take off some of the pressure.

With graduation just a month away, college seniors may be wondering, now what?

After four years of college life, it’s time for seniors to move on to the next stage of their lives, and with that comes financial independence.

“There are a lot of new issues that come out after you graduate, mostly because you are 100% on your own,” says Kimberly Palmer, author of Generation Earn: The Young Professionals Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back. “For almost everybody, it can seem pretty complicated.”

College seniors who graduated in 2009 carried an average of $24,000 in student loan debt, according to figures from Project Student Debt. Pair that with the unemployment rate for recent college graduates climbing to 8.7% from 5.8% in 2008, and grads are facing a harsh reality.

Establishing good financial skills right out of college is critical to long-term fiscal stability. We talked with personal finance experts to see how recent graduates can get their financial futures started on the right foot.

Create a Plan to Pay Back Student Loans

While college is a great, meaningful experience, it doesn’t come cheap.

If one of your graduation presents includes a student loan bill, set up a repayment plan.

“A lot of people have already had to deal with big financial challenges in terms of figuring out how to take out student loans and how to budget while they’re in college," says Palmer.

There are several types of student loan repayment plans to choose from.

A standard plan requires a fixed monthly payment (minimum of $50 a month) for 10 years or less, depending on the loan amount. An extended payment plan is comparable to the standard plan, but for a longer length of time (12-30 years depending on the amount borrowed).

A graduated repayment plan starts with lower payments and gradually increases every two years. The loan period is 12-30 years and the monthly payment can be no less than 50% and no more than 150% of the monthly payment under the standard payment plan. There are also several income-based repayment plans based on the borrower's income and amount of debt.

Ease Into the Real World 

Securing your first job out of school is an exciting time and may require you to relocate and have changes in your lifestyle. As you get settled and go about starting your job, write down and track your spending habits.

Palmer suggests recording everything you spend money on for two weeks to understand how your change of lifestyle affects your checkbook.

“When you’re starting new habits and you’re just getting into your new routine after you graduate, it’s so easy to not even realize where your money is going,” she says.

Don’t sweat it if your first job isn’t your dream job. Farnoosh Torabi, author of Psych Yourself Rich, Get the Mindset and Discipline You Need to Build Your Financial Life, explains that holding a position is the best way to get ahead.

“Keep in mind that what's most important is that you find an opportunity that offers a meaningful work experience, where you can learn fast and make enough money to support yourself,” she says.

Create a Savings Plan and Stick to it

Although you may have more money now than you did as a student, Torabi urges grads to stick to a realistic budget.

“You go from making no money to some money and suddenly you think you can afford it all,” she says."If you can't, you might place it on your credit card, instead of asking yourself, ‘how can I get what I [need to] make this work?’”

FBN Tool: How Much Am I Spending?

Living in the “real world” brings a lot of new and hefty expenses, which makes the prospect of saving seem nearly impossible, but the experts encourage grads to put money away when they can.

Having a little extra cushion in your financial life could come in handy should the unexpected occur.

“Starting with a small emergency fund can give you a little bit of peace of mind, so if things do come up like your car breaking down, you are not completely panicked,” says Palmer.

FBN Tool: How Much Do I Need For Emergencies?

In addition to general saving and emergency funds, the experts agree that putting money into a retirement account in your 20s can benefit you in the long run.

“It can be complicated if you think about how to open a 401(k) or how to open an investment account on your own,” Palmer says. “If you just break it down into smaller, simpler steps, it can be pretty easy to master.”

Map Out Non-Financial Goals

Once your monetary situation is figured out, take the time to create a five-year plan that includes your dreams and goals in life.

“When we visualize our goals and write them down, we have an easier time staying focused and avoiding the temptation to spend money on frivolous things,” says Torabi.

Thinking about the long term encourages you to be smarter about money and how you spend it. You may be less inclined to grab an over-priced lunch or splurge on the latest fashion trend.

“Deciding what those goals are can help motivate you to not waste money on little things that add up,” says Palmer. “You can cut out some of those more wasteful costs that aren’t getting you to your goal.”