If you’re a senior in college, or the parent of one, you’re probably counting down the days until graduation. But are your finances prepared for the big step? Don’t worry if they’re not — most students feel overwhelmed by the task of managing money. To give you the confidence you’ll need to succeed in the real world, we’ve compiled a list of 50 money moves to make before graduation.
1. Start Saving Those Pennies
And whatever else you can afford to squirrel away before you graduate. Retirement may feel like eons away — and in your 20s, it certainly is — but you’ll never regret having money for that freak car repair or hospital visit.
2. Find Out Whether You Have Private or Federal Loans
The first step to paying off your student loan debt is to find out what type of loans you have. Private loans are issued by financial institutions, while federal student loans are issued by the government.
3. Find Out What You Owe & to Whom …
Several loans may mean several servicers, and it’s not always easy to keep track of them all. To see what you owe for federal student loans and who services them, you can go to the National Student Loan Data System, select “Financial Aid Review” and accept the terms and conditions. Be sure to have your FSA ID handy or the information you need to create one. You can check your credit reports to see who services your private student loans.
4. … & When to Start Making Payments
Most federal students come with a six-month grace period, meaning you’ll have some time to work that monthly payment into your budget. Many private student loans offer the same option.
5. Complete Exit Counseling
Federal student loans require exit counseling when a student drops below half-time enrollment, graduates or leaves school. You can do this online in about 20 to 30 minutes. Exit counseling will inform you when your first payment is due.
6. Know the Costs of Deferring Federal Loans …
With some loans, like federal Perkins, you don’t have to worry about interest if you enter deferment. But unsubsidized federal or Plus loans will continue to gain interest, causing your balance to soar. Be sure to find out how much interest you’ll accrue if you decide to take this option and read up on how student loan deferments affect your credit.
7. … & the Dangers of Default
Failing to pay your loans as agreed can lead to default. That can take some time (270 days for federal loans, to be exact), but it’s something you don’t want to do. You’ll lose access to deferment, forbearance and a range of government benefits, as well as the ability to apply for more federal aid. You could also face collection activity, legal action and poor credit.
8. Don’t Fear Your Loan Servicer
If you’re worried about making your student loan payments after graduation, be proactive and talk with your servicer. They may outline options you wouldn’t have thought of that can help you avoid missing payments.
9. Catalog Your Basic Repayment Options
That way you’ll have a idea of what can be done if money is tight. The government offers income-driven repayment plans for various situations, although a longer term and lower payment may mean you end up paying more than you’d hoped. There are also deferment, forbearance and even student loan rehabilitation if you go into default. You can find a full list of options here.
10. Familiarize Yourself With Refinancing
You’re unable to refinance student loans within the federal student loan system, and while doing so could help you secure a lower rate, it will change the terms of your loan. Also keep in mind that refinancing federal loans with a private lender means forfeiting government benefits.
11. Avoid Student Loan Scams
There are a lot of people trying to make a buck off the confusion around student loans. Don’t get tricked into paying someone for things you can do for free, like consolidate your loans, change your repayment plan or submit student loan forgiveness paperwork. If you really need help, consider seeking advice from a reputable consumer protection or student loan attorney.
12. Learn the Basics of Credit
Consumer credit is tricky to learn, but it affects your life immensely. A landlord could pull your credit report before deciding to grant you a lease, and an employer could check a version of your credit report as part of their hiring process. To grasp how credit affects your life, do some research. (We have plenty of credit explainers to help you get started.)
13. Start Building Good Credit
Before you graduate, you’ll want to work on building your credit, especially if you have a thin file, as most students do. A good place to start is with a secured credit card, which requires a deposit that serves as your credit line. There are also credit cards geared toward students.
14. Check Your Credit Reports
If you’re an authorized user on a parent’s credit card or you’ve been using your own starter card since freshmen year, you may have established some credit. Your student loans can help you build credit, too. To see what you have, pull your free annual credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com. You can also view two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.
15. Dispute any Errors
Mixed files and identity theft are common occurrences. If you spot something on your credit reports — like multiple credit inquiries you didn’t make or an inaccurate address — be sure to dispute the error with the credit bureaus.
16. Know Warning Signs of Identity Theft
From account withdrawals you don’t remember making to mysterious charges on your credit card, the signs of identity theft are usually easy to spot. This guide can point you to six other signs that you need to watch out for.
17. Shop for the Right Credit Card
Secured credit cards and student credit cards are designed to help you build credit, so look for the right terms and conditions. Be sure to check if the card has a low annual fee and competitive interest rates, and perhaps keep an eye out for features like rental car insurance and travel assistance. The best student credit cards tout rewards for smart spending habits.
18. Use Your Card Wisely
Most credit card issuers report your activity to the three major credit bureaus (check before you apply), which can help your score improve over time. For best results, be sure to make your payments on time and keep balances low.
19. Pay Credit Card Bills on Time
Speaking of late payments, it’s a doozy of a move to pay your credit bills late. Doing this will drag down your score, result in fees and make you look irresponsible in the eyes of lenders.
20. Consider Upgrading Your Plastic
If you’ve been using a credit card responsibly since freshman year, you may be able to qualify for a better one. Next-level credit cards can include a higher credit limit, lower annual percentage rates (APRs) or rewards.
21. Know Other Options for Building Credit
Can’t stomach the thought of handling a credit card? You have options. Credit-builder loans are one, as are passbook or CD loans and personal loans. You can read more about how to build credit without going into debt here.
22. Draft a Budget for Your Money …
This will help you stay on top of your finances and plan for the best things (backpacking in Thailand) and the worst things (health scares). To make it feel like less of a burden, find the system that works best for you.
23. … & Your Time
It may seem like you have a lot of it now, but time will fly once you’ve graduated. If you haven’t already, learn to budget your schedule so you have enough time for work and play. A balanced life can go a long way toward financial wellness.
24. Start Tracking Discretionary Spending
Things like food and gas can quickly add up if you’re not being careful. By tracking this category, you’ll be sure not to go over budget and get a sense of how much you should put toward these items each month.
25. Watch for Irregular & Big-Ticket Items
It’s always better to be prepared for a bill than surprised by it. Be sure to keep an eye on irregular expenses as you track your spending so you have an idea of how much you’ll need to set aside to cover them when they arise.
26. Open a Savings Account
What good is a rainy day fund if you have nowhere safe to store it? A savings account can help you do that and see what you have at a glance. When shopping for accounts, be sure to ask about interest, fees and conditions.
27. Start Paying Yourself
Before you land a job, vow to pay yourself first. That means setting aside a portion of your paycheck or graduation gifts each month, and then budgeting the rest.
28. Consider a Side Gig
There are plenty of ways for full-time students to jumpstart their savings. Consider sharing your car, pet sitting, freelancing or tutoring during your downtime.
29. Sell Your Stuff
You can also make extra cash by selling used textbooks, dorm furniture and mint-condition clothing online.
30. Check Your Checking Account
If you’ve been using a student checking account, chances are that offer will expire. Check with your bank to see if you need to switch to a standard account.
31. Shop for Fee-Free Accounts
With free checking accounts on the market, there’s really no reason to pay for one. If your bank happens to charge you a fee, ask to have it reversed or take your business elsewhere.
32. Open an IRA
If you have a part-time job, consider contributing to an IRA. You can find a full explainer on IRAs here.
33. Get a Health Insurance Plan
Under the Affordable Care Act, you can stay on a parent’s insurance plan until you are 26, with their permission. If you can’t get coverage through your parents or new employer, you’ll need to go through the government exchanges or face a tax penalty. Take time to research the options.
34. Automate Bill Pay …
You know the dangers of paying bills late, so why not streamline the process? By automating bill pay, you’ll never have to worry about missing a payment or getting hit with late fees.
35. … & Check Your Statements
You never know when fraud will strike, and you want to keep an eye out for new fees or fraudulent charges.
36. Sign Up for Alerts
Many banks and card issuers offer email or text message alerts that let you know when funds are low, balances are high or you’re in danger of missing a payment. These alerts can help you spot fraud and protect your credit before it’s too late.
37. Don’t Forget Your Rent
Failing to pay your rent can torpedo your credit, and if you’re evicted, that will likely show up on a tenant-screening report. Worse still, if your landlord reports you to a debt collector, the collection account could appear on your credit report — and stick around for up to seven-plus years.
38. Sanitize Your Social Media Accounts
Your social media presence can work for or against you. So if you tend to post pics of getting sloshed every night, chances are future employers won’t like it. Think twice about what you post and do your best to keep it clean. You don’t want these things to jeopardize your financial stability.
39. Quit Smoking
And give up other vices. Not unlike drinking, smoking is a dangerous habit that can literally shave years off your life. It’s also expensive.
40. Track Down Your Documents
Make sure you have your Social Security card, passport, driver’s license and birth certificate since you’ll need to provide identification when you score your first job, apply for a loan and more.
41. Get Your Finances Under Wraps …
Keep sensitive documents under wraps, even at home, and never, ever share your credit or debit card information, especially PINs.
42. … & Stop Posting Pictures of Your Credit Card
Your credit card may not display all the information hackers need, but you’ll be bringing them one step closer if you post pictures of your credit or debit card numbers online. Also, don’t send your credit number over email or text message. Even if you trust the recipient, there’s always the chance their account could be hacked (or their phone could be stolen).
43. Beef Up Your Passwords
Aim to create passwords that no one can guess, and always combine upper- and lowercase letters with numbers, symbols and words not found in the dictionary. The more complex it is, the more secure you will be.
44. Check Your Email
You wouldn’t leave your wallet on the New York subway, so why share your personal info by email? Avoid sending your Social Security number and any account information, and do your best not to store personal information in the event you get hacked. If something sensitive is in your inbox, delete it for good.
45. Get Scam-Savvy
Never open an email that’s just a link, and if you’re in doubt, don’t click. If you know the sender, you can ask if the message is legitimate. But if something seems out of the ordinary, it probably is.
46. Get Frugal
Avoid the urge to splurge and get savvy as you gear up for graduation day. The next few tips can help you get started.
47. Learn the Art of the Promo Code
Get in the habit of digging around for promo codes whenever you shop online. Who knows? You may save on shipping.
48. Start Checking Return Policies
Shopping for your post-collegiate apartment? Read the fine print. No one wants to get stuck with a broken rice cooker.
49. Start Cooking at Home
You don’t have to do it every day, but every bit counts. The less you eat out, the more you’ll save.
50. Start Buying Generic
These products are often just as good as name-brand ones and cost a lot less.
Worried about going into debt after college? Don’t stress. Here are 50 smart ways to help you stay out of debt.