May is a big month for college graduates. There’s all the last-minute details with finishing school – finals, papers, moving, selling stuff. There’s the family, the cap and gown, the parties, the sad farewells. Then after all that, there are the questions. What now? Where will I go? What will I do? We can’t answer all of them for you (you’ll have to decide to keep or dump that college sweetheart on your own). But here’s a good start at answering some of the questions you may have when it comes to money.
1. What Should I do With Graduation Money I Get From my Family?
Lucky you! Resist the urge to spend it all upgrading your hostels to hotels on that summer trip to Europe. Instead, use half of it to pay down debt or pay for your move to a new city, and the other half to invest for the future, preferably, retirement. Really. Read the parable of the Two Twins. In short, it shows that people who put away money for retirement in their twenties — and stop by age 30 — end up with more money than those who save nothing in their twenties but save from age 30-65. It seems impossible, but it’s true. Those who invest in their early twenties have an amazing advantage over everyone else.
2. When do I Have to Start Making Student Loan Payments?
Most student loans come with a six-month grace period, meaning the first payment is due seven months after graduation. For most of you, that means this November, unless you’re headed to graduate school.
3. Should I Go to Graduate School?
That depends. While it’s tempting to put off “real life” (and student loan payments) for a few more years, many people can benefit from working for a few years before returning to school. Studies can be more focused when students are sure they are studying a field they plan to pursue. A few years working as a paralegal in a law firm can disavow you of the notion you want to be a lawyer, which will save you a lot of money and strife through law school. Of course, in some fields, like medicine, graduate school is a prerequisite, so attending right away can make more sense. But it’s important to remember: The majority of folks who are drowning in excessive student loan debt incur that debt in graduate school, not during undergraduate studies, so poorly-planned grad school can become a real problem.
4. If I Must Start Repaying my Loans, Can I Lower my Payments?
Yes. There are many ways to do this, but all of them can have negative consequences. With federal loans, the simplest way is to select a “graduated repayment plan.” This allows borrowers to pay less now, and more later – payments usually go up every two years — with the assumption that recent grads will earn more as time goes on. All borrowers are eligible, but it means borrowing more money for longer, which means more interest paid. Beyond that, the Department of Education has numerous plans available to borrowers. Consolidation loans can extend payment terms for up to 25 years – but of course the interest paid will soar. There are also various income-based repayment or loan forgiveness programs. These can be reviewed at the Department of Education websites. You can learn more about what happens if you do default on your student loans here.
5. What Should I Do to Prepare for a Job Interview?
Google yourself. Clean up your social media accounts. Erase, or at least make private, those keg stand pictures. Then, prepare, prepare, prepare. Learn everything you can about the company you are about to interview with (and even the person if that information is available to you). Read the job description carefully and at least appear to be excited about the specific tasks that will be required of you. Know that while the ad may say “Join an exciting team and help build a life-changing product,” you could be spending nine hours a day composing social media posts. At least, at first. Embrace that. And, maybe get a new suit. You can find 50 more steps grads can take to find their first job here.
6. It’s my First Job, What Salary Should I Ask for?
The average starting salary for college grads this year is $49,785, according to advisory firm Korn Ferry. That’s not a bad starting reference point. And it’s up 3% from last year. Some professions get more, some less. Software developers earn 31% above average; customer service reps, 28% below. Check out more numbers from the Korn Ferry analysis.
7. How do I Make a Budget?
Budgets don’t have to be complicated. Type into a spreadsheet the costs you know (or guess) for rent, utilities, TV/video, Internet, car, phone, student loan repayments, food, entertainment and whatever else applies. Add it all up, then compare it to your take-home pay. If the first number is higher than the second, you’re going to have to make some cuts, so start figuring out what you can live without. At the end of the month, take out the credit card bill and see how realistic your projections were. Then add lines where you missed things – lines for travel, or savings, or emergencies (they happen, sometimes monthly). Then repeat, every month. You’ll get it. It might be painful, but keep at it.
8. Should I Put Money in a 401K or Pay Down Debt Instead?
Yes! You should do both —save and pay down debt at the same time. It’s a BIG mistake to pay extra to lower your student loan balance at the expense of contributing enough to your 401K to at least maximize your company match. That’s free money you should never leave on the table.
9. Should I Live With Roommates?
For most people, housing is the biggest monthly expense. Ideally, rent will cost no more than one-third of your income. Keep in mind, though, that it’s essentially impossible to afford an average-priced two-bedroom apartment one a single average income anywhere in the U.S. One bedrooms also can be are expensive, so while you may be tired of living with roommates, your best strategy is to live like you are in college for a few more years and save your money. Living with roommates can be the quickest route to owning a home in your thirties.
10. How Much Money Do I Need to Buy a House?
The median home price in the U.S. right now is $189,000. To make a traditional 20% down payment on that would be $37,800. A 5% down payment, accepted in many situations with higher fees, would be about $9,500. Of course, in many populous cities, prices are much, much higher. For example, the median home price in Washington, D.C., is $549,000 – a 20% down payment there is $109,000, and 5% down is $27,500. Some mortgage programs, like FHA loans, allow first-time home buyers to have even less money down, but those come with other fees, and of course, the monthly payment will be higher. Speaking of monthly payments, would-be buyers need to remember house payments also come with insurance and property taxes. Then, there’s maintenance and surprise repair costs. So, save while you can.
11. How Much Does a Wedding Cost?
From $100 to $100,000, or more. Seriously. You can Google the cost of an average wedding, and you’ll quickly find averages in the range of $25,000 to $30,000. But these numbers are based on online surveys, which are self-selecting. Averages are skewed by extremes, plus an “average” wedding in New York will cost more than one in St. Louis. You, you can spend as little or as much on your nuptials as you choose, but guess which one is financially smarter. You can go simple and put that cash toward a down payment instead.
12. How Much Money do I Need to Start a Family?
That’s not an easy question to answer, but here are a few data points. It costs $233,610 to raise a single child through age 17 (not including college), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s just one child. Of course, you don’t need it all at once. A kid costs about $12,000-$14,000 annually. Costs will vary regionally, and on your taste in clothes and schools, and on your health insurance plan. Kids are expensive – the average cost of just having a baby in the U.S. is about $10,000, and that’s without any complications.
13. OK, Then. How do I Make More Money?
The easiest way is moonlighting in the gig economy. Drive an Uber one night per week (do it on a weekend night and you’ll save by not spending!) Rent out your place on AirBNB. Sell things on eBay or Etsy. Volunteer for overtime. Most of all, hone a skill that’s desirable, like software coding. And don’t forget the most obvious: Ask for a raise at your current job …
14. How Do I Ask for a Raise?
Never forget that how much compensation you get from a company is a simple business negotiation. You don’t get to ask for more money because you need it. You have to ask for more money because you are worth it. Do your research. Go to places like Salary.com, Indeed, or Glassdoor and learn if you are paid commensurate with others in your profession. If you aren’t, that’s a good starting point. Chiefly, do a quiet job hunt and see what others in the market might pay you. The best way to get a raise is to get a counter-offer.
Also, note these two disturbing trends in many salary surveys: Workers often don’t get raises any more, they get bonuses, which help corporations keep down their long-term liabilities (it’s easier to kill a bonus than lower salaries when times get hard). And many workers today find the only way to get a real raise is to change jobs.
15. There Are no Jobs in my Major. What Should I Do?
Don’t give up your first love, but be realistic. Right now, the best-paid American workers and the most plentiful jobs are in software, engineering, and health care. Can you switch to one of those fields, and pursue your love of music or the arts on the side? Can you sell what you make on Etsy, but still have a day job? Could you write code during the day, and tutor children at night to fulfill your love of teaching? Creative thinking is your friend here.
16. What Do I Do if I Can’t Find a Job?
Start with part-time work. Research professions that offer piecework which might be similar to the field you wish to enter. FlexJobs maintains a list of jobs you can do from home. Consider joining the gig economy for a while.
17. I Don’t Know What I Want to Do. What Should I Do?
Read. Read a lot. Read books like What Color is Your Parachute. Talk to people. Talk a lot. Most important – DO SOMETHING. Anything. Work in fast food, or work at a Walmart. You can learn something at any job. Even if you hate it, that’s one thing you can cross off your list. And just maybe, you won’t hate it. But above all, don’t do nothing. Wracking up credit card debt and student loan interest during your twentiess can haunt you for the rest of your adult life. Whatever you do, earn money and tread water. You’ll figure it out.