The first few years after college can be a challenge for anyone—especially when it comes to financial independence. Between finding a job and a place to live, paying down student loans, and maybe even starting a family, the financial decisions you make today can impact the rest of your life.
But don’t decide to move in with your parents just yet. By establishing smart financial habits in your 20s and 30s, you’ll be well on your way to enjoying a more comfortable lifestyle both today and in the future.
1. Finding a Job
The first step toward financial independence for anyone is finding a source of income. Your salary will determine what you can afford in all other aspects of your life, including where you can live and what kind of lifestyle you can support.
- Be a creative job seeker, and don’t limit yourself to traditional job-search methods. Expand your network, be active on LinkedIn and professional in your use of other social media, and attend industry events.
- Recognize that you may not get your dream job right out of college. You may have to pay your dues with one or more entry-level positions before getting to the position you’ve always imagined for yourself. And that’s OK – as long as you’re building a resume that supports your chosen career path, you’re on the right track.
- It’s important to know your worth and position yourself as a competitive job seeker in your industry. What are your peers making? What’s the average salary in your industry and region? Do your research to educate yourself so that you can intelligently campaign for fair compensation when it comes time to negotiate your salary.
Answers to career-related questions impact your financial future and your budget. Make sure your financial plans evolve to include planning for career development – because your salary and livelihood is a major driver of your financial well-being. For example:
- As you gain experience, you’ll define your career goals to become more specific and learn about new career opportunities. Will you need certification, additional training, or education?
- Will finding your next position require relocating to a different job market, or can you stay where you are and move up?
2. Making a Budget
Once you have a steady source of income, you can create a budget to make sure you don’t overspend. Consider using a free budget worksheet on sites such as Quicken or Mint to make the process quick and easy on your journey to financial independence.
- Calculate how much you spend on set monthly expenses, including rent, car payments, insurance, student loan payments, and utilities.
- Look through your recent bank statements to estimate how much you spend on other expenses such as groceries, transportation, clothing, dining out, etc.
- Subtract your monthly expenses from your monthly net income to determine your monthly spendable income. This is how much money you have to spend on extras each month. Don’t go over this number unless you want to start dealing with the cycle of debt.
- Are you spending more than you make? Then it’s time to rethink your expenses. Where can you cut back? Should you take on a roommate? A second job? Be realistic about your finances and do what you can to avoid relying on credit cards to pay your bills.
With time, the definition of your household may change. You may find you have added income, but you could also have additional expenses and other considerations. Every time you experience a significant change in your household, your job, your location, and your living situation is a time to re-evaluate your budget and financial goals.
3. Choosing Where to Live
Housing costs are generally among the most costly monthly expenses. Each of the decisions below will significantly impact your bottom line.
- Are you willing to relocate for work? While some people are set on living in one particular city, others are more open-minded when it comes to their job search. And, as you work longer and decide what you want to do, the best opportunities may be elsewhere. You’ll need to decide whether to open up your search to other cities to increase your options both in terms of pay and position.
- How much does it cost to live in the city of your choice — and can you afford it? Some cities are notoriously expensive for renters, and it may be difficult to pay the high costs of rent on an entry-level salary. Do a little research and use comparison calculators to weigh the benefits and costs of living in various places.
- Will you live alone or with roommates? Obviously, flying solo can come at a high price, but living with roommates has its own set of challenges.
- Do you want to rent or buy? Buying can be a wise investment, but not all young adults are qualified to purchase a home. If it’s something you’d like to do in the near future, start by building your credit and familiarizing yourself with the real estate landscape in your area.
- As you live on your own (or with roommates or a significant other), you’ll learn more about what sort of environment leads to a better quality of life for you. As life events unfold, you may find that a significant other’s job prospects and career opportunities may begin to factor into your location of residence. Other life changes (divorce, changes to a family member’s health, etc.) can also impact who lives with you and where you decide to live – and this will impact your bottom line.
4. Managing Student Loan Debt
The average student graduates with more than $29,000 in student loan debt. While you may be able to defer your payments while in school or residency, eventually you will have to start tackling those payments. After housing, this is often one of a graduate’s most significant monthly expenses.
- Your post-graduate student loan bill shouldn’t be a surprise. Know how much you’ll owe – and have an idea of how you’ll pay for it – before you even start college.
- Learn more about the federal loan repayment plans for which you are eligible and what your private loan payments and interest rates are at this time. Check your private loan statements or your lender’s website for this information.
- Explore student loan refinancing. For most people, student loan repayment stays around for a while – but it doesn’t have to keep the same form. Once you’ve been out working and living in the “real world” for a while, your situation may change, and refinancing your student loans can help you take advantage of some positive changes to your situation. If you’re making the smart financial decisions we at Nelnet Bank know you can, your credit worthiness, credit score, and income have all been taking an upward turn. Consider whether refinancing your federal and private student loans can make your interest rate and monthly payments lower. With Nelnet Bank, there are no application or origination fees and you could end up saving yourself thousands of dollars over the life of your loan – or ridding yourself of student loan debt sooner than expected.
5. Planning for the Future
While at times it may be difficult to imagine life beyond your next paycheck, it’s critical to think about your future financial independence.
- Family planning – Do you have plans to get married, start or expand your family? It’s a good idea to start saving for those milestones early on. If you haven’t found the right person, but you know it’s a priority for you to buy a home, find a partner, or start a family, there’s no reason to wait to prepare financially. Why not make it easier on yourself later by planning now for the future you know you want?
- Retirement savings – Speaking of planning now for the future you want: for millennials, the age of 65 may seem like it’s a long way off but it’s getting closer every day. Starting as soon as you have the option to save toward your retirement has a huge positive impact on your ability to save enough for retirement. But what do you do each time you get a raise or bonus? Do you increase your contribution toward retirement and diversify the types of accounts you invest in – or do you find new ways to spend the additional money? You can guess what we recommend.
- Insurance – You’ve enjoyed the benefits of your parents’ insurance policy for most of your life, but being an adult means buying your own health, car, and home or renters insurance. When you first start out, you won’t own as much of value to insure, but as you continue to work, you’ll acquire a nicer car, a bigger home, better furnishings, and simply more stuff. Plus, the larger income you’re making will be harder to replace should something happen that prevents you working to pay your bills. Insurance is something that you’ll need to continue to evaluate as your assets, income, and dependents change.
Complete financial independence after college may seem intimidating at first, but it’s also exciting. Embrace the challenges, but reach out for help when you need it. As you may have noticed, financial literacy is an ever-changing learning process because life is full of constant change. It’s always good to reevaluate your goals, your situation, and your budget on a regular basis to make sure you’re on the right track.
Nelnet Bank does not provide legal, investment, tax, or financial advice. This page and the information contained herein is for informational purposes only. This content is not meant to address the circumstances of any particular individual. Nothing contained in this article constitutes a recommendation or endorsement by Nelnet Bank. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, consult with a qualified professional.