Financial Habits that New Grads Should Adopt

You’ve earned the diploma, said good-bye to teachers and friends and are about to enter the workforce full-time. Getting that first paycheck marks the perfect time to adopt healthy financial habits that will benefit you for the rest of your life.
May 2, 2018 11:05 AM ET

By Rich Ramassini

Congratulations! You just graduated and are about to embark on an exciting rite of passage: starting your career.

It can be empowering, scary and thrilling all at the same time. You are taking an important step toward financial independence.

However, as they say, with great power comes great responsibility. You will be taking home a regular paycheck and will face many choices when it comes to spending that hard-earned money.

It can be overwhelming and may even seem impossible to make the right choices, but there is no better time than now to learn and practice good financial habits. By making these a core part of your money philosophy, you’ll be on the road to success in no time.

1. Reset your lifestyle expectations. A lot of recent graduates enter the workforce expecting to live the same kind of lifestyle they had growing up. However, chances are that lifestyle was much more expensive than you realized– and it may be unachievable at your current salary.

Understand that, at least for now, you need to adjust your lifestyle and reduce your spending because you probably now are responsible for certain expenses you weren’t in the past, like insurance, car payments and housing. If you don’t make adjustments, you may make decisions that you can’t afford.

2. Establish a positive cash flow. In a nutshell, you should spend less than you make. There’s a general rule of thumb when it comes to debt-to-income ratios. Your debt (housing, credit cards, student loans, etc.) should be less than 36 percent of your gross income (total income before taxes). Of that number, your housing should be no more than 28 percent of your gross income.

For example, let’s say you make $60,000 per year. Using the formula above, your monthly housing payment should be less than $1,400 per month. Your total debt – which includes housing, loan payments, etc. – should be less than $1,800 per month.

3. Establish an emergency fund. Once you’ve taken control of your debts and feel comfortable with your cash flow, make a goal to contribute a set amount to your emergency fund. Even if you can only contribute a few dollars each week, it’s important to establish the habit. The goal is to build an emergency fund that will cover three to six months of your living expenses.

Establishing this emergency fund early on in your career is critical. Unfortunately, most Americans do not have one. A Federal Reserve report revealed that only 44 percent of Americans have enough money in their savings to cover a $400 emergency[1].

4. Understand and maximize your employer’s benefits. As a new, full-time employee, you should understand that your compensation isn’t just limited to your salary; your total compensation includes your salary, benefits and other incidental benefits.

Do your best to fully understand what your compensation package includes and take advantage of the various components.

For example, if your employer sponsors a retirement plan (many employees have access to a 401(k)), start contributing right away. If your employer offers a matching contribution program, set aside enough to meet the full match at a minimum. It’s free money for your future self!

Your employer also might offer maternity and paternity leave and paid time off for volunteering. As a new employee, familiarize yourself with these policies and benefits, as they might come in handy down the road, and could have a big impact on your finances.

5. Pay yourself first. One of the easiest ways to set yourself up for financial success is to establish automatic transfers. Make the decision once to allocate money toward your emergency fund, savings account or other goal, then set it and forget it. You can schedule the transfer to complete on the days you get paid.

You won’t miss the money if you never knew it was there!

Establishing these habits early in your career will help improve your financial wellbeing for the rest of your life.

Rich Ramassini is a Certified Financial Planner and senior vice president at PNC Investments

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