How to Adult for the First Time: The Essential Money Guide


One of the most stressful parts about transitioning to adulthood is the sheer number of things you have to remember. Your parents are no longer in charge of getting you to a doctor and dentist each year. The only person keeping a roof over your head is you. And suddenly you have to think about medical benefits, retirement, and how to pay off student loan debt on your own.

When I first became an adult, I wished there was a checklist to help me remember all the tasks I need to do to be “Responsible.” Well, just because I didn’t have it doesn’t mean you can’t!

Here’s the financial checklist everyone in their 20s needs to read.

A financial checklist for your first time adulting

This isn’t meant to be a read-once-and-leave-it kind of list. Instead, you’ll probably encounter each of these issues at different times — and some more than once. Keep this checklist handy so you’ll be ready for anything.

How to negotiate a job offer

There’s nothing scarier than negotiating your first job offer. It’s so hard to break into the workforce that you might think you have to take whatever offer comes your way.

But now is the time to learn to advocate for yourself. Sure, you’re probably not going to get your dream job, amazing perks, and fantastic pay right out of the gate. But that doesn’t mean you can’t negotiate if an offer comes your way.

Career coach and recruiter Angela Copeland suggests waiting to bring up the money conversation when you’re in an interview until they bring it up — but making sure to use sites like Glassdoor,, and Indeed to get an idea of pay for your desired role.

And, when it comes time to negotiate, Copeland let us in on a little secret:

“The first rule of negotiations is don’t be afraid to ask for more. Most of the time, HR has already approved a higher salary amount that they keep in their back pocket…In general, it’s acceptable to ask for 5-10 percent above the offered salary.”

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to be humble and respectful when asking for more money, as well as throughout the rest of the process.

How to get your first apartment after college

Once you’ve snagged employment, it’s much easier to get out of your parents’ house or your college housing. But without those crutches, it could be tricky to navigate this part.

You might not have enough credit yet to get an apartment on your own. Some workarounds to this: ask a parent or guardian to sign the lease as your guarantor or find a place with roommates who have good credit.

And, when you get your apartment, pay on time every month. Not doing so can ruin your credit, leave your roommates or guarantor on the hook for your rent, and possibly even lead to eviction.

Here’s where having student loans can be somewhat helpful for a change — you can build credit by paying your student loans on time.

Why you need medical coverage — and how to get it

You’re young, you’re able-bodied, and you can certainly wait until your 30s to worry about things like medical coverage, right?

Wrong. I found out the hard way about the pain of not having insurance when I was young, after a simple doctor’s visit for strep throat left me with a $120 bill. (And that was before paying for medicine.) The worst part? That’s a best-case scenario. You don’t even want to think about what happens if you end up in the emergency room.

Your age can be helpful if you’re able to stay on your parents’ insurance until you turn 26. But if not, and if your employer doesn’t offer insurance, sign up for a health insurance plan on your own.

It might not feel like it’s worth the money, but this is just one adult cost you’ll have to get used to. After all, even if your job does come with insurance, you’ll likely have to pay something for it each month.

While you’re at it, make sure you have car insurance.

How to start building credit

From interviewing for jobs to finding an apartment to shopping for the best insurance rates, your credit will follow you around nearly everywhere.

That’s why now is the time to begin understanding how credit works. Here are a few quick points to know:

  • Your credit report is not your credit score — your report is your credit history, and your score is a number based off of that history, which can differ based on the model and algorithm being used.
  • You have credit scores from each of the two main scoring agencies — FICO and VantageScore — but you cannot see them on your credit report.
  • There are three credit reporting bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) and you should dispute errors on your report with them immediately.
  • You can view your credit report from each of the three credit reporting bureaus for free once per year at
  • Because there is more than one type of score and model, you have more than one credit score — and the ranges can vary quite a bit.
  • In the old days, credit scores were shrouded in mystery or shown to you for a price, but now there are many places to view your credit score for free.

Now that you know a few basics about credit, here’s what you need to know about building credit in two quick charts. First, the factors that influence your FICO score:

The Financial Checklist Everyone in Their 20s Needs to Read

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Second, the factors that influence your VantageScore:

The Financial Checklist Everyone in Their 20s Needs to Read

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As you can see, both scores care about roughly the same things. Therefore, here are the most important tips you need to know right now for building up your credit:

  • Make payments on all of your bills on time, every single month.
  • If you have credit card debt, start paying it down as much as possible because carrying that debt will hurt your score, while using your card and paying it off every month will help your score.
  • Keep accounts open so they can age and give you a strong credit history.

How to manage your student loan repayment

Speaking of timely payments, not falling behind is incredibly important with student loan debt.

Student loan debt is nearly impossible to discharge in bankruptcy, and if you’re having trouble making your payments, ignoring them is the worst thing you can do. Defaulting on your student loans will send them to collections and destroy your credit. And if you have co-signers on your loans, default will damage their credit as well.

Instead of letting things get to that point, seek an income-driven repayment plan if you’re struggling to repay federal student loans. These plans will cap your payments at a percentage of your income and even help you become eligible for forgiveness if you follow the guidelines.

And whether you have federal or private student loans, you may be able to temporarily suspend your payments with deferment or forbearance if you need a break on payments.

And if you’re not having trouble making your student loan payments, here are a few tips to  help you get out of debt even faster:

How to prepare for retirement — yes, really

This might sound crazy, but the age you are right now is just about the best time to start saving for retirement, thanks to the phenomenon of compound interest.

Here’s how you can get started:

  • If your work offers a 401(k), deduct from your paycheck at least as much as the percentage your employer is willing to match — not doing so is giving up free money.
  • If your work doesn’t offer a 401(k), open an IRA and deposit as much as you can afford each year, up to the annual limit.
  • Interested in exploring investments for the first time? Robo-advisors are a great way to dip your toe in.

Don’t stress about reaching perfection

I don’t know about you, but I found balancing health, finances and other goals right after graduating to be pretty anxiety-inducing.

If you feel overwhelmed, know that perfection isn’t the goal. The question isn’t if you’ll slip up in these matters, it’s when you’ll slip up. Knowing that, give yourself a break if you make some mistakes and focus more on learning from them than preventing them completely.

The beauty about this time in your life is that your responsibilities are probably fewer than they’ll ever be. You’re not dealing with a mortgage, a spouse, or children yet. That means you can experiment, take risks, and find yourself — and that’s what you should do.

Just keep this list on hand so you can be ready to deal with the responsibilities you do have.

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