A new semester’s just started — for you lucky seniors, it’s your last semester of college. But just beyond your graduation date, the shadow of student debts loom. That doesn’t mean you should resign yourselves to living with student loans hanging over your heads.
Making smart financial planning and money moves now can go a long way in building a secure foundation for the rest of your lives. To get ready for the real world, here’s what you should do with your finances in your last semester of college.
To-do list for your last semester of college
1. Calculate your student loan payments
In your last semester of college, take advantage of on-campus resources that can prepare you to tackle student loans. “Exit loan counseling is also a great way for them to speak with a professional about their specific situation and make a solid plan on how to pay off their debt in a timely manner,” says Valerie Streif, a senior advisor with The Mentat, a career services provider.
Most student loans have a six-month grace period from your graduation date. Still, “it is very advantageous to know how much those payments will be before that time arrives,” says Amber Berry, a certified financial planner and founder of Feel Good Finances. “If there are multiple loans, understanding the repayment details is even more important.”
Determine what your student loan balance is, and then enter your information into the Student Loan Hero payment calculator. You’ll be able to see how that translates into a monthly payment. The average monthly payment is $351 (ages 20-30). You can typically expect to pay $100-120 a month for every $10,000 in student debt.
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2. Learn about student loan repayment options
If you have difficulty keeping up with a standard payment plan, alternate student loan repayment plans can help. Get informed now on how to enroll in these programs, their benefits, and their drawbacks.
“Choosing the wrong repayment option could leave [you] cash-strapped for many years after graduation,” says Jim Slowik, a senior college funding consultant with My College Planning Team. Arm yourself with knowledge now; it will help you keep a cool head and make a smart choice if you’re in a tough spot.
3. Pay off non-educational debts
Along with planning your student loan repayment, you need to tackle other debts — especially high-interest debts like credit cards.
“Pay off any credit card debt (stop charging beer and pizza to the card RIGHT NOW) and focus on car payments or other expenses,” Streif says. This will “eliminate that drain on their account so their first job can go towards loans.”
4. Plan for remaining college costs
As you’re planning out your finances through graduation and beyond, budget to cover all of your college expenses. “Watch out for hidden costs of graduation,” Berry warns. “Some universities make students pay for the cap and gown, which can cost $70 or more.”
It’s important to graduate with your college accounts settled. “If there are any outstanding fees owed to the school, don’t be surprised if they put a hold on transcripts until fees are paid,” Berry says.
5. Project post-college expenses
The last semester of college is also when you should look at the living expenses you can expect to face after college. “Most students are aware of the increased expenses after graduation,” says Tyler McIntyre, co-founder of startup financier CLEAR Bank. And yet, “When students get their first paycheck it will come as a shock to see how fast it disappears.”
Figure out how much you should budget for expenses like health and car insurance, rent, groceries, utility bills, cell phone, internet service and more. If you’ve had help from parents covering these expenses, start a discussion on how those costs will be covered post-graduation.
6. Overhaul your resume and job search skills
Securing a job is key to covering bills. The first step is to polish your career skills and make yourself a marketable candidate for your first job after college.
“Take advantage of free career development resources on campus,” Berry recommends. “Career fairs, resume and cover letter help, mock interviews, and informational workshops to prepare for the job market.”
7. Put job applications on full blast
Once you’ve revamped your resume, start your job search and send it out to hiring companies. “Having interviews lined up and even offers on the table is one of the best ways to transition into a paycheck so that they can start paying off their loans immediately,” Streif says.
Eight in 10 graduates from the class of 2016 had a job lined up, according to the 2016 Student Insight Survey from AfterCollege. It’s an encouraging trend that hopefully indicates the class of 2017 can expect a fruitful job search.
8. Build a savings fund
You might not find a full-time job right away, however, or you could need cash to cover upfront costs like a deposit on an apartment. “The extra money from this savings can support them during this time,” Berry says. “This is especially true for individuals who will not be financially supported by family after graduation.”
Try to limit your costs now and save as much as possible before graduation. The more you have saved, the more freedom and flexibility you’ll have to make choices based on your career and life goals — and not your wallet.
9. Find new health insurance
If you’ve had health insurance through your college, this coverage will end along with your last semester in college. Recent graduates “generally have 60 days from the time that it expires to get themselves re-insured,” Berry says.
See if you can get added to your parent’s health insurance plan or head to your state’s health insurance exchange and get shopping. You’ll get essential health coverage and avoid the no-insurance tax penalty.
10. Open a retirement account
“One of the smartest moves a college senior can make is to open a Roth IRA and begin contributing to it,” says Lyn Alden, founder of Lyn Alden Investment Strategy. Even if you contribute just $5 a month, it’ll get you in the habit of regularly adding to your nest egg.
Every dollar you add now is worth much more than a dollar saved in your 30s, 40s or later. “By starting so young, that money will snowball over time and give them tens of thousands of extra dollars by mid-life, just from that one move,” Alden says.
11. Start building credit
A credit score “can be incredibly important for getting low rates on car loans, mortgages, getting into good apartments, and qualifying for high rewards cards,” Alden says. So in your last semester of college, it’s important to improve your credit score.
“If they haven’t done so yet, apply for a credit card now,” Slowik says. “Use the card regularly and make the payments on time each month.” Alden also suggests asking a parent to add you as an authorized user to an existing credit card account with a strong payment history.
You’ve worked your tail off getting through college. Putting your degree to use and making your student loans worth it will require smart financial planning — starting now. Use your last semester of college to set yourself up for lasting financial success.
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