6 Money Steps All New Grads Should Check Off Their List

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two graduates excited while holding graduation caps high

As a new graduate, you’ve got a lot on your plate. While this is an exciting time, it’s also an important time to make smart money decisions, including setting financial goals.

“I recommend taking time to prioritize what goals might be most important,” advised Laura Morganelli, a certified financial planner and financial adviser at Abacus Wealth Partners. “Having a clear picture of what success means helps provide necessary structure.”

So what should your financial goals be and how can you achieve them? Financial experts recommend doing six key things as a new grad to build a foundation for financial success.

1. Set a budget

You’ll want to set a budget based on your post-college salary. But this doesn’t mean spending more money compared to your college days.

“Once you graduate college, find a job, and receive your first paycheck, it can be tempting to splurge,” warned Katie Ross, education and development manager for American Consumer Credit Counseling. “But it’s important to live within your means.”

Ross advised calculating total take-home pay, adding up monthly expenses, and ensuring you don’t spend more than you earn. You should keep spending as low as possible to have more money for financial goals.

“College grads should continue living like they’re in college to keep costs low,” advised Andrea Woroch, a nationally recognized money-saving expert.

If you’re not sure how to do a budget, start by tracking spending for 30 days.

“Understanding where your money is going is crucial to achieving financial success,” advised Morganelli.

By tracking how you’re spending money, you can create a realistic budget that’s reflective of your lifestyle but imposes limits in areas where you tend to overspend. You can check out this guide to budgeting to create a budget that responsibly uses your post-college salary.

2. Make a plan for dealing with debt

Chances are good you’ll be dealing with student loan debt, as average debt for new grads reached $39,400 in 2017. You might also have personal loan debt, credit card debt, or a car loan.

It’s important to choose the right repayment plan for all debt, but especially for student loans.

Federal loans are typically deferred while in school, so you might need to pick a payment plan for the first time. There are many repayment options, including income-based plans. Review a complete list of repayment options to help you choose which plan is best.

If you have many areas of debt, you’ll need to decide which to pay first. Paying off higher interest debt makes mathematical sense, but some prefer a debt snowball method to score quick wins by first paying off debt with lower balances. You’ll also want to avoid new debt.

“Don’t rely on credit cards,” Morganelli said. “Depending on a credit card to cover expenses can quickly get out of control.”

She recommended using a credit card only if you can pay off your balance in full.

3. Work on building credit

While you want to be responsible about debt, borrowing helps you build credit.

“Your credit score helps lenders measure your ability to handle your money and repay your debts, which in turn determines the interest rates you pay for your car, mortgage, credit cards, and even rent,” advised Ross.

Paying student loans on time helps you establish a positive credit history. Credit cards, when used responsibly, can also improve your credit score.

If you’re worried about not being able to pay off the balance, you can still use a credit card to build credit.

“Set up one small recurring [and] predictable payment on the card,” advised Michelle Waymire, a financial adviser and blogger at Young + Scrappy.

Waymire advised charging the small recurring monthly expense, such as Netflix or Spotify, and then setting up autopay on your credit card to pay off bills as soon as your statements arrive.

“The benefit is that everything is on autopilot, you can keep your cards at home, and you’re building a consistent payment history with zero effort,” she said.

4. Build good spending habits

While saving is important, you’ll want to have a little fun. You can do that without jeopardizing your financial goals by spending smartly.

“Spending smart isn’t about buying cheap food and home goods,” Woroch said. “Instead, smart shopping has to do with learning the sale cycles, knowing where to find extra savings, and cultivating some impulse control.”

Woroch advised shopping at sales racks, buying generic, and searching for items secondhand using Facebook Marketplace, Tradesy, and local consignment stores.

You can also explore affordable travel destinations and ways to save on groceries and entertainment, such as joining rewards clubs, using coupons, and attending free events.

5. Start saving for retirement

While it might seem like retirement is a long time away, start investing early to take advantage of compound interest and build a big nest egg with less effort.

“Investing early in life, even if it’s a relatively small amount, adds up quickly when you have decades until retirement,” advised Dina Isola, a financial adviser at Ritholtz Wealth Management and personal finance blogger at Real$martica.

Ross suggested checking if your employer offers a retirement plan, especially if the employer matches 401(k) contributions. If you don’t have a 401(k), she advised opening an individual retirement account, also known as an IRA.

Isola also stressed that you should treat contributions to retirement savings as a bill you must pay, just like rent, and advised working up to saving around 20% of income, doing so slowly if necessary.

It’s also important to be smart about the items in which you invest.

“When you invest, be a cheapo,” Isola said. “Tools such as FINRA’s Fund Analyzer can help investors compare costs of different funds. There are also many low-cost fund options, or robo-advisers, if you need more planning help.”

She suggested being “boring” and choosing simple investments, such as index funds.

“Good investing is strategic and methodical,” Isola said. “Excitement is for gamblers, and we all know who gets the good odds in gambling.”

6. Build an emergency fund

Finally, it’s essential to start an emergency fund so that you don’t end up in debt because of unexpected expenses.

“For many recent graduates, living paycheck to paycheck is common,” Ross said. “Even though setting aside some money for an emergency fund might sound unrealistic, saving just $5 a week can help if something unexpected happens, like a job loss, medical bill, or car repair.”

Isola indicated an emergency fund is “the first line of defense against racking up credit card debt,” and suggested keeping your emergency fund in a separate account so you won’t be tempted to spend the money unless it’s a true emergency.

You’ll also want to make sure your emergency fund is big enough to shield you from roadblocks.

“Start with $1,000, then work towards saving up three to six months worth of necessary expenses,” advised Waymore. “If you work in a more stable industry and make a predictable salary, you can get away with three months, but if your employment is more unpredictable, shoot for six months.”

If you start an emergency savings fund and work it into your budget, you can build your emergency fund as quickly as possible so you’re protected from bumps in the road.

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Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality and will make a positive impact in your life. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print understand what you are buying, and consult a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time. Please do your homework and let us know if you have any questions or concerns.