When you get your first real paycheck after college, it feels for an instant like you have all the money in the world. But between student loans, rent, utilities, groceries, and a social life, it doesn’t take long for those funds to vanish from your bank account.
It’s normal for young adults to feel lost when it comes to money matters, but now’s the best time to form those smart habits that’ll last throughout your lifetime. mental_floss spoke with a financial planning professional about the best ways for young adults to navigate their newfound financial independence.
1. START SAVING FOR RETIREMENT NOW.
It’s hard to imagine reaching retirement age when you’ve just started your career—most young people don’t know what they’ll be doing next weekend, let alone 40 years from now—but the sooner you start planning, the better off you’ll be. “When I talk to people even in their late 20s and early 30s, the first thing they’ll say is, ‘We should have been saving for years,’” says Scott Stencler, vice president of Wealth Advisory Services in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. “That’s everyone’s biggest regret.”
Not everyone just starting out can afford to put $100 of every paycheck into savings, but according to Stencler, what’s important is not how much you’re saving but that you’re saving at all. “Think of it like a bill,” he said. “Even if you’re putting $25 a month away, do it automatically out of your paycheck so it’s like forced savings.”
2. CHOOSE THE RIGHT HEALTH PLAN FOR YOU.
When you can stay out drinking until 3 a.m. and still feel fine the next day, it’s easy to feel invincible. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be covered in case the unexpected should occur. Stencler recommends choosing a healthcare plan that works well with your budget and fits your specific needs. “You have a plan in case something happens— you break a leg, you are in an accident,” he says. “So sometimes having the Cadillac of plans and paying for it when you barely use it is not always to the best of your advantage.”
Under the Affordable Care Act, young adults are eligible to stay on their parents’ plan until age 26, but even if your parents are cool with it that doesn’t necessarily make it the smartest option. “[These young people] are paying more than what they really need to, so sometimes going on their own plan and having that reduced price-wise isn’t so bad,” Stencler says.
3. REVIEW YOUR BENEFITS PACKAGE.
It’s hard to find the time to review your benefits amidst the chaos of starting a new job. Many companies offer their employees a whole lot more than just health, dental, and a 401(k), and if you’re not taking the time to look over those smaller benefits as well you’re passing up free money. “A lot of times we get this nice little booklet and that gets thrown in the corner and you don’t realize all the great benefits that are in there,” says Stencler.
Some businesses have agreements with gyms, cell phone providers, and cable companies that allow their employees to receive automatic discounts. Benefits like reimbursement for parking or commuting expenses are also included in most comprehensive packages. And if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the pages and pages of information, don’t be afraid to reach out to your HR department—that’s what they’re there for.
4. BUILD AN EMERGENCY FUND.
If you’re working at a low-paying job in an expensive city, living paycheck-to-paycheck may feel like your only option. But if you should ever lose your job unexpectedly, it’s vital to have a security net that will last you until you get back on your feet. Having enough in savings to cover you for six months to a year is ideal, but Stencler realizes this isn’t something everyone can achieve right away. “It’s not something you can expect someone to do in a month or two,” he says. “It does take time to do it and that’s a goal to work towards.” Getting laid off is just one complication you should be prepared for—theft, emergency repairs, or injuries that keep you from working are all situations in which it’s good to have a little extra in the bank.
5. START BUILDING CREDIT.
Even if you don’t necessarily need a credit card, it’s important to start using one early on. “Sometimes the worst thing we can do is pay for everything with cash or right out of our checking accounts and never show any type of credit history,” Stencler says. “You’re making good income, you’re paying your bills on time, but nobody knows.”
By using a low-limit credit card to pay for minor expenses and paying it off at the end of each month, you’re showing banks that you’re using that credit responsibly. That good credit history will come in handy when you need to take out a loan later in life.
6. MANAGE YOUR STUDENT DEBT.
One huge financial burden many young people face right out of college is student debt. If you have multiple loans to pay off it’s easy feel overwhelmed, but doing some quick research can make tackling those bills (relatively) painless. Stencler recommends looking into which of your loans have the highest interest rates and taking care of those first. “A lot of people will pay off a smaller loan first thinking they can knock that out, but the interest rate may be lower,” he says. It may also be worth seeing if you can consolidate your loans into one bill at one low interest rate.
7. AVOID GETTING INTO MORE DEBT.
You may not be able to escape the debt you’ve already accumulated, but you can prevent yourself from digging the hole any deeper. The simplest way to do this is to avoid spending money you don’t have and stay one step ahead of any bills you’re paying. “Debt is a major factor that really cripples young people,” says Stencler. “The biggest thing with any debt, whether it’s credit card debt, or car loan payments, is once you get behind it’s very hard to catch up.”
Young adults have enough to worry about: Don’t let avoidable financial woes add even more stress to your life.
This material is for general information only and not intended to provide specific advice or recommendation for any individual.