So, you made it through the billion coffees, job fairs, interviews, reference checks, and tests, and finally got a job offer! You feel like a rock star (rightfully so!), but if we’re being honest here, the allure of a paycheck in the future probably has a lot to do with how you feel.
But before you mentally spend your paycheck away, consider this: You have an opportunity to set yourself up for a lifetime of successful personal finance habits. It doesn’t have to be a super complicated system—if you’ve heard of the Pareto Principle or the 80/20 rule, you’ll know that 80% of results can come from just 20% of your actions. Here’s a few things you can do now to set yourself up for success:
Sign up for automatic bill pays: First things first—bills have to get paid. If you’re not in the habit of signing in to your various accounts and paying bills manually, you can eliminate a lot of stress and guesswork by signing up for automatic bill pays. Same goes for student loan repayments—sign in once to all your providers to set up automatic withdrawals. Then, add a reminder on your calendar for the withdrawals so that you don’t accidentally incur overdraft fees.
Pay off credit card debt: Similar to the point above, make sure you’re paying at least all the minimum payments on your credit card(s). No one really tells you how damaging not paying off credit cards or other forms of high interest debt can be, so let us just reiterate this point: pay off high interest debt (anything over 3-4%) as soon as you can. Additionally, you should make it a priority to contribute an additional $100 or more to your credit card debt each paycheck. If you simply have no room in your budget to put an extra $100 towards debt repayment, challenge yourself to either earn some extra money through side hustles or overtime if you are able to.
Avoid lifestyle creep: Everybody wants nice things, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Figure out what matters to you. If not having roommates is where you draw the line, you might have to find a place with longer commute times. If eating out and meeting your friends every weekend is important, consider only shopping from consignment stores. It can be tempting to go out and get everything you ever wanted as a struggling student, but putting some thought around what truly matters to you may help you be more mindful about your money.
Make a budget: You knew this was coming. Making a budget doesn’t have to be like pulling teeth—it can actually be quite freeing to know exactly how much money you have to spend after paying for all your fixed expenses. And actually—there’s something to be said about the gratification from spending on something you’ve been saving up for and budgeting for a while. But be careful: to borrow a quote from popular money-guru Paula Pant, you can afford anything…but not everything.
Cut down on fixed expenses as much as you can: Cutting out unnecessary expenses and going for small wins can add up, but you might be able to make a bigger impact by reconsidering your fixed expenses like rent, transportation, utilities, and insurance. Consider bringing in roommates or staying with family if that’s an option to cut down on housing costs. Check with your employer for group rates on insurance or just call your existing provider to see if you qualify for any discounts.
Start building a cash reserve: It’s very, very difficult to predict all the expenses that are going to come up as you start on the road to financial independence. Even something as simple as buying household cleaning supplies can throw your carefully devised grocery budget for a loop. Things break down and opportunities come up, which means you need to start building a cash reserve as soon as your first paycheck comes in. If you want to go the extra step, use a budgeting software like You Need a Budget to plan for one-off or irregular expenses.
Work toward an emergency fund: It’s not going to happen overnight, but one of your first financial priorities should be to work toward at least six months’ worth of living expenses in an easy-to-access checking or savings account. You can make this step easier by treating this just like a bill—create an automatic transfer from your checking account into a high yield savings account and date it for your first paycheck of the month.
Sign up for that 401(k) or retirement plan: you might not be 100% certain what a 401(k) is (if you want to learn though, we got you) but it’s important to sign up for one ASAP. A 401(k) and other tax-advantaged accounts let you make pre-tax contributions into a retirement fund for yourself. Your employer might even match your contributions up to a specific percent. So, if you put $100 of pre-tax money per paycheck into this account, your employer may put in $100 for you as well. If you don’t contribute anything though, your employer won’t either.
Try to give back to others: Whether it is time or money, make it a habit to help others in your community or the world in general. Many people are going through really tough times, and having steady work and income gives you an opportunity to give back. Many employers have employee-volunteering hours or may match donations—ask and take advantage of these programs to maximize your impact.