This post first appeared on Forbes.com.
We’ve all seen how landing that precious first job after college isn’t exactly easy these days. Job growth is sluggish and the unemployment rate is stuck above 8 percent. But while it may be difficult out there for college grads, they also are at a tremendous advantage. Right now the unemployment rate for adults over age 25 who have a high school degree but no college degree is 8.1 percent. The unemployment rate for college grads: 3.9 percent.
That speaks volumes about the value of a college degree.
While landing your first full-time job is indeed cause for some serious celebration, it’s also the time to establish smart money management habits. Be financially reckless and you could pay dearly for years to come. Here are 7 financial moves to make now. It will pay off the rest of your life.
Take Control of Your Student Loans
Job or no job, lenders expect you to start paying back your loans within six months of leaving school. If you have federal loans there are options for delaying payments. You can also get on a payment schedule for low-income individuals. But you must take the initiative to apply for these programs. (Learn more at the Dept. of Education’s student aid website.) Benign neglect is not an option; if you fail to start repayment – or apply for deferment – in a timely fashion your loans can fall into default. This triggers all sorts of penalties and fees, and will seep into the rest of your financial life. Loans in default will damage your credit score. Which leads to my next point. …
Pay Your Bills on Time
If you’ve yet to get schooled on credit scores, here’s the abbreviated version: it’s a snapshot of your degree of financial responsibility. That is going to come into play when you apply for a loan. A version of your credit score can even impact the premium on your car insurance. The best thing you can do is to pay your bills on time. Ideally you want to pay off your entire bill, but even if you can just manage the minimum, the key is to get it paid on time.
Negotiate Your Salary
Get a job offer in this tough economy and you’re bound to feel pretty grateful. But don’t let your gratitude cloud your judgment. Resist the temptation to accept the first offer. Respectfully negotiate your salary. A 2010 survey found that people who negotiated landed $5,000 more in salary on average. Beat the hiring manager to the punch and name your target salary when you know an offer is coming. Set the “anchor” salary that your negotiations will pivot around. If you leave everything to HR, that anchor is going to be lower.
Don’t Refuse an Instant Bonus at Work
I’m talking about a 401(k) or 403(b) plan. If your new job offers a retirement plan, it may also dangle a nice incentive to get you to participate: For every dollar you invest in your retirement account, your employer will kick in a matching contribution. Each plan has its own formula for how it issues the match. One common system is that for every dollar an employee saves in the plan, the employer will cough up 50 cents, up to the first 6% of your salary. Can’t imagine having 6% of your gross pay shaved off every pay period for retirement savings? Try it. Studies have shown that folks who agree to this deferral rate manage to adjust. The payoff: tens of thousands of dollars more in retirement.
No 401(k) or 403(b)? Get a Roth IRA ASAP
This year, individuals with modified adjusted gross income below $110,000 can invest up to $5,000 in a Roth Individual retirement account. Married couples that file a joint tax return with MAGI below $173,000 can each save $5,000 this year. Roth IRAs are perfect for young adults. Don’t worry, you don’t have to come up with the $5,000 all at once. Just push yourself to start saving. Many discount brokerages and fund companies will help you save by setting up an automatic system that siphons money from a checking account into your Roth IRA every month or quarter. Money in a Roth IRA can grow for decades without the IRS laying a finger on it; then in retirement you get to withdraw the money without owing the IRS a penny. That’s right – it’s tax free. That’s why you want a Roth. If your company retirement plan offers a Roth version, that’s something worth seriously considering. Just like the Roth IRA, money you save up will be tax free in retirement.)
For your long-term goals please give stocks a fair shake in your 401(k), 403(b) or Roth IRA. I totally understand if you’re a bit circumspect; the past 10 years haven’t exactly been great for stocks. But here’s the challenge: You aren’t investing for next year, or even next decade. Your goals is 30 to 40 years off. And if you’re determined to avoid risk and stick your money in cash or bonds you are actually setting yourself us for another risk you might be blind to: inflation. The cost of stuff rises over time. The long-term average is 3% a year. If your money is earning just 1% in a money market account, or maybe a little more in a bond fund, you’re not going to keep pace with inflation. Over years and decades that will mean your retirement savings is not going to allow you to maintain your standard of living. But over the past 90 or so years the average return for stocks is about 10%. That includes all sorts of bull and bear markets. Now to be clear, we don’t know what the future holds. But over decades, history has shown us that stocks offer the best chance of inflation-beating gains. Take a deep breath, think about your 70-year-old self, and put some of your retirement savings in stocks.
Automate, automate, automate
No matter how great your intentions are, human nature has a high probability of screwing up those intentions. For example, you want to save $200 a month for an eventual car down payment. But then at the end of the month you look at your checking account and you realize you can’t swing it. Solution: automate your savings. Many banks and credit unions will be more than happy to automatically move money from your checking account each month into a savings account (or two or three.) Schedule it to occur a day or two after your paycheck hits the checking account. Extra tip: if your bank or credit union’s interface allows you to name your accounts, do it. Literally give it a name such as “my next car” or “Coachella 2013.” Studies have shown that giving our savings accounts a specific name and goal helps us save more, and stay committed to saving.