9 Personal Finance Lessons Every New College Graduate Should Know

Each May thousands of college kids walk across the stage, flip their tassel, and say goodbye to life as a student. However, soon enough, we all realize that those past 18 years of school taught us very few things about how to thrive the real world.

One of the biggest things they missed? Personal finance.

A lot of important decisions, both personal and financial, are made early in life and unfortunately, we’re not given the knowledge to know how to best manage these decisions.

So these are 9 money lessons you can apply to give you a head start in your adult life:

1) Master Your Cash Flow

Your cash flow is simply the money you have coming in (income) and the money going out (expenses). The reason I listed this as the first lesson is because I believe it’s the most important. Without have a good understanding of your cash flow, you can’t effectively build your financial foundation.

Mastering your cash flow helps you avoid living paycheck to paycheck and allows you to gain confidence in your money. As Donovan Brooks (CFP® and Founder of Storyline Financial) says, it's a good indicator of your financial path. This is because everything else in your financial life starts with understanding where the money you have is going. Get your cash flow down and the doors to new opportunities begin to open.

2) Start a Roth IRA

Look, I get it. Opening an investment account and saving money straight out of college is probably the last thing you want to do. But it’s one of the most powerful and impactful things you can do with your money when you’re young because with investments, the more time you have, the longer you can let them grow.

And the best part of a Roth IRA?

The money grows tax-free and allows for tax-free withdrawals - meaning when you go to take out your money at retirement, you don’t have to pay taxes on it. There are very few accounts that allow you to do this so if you're eligible, it's typically recommended to max out the $6,000 annual contribution limit.

3) Learn How to Use a Credit Card

Depending on where you’ve gotten past financial advice from, you may have heard that credit cards are dangerous and you should never own one. However, this isn’t always true.

Andres Mazabel (Business Development Manager at Trust & Will) suggests learning how to use a credit card not only for the benefits, but to avoid getting yourself into debt. Credit card debt is one of the highest interest debts out there and if you get into debt early in life, it's difficult to get out of as it keeps adding up.

Credit cards provide benefits such as cashback and purchase protection and also, having a good credit score allows you to save money on loans such as buying a car or buying a home by getting a lower interest rate.

4) Have separate accounts for checking and savings

If you already have both a checking and savings account, perfect. If you don’t, this is one of the most important lessons to begin implementing. Thomas Kopelman (Financial Planner at RLS Wealth) suggests that you should have a checking, savings, and high-yield savings account.

The reason being is that by separating out your accounts, you can have a clearer understanding of your cash flow and you're able to see what money is designated to spent and what you've saved.

Additionally, high yield savings accounts are great savings options because standard savings accounts have an average interest rate of .06% and high-yield savings accounts average .5% currently.

That means just by opening a high-yield savings account, you’re getting a higher return and earning more in interest. Some common high-yield accounts are Marcus by Goldman Sachs and Ally Bank.

5) Save Every Month

Your parents may have preached the importance of saving for years and oddly enough, they were right. Paying yourself first and saving money from every paycheck before spending money on anything else is one of the most effective ways to get ahead financially.

This can be done by manually transferring money over to your savings account after you get paid or even better, automating it.

6) Automate Your Savings

In addition to saving every month, one way to ensure this happens consistently is by automating your savings. This is an effective way to reduce the chances of lifestyle creep and almost removes the human error from trying to save every month.

With automation, saving happens in the background every month without you even having to think about it.

7) Make Donations a Habit

Zack Hubbard (CFP® at Greenspring Advisors) suggested this lesson and I couldn’t agree more. You can designate a percentage of your income that you’re comfortable with (any amount is okay) and give it to either your favorite charity, people in need, or any other generous actions you prefer. “The world needs more giving, and the benefits to both you and the recipient are substantial”, he says.

8) Consider House Hacking

A great suggestion from Parker Maher (Commercial Real Estate Agent) as it’s been a popular trend over the past decade for young adults. There are a few different ways to you can “house hack” but for simplicity let’s look at one example:

You buy a duplex, live in one unit and rent the other out, with the idea that the rent from Unit #2 covers the mortgage payment. This can be tough to do depending on where you live, but if you can take advantage of this strategy, it’s an effective way to drop your housing costs.

This can have a massive impact on your finances because housing costs are typically the biggest expense in most people’s budgets. However, house hacking is also more complex than regular personal finance strategies so it’s important to do your homework, carefully screen potential tenants, and understand what needs to happen before giving house hacking a try.

9) Live Like You’re Still in College

I believe one of the problems with standard financial advice and recommendations is that it usually comes from people who don't know what it's like to be young in today's world. As someone who's a recent graduate, as well as a few years into their career, Blake Karnes (Clinical Sales Specialist) suggests to continue living like you're still in college after you graduate.

This doesn't mean you have to sleep in bunk beds in a dorm room, but rather continuing the low cost of living. By doing this for a year or two, you'll be able to pay down student loans, save, invest - or all three!  Keeping costs low allows you to get ahead and also reduces the chances of falling victim to lifestyle creep.

The Takeaway

Graduating college is a big life milestone that deserves a celebration. But the next phase of life comes quick and it's important to build good financial habits early to set yourself up for a successful future. By keeping these lessons in mind and applying them when possible, you'll be ahead of the game and well on your way to living a happy, fulfilling life.

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