No matter how many economics, accounting or life skills classes you take in school, nothing will prepare you for real-life money problems until you start out on your own. There’s no excuse, however, not to educate yourself on personal finance before it’s too late. After you’ve graduated from college, take into account these 101 money rules for budgeting, taxes, spending, emergency funds, evaluating your income, living frugally, saving your retirement and paying bills.
Budgeting and Organization
These money rules and tips will teach you about budgeting for big expenses and discretionary spending so that nothing will catch you off guard.
- Manage the money you have right now: Don’t just budget for your future lifestyle, crunch the numbers according to your actual paycheck and expenses.
- Evaluate your monthly income: This could mean money you’re pulling from savings (if you’re in grad school) or all of your jobs — including freelance work — combined.
- Create a budget for one-time expenses, too: If you’re moving to a new place, you’ll need to budget for security deposits, utility installation, and other one-time fees.
- You should spend less than you earn: It sounds obvious, but it’s easy to slap your credit card down when you see something you want.
- You can track your accounts online: There are lots of free budget tools online, and they will help you analyze your budget, savings, investments and payments.
- Don’t let your bank account get to $0: Always have a little padding in your checking account in case there are pending charges you forgot about that push you into the red zone.
- Include discretionary expenses: Discretionary expenses could be eating out, movies, concerts, trips or new clothes, so make sure you account for them in your budget.
- Keep track of every expense, every day: This simple trick will help you identify where you’re spending your petty cash, and how to cut back on frivolous purchases.
- Leave a little room for rewards: If you’re tied to your budget 24/7 all year long, it’s easy to turn into a bitter Scrooge. Every once in a while (as in, not every week), reward yourself with a lunch date or new DVD.
- Commercials really affect your spending habits: Accept the fact that our consumer-driven society does influence the way you view money and possessions, and find a way to fight those urges. You can watch less TV, spend more quality time with friends, and set goals for yourself.
You know that you have to pay all your bills on time, but what about all the little nuances that come with bills, like paying online, deciding whose name to put on each account, or filing bills? Here are tips for organizing your bills.
- If you have roommates, don’t be responsible for all bills: This means that you shouldn’t put all the bills in your name. Split up the responsibility so that everyone feels the pressure to pay on time, every time.
- Pick a consistent bill pay method: You can pay some bills online and some by check, but don’t mix them up. Pay your phone bill the same way each time, and your rent the same way each time.
- Keep all your bills in one place: Keep all bills in one folder or container so that you don’t lose them around your apartment.
- Make sure you have enough money in your checking account to pay bills: You can damage your credit if you over-draft on your account or the check bounces.
- Write down due dates: Especially if you have roommates, keep a master calendar and circle due dates in your planner, too.
- Make copies of checks, and keep a record of when you paid: In case your check gets lost in the mail or you forget when you last paid, keep a file with copied checks, and/or write on your calendar when you made payments.
- Cancel subscriptions for things you no longer want: Avoid getting billed for free trials that turn into paid subscriptions by canceling them on time.
One of the first things you should do after you get a job is set up an emergency fund to protect yourself if you get hurt or find yourself unemployed. Here’s how to do it right.
- Do it right away: As soon as you can, set aside at least $500-$1000 for an emergency fund, for car maintenance, doctor’s appointments and other emergencies.
- Your emergency fund is your personal self-insurance: Get Rich Slowly encourages newbies to think of their emergency fund as personal insurance that is part of a larger plan.
- Pick a goal that’s right for you: Don’t just pick an arbitrary emergency fund number. Figure out how much cushion you want and for how long.
- Don’t keep your emergency fund tied to your debit card: Don’t mix your emergency savings with your monthly budget.
Credit Cards and Banks
Falling into debt is extremely easy, so remember these money rules before getting a credit card.
- Don’t carry a balance: You should only charge amounts that you know you can pay off in full at the end of each pay period. You’ll drown in debt and interest rates if you carry a balance, so don’t even risk getting in the habit.
- Find a credit card with a rewards program that’s right for you: Whether it’s airline miles, cash back or discounts at certain retailers, just make sure the rewards program fits your lifestyle.
- Avoid credit card gimmicks: Don’t get a credit card just because you’ll get a free t-shirt or the company set up a table with free food at your school.
- Shop around for the right bank: Not all banks are the same, so pick one that’s convenient, earns you the highest interest, and has a good reputation.
- Snowflake: The term "snowflaking" means applying extra income to the debt with the lowest balance, even if that extra money is a small amount. If you don’t have any debt, you can snowflake to your savings accounts.
- Understand credit card policies: Protect yourself against debt, interest rate hikes and surprise fees by briefing yourself on credit card policies and national regulations.
- Get a free annual credit report: You’re entitled to one free annual credit report to make sure all your finances are in order and to understand why you can or cannot get a loan, rent an apartment, or find a job.
- Start with a low limit: Ease into credit card use by only starting with a low limit. Most credit card companies will only allow $500 for new card holders anyway.
- Use your credit card: You know that overusing your credit card can be damaging, but you shouldn’t just let your card sit in your wallet either. Use it for occasional purchases even if you can pay cash, because this helps your credit.
- Just get one credit card: Having one credit card payment can help you be more organized and more likely to pay all your balances in full each month.
The rules about identity theft and money scams are straightforward: educate yourself and be proactive about protecting your personal information.
- Be aware of your vulnerability: There are all types of scams out there, but understanding how thieves can steal your personal information — online or off — will help you protect yourself.
- Be careful with your Social Security number: Never give out your SSN through an e-mail or to someone you don’t know.
Whether you’re a freelancer or have a steady salaried job, there are lots of little tips and tricks for managing your taxes each year.
- Give to a charity: Give money to a charity and make sure you receive your receipt.
- Get help: If you’re not very good with money, or you work as a freelancer and have complicated tax rules, you may want to hire an accountant or tax service to file for you.
- Consider e-filing: E-filing with tax software or Free File can save you time and money.
- Set aside a little extra cash in case you have to pay: If you’re nervous about filing, set aside a few hundred dollars in case you have to pay. If you don’t, put that money in savings.
- Ask for tax forms: If your boss forgets to send you your tax forms in February, step up and ask for them. You won’t be able to file without them.
- Claim allowances on your W-4: Use this guide from TurboTax to find out how many allowances you can claim on your W-4, and get less federal tax taken out of your paycheck.
- Opt to get your tax refund by direct deposit: The IRS likes this method best, it’s much faster, and there’s less chance of it getting lost.
- Know the freelance tax rules: You can take more deductions, but you also have to pay a self-employment tax.
- Use your tax refund for savings: It can be tempting to spend all that money right away, but the smartest option is to put your refund in a savings account.
- Take responsibility for your taxes: You can adjust how much is taken out of your paycheck, so if you want a bigger refund, you may want to talk to your boss about withholding more.
These rules regarding personal income may not be what you want to hear right after graduating, but after reading this list, you’ll be better prepared to negotiate a raise and manage your extra earnings.
- You probably won’t make that much right away: Especially in a poor economy, your starting salary isn’t going to be anywhere near your dream income. You’ll just have to stick it out and pursue promotion opportunities when you can.
- As your income rises, so do your expenses: When you get a raise, immediately start putting the extra money in savings, or you’ll just start spending it on new things you deem necessary, just because you have the money.
- Get a job, any job: If you can’t find a job, start volunteering. Having some kind of real-life experience on your resume will increase your chances of finding something that pays.
- Evaluate your job performance: Bargaineering.com calls this your "fire-ability." Are you at risk of losing your job? To help keep your steady paycheck safe, be honest with yourself about job performance and work hard every day.
- Network: Spend the money for an Internet connection and to visit a few networking events. If you get a job out of it, the investment is worth it.
- Consider freelancing: If you have time and won’t threaten your non-compete agreement, consider freelancing a little on the side for extra income. Just remember you’ll have to pay different taxes on freelance work.
You won’t get rich over night, but these money rules and tips will help you build wealth over the long term.
- Have more assets than liabilities: Your ultimate goal should be to have more sources of income (including real estate) than income drains.
- Buy a home when you can: A home is an investment, but don’t make yourself house poor if you really can’t afford it.
- Save 10% of your income each month: It’s the old "pay yourself first" rule, and take the 10% out of your gross pay.
- Abide by the "lifestyle lags income" rule: Live below your means in an effort to build more wealth through investments and savings.
- Appearing wealthy does not mean you are wealthy: Don’t worry about flashing your money; instead, worry about building wealth responsibly.
- Building wealth takes time: There is no "get rich quick" scheme, so be prepared to set and achieve goals slowly but steadily.
Investments and Stock Market
As a new investor, you probably shouldn’t jump right into the stock market. Read these tips first to find out which options are best for you.
- Education is key: How can you expect to become a smart investor if you’ve never looked at the stock market? Read financial journals and watch the markets each day before you start investing.
- Consider your debt first: Investing may not be the most important action for you if you need to pay off debt first.
- Take advantage of 401(k) plans: This is one of the easiest ways to start investing, so be sure to enroll in your company’s plan if they have one.
- Wait until you have cash to invest in stocks: Start with mutual funds and ETFs, and wait until you have enough cash to buy a significant amount of stocks.
- Buy No-Load Mutual Funds: If you’re just starting out, you should buy no-load mutual funds, which means you won’t have to pay a fee.
- Research companies before you buy their stocks: Read a company’s 10K filing report to learn about their operations, accounts and market history.
- Hire an advisor if you have an inheritance: When you need to come up with a plan for large amounts of money like inheritances, it’s best to work with someone else so that you’re getting the best rates and investments.
- Think about automatic investment plans: An AIP allows you to make investments from your checking account.
From Roth IRAs to smaller savings funds, here are money rules to help you stay organized.
- You can start a Roth IRA anytime, as long as you have a job: Even teenagers can set up a Roth IRA, so if you have a job, start saving for retirement immediately.
- Save up for something: it works: Instead of buying and then paying for it later — when you may or may not have the money — save up for a special dress or shopping trip, just like you did when you were little.
- Max out your IRA for five years: By adding more money to your Roth IRA earlier on, you’ll be able to accumulate more wealth by the time you retire.
- Separate your savings: You should have a regular savings plan ($5 a day, for example); savings from non-expenses; and savings to pay off debt.
- Identify what’s keeping you from making the plunge into real savings: Are you a shopper, chronic collector, gadget freak or new home owner? Figure out what your big issue is with saving, and get over it.
- Set deadlines for savings goals: Open-ended goals like "I want to save $1,000" are useless until you tack on a deadline.
- Get something out of your savings: Talk with your bank to make sure you’ve opened the right kind of savings account that will earn you the most money back.
- Save a fixed amount of your income: Instead of saving a specific number each month, save a fixed percent of your income. That way, whenever you get a raise, your savings will automatically increase too.
- Every little bit helps: If you can only afford to save $1 a day, don’t be ashamed. Getting in the habit of putting money into your savings account regularly is extremely valuable.
Loans and Big Purchases
When it comes to buying a car, a house or a TV, consider these money rules.
- Debt affects your loan: If you want to buy a house, the amount of debt you’re already carrying will affect how much money you’re given in a loan.
- Being debt free opens up new doors: Your credit will improve, you’ll have a better chance of getting a house and a car, and you’ll feel better knowing that the money you earn is yours to keep.
- Defer undergraduate loans if you’re going to grad school: You can choose to defer your undergraduate loan payments until after graduate school if you can’t manage a full-time job and school.
- A down payment will help you in the long run: The bigger your down payment, the lower your monthly payments will be on a house, and you’ll get a better rate overall.
- Pay cash: Set aside money every month to buy a new TV or couch and pay in full once you have the money. Don’t charge it.
- Be careful of long-term contracts: If your finances are shaky or the economy is weak, be wary of long-term contracts that will lock you into debt if you lose your job.
- Consider a less expensive item instead: The bank is fronting you the money, but you’re going to have to pay it eventually. Opt for a car or house that you’ll be able to afford after the day you sign the papers.
- Consolidate student loans: There are lots of pros and cons when it comes to consolidating student loans, so weigh each option in order to figure out which payment plan works best for you.
- Apply for federal loans first: To pay for college or graduate school, try to get a federal loan, as these are more stable and may be waived if you take a public service job.
Just because you have money doesn’t mean you should spend all of it. Follow these tips for living frugally so that you can save, invest and eliminate debt.
- You don’t need health insurance right after graduation: Most plans allow recent grads to stay on with their parents’ insurance for a few months up to a few years.
- Change your opinion of what you really want: Sophie Kinsella challenges shopaholics to change their desires in order to cut back on spending.
- Your friends’ spending habits can affect your spending habits: Try to socialize with people who want to spend the way you do. That may mean less dinners out and fewer trips to Vegas, but at least you won’t feel guilty for overspending.
- Cut out your "trimmables": Make a list of needs vs. wants, and be brutal when it comes to crossing out trimmables.
- Find new ways to save on everyday expenses: Just because you’ve budgeted food expenses at $100 week doesn’t mean you can’t trim it down to $85 every once in a while. Get creative with your budget every so often to find new ways to save.
- Find out why you spend: Understanding your motivation to spend — whether it’s to show off or keep up with trends — will help you cut back.
- Stop wasting: Use only what you need in terms of shampoo, toothpaste, cereal, hand soap or detergent to make everything last longer and avoid waste.
- Stop shopping online: You have to pay for shipping, and you’re more likely to click your way to your credit card limit when you shop online.
- You don’t have to pay for exercise: Just because you had a state-of-the-art gym in college doesn’t mean you always have to pay a lot for exercise. Run with a friend, buy a workout DVD to use at home, or find fitness classes on cable.
- Alcohol is expensive: In school you probably drank whenever you felt like it, but now that your tastes have matured (let’s hope) and you have to watch your budget a little more closely, you’re going to have to get more creative when it comes to drinking.
- Borrow, don’t buy: Go to the library and swap DVDs with friends instead of buying them new.
- Lock in annual insurance rates: To avoid rate hikes every six months, try to lock in annual rates for health insurance, life insurance and car insurance.
- You need a transportation budget: From taxis on the weekend to your morning commute, you’ll need to set up a gas and transportation budget each month. Remember that carpooling and bike riding save money.
These rules will help you cut costs on insurance and maintain a healthy perspective when it comes to money.
- Get renter’s insurance: Renter’s insurance may even lower the cost of your car insurance, depending on your carrier.
- Negotiate: If you’d like to pay off a remaining balance on a credit card or loan payment, or meet your emergency fund goal quickly, find a way to negotiate for the extra money, whether by asking for a raise
- Negotiate: If you’d like to pay off a remaining balance on a credit card or loan payment, or meet your emergency fund goal quickly, find a way to negotiate for the extra money, whether by asking for a raise (the right way, of course), selling a piece of furniture you don’t need, or refinancing your mortgage.
- Take risks: You can’t build wealth if you don’t take risks; just make sure you’re educated on the pros, cons, and possible outcomes of your money decision.
- Do what no one else is doing: CNN highlights a quote from Sir James Goldsmith, a financier who said "If you see a bandwagon, it’s too late." You can’t make serious money off a trend that every one in the country is already on top of.
- Be patient: You won’t become a millionaire or even pay off your debt over night, so be patient and don’t lose sight of your goals.