Your first regular paycheck will probably buy you and your friends a round of drinks.
With the second one, though, you have a prime opportunity to start setting yourself up for success.
“I think it’s a big transition,” says financial planner Michael Solari. “Especially coming from college, not making any money, to coming home with a paycheck. People’s heads spin about what they should do.”
However, a regular paycheck and a steady income provide exactly what you need to start making good financial decisions for the future.
Here, find seven smart steps you can take with that money to start building wealth right away.
1. Take stock of your student loans.
First things first: If you have student loans, you aren’t doing yourself any favours by waiting to see if your lender notices you’ve graduated.
Some loans have what’s called a “grace period,” or a six-month gap after you’re finished with your education, ostensibly to allow you to set up an income. The thing about grace periods, though, is that interest continues to accumulate — so if you can start making payments immediately, it can ultimately save you money.
“Figure out whether you have private or federal loans,” advises Solari, “and if you have federal, figure out how to consolidate them, and whether you qualify for programs like PAYE. If you have private loans that you took out when your credit score was lower, there’s the potential to refinance at lower rate.”
2. Get an idea of your cash flow.
If you’re making $US60,000 a year, you aren’t depositing $US5,000 a month into your bank accounts. Most people have taxes, some retirement contributions (more on that later), and insurance payments taken from their paycheck before they ever see it.
That’s the money coming in. But what about the money going out?
The other half of your cash flow is the money you’re spending, and with apps like Mint and LearnVest, which allow you to connect all of your accounts and keep track of the activity for you, keeping an eye on your outflow is easier than ever. As long as you’re bringing in an amount equal to or more than you’re spending, you should be able to stay out of debt.
3. Set up a budget
Don’t panic — a budget is just a plan for how you’ll spend your money. There’s nothing worse than realising $US300 evaporated into burritos and phone cases, and setting a budget is a way to pre-empt that disappointing phenomenon. Once you have an idea of your cash flow, setting up a budget is simple. Use these tips to get on the right path, and check out this example of how one 20-something set up his budget.
4. Start funding a retirement account.
Solari admits that for many young clients, retirement is so far away that it’s an afterthought.
Ironically, young people are best-positioned to save most effectively. That’s because retirement accounts are invested and benefit from compound interest, which means when you wait to start saving, you’ll have to contribute a disproportionate amount of cash to catch up to the early birds. And if you’re lucky enough that your employer both offers a 401(k) and matches your contributions — that is, contributes the company’s money to your account up to a given percentage of your own contributions — declining to use the account is essentially giving up free money.
Aside from the employer-provided 401(k), the two most common alternate forms of retirement accounts are the IRA and Roth IRA. This interactive tool can help you choose which form of IRA might be right for you.
Once you start auto-depositing a little money into your retirement account — and maybe even increasing it each time you get a raise — you’re better positioned to start using your money to achieve the things you want most in the (nearer) future.
5. Figure out your financial goals for the next few years.
Right now, your paycheck might cover rent and brunch, but what about five years from now? Ten? You don’t need to know exactly where you’ll be or what you’ll be doing, but thinking about some of life’s biggest and most expensive milestones now gives you time to start turning them into a reality.
Do you want to buy a house? Have a wedding? Have a child? Take a trip to Bali? Setting aside some money each month towards those goals for the next few years will make them a lot less intimidating when it comes time to act.
6. Set up auto-transfers into a savings account.
The problem with money that goes into savings is that it feels like cash you don’t get to spend, and that’s not a whit of fun. But there’s a way to trick yourself out of that separation anxiety: auto-transfers from your checking account into your savings. “It’s easier to save what you don’t think you have than to try and save what you know you have,” Solari explains.
Plus, he suggests, it’s a handy trick to get yourself used to living on your available cash even before you start saving a considerable amount — like if your employer requires a year’s tenure before you can contribute to the company 401(k). “If you can set up an auto-transfer initially, even if you can’t transfer the money into a to 401(k), have it go to an IRA as soon as possible,” he says. “That way it’s easier to make that transition later.”
Setting it up is simple — usually, you can do it through your bank’s website or with a quick phone call to customer service, and you can always change the amount sent to savings.
7. Get the insurance you need.
Insurance is boring until you take a trip to the hospital. Then, it’s the best thing you’ve ever bought.
Beyond the health insurance that’s hopefully subsidized by your employer (and dental and vision, if you’re lucky!) there are also some worst-case-scenario insurances.
“Two things that young professionals don’t really think about are potentially becoming disabled, or passing away,” Solari says. “Many employers will offer some type of group life and group disability insurance, so it’s affordable and cheap enough that they should be grabbing a minimum of what their employer offers. Insurance is important because it’s a low probability, but it can be a really high risk it something were to happen.”
Even if you’re young, healthy, and single without dependents or even a mortgage, Solari would still recommend signing on, but not supplementing your coverage with a private policy outside of your employer. “That’s more for people who have a home purchase, or they’re married, or they might have some kids,” he says.