Paycheck 101: A College Grad’s Guide for How to Manage an Income

There you are, a college graduate with your newly-minted degree in one hand and new job in the other—or confidence that you will have one soon. For years you’ve waited for a real job with a real paycheck so you could get a decent car, apartment and a respectable wardrobe. After all, these are the things you so richly deserve for having nearly starved to death for lo these many years.

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Well, not so fast, Buckaroo. Before you do a thing we need to go over the fundamentals of managing a paycheck―a small detail that may have been overlooked in the courses you took to prepare you for the real world.

When net is gross

You may have figured your annual salary―a number that has you seeing dollar signs. That is your gross salary. Do not fall in love with it. A $35,000 annual salary when reduced by 30 percent for “withholding” for taxes, Social Security, etc., then divided up into 52 weekly paychecks suddenly looks more like $470.

First things first

As a full-on adult wage earner it is important that you adopt a personal standard for the management of your paychecks. It is not how much you earn that matters. It is how much you keep. Make it a personal rule that you will live on 80 percent of your net income, whatever that amount might be. Get used to this now and you’ll breeze through life as your income grows. Ignore this wisdom by living on more than you earn and your suffering has only just begun.

Your expenses

You need to get a handle on your true expenses starting with absolute essentials. I can predict some of them for you: shelter, food, insurance, gasoline. You may have other essential expenses if you have arrived at your first job dragging a load of debt behind you, in which case you need to consider your student loan payment and credit-card payment as essential expenses.

No new wheels

If there is one critical mistake you could easily make at this time, it would be to either buy or lease a new car. Get that idea out of your head! You cannot afford a car payment. And even if you think you can, you can’t. You have survived this long with that old clunker, you can do that for a while longer.

No fancy pad

If you cannot become someone’s roommate (several someone’s will keep your expenses way low), consider moving back home for a while, if they will have you. Take it from me, the parent of adult children: If you come home with a grateful spirit, you do your own laundry, clean up after yourself, carry your weight in household chores; if you are pleasant to be around, pitch in and help with meals and do nice things for your mom―you will be welcomed with open arms. In fact, they may beg you to stay. At least for awhile until you get on your feet.

Get off the plastic

Yes, I am aware that you have a credit card. And if you begin to see it as part of your available cash resources, you’ll be dead in the water in no time. This is why I want you to put that thing away. Far away, and in a safe place. Your carefree years of living on the plastic are over.

Face the music

If you have student loans, you may have six months grace period from graduation before you must begin making repayment. But you do not have to wait that long. Start now and you’ll pay less interest. You will learn from your lender that there are multiple payment plans. Go to the Federal Student Aid website for a guide to repaying your federal student loans.

And in conclusion … 

Quite possibly the most valuable aspect of your education was that part about learning to live on next to nothing, figuring out how to scrape by. You may need to do that for a few more years as you get your financial bearings. As a bonus you’ll find financial freedom while you are still young.

If you follow what I say, one day you will thank me.

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3 replies
  1. Leslie Cooper
    Leslie Cooper says:

    Excellent advice. I did most of these things when I graduated. I was blessed with parents who paid for my college as long as I worked and contributed, so I did not have student loans. I got a job (not connected to my major at first, but it was a paycheck), a roommate and an inexpensive apartment, drove a car that had more rust than paint, ate a lot of canned tuna, and traded clothes with friends. I look back on those days as educational and so much fun!

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  2. Lisette
    Lisette says:

    I would add one more thing: great that you got a job. Give it your all and work, and behave, like someone two grades up from your actual position. And have a side hustle. Unless you have just walked into a six figure job, you need a side hustle and likely will need one for about the next decade. You had fun in college. The party is now over. Getting on your feet financially, paying off your loans, and saving for a house, retirement, and child care for your future kids is going to require you to work full out till you are 35 or so.

    Reply
  3. cherie
    cherie says:

    This is a great piece – saving it to show my college bound in a while. I would differ on one point though. Yes, they should not wait to budget that loan payment, but I think there is value in paying it to themselves in the first six months. Three months worth will be a great emergency fund. Take another month and set it aside for a working wardrobe. Then take the last two months as savings for some other need – either for more ’emergency’ money or for a security deposit, car repairs on that clunker or some other ‘impending’ cost – even as a travel fund as they chase jobs or go to friend’s weddings etc. There is value in those things too. I think what’s most important is that they not ‘spend’ that money as part of their regular budget, but rather get used to living on their income WITHOUT that amount immediately.

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