A New Graduate Guide to Managing a Paycheck
- 2009 5 Jun
There you are, a college graduate with your newly-minted degree in one hand and new job in the other -- or the assurance that you will have one soon.
For years you have 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 these many years.
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 all of 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. What you actually receive each pay period will be considerably less exciting thanks to the diminishing effect of taxes, Social Security and a list of other things that go to make up withholding. The vanishing portion of your gross income could be as much as 30 percent. What remains is your net income.
My point is that a $35,000 annual salary when reduced by 30 percent, then divided 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 -- no matter the size. If you establish this standard now, you will be miles ahead of your peers, no matter the size of their paychecks. Never forget this: It is not how much you earn that matters. It is how much you keep of what you earn that will make all the difference.
Youre used to formulas if you took chemistry. This one is way easy: 10-10-80. No matter the size of your paycheck, make it a personal rule that you will give away 10 percent, save 10 percent and then live on 80 percent of your net income -- whatever that amount might be. Get used to this now and youll breeze through life as your income grows. Ignore this wisdom by living on more than you earn and your suffering has only just begun.
Next 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.
Make a list of your monthly essential expenses. Some you will have to estimate, like food and gasoline. Now look at 80 percent of ,your monthly net income. Deduct your essential expenses. How much is left?
If by some stroke of horribleness you are already upside down, we need to talk. Seriously. You cannot start out living on more money than you earn. And if your bare bones essential expenses are greater than your income, you need to think about getting a second job. Even a third. It is mandatory that you start out in this new phase of life in the black -- not the red.
Hopefully, when you deducted your essential expenses, you saw a nice balance remaining. Great. Now you should select one optional expense at a time to add to your monthly expenses. I have a feeling that your cell phone will be next. You may need to buy a few pieces of clothing and shoes for your new job. But be careful here. You absolutely cannot go over your income.
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. And thats exactly what you want to do, am I right? Forget about it. Get that idea out of your head! Until you have amassed a sizable nestegg, known as a savings account, that is equal to at least three times your monthly net income -- 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 someones will keep your expenses way low), consider moving back home for a while, if they will have you. Of course you will pay rent, but it should be less than carrying the entire cost of renting an apartment by yourself.
You may take a little heat for turning into a boomerang (yeah, that is what the media is calling you kids who leave and then come back again), but 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, youll be dead in the water in no time. This is why I want you to put that thing away. Far away, in a safe place. Your carefree years of living on the plastic are over, my friend.
Do not try to fool yourself into thinking that you can put those cute shoes on the card today and that great chair for the apartment, too -- and somehow it will all work out when the bill arrives.
Get real. How will you do that? If you will have enough money left over after you have paid your essentials to pay for the stuff you are charging, wait. Just hold tight until you have that money in your hand. Then instead of sending it to the credit card company, go buy the shoes and chair. See how this works? It is a fascinating concept called saving first, then paying cash.
Face the music
If you have student loans, you have six months grace period from graduation before you must begin making repayment. But you do not have to wait that long. In fact, the sooner you begin the more interest you will not have to repay.
You will learn from your lender that there are multiple payment plans. Go to http://www.ombudsman.ed.gov/repayment.html for a clear explanation.
Some of these plans stretch your payments to the limit, keeping you in debt forever. Theyre doing you no favors by making it so easy to be in debt for the rest of your life.
Here is my advice: Buckle down and work harder than you have ever worked so you can wipe out your student debt in three years or less. You can do it, and you will be better for having made the effort. Then you will be able to devote yourself to building wealth for your future -- your debt-free future.
Starting right now, create a habit that you write down how you spend your money. That single new behavior will revolutionize your finances. It will show you where the money went so you can know better how to plan next month and the next, right on to financial freedom.
Critical six weeks
What you do in the next six weeks will determine the financial direction of your life. The decisions you make will set your course. If you disregard my warnings, opting instead to buy or lease a new car with seven years of payments, sign on the dotted line to lease an apartment, go into debt to buy a bunch of stuff from Ikea, finagle a deferment on your student loans and fail to save any of your paychecks, you will set yourself up for a lifetime of financial misery. It will be like a snowball. In no time you will be buried, working most of your life to simply keep up with interest payments.
If, on the other hand, you practice what you have already learned -- how to live on next to nothing, which is also called being a student -- you will begin revving your engines to take off. By paying off your debts early you will be way ahead of your peers, no matter their line of work or their incomes.
Bite the bullet
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. Do that now for the short term, so you can find financial freedom while you are still young. If you follow what I say, one day you will thank me.
Published June 5, 2009.
Copyright © 2009 Mary Hunt. All rights reserved. Permission to reprint required.
Check out Mary's recently released revised and expanded edition of The Financially Confident Woman (DPL Press, 2008).
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