After a bittersweet graduation and an extensive job search, budgeting may be the last thing on your mind. But despite what your college lifestyle may have led you to believe, you’re more responsible for your finances now than ever. Your post-college expenditures won’t just consist of late-night library vending machine raids and beach week martinis, but also rent, utilities, insurance and, well, everything else. It may sound scary, but have no fear! Here are 9 tips on how to create and perfect your very own post-graduate budget.
1. Count your money.
The first step to creating a budget for the future is to evaluate your current financial standing. First, figure out how much you have and if you’re in any debt at this instant by calling or checking online to view the numbers in your checking and savings accounts, and pulling out loan statements and deadlines. Then factor in how much money you’re bringing in, which means combining your salary with the money you receive from any part-time jobs, internship stipends, tips, and any other supplementary income.
2. Do your homework.
Once you move in to your apartment, your bills will show you how much you’re spending, but there are a few things you can do between graduation and move-in day to make sure you’re in for no surprises: call up your utility companies and the landlord of your apartment complex. If you’re using a broker to find your new apartment find out what percent he or she charges and calculate your expenses based on your rent. Even if you’ve been moved in for a while, be smart about the way you estimate your costs. Look over credit card statements from previous months and calculate the average amount you spend on an item monthly. Factor in important details, like how much of your salary is eaten up by taxes each month, so that your estimates are as accurate as possible.
Don’t just research your costs — read up on ways you can pay them, too. Consult your parents to figure out just how much they are willing to support you, if at all. Search for alternative ways of paying off significant costs like student loans. “There are certainly some [student] loan repayment options: if you go to graduate school, for example, or if you serve in the military,” says Craig Daugherty, director of financial aid at Kenyon College. “My advice to any student would be to stay in contact with your lender and to see what options may be available.”
3. Use a toolkit.
The web is full of budgeting instruments that are enormously helpful in tracking your financial standing and compiling information about your savings, checking, investments, car, and living expenses into one online account. Mint.com, for instance, has gained incredible popularity for a reason: among other features, Mint allows you to determine your “net worth” by calculating all your assets and liabilities in one place, categorize your expenses, create micro-budgets within those categories, and know when you’re approaching a budget limit or deadline through reminders, alerts and color-coded bar graphs. Another budgeting site that includes similar features is Buxfer.com.
Not ready to take the dive into a membership, but still looking for information? Chris Bumcrot, a financial researcher and a partner at Applied Research & Consulting in New York City, recommends checking out other public resources like FeedThePig.org, provided by American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), and SaveAndInvest.org— Provided by Financial Industry Regulatory Advisory (FINRA) Investor Education Foundation, both of which provide helpful information, quick tips for financial stability, and savings calculators. Other informative sites include NetQuote.com for free insurance quotes and BankRate.com to look up bank, mortage, auto loan, insurance, tax, and other rates.
4. Fill in the blanks.
Now that you’ve gathered enough information about your expenses, list them on the “what you owe” side of your balance sheet. Don’t forget to consider the costs of starting out on your own. Sites like the ones listed above not only help you organize your budget, but also add items to it that you previously overlooked. Daugherty sees many recent graduates who fail to factor in invisible costs: “When you start a professional career, there are several start-up costs,” he says. “In an office setting, for instance, you need to update your wardrobe — a few new suits, for instance.” Bumcrot agrees that many young adults should be thorough with their budgeting: “The most commonly overlooked expenses by young graduates when budgeting are insurance and taxes,” he adds. “Make sure you account for health insurance, auto insurance, federal and state/local income taxes, Social Security tax, and Medicare tax. Some of these will be taken out of your paycheck automatically, but you still must account for them in your budget.” Here are some of the most common costs for recent grads:
- Rent + broker’s fee
- Utilities (air conditioning, heat, hot water, gas, electric)
- Transportation (parking, gas, public transportation passes, maintenance fees)
- Food (groceries, meals out)
- New clothes (for moving to a new climate or professional setting)
- New furniture (bed frames, couches, TV stand, drawer sets, dining table, chairs)
- Electronics (TV, cable or satellite, Internet, music, cell phone and landline plans)
- Student loans (federal and private)
- Memberships and subscriptions (gym memberships or classes, magazines, newspapers)
- Medical expenses (prescriptions, over-the-counter medications)
- Insurance (auto, health, dental, property)
- Taxes (local, state, federal)
5. Cut down.
If your budget isn’t looking as swanky as you’d like it to, look for ways to trim costs, even if it means sacrificing some freedom right now. Your parents can help in ways other than giving you a place to crash, too. Under the Affordable Care Act, for example, you can be eligible for your parents’ health insurance plan until the age of 26.
Remember that Mint.com and LearnVest.com also have newsletters and helpful tips sent to their members daily, so take advantage of that information if you’re looking for creative new ways to trim your budget.
6. Leave some wiggle room.
Remember when you kept a stash of chocolate bars in your dorm room in case of a bitter break-up or painful all-nighter? Put that kind of thinking to use and create a similar fund for financial emergencies. “It’s a great idea to establish a rainy day fund if you have any extra money at the end of the pay period [the amount of time between each paycheck],” says Daugherty. “It’s tempting to use the remaining amount of money for leisure, but for instance, if you’re experiencing a severe heat wave in the summer, air conditioning bills can climb in the summer. In the winter, the heating bills can do the same. It’s good to have a cushion so that you can prepare for those types of situations.”
Save! Also set aside a portion of your income for — gasp — the future. You are probably only responsible for yourself right now, but at some point you’ll probably be buying a mortgage, supporting children, and eventually retiring, all of which require serious financial preparation. “Consider putting money away for a retirement account, especially if your employer is willing to match what you put in,” says Daugherty. “It’s hard for young people to talk about retirement, but contributing even a little bit of money in your 20s can amount to a lot in your 60s or 70s.”
7. Track your spending and stick to your budget.
Lists and spreadsheets can help you organize your thoughts, but only determination and willpower can actually keep you from exceeding your budget. So exercise self-control and resist the impulse to make it rain like Lil’ Wayne after every paycheck (or if you can’t, be sure to pick up the cash when you’re done and invest it somewhere useful).
Put your own Mint.com or LearnVest.com registration to use, and check out other sites specifically designed for controlling your urge to splurge and save money for what really matters. Here are a few more of the best budgeting apps for your phone — all of which are totally free:
- Saviry by 1Sale — Consolidates coupons from sites like Amazon and Groupon and notifies you of them in real time so that you can stay up-to-date on all your deals and steals by checking just one source.
- ibotta – Gives you cash rebates on grocery items you’re probably already buying.
If you opt not to rely on the web for your finances, though, be sure to keep track of them in some other way.
8. Pay your bills on time.
Whether you keep track of your bills on paper or online, make sure you’re well aware of upcoming deadlines — and how important it is that you meet them. “Make sure that you are paying down any high-interest debt you have as quickly as possible,” says Bumcrot. “It is equally important to be sure that you never fall behind on any of your debt payments, whether low-interest or high-interest. The reason for this is that missed debt payments will adversely affect your credit rating, which will cause financial trouble for you in the years ahead.”
The real question is, how do you remember when your bills are due and make sure you pay them on time? Try setting up personalized alerts: sign up for emails or texts from your bank that notify you when your bills are due, your checking account balance is running low, a payment has been posted to your account, your money has been withdrawn from an ATM, or your credit card activity has exceeded a certain limit, among other options. Don’t forget to use the alerts in your toolkit, too; Mint, for instance, offers alerts and reminders when bills are due. On top of using those scheduling instruments, regulate your cash flow in a convenient way by choosing your credit card bill due date wisely — a date in the month you’ll remember.
9. Make smart adjustments.
Some costs are variable, so be sure to review and revise your budget on a regular basis. Even if your income or overall expenditure isn’t changing, consider transferring money from one category to another. “A budget is a working document,” says Daugherty. “Every few weeks or every month, you may want to revisit it so that the amounts still seem relevant and are working effectively.” And when you do, be sure to update your Mint, LearnVest, or other budgeting tools accordingly!