I will never forget the day I graduated college. Mami, Papi and all eight of my brothers and sisters cheered me on with pride. After the ceremony, I cried so much. The tears kept pouring down because I felt tremendous guilt. I got to spend my weekends studying, watching Netflix, and partying with my friends, while my parents spent their teenage years feeding pigs, milking cows, and growing viveres back in the Dominican Republic. When I was running late for work, I’d hop in an Uber. My parents had to hop on a donkey. This guilt I felt remained with me for several years until I found myself living paycheck to paycheck and buried in almost $20,000 of credit card debt at the age of 25. Then that guilt turned into anger: How was it possible that I could still feel so poor after getting a college degree and securing a decent job?
Two decades of schooling in this country had taught me nothing about credit card interest rates. If your parents are socioeconomically better-off, they’re more likely to be able to teach you the financial skills and knowledge that schools don’t teach us, but for me that wasn’t the case. Luckily, I became obsessed with personal finance and taught myself how to get out of credit card debt and save up my money quickly. I read every book about money that had some good reviews and tuned into podcasts and TED talks. After boosting my credit score and saving a few thousand dollars, I started a YouTube channel called MissBeHelpful to share what I learned with everybody.
Now, I know that most young people are not going to be personal finance nerds like me. So, inspired by this upcoming graduation season, I jotted down 7 pieces of financial wisdom that I would tell my 22-year-old self.
Get to reading.
Do yourself a huge favor and pick up one or two good books about personal finance. You don’t even have to pay for them – just make a trip to the local library. A few that I recommend, written specifically for young people or people earning lower incomes, are Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez, You’re So Money by Farnoosh Torabi and How Millennials Can Get Rich Slowly by William Bernstein. If you’re more of the audio/video kind of person, download audiobooks or podcasts and watch YouTube videos about financial literacy. Just get the basics into your brain ASAP.
Save on the big three.
Rent, food, and transportation are the categories where people spend the most money throughout their lives. Do everything you can to keep your spending in these categories as low as possible for as long as possible. It’s the only way to maximize your hard-earned dollars while you’re still young and carefree. I know it sucks to think about living with mom and dad again after college, but you’re lucky to even have them as an option.
If you don’t go back to your home state after graduation, then get yourself some roommates to split the rent with. Always be in the habit of preparing your meals for the week so that you don’t overspend on lunch while you’re at work. Need ideas? Just check Instagram for #mealprep. Oh – and cut back on all that brunch. You ain’t a celebrity so there’s no need to act like one! Now, when it comes to getting to and from work, it would be dope to have your own car. But, no, use public transportation if it’s available to you. (And you can use that commute time to read those personal finance books you got.) If public transit is not happening where you live, then save money by purchasing a low-cost, used car in decent condition.
Pay off debt like a BEAST.
All the money that you’re NOT spending on super high rent, eating at restaurants, or on a brand new car should go straight to paying off your highest interest debt. Be aggressive and stick to a budget. You have to want to be debt-free so badly that you’ll hold off on buying new things that you want and only buy something if you desperately need it.
Call up all your credit card and student loan companies and find out your interest rate. List them out in order from highest to lowest and send the most money to your highest rate debts while paying only the minimum on your lowest rate debts. It’s a good idea to set up automatic payments on paydays to make sure you don’t spend that money when you get it. This is really hard because it means you have to make a lot of sacrifices while you’re young, wild and free. But trust me when I say that those first few years out of college will fly by and your financial freedom will be SO worth it in your mid to late twenties.
Don’t just save your money, INVEST it.
When you save money in a savings account, you’ll get about 1.5 percent return in interest from the bank. That means after 10 years of saving $100 a month, you’ll have $13,151.97. But if you invested that same $100 every month at an average return of 9 percent, in 10 years you’d have $20,109.09. That’s almost twice as much money in the same amount of time. There’s a bunch of apps and websites that make investing super easy for newbies. You can set it all up right from your smartphone using apps like Acorns, Stash, Wealthfront, and Betterment. It’s a good goal to invest 5 to 10 percent of your income every month.
You still need a savings account.
Just because investing can get you more money over time than a savings account, does NOT mean you should close your savings account and invest all your money. You’ll be in the best financial position if you don’t put all your money in one place. The most recommended strategy is to have $1,000 or more in a savings account by the end of your first year out of college. This money should live in your savings account and be used for emergencies. I recommend having a savings account with Synchrony Bank because it offers the highest interest rate (1.65 percent) in 2018. The goal is to eventually have an emergency fund to cover your rent, bills and food for three to six months in case you lose your job or have some sort of emergency that prevents you from working.
Spend on skills and experiences, not on buying things.
When you graduate, you might feel excited about leaving behind that broke college life. You’ll want to buy yourself things that you always wanted, especially now that you have a real job and can pay for things yourself. But just because you can pay for something, doesn’t mean you can afford it. I fell into this trap when I first graduated, buying lots of new clothes, shoes, jewelry, and expensive brunch and drinks with friends and co-workers.
Instead of buying things like clothes, shoes and fancy drinks, put your money toward learning skills and sharing experiences instead. I’ve learned so many new skills that make me more marketable as a professional and have even saved me thousands of dollars over the past few years including Photoshop, video editing, sewing, cooking, and investing. My next goal is to learn basic coding skills.
Sign up for a 401k or 403b.
If your job offers a retirement account like a 401k or a 403, you’re lucky. But now you need to find out if they’ll match your contributions. If they do offer a match, then you should definitely sign up because that’s FREE money for you. For example, my first job matched my contributions in a 403b account up to 5 percent of my salary. I was earning $40,000, so if I had put in 5 percent or $2,000 in that 403b account by allowing my job to take $83.33 from every paycheck, then they would have matched that amount and I would’ve had $4,000 in the account at the end of the year.
But I chose not to sign up for the 403b account at all, and missed out on that extra $2,000 on top of my $40,000 salary. If your job doesn’t offer a match or there’s no retirement account option for you, then you should open a ROTH IRA on your own. This account has a lot of great benefits, but you’ll need to make sure you qualify for it based on your income.
I know, I know. It’s A LOT. But remember, I learned this stuff little by little over the course of three years.
The point is to start the learning process much earlier than I did. Don’t wait until you’re 25 or 30. You’ll have missed out on a few of the most important years to save. So today – right now – pick one or two things to get started on and you’ll be way better off than I was.