Salary negotiation, credit cards, and rent: 5 financial tips for college grads

Graduation season is here! So we’re sharing stories and tips on how college grads can find great careers that give back. Be sure to follow the series. If you are ready to search for a great opportunity, explore the 17,000+ nonprofit, social enterprise, and government jobs and internships on Idealist.org. And if you want to connect with fellow young nonprofit professionals, join the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network Virtual Networking Fair, Friday May 17th at 1pm EDT.

In addition to finding a great job, how can college grads find work that pays well or simply manage the money they earn? We asked Brenda Cude, consumer economics professor at the the University of Georgia to share some insight on what college grads need to know.

Photo credit: GWImages, Shutterstock
Photo credit: GWImages, Shutterstock

As the class of 2013 hits the streets this summer, money is likely on their minds. We’ve shared some advice before about budgeting and handling student loans, but during that unique post-grad time, what is some student-specific advice?

We spoke to Brenda Cude, a professor of consumer economics at University of Georgia, who teaches personal finance and has done research into how to prepare college students for the real world.

“The key is to start at a place where you manage your money instead of letting things that happen to you manage your money,” she said. What other advice does she have?

Make yourself as marketable as possible—and then get the salary you deserve

This first step is something that can be done while still in college. Cude recommends taking any course you can and setting up any meetings or internships that will make you a more desirable candidate for employers.

“Even if you are working in nonprofits, where you know the salary might be lower than another sector, you can still get the best job and the best salary in that sector if you make yourself more and more marketable,” she said.

And then, do your research when it comes to salary. Of course there are websites that can be helpful, but Cude also recommends talking to someone at your Career Center or within your department. Often times, they survey graduates and alumni to see where they have gone career-wise, and that information could be helpful to you when it comes to negotiating a starting salary. Additionally, Cude said, continue to make yourself marketable by tackling professional development or joining an association, especially once you have a job.

Be frugal when buying your first car or renting your first apartment

Things like cars and apartments are sometimes a necessity, depending on where you choose to live after college. Luckily, I chose New York, so a car wasn’t necessary. But even if you are crashing with the ‘rents for a year or two, you may need to get a new car. Cude advises frugality, even though you may want to splurge.

Brenda Cude, University of Georgia
Brenda Cude, University of Georgia

“Graduating seniors who have had a chance to get a good start [with a job and finances] go backwards by buying a car and picking out a car loan they can’t afford,” she said. “If you have a car that runs and you can afford it, keep it as long as you can. If your car is about to fall apart, and you do need a car loan, my suggestion is to compare and try to get the lowest interest rate.”

She added to not even consider a loan where the term is longer than five years. When negotiating a car payment, “if you can’t make the payment with a five-year term, look for a cheaper make and model of a car.”

When it comes to other big-ticket purchases, there is a tendency to go all out on your “first adult apartment/furniture/wardrobe.” Just be mindful and more conservative when you are first starting out. There’s always room to move up.

Learn the pros and cons of credit

College students are of three types when it comes to credit cards, Cude said: They either have gotten into trouble with a credit card; they don’t have any credit cards and therefore any credit; or, and this is the least unlikely, they responsibly own and used a credit card.

“Some college students have heard consistent messages, typically from parents, about how easy it is to get into trouble or how they aren’t ready for a credit card, so they don’t have any credit or credit card experience,” Cude explained. “Yet we live in a society where building a credit record has some value.”

While it’s obviously important to learn the cons of credit cards, there is some value to having a card and using it responsibly. Consider getting a card with a low credit limit and no flexibility when it comes to payments, Cude suggested. Use it for smaller purchases and pay off the balance on time.

“If you do have credit cards and you have made mistakes, don’t give up on credit cards, just manage them correctly,” she added. “You need some good credit experience to balance out the bad. Just don’t pay anybody who says they can ‘clean up’ your credit record, because they can’t.”

Determine what “emergencies” mean to you, and then set aside a fund to cover those

Cude advises graduates to look at their life and determine what exactly a real emergency would mean for them. Do you have a more beat-up car, any pets, an on-and-off job situation, or an older or sick relative? Set aside money for things like car repairs, vet visits, back-up rent, or last-minute plane tickets. While most financial advice features three months of expenses in an emergency fund, that is quite ambitious for a 22-year-old. Cude recommends $1,000 to start.

Personally, I would also add a “wedding fund” to this section. No, not for you personally, but for all those friends who get married right after college. It’s different for everyone, but you will have a summer when it seems like everyone you know is getting married. And that costs money, especially if you are in the wedding. If I could, I would tell 22-year-old Kimberly to do that, for sure.

Know that you’re in charge

As we’ve mentioned before, there are some online tools and mobile apps that can help you create a stick to a budget. Don’t live beyond your means and be sure to set aside some money each month for savings. But Cude added that it is all about your attitude.

“So much of budgeting is about you deciding you are going to be in charge,” she said. “You decide that you are not going to spend all your income and then everything on your credit card limit as well.”

If you want even more tips, the Wall Street Journal surveyed financial experts on their advice for college grads, and Mark Kantrowitz, the founder of FinAid.org, also shares his advice on Forbes.com.

College students, what questions do you have about money post-graduation? If you’re older and have been through this before, what insights do you have?

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