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College Grads: Sticking to a Personal Budget Doesn’t Mean Sticking to Ramen

ramen
If you’re starting your first job and renting your first apartment this month, you already know that “learning to make ends meet” is going to be tougher for you than it was for your friends in the Class of 2007. Taking responsibility for your personal financial management for the first time is always a challenge. But with gas and grocery prices and rents at unprecedented levels, it’s even more difficult and more critical to get off on the right foot. I can relate.

I left both home and college at 19, for a summer job in California with an internet start up. That was the summer of 2000, during the dot-com boom, and apartments were scarce. I paid $1,700 a month for a one-bedroom – which was hard to afford at a $21/hour job, I can tell you. It wasn’t until I got to the apartment that I realized: I have no furniture, no power, no connection to the outside world. Just a roof over my head. I don’t think I’d really appreciated how many things my parents had taken care of, and paid for, until that day.

I learned from that experience, and frankly it was the catalyst to my building Mint.com. My best tip?  When you make the decision to move out, put together a very simple personal budget that lists all of your one-time expenses. Whether you’ll be paying 100% of these costs, or sharing them among roommates, everyone should plan for:

  • Moving Costs, including your U-Haul rental, and either gas or car transport charges
  • Security deposit for your apartment
  • Rental deposit
  • First month’s rent
  • Phone, Cable and Internet setup and installation
  • Household basics like: cleaning supplies, pots and pans, dishes, etc., etc.”

Mint tip: Learn from my mistakes and prepare for your first paycheck to take several weeks to process. It took two weeks to get my first one, and then another week for it to clear. That delay, combined with all the unexpected expenses of living on my own, led to my first – and thankfully only -overdraft.

Once you’ve managed the move, start off on the right foot. Money management doesn’t have to be complicated and time-consuming. In my experience, everything you need to know and do can be summarized in about 3,000 words – not much bigger than a good term paper. Check out my Three Principles of Personal Finance post and see if you agree. Here are the parts that are probably most relevant to you now:

  • Keep it simple. Setting a simple budget for just 3 – 4 discretionary expenses like restaurants, shopping, books, and entertainment makes it a sustainable change. Remember to budget for that monthly student loan payment, as well.
  • Make it easy to keep your money organized. Open new accounts with banks offering the best online service you can find. If you also have accounts at school or at home, and a student loan, consider using an online service that automatically collects and analyzes all your accounts on one site. BTW, we’re adding student loan tracking to Mint.com next month.
  • Know where your money goes. Often, people fall behind in managing their finances because the combination of a new job, new place and new friends keeps them too busy to collect and total all your receipts each month. To stay ahead of the curve, use a paid or free service that will do the work for you — categorizing and analyzing expenses to save time and money.
  • Put your money to work for you. If you’re able to start saving now, put those dollars into your company’s 401K (if they offer a pre-tax, matching funds program) or a high yield savings account.
  • Prepare for the unexpected. Get renter’s insurance. Its inexpensive protection and likely the only insurance appropriate for you at this stage in life.

Mint tip: One of our most popular features is the one I wanted most when I got out of school, but couldn’t find at any bank: text messaging. Mint.com can send SMS text messages to alert you to bills due, credit limits, and bank fees in any of your accounts. It’s like adding a mobile interface to all your banks. You’ll soon be able to send text messages to Mint, to check bank balances from your phone.

Even though money is tight when you’re young, it shouldn’t be the focus of your entire life. You can avoid money stress and surprises by using smart budgeting and money management tools. If you start managing your money well in your 20′s, you’ll be able to do more with your life, have more time for things that really matter and rest easy knowing that you’re prepared for the unexpected. Money is really just a tool for living well.
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