How to Make the Most of Your First Job Paycheck

The First 4 Things You Should Do With Every Paycheck

Hispanic 25 year old using mobile banking
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Getting that first job after college or high school is a very exciting, yet stressful event. You’re probably overwhelmed with many new challenges, opportunities, and commitments. And you likely have a lot of questions. One of the biggest new challenges may be the management of money and personal finance.

This new job may provide a significant increase in cash flow, but with it and the transition into post-graduate life, you might find that you also have new responsibilities and financial considerations.

It may feel like you finally have a little bit of pocket money. Or it might feel like your paycheck disappears almost as soon as it shows up in your bank account. Either way, this is a critical time to begin managing your money wisely both for now and for your future. So here are 4 things every post-grad should do with their paycheck.

1. Create a Budget

If you’ve been in school prior to this new job, your finances were probably relatively simple. You likely had some basic bills and utilities to pay and your education may have been funded by outside sources or student loans. But now that you are beginning your life in the workforce and all that comes with it, your cash flow needs will change significantly.

Once you have an idea of how much your paychecks will be after income and payroll taxes, it is time to sit down and determine what your expenses are. How much is rent? Will you be moving to a nicer place?

Buying a car? How long before you have to begin paying back the student loans, and how much can you afford to pay? These items will play an important role in determining where your money has to go.

Creating a budget doesn’t have to be difficult and it can be done in a few easy steps. It is important that you establish this spending plan as soon as possible so that you don’t find yourself in financial trouble later on.

2. Tackle Your Debt

With this new source of income, it is a perfect time to get serious about repaying your debt -- and your lenders will expect you to. If you have credit cards, you may have become used to only paying the minimum payment each month, but it's time to break that minimum payment habit as soon as possible! Minimum payments can drag your repayment out to ten years or more, costing hundreds or thousands in interest. Make it a priority to accelerate repayment of any high-interest credit card debt.

If you have student loans, you generally have three to six months after graduation before payments must begin. Don’t use this grace period to rest on your laurels, but begin to plan for the payments before they start. Find out how much the minimum payment will be and factor it into your budget now. Can you afford more than the minimum? Great, account for it in your budget. The faster you pay down these loans, the less it will cost you in interest over time. But don't let making student loan payments above and beyond the minimum, a priority over say, building up your emergency or "rainy day" savings. There is always a balance to managing debt and building your savings. Always tackle the high-interest debt first, and go from there.

Just be sure not to miss any payments, even if it's just the minimum. Missing a payment can have a major impact your credit score. If your lender offers automatic electronic payment, consider setting up monthly or bi-weekly payments to come right out of your bank account.

3. Develop a Savings Plan

Now that you’re on your own and have a steady stream of income, you should begin saving a little bit of money each paycheck for an emergency fund. Having an emergency savings fund will help you out in a jam so that you don’t have to rely on high-interest credit cards or face a financial crisis.

The best way to begin saving is to create an automatic savings plan. If you have a set amount of money being set aside from each paycheck automatically, it is impossible to forget. In addition, once the money is saved automatically, after a few paychecks, you won’t even miss the money, but it will be there if you need it.

Being prepared for unanticipated events and expenses is part of being a responsible adult. 

4. Begin Saving for Retirement

If you’re like most young people starting out in your first job, the thought of retirement seems like an eternity away. While it may be true that you have 40 or more years until retirement, don’t wait to begin saving. Even a very small amount can begin to add up thanks to the effect of compounding interest.

Check with your employer to see if they offer a retirement plan such as a 401k plan. Many companies even offer a matching program where you can essentially get free money just by saving yourself. So how much to begin saving? The typical answer is to begin contributing as much as you can afford to, but a great starting point is to take full advantage of any employer match. For instance, if your employer offers a dollar for dollar match up to 3% of your salary, consider at least contributing 3% of every paycheck. That way, you're maximizing your savings by not leaving any money on the table. If your employer doesn’t sponsor a plan, the next best thing to do is to open an IRA or individual retirement account. There are small limits on what you can contribute annually, but every little bit helps. Especially when you're in your twenties.