Money Tips for Your First Job

The class of 2012 will earn more than last year’s graduates, but what should they do with their new salaries?

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Starting a new job after graduation usually means a new boss, new tasks, and a new salary. It also means new financial challenges, as young workers figure out how to navigate the world of retirement savings, a post-work social life, and professional demands. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, this year’s class of graduations will earn a median starting salary of $42,569, up 4.5 percent from 2011. (They’ll also have an easier time landing jobs than last year’s cohort: Companies say they will hire 10.2 percent more grads from this year’s class of graduates compared to the previous year.)

Here is a nine-step guide to taking control of your money before you even receive that first paycheck:

Negotiate, even in this economy. New grads are often so happy to get a job offer these days that they overlook the fact that they still have some power before saying "yes." Even if the salary is set in stone, asking for a better deal on benefits, flexible work hours, or vacation can result in a more appealing employment package. In the worst-case scenario, the request will be denied, but many employers expect some back-and-forth during the negotiation process.

Make nice with the human resources department. The people who work in the HR department are a new employee's best friends. They can help with signing up for benefits, filling out the correct tax forms, and getting the rest of the paperwork in order to maximize benefits. They can also assist with any trouble with vacation days or tax form mix-ups. Getting a head start on those benefits is important, because it can pay off big-time later. According to TD Ameritrade's calculations, savings of $100 a month between ages 21 and 41 will grow to $471,358 by age 67, assuming a return of 8 percent per year. (Waiting to save until age 41 will result in a relatively paltry $59,295.)

Keep paperwork organized. Being a new employee means getting all kinds of forms thrown your way, from health insurance applications to 401(k) details. Much of it might seem boring now, but anyone who ends up needing to switch insurance providers or revamping retirement investments, will want to have access to that paperwork. Investing in a file system or three-ring binder to keep it all handy can help. Some employers make it even easier by offering online documents.

Ignore the new paycheck. Getting a bigger salary compared with the pre-diploma days is thrilling, but one of the biggest mistakes new employees make is spending all that cash in celebration. While a few indulgences are hard to avoid, such as a new wardrobe and the occasional nice meal, continuing to live like a student makes it much easier to build up a solid savings account. Then, with a few months' expenses tucked away in an emergency fund, a few more upgrades are in order. Improving their new lifestyle slowly, instead of overnight, can help new grads find their financial footing.

Do an outstanding job. Even for new employees who don't plan on staying very long, or who know they're headed to graduate school in a year, doing a good job gives them power. It increases the chances that they'll leave on their own terms, with glowing reviews that enhance their chances of getting into grad school or landing the next job they really want. Meanwhile, doing a bad job can hurt a reputation, even outside immediate supervisors.

Ask for feedback. Many employers offer formal annual review systems, but there's no need to wait that long before hearing what the boss thinks. After completing a project, new employees can ask for suggestions or critiques. Even though such feedback can be hard to hear, it increases the chances of doing a better job next time. And stellar feedback can be filed away for future endorsements.

Volunteer for extracurricular activities. Participating in company softball games or volunteer groups gives new employees a chance to meet other people in different parts of the company, and it also offers a chance to flex muscles in different areas. A volunteer gig could turn someone onto the fact that she really loves working with senior citizens, or that his true passion lies in fundraising. Or provide an introduction to a senior executive in a different part of the company.

Moonlight in something fun. A day job in accounting might mask dreams of being a singer, or launching a landscaping business. But as long as new employees avoid conflicts of interest or using company time and resources for their side gig, there's no reason to avoid exploring these passions. They could turn into a second career, or at least a second income.

Find new (inexpensive) hobbies. The transition from college student to working professional often completely overhauls one's social life. The days of fraternity parties, spontaneous dorm-room hang outs, and Frisbee-throwing on the campus quad are over, and new activities fill the void. The problem is that those new activities, such as happy hours, golf, and travel, are often expensive. Filling the social calendar with more affordable ways of having fun, such as community soccer tournaments, hiking, and game nights not only save money, it's also a great way to make new friends.

Twitter: @alphaconsumer