Graduating from college and entering the "real world" can inflict total chaos on your life: Suddenly, you have to figure out how to feed yourself without the assistance of a 24-hour dining hall. Your closest friends, who used to be just a dorm-room away, are now scattered across the country. Your parents are less willing to send checks upon request. On top of that, you have to start paying rent, find and keep a job, and somehow convince yourself to start saving money for retirement, which is about four decades away.
[In Pictures: 10 Smart Ways to Improve Your Budget.]
It's overwhelming, but not insurmountable. These seven mistakes and their solutions, adapted from Generation Earn: The Young Professional's Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back, are designed to help college grads bypass common hiccups and take control of their financial lives:
1. Taking on too much debt—or not enough. Too much debt can weigh down recent grads, forcing them to spend more money on interest and fees than on fun activities and other goals. New credit card regulations make it harder for anyone under age 21 without their own income to take out cards of their own, which could make post-graduation overspending even more tempting.
At the same time, the recent recession has led many young people to take the debt-is-bad message too literally. Avoiding loans altogether, however, can hurt college grads. Sometimes, student loans for graduate school or a mortgage are good investments. Being responsible for credit accounts also allows 20-somethings to build their credit history, which is required if they want to take out a mortgage, auto loan, or other type of loan in the future.
The solution: Build your credit history slowly and steadily by opening up accounts in your own name and paying them off on time.
2. Becoming victim to rapid lifestyle inflation. You're a recent college grad, so that means you probably need a new car, new apartment, new sofa, and a new… Wait a minute. Not only do you not need all those things, you probably won't appreciate them much, either. A little theory called the "hedonic treadmill" explains why. We adapt all too quickly to improvements in our lifestyle. That 60-inch television you drooled over at Best Buy will soon start blending in with the rest of your furniture, along with your top-of-the-line coffee maker and pillow-top mattress.
The solution: Instead of using your first paycheck to make your new digs look like a sitcom set, spread out your purchases over time. Maybe you need a bed right away, but that embroidered duvet cover from Pottery Barn can wait.
3. Falling into bad money habits. Bi-weekly $20 happy hours, daily $15 lunches, and nightly take-out are just a few of the bad habits that eat into new grads' bank accounts. While the occasional lapse isn't a problem, repeatedly wasting money on a weekly basis for years will cost you, big time.
The solution: Learn to cook by enlisting the help of friends, family members, or your favorite celebrity chef (via the Food Network). The habit can save you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars a year, and turn your home into a popular destination for friends. It's a skill that lasts a lifetime.
4. Waiting to save and invest. Sure, you don't feel like you have "extra" money yet, and you're still getting used to seeing your name on a paycheck. But that makes it the perfect time to start saving at least one-quarter of your income for future goals, including retirement. The first priority is to establish an emergency savings account with at least three months' worth of expenses that can get you through any unexpected bumps, from unemployment to a car accident. Then, start saving for retirement. If your employer offers any type of 401(k) matching program, take advantage of it—passing it up is like saying no to a pay increase. Then open an after-tax savings account for your other goals, from traveling to homeownership.