Bankrate experts: One financial lesson we wish we knew after graduating from college

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Graduating from college is an exciting achievement, but it also marks the beginning of true adulthood, and that comes with many not so exciting responsibilities like bills, paying off student loans and thinking about retirement.

It’s easy to avoid the topic altogether, but if you want to feel empowered, try tackling your finances and owning them. By taking the reins, you have the power to change the course of your financial future.

Of course, this can be easier said than done. To help you get started, we asked the Bankrate team for one piece of financial advice they wish they could’ve told themselves after graduating.

Here’s a roundup of all the financial advice we wish we knew sooner, so you can get a head start:

What we wish we knew after graduating from college:

Take baby steps. They count as progress.

Mary Wisniewski, banking editor and fintech features reporter

Right after graduating college, I remember hearing solid advice, like save six months’ worth of expenses in your emergency fund. At the time, however, it felt way too overwhelming — I was living on an entry-level reporter’s salary in Brooklyn. A recession would hit next. Money felt like it was Spandex-tight. Since the advice felt elusive at best and impossible at worst, I didn’t bother opening a savings account for a few years.

Looking back, I’d tell myself to throw a few bucks in a savings account here and there. Breaking down big to-dos into smaller ones makes money goals feel much more doable. Nowadays, there are a number of mobile apps that can help you out, too — Digit, Dobot and Qapital among them. Consider renaming a savings account to something more inspiring, like “the getaway fund.”

Live below your means

Bill McGuire, senior mortgage editor

Over the years, then the decades, as my income increased so did my spending by at least as much and maybe a little more. That’s a natural thing for most folks, but it keeps you from building real wealth.

We bought and sold a total of five houses, even building one from a lot split off from our original home. Each house was grander than the last, up until when we downsized 30 years later as the kids left the nest.

Did we really need a 3,000-square-foot house on an acre lot? We enjoyed the property, but there were rooms I didn’t visit over the course of several months, plus vast expanses of space that required constant cleaning and upkeep, all draining away wealth. The formal dining room, extra bedroom, etc., we could easily have done without.

The expense doesn’t include the many refinancings of the mortgages as rates improved. I lost count of the transactions, but each of them cost many thousands of dollars in fees and expenses to mortgage companies, title firms, lawyers, etc.

I watched with dismay as our property tax bills marched up with each house. A $3,500-a-year tax bill morphed into more than $15,000 a year for local property taxes. Each dollar spent, a dollar not saved.

Over the course of 30 years, long enough to pay off the most popular mortgage term, with each new home the mortgage stretched out another 30 years. I realized 20-plus years in that we weren’t much closer to paying off the mortgage than when we started. It wasn’t until we downsized our current home in a 55-plus community that we tamed the mortgage monster and mostly retired it with the equity from our last massive home.

Had we stayed with a smaller (very nice) home, made due with what we had and put the extra earnings into savings, we’d have built a lot more wealth, a lot faster.

Plan for the future

Matthew Goldberg, consumer banking reporter

Plan ahead for the future. That’s the biggest financial lesson I’d tell myself after graduating from college.

It’s easy to think you’re too young to worry about saving for retirement. Make sure you’re contributing to your retirement savings — a 401(k), IRA or both — as soon as you graduate. Keep increasing the percentage of your salary that you’re contributing toward retirement until you really start noticing that it’s missing from your take-home pay. Also, take advantage of employer matching contributions on a 401(k). This is a significant benefit that some employers offer. After that, aim to get as close to the annual contribution limit as possible. Doing this while you’re young can give your money even more time to potentially grow. Making these decisions early should pay off for you many years later.

Saving is something that’s easier if you start now. That will help you build good habits, help you have money in case of an emergency and save for future goals. Plus, over time you’ll be able to use the power of compounding in a high-yield savings account so that your money keeps growing.

Having money go directly into my 401(k) from my paycheck really helped me save for retirement. Automating the process really works, especially since you don’t miss the money that never arrived in your direct deposit. Splitting part of your paycheck into a savings account is an effective way to save for an emergency fund and then for other financial goals.

Let the market work for you

James Royal, senior investing and wealth management reporter

I’d have to tell myself that the best way to leverage my excellent savings ability is to invest in an S&P 500 index fund and just keep adding it to monthly. Buying that index fund and adding to it regularly are two elements of investing — the “how” and the “what” — that lead to great returns over time.

The third element is controlling your temperament when you see the market decline. It’s absolutely crucial to think long-term and to think of a decline in the market as a long-term opportunity to buy at a discount. You don’t win at investing by making a quick score; you win by investing for the long term and thinking long-term. Not only does buying and holding an S&P 500 ETF beat almost all investors over a multi-year period, it’s also tax-advantaged and you won’t be taxed on your capital gains until you sell the fund.

Let the market work for you as an investor by buying and holding rather than trying to be a trader by timing the dips and rises.

Learn the ins and outs of your student loans

Lindsay DeMunno, social media producer

I wish someone had told me how loans actually work and how to refinance my loans. When I graduated from college, my private loans were tied up with one lender. At the time they were broken into four different loans each with interest rates of 10.4 to 14.6 percent. I didn’t realize at the time that those interest rates were more than double the average rate of about 5.8 percent. I ended up paying thousands of dollars in interest for months without even making a dent in my student loans.

Luckily, after I joined the Bankrate team, I did my research and used their student loan calculator to help me find a lender that could refinance my loans. When I refinanced, I chose a repayment plan that actually worked for me and my budget. Instead of just paying the bare minimum on my loans, I now can put more money toward them each month because I actually set a budget for myself. Research average student loan rates, and refinance if you’re paying a much higher rate.

Start saving for retirement, and keep it simple

Lance Davis, editorial director

Learn how to save for retirement and start doing it. Time is your greatest ally in saving for retirement because your investments have more time to grow and ride out the ups and downs of the market.

If you earn an income, open and contribute to a Roth IRA. You pay taxes on the money before you put it in the account, but the withdrawals are tax-free in retirement. This is good: Since you’re just starting out, you’re likely in a lower tax bracket today than you will be decades from now.

When it comes to picking investments within the Roth IRA, don’t be intimidated. Forget day-trading or picking complex individual investments like bitcoin; investing should be about as exciting as watching paint dry. Instead of picking individual stocks, look at low-cost exchange-traded funds that track an entire exchange, such as the S&P 500. That way, instead of banking on an individual company, you’re spreading your risk across many.

If you really want to make it easy, open a target-date fund. These funds are low cost, and they take your age into account to create a diversified portfolio that balances risks.

Use Bankrate’s retirement planning calculator to get an idea of how much you’ll need to save for your ideal retirement.