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If you’re part of the graduating class of 2023, you now have your diploma in hand, but that doesn’t mean you’ll stop learning, especially about finances.
Recent college graduates are beginning their financial journeys in a strong job market, creating opportunities for a healthy salary. But they’re also starting their careers as 68 percent of Gen Zers (ages 18-26) feel uncomfortable about their level of emergency savings, according to a May 2023 Bankrate survey.
As you start your post-grad life, you may be thinking about building emergency savings, starting to invest, paying back student loan debt and using credit cards smartly. Pondering over your financial future may feel premature if you’ve only just stopped eating dorm meals and begun receiving a full-time salary; however, building financial habits now will set you up for success later in life.
Bankrate’s personal finance analysts, who range in their financial experiences, have learned a lot about saving and investing since graduating. These ten experts are sharing the financial wisdom they wish they would have known upon graduation.
Key Bankrate college graduate insights
- Many Gen Zers are more focused on prioritizing building their emergency savings, compared to paying down debt. 46% of Gen Zers say increasing their emergency savings is a higher priority than paying down debt, the largest percentage of any generation as of May 2023. 28% say their priority is focusing on both at the same time, 17% say their priority is paying down debt and 9% say neither is a priority.
- Americans expect young people to begin paying their way by the time they graduate college. U.S. adults think the average age for someone to begin paying for their own car payment, car insurance, cell phone bill, subscription services and credit card bills is 20 years old, as of March 2023. In contrast, they don’t expect that people begin paying health insurance and student loans until 23.
- One in three Gen Zers invest in the stock market, but more plan to soon. 35% of Gen Z has stock-related investments, as of April 2023. 53% of Gen Z investors expect to invest more in stock-related investments this year than last year. 14% said they expect to invest less.
Alex Gailey: Start saving early for retirement and stay consistent
Bankrate Senior Data Reporter
In the shuffle of immediate priorities, saving and planning for retirement isn’t a walk in the park. We all know we need to save for the future, but many people don’t know how much they’ll need to comfortably retire.
That’s exactly how I felt during my first year after college. While I was lucky enough to work for a company that offered a 401(k) plan, I had no idea how much I should be contributing or what to invest in. So I did what a lot of people do: I contributed the bare minimum and put it off. It was only in 2019, when I checked my 401(k) balance, that I realized that I needed to clean my act up and learn about saving for retirement if I ever wanted to step away from my 9 to 5 in my later years.
Money tip: Investing $2,400 a year with an 8 percent annual return, starting at age 22, will net you $1.2 million by the time you're 70 years old.
Four years and a lot of research later, I’ve been able to grow my retirement savings exponentially. The most important thing I’ve learned on my journey so far is that time is your greatest ally. You want to start as early as possible, so your investments have more time to grow and ride out the ups and downs of the market. The second most important thing I learned is to not overthink my investments. Forget about individual stocks, and instead look at low-cost exchange-traded funds that track an entire exchange, such as the S&P 500. That way, you’re spreading your risk across multiple companies.
Ashley Parks: Your credit card won’t bite if you know how to use it right
Bankrate Editor, Credit Cards
I wish I would’ve known to use my credit card sooner and take advantage of student card perks. I was afraid of my credit card when I first opened it as a sophomore in college. My fear of the card stemmed from the negative experiences my mom had as a first-generation credit user. Since I didn’t start using my card regularly until after I’d graduated, I missed out on solid perks like a brief zero percent intro offer and annual good grade credits.
Since learning how credit cards work, I now see how helpful they can be if you know how to use them correctly. So, don’t be afraid of a credit card. Start by learning what a credit score is and how credit card use can affect your score. Read up on credit card information, terms and conditions so you’re armed with the right knowledge to ensure your credit card is an effective financial tool in your arsenal.
Hanneh Bareham: Take advantage of student loan resources and tools
Bankrate Writer, Personal Loans and Debt Relief
There are many resources, tips and tools offered to post-graduates that can help you pay down your student loan balance. Knowing what they are and how to take advantage of them are the keys to becoming student loan debt-free.
To best set yourself up for post-graduation financial success, craft a repayment plan that fits comfortably within your monthly budget. To do this you’ll need to know the ins and outs of your balance, including the total principal loan amount, the interest rate and the loan term for each of your loans. From there you can input these details into a student loan calculator, which will give you your expected monthly payment plus the total amount of interest you’ll pay over the life of the loan.
Keep in mind: Federal student loan payments will restart October 2023. If you haven't made payments in a while, check with your lender to see your repayment options.
If you need help with your ability to make the monthly payment, let your provider or servicer know to avoid damage to your credit score. The Education Department offers plenty of hardship payment relief options for federal loans and some financial institutions or lenders may offer similar programs for those with private loans.
James Royal: Let the market work for you
Bankrate Principal Writer, Investing and Wealth Management
Upon graduating, I wish I’d told 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 to it monthly. Buying that index fund and adding to it regularly are two elements of investing — the “what” and the “how” — 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.
Mark Hamrick: Start investing as early as you can
Bankrate Senior Economic Analyst
What would I tell my (much) younger self about how to approach my personal finances? First, it would be a broader bit of encouragement to let me know that so many things would work out just fine over time. Not everything, but most of the important things.
The one big thing that I might have done differently with personal finances would be to invest much earlier. This wouldn’t have been to try to pick a remarkable individual stock. I would guide my younger self to opt for an index fund, like one tracking the benchmark S&P 500.
Realistically, I didn’t have much disposable income (or much income at all) early in my career. But it would have been nice to piggyback the steady advance of the stock market going back over those many decades. Investing for the long term is really the only way to go.
Matthew Goldberg: Establish an emergency fund
Bankrate Consumer Banking Reporter
After graduation I wish I knew about the importance of having an emergency fund. And I wish I knew how a split-deposit — having part of your direct deposit go directly into a savings account — could help me automate the process of establishing and adding to this fund.
I also wish I was more aware of the real effect of inflation eroding purchasing power and how having an account that earns a competitive annual percentage yield (APY) can help you try to keep up with inflation.
Additionally, I missed out on a lot of years of interest by not opening a savings account at an FDIC-insured online bank sooner. Having a savings account at an FDIC-insured online bank — separate from the bank you have your checking account at — is the best of both worlds because it’s separate enough so I don’t look at the balance every day. And mentally, I know it’s not for paying bills or for a vacation.
With this said, it’s important to do a test withdrawal/transfer of a $1 — or some amount like that — when you first get the account. This prevents any surprises when a true emergency inevitably happens.
Mercedes Barba: Start investing in a Roth IRA as soon as you start working, but avoid this one mistake
Bankrate Senior Editor, Investing
If you started earning money early on, like myself with a part-time job flipping burgers at 16, opening a Roth IRA and aiming to maximize contributions is the best move you can do. By doing so, you are setting yourself up with a strong foundation for your retirement savings and capitalizing on the potential benefits of tax-free growth.
With a Roth IRA, contributions are made using after-tax dollars, meaning you already paid taxes on the money. When you reach retirement age, the earnings and growth in your Roth can be withdrawn tax-free. Starting to invest at a young age, especially in your teenage years, allows your investments to grow and compound over time, which could lead you to substantial gains in the long run. However, there’s one mistake that many investors do that can hurt their portfolios in the long run which is not selecting investments within your Roth IRA.
Remember, a Roth IRA is an investment vehicle that requires you to choose how to invest your deposited money. Don’t just let it sit there. It needs to be invested. Fortunately, Roth IRAs offer a wide range of investment options. One option worth considering, my favorite, is a target-date fund, which automatically diversifies your portfolio between stocks and bonds. The reason it’s called a target-date fund is as you approach retirement, the fund gradually adjusts its asset allocation from riskier investments to more conservative ones. This approach sets you on a solid path toward a successful retirement.
Nouri Zarrugh: Start small, stay the course
Bankrate Senior Editor, Credit Cards
In personal finance, as in many areas of life, slow and steady wins the race. Set small goals, stay the course and you may find yourself in a better position than you’d thought possible.
Credit cards are a great example. An 800 credit score or a fancy platinum card loaded with perks may feel out of reach, but you can get there if you keep things simple and stick to a plan.
If you need to build credit, start with a no-annual-fee secured card and use it only for small purchases you can easily pay off each month. Keep that up for a few months and you should see your credit score improve and more card options open up for you.
Then, you can add rewards cards into the mix and start saving on your everyday expenses. Before you know it, you can have a great credit score and a chunk of cash back every year, getting you closer to bigger financial goals.
For me, maximizing the value of credit cards also required a mindset shift. We tend to associate credit cards with cost — with fees and debt. And that makes sense. It’s easy to get into a bad spot with credit cards. But if you’re lucky enough to not need to use credit cards just to get by, it may be helpful to think about cards through the lens of saving instead of spending.
As long as you pay off your charges in full each month and only use your card for things you need to buy anyway, the right card can essentially earn you “free money.”
Even if it’s only 1 or 2 percent back, who would pass up free money?
Sarah Foster: Make sure your financial products are working for you
Bankrate U.S. Economy Reporter
I evangelize my high-yield savings account. But I do it in earnest — mostly because I wish I would’ve known about the only guaranteed “free lunch” of finance when I first finished school.
The year was 2018. I had just started my first job, and I was still banking with my hometown’s only brick-and-mortar bank despite now living about 800 miles away. I’m just another poster child for why people tend to stick with the same bank for so long (17 years in our latest survey data!). I knew just about everyone who worked there. It felt like a family establishment for my small town, and the relationship was personal. Still, what mattered most was my savings yield, and it was a dismal 0.01 percent annually.
Money tip: Do you know what your bank's savings yield is? The national average yield for savings accounts is 0.52 APY, but online banks typically have higher savings rates than brick-and-mortar banks.
It wasn’t until I started working for Bankrate in 2019 that I learned my money can be a hot commodity to certain banks. My second month here, I opened a high-yield savings account, and it’s made growing my emergency fund easier than ever. The difference is more than just dollars and cents — but thousands more in interest since I first started parking my cash at an online bank. That can mean everything to a young Zillennial (Gen Z/millennial cusper) who’s just getting her life started. And the earlier you get started, the less money you risk leaving on the table.
Ted Rossman: Credit cards can work for you or against you
Bankrate Senior Industry Analyst
Roughly half of credit cardholders carry debt from month to month, while the other half (more or less) pays their bills in full and avoids interest. There’s a tremendous difference. The average credit card rate is over 20 percent — a record high. It’s really hard to build wealth if you’re paying a hefty rate like that, month after month. If you only make minimum payments toward the average credit card balance at the average interest rate, you’ll be in debt for more than 17 years.
On the flip side, paying your credit card bills in full means that your cards are working for you. This allows you to take tremendous advantage of lucrative rewards programs, convenience and other buyer protections ranging from travel insurance to dispute resolution, extended warranties, purchase protection and more. Free flights, free hotel stays, extra cash back in your pocket … it’s all possible.
But it starts with paying in full to avoid interest. That’s why people say credit cards are like power tools. They can be really useful, or they can be dangerous. That’s why my top tip is to pay your credit cards in full every month.
The study on emergency savings (that was conducted in May 2023) was conducted by SSRS on its Opinion Panel Omnibus platform. The SSRS Opinion Panel Omnibus is a national, twice-per-month, probability-based survey. Data collection was conducted from May 19 – May 22, 2023 among a sample of 1025 respondents. The survey was conducted via web (n=995) and telephone (n=30) and administered in English (n=1000) and Spanish (n=25). The margin of error for total respondents is +/- 3.4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All SSRS Opinion Panel Omnibus data are weighted to represent the target population of U.S. adults ages 18 or older.
Bankrate.com commissioned YouGov Plc to conduct the survey on financial independence. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2,346 U.S. adults, among whom 773 are parents with children age 18 or older. Fieldwork was undertaken on March 14-16, 2023. The survey was carried out online and meets rigorous quality standards. It employed a nonprobability-based sample using both quotas upfront during collection and then a weighting scheme on the back end designed and proven to provide nationally representative results.
This study on investing was conducted for Bankrate via phone interview by YouGov. Interviews were conducted from April 17-20, 2023, among a sample of 3,676 U.S. adults, of whom 1,665 have investment or retirement accounts. Data are weighted and are intended to be representative of all U.S. adults, and therefore are subject to statistical errors typically associated with sample-based information.