Life After College: Preparing Your Finances for the Real World

Life After College - picture of silhouetted graduate raising diploma in air

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College is hard work. But between studying and attending classes, you probably find time for fun and friends. This is the time for self-discovery, and if your parents offer financial support, college might be your four-year vacation before adulthood.

But like most good things in life, the party eventually ends. And while you may look forward to walking across that stage and grabbing your diploma, you might question whether you’re ready for the real world.

Managing your personal finances while in school can prepare you for life outside college. Sadly, some college students rely entirely on their parents for financial support. And after graduation, they don’t know the first thing about credit or managing money. 

To make the transition from college life to real life easier, take control of your finances while in school.

1. Get a job. Not to say you have to work a 40-hour work week. However, a part-time job a few days each week can provide real work experience. You’ll learn how to deal with coworkers and bosses, plus the money from your job can help cover some of your expenses, such as food and transportation.

2. Open a savings account. Don’t blow your entire paycheck on entertainment and clothes. It’s okay to treat yourself from time to time, of course. But it’s important that you make saving a priority. The more cash you save while in school, the easier it is to buy a house or create a nest egg after graduation. Check around and compare bank savings account rates, and consider high yield savings accounts, which offer better rates than a traditional savings account.

3. Apply for a credit card. You may feel that it’s impossible to get a credit card with part-time income. However, several banks offer college student credit cards. Eligibility requirements vary. And while some banks may require a cosigner, others will approve you without a cosigner as long as you’re employed and have a bank account.  Getting a credit card early helps you establish a credit history. Pay your bill on time each month and don’t max out your account. Aim to pay off your balance in full each month. Stick with these responsible habits and you’ll develop a strong credit rating in no time.

4. Learn how to budget. Even if you don’t have a lot of bills, a budget makes financial sense. Plus, if you develop your budgeting skills now, it’ll be easier to create a budget after graduation. A budget is comparable to a spending plan, in which you decide how much to spend in different areas each month.

5. Make student loan payments while in school. Federal student loans don’t require repayment until after graduation, however, interest does incur while in school. To reduce how much you’ll owe after graduation, take some of your work income and make periodic interest payments while in school.

Don’t wait until you’re about to graduate to get serious about your money. If you have few bills and limited responsibilities while in school, this is the perfect time to get your money on track.

How did you adjust to life after college?


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  1. Great tips! It as amazing to me to discover how many of peers in school did not know how to manage money, did not have a savings account, or a credit card. I didn’t realize people didn’t have those things for years before entering college. I think many students have a rude wake up call upon graduation.

    1. Uhhh…..yeah. Totally. And for many years after that in a lot of cases.

  2. I think the most helpful thing is definitely getting a part-time job. It’s something I didn’t do till the end of my college years but wish I had done sooner. It helps you learn how to balance responsibilities, handle a paycheck and develops some amount of self-sufficiency. Plus, that beer money has to come from somewhere right?

    1. Yes, unfortunately the two of us spent too much money on beer and not enough on savings back in the day =)

  3. Great tips, Holly! I actually started the Monday after graduation. So I graduated on a Friday and was in the office full-time starting that Monday. Working part-time my last semester made the transition very easy – I was working 24 hours at the office every week already. I was very fortunate to be able to do that.

  4. For me, real life started the day after my high school graduation and I had to find a place to live! 🙂

  5. Making student loans while in college is a great idea. If you can’t do that, then definitely start immediately after. The first bill may not come for 6th months, but compounding interest can do a lot of damage in that time.

  6. I wish I would have started making payments while in college as well as started saving for my 401k since I worked the whole time. Sadly I think I applied for a credit card my second week of college when one of those tshirt people got me to apply for a free tee.

  7. I’ve never had a federal loan, so I didn’t know that interest incurred while in school, I thought it only begun after! That’s good to know. It might be different in Canada though.

  8. Even better than getting a job: look for internships in your field. My friends who had internships during college often were offered positions with those companies. The ones who didn’t, still had better interview skills because they “got it” when it came to what the new boss might be looking for in an employee.

    1. That is a great point! Actually, my former employer hired their intern last year.

  9. Great tips Holly! I did a few of these myself while in school…now if I could only go back and start repaying those loans while in school. 😉

    1. We did okay in that respect because we paid on them as soon as humanly possible. Still, I wish we would’ve paid them off sooner.

  10. I tried to continue living like I did in college and not inflate my spending too much. It was a great time to save money because I didn’t really have a lot of life expenses to worry about like I do now.

    1. That’s the best way….living cheap while you can!

  11. I am so happy I didn’t resort to credit in college. Many of my classmates are still paying off their loans, and since tuition was really cheap, it was basically to pay for beers and cars. College is the perfect time to learn about finances with some boundaries until real adult life.

  12. I agree with Tina. I know a lot of college grads or soon to be college grads who started spending more because they either had a job lined up or figured they would be making decent amount of money. They started spending before they had the money. And they spent more than they could afford since they didn’t consider the added expenses they would have.

  13. I worked part-time throughout college, had credit cards too but the biggest mistake was not making payments on the interest while I was in school. $17,000 of unpaid interest (suckered into private loans first) was capitalized and I’ll essentially be paying interest on interest for a couple more years before I get my balances down to what I originally borrowed!

  14. Kyle @ Debt Free Diaries says:

    I ended up doing all these things before leaving college. I was responsible for the majority of my own savings and bills as soon as I graduated high school (with the exception of a couple, the rest kicked in on my 21st birthday). I never finished school so I can’t say how life is after graduation, but it is amazing how put together my life seems now despite not having the “big kid job” everyone imagines after getting a diploma. Figuring out how to handle money was the most important thing I ever learned, and I’m amazed how many of my friends who are still in school have no idea about personal finance.

    1. They will have to learn one of these days, right?

  15. I agree about getting a part-time job, especially if it helps you get free room and meals (i.e., resident assistant). That’s a great idea about paying loans off while still at school, I wish I had done that!

  16. My financial habits were set before college. I earned money during the summers that I used for my spending money in college. It was some of the best budgeting I ever did. These skills carried into my professional and personal life.

    1. I agree it can be helpful as long as you use it wisely!!!

  17. I hear ya. Greg and I didn’t make the best decisions when we were young either!

  18. I worked all through high school and college and I’m really thankful I did. I think it would have been a really hard transition to go from college to the working world if I hadn’t. Knowing how to deal with people and office politics and priceless, especially for new grads. Get those awkward moments out of the way before you get the first “real” job.

  19. Nick @ says:

    I think these are mostly great tips. 😉 The only one I can’t quite get on board with is the credit card thing. I actually think college is probably the worst time to try to learn how to use a credit card. The temptations to splurge are just too high, and the accountability is usually much too low. I still think this is a great post though. 🙂

  20. Good tips. My last term of college was only part time because I didn’t need a full term of credits. So I was able to use that time to ramp up to working full time and get my budget in order. 🙂 I’m trying to help my sister do the same actually – she’ll be graduating soon.

  21. I did not adjust well at all and tried to become a Jones. Follow these rules and be your own person. No need to have everything right after you get your first job.

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