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Smithee’s Best Advice for Graduating Seniors

This article was written by in Career and Work. 14 comments.

I’m not a financial planner, adviser, guru or anything of the sort. The reason I’m writing here today is because I screwed up big time. Fortunately for you, I think I’ve figured out where the mistake began.

Recently I’ve been taking an informal poll of some of the people I would consider to be relatively young and successful. I had a theory about how they were able to create financial security before liver spots started appearing, and while it’s completely unscientific, the results confirmed my hypothesis: almost none of them started their careers while relying on credit cards.

Before I go on: there are naturally going to be exceptions among those of you who’ve already been through this. In general, I’m talking about the average American who graduates a four-year college after High School and is living away from home within a month, and who is earning just enough to get by. Most of us, naturally, can’t wait to be out on our own, enjoying that delightful freedom. Your own experience may not match this, and that’s fine.

Usually what’s happens is this:

You pack up your meager belongings and you move into an apartment by yourself, or one you’re sharing with friends. You pay a deposit for the rent, which is much higher in some states than in others. You get someone to turn on the water, electricity, television, phone (or maybe you already have a mobile phone), Internet, etc., some of which may also have a deposit attached, because you have little or no credit record. Then you go grocery shopping. If you’re working in any kind of metropolitan area, you’ll also need your own transportation or a bus or train pass to get to the office.

Then, if you’ve timed things perfectly, you start work the day after you get settled in. Assuming you’re a young professional with a salary right out the gate, in another two or three or four weeks you’ll get your first paycheck. So, here’s my question: how did you pay for the rent and the utilities and the groceries? These are the options I’ve thought of:

  1. You had some money saved up
  2. You got some free money as a gift for graduating
  3. You used a credit card

For me, options 1 and 2 were not the case. I had exactly 20 cents. I consider myself lucky that I had no student loans, but at the same time, I only had that 20 cents to work with. Nobody was giving me any gifts of cash to start my grand life adventure. So, I got a credit card with a $2,000 limit and immediately started charging. I had to, otherwise I’d have no electricity or a place to sleep. It was a tool of necessity.

And it wouldn’t have been a problem if the money I charged to the credit card were just a temporary loan from the bank that issued the card (it was a Yahoo! Visa, but I don’t remember which bank). A temporary loan is exactly what it should’ve been, but by the time I’d been paid about one month’s worth of wages, the days had already come and gone when I was expected again to pay my share of the rent, utilities and groceries. So I didn’t have the money to pay my entire credit card bill. And interest started to accrue.

And I worked some more, then paid my bills, and paid what I could to the credit card company, and more interest started to accrue, etc., etc. The first few months were the worst. And the second few months, those were the worst, too. Before I knew it, I was close to the credit limit, so I got a second credit card. After that, things went into a bit of a decline. (Apologies to Douglas Adams.)

That was twelve years ago. I was on track this year to finally pay off that old credit card debt once and for all, when my employer announced 10% salary cuts so we can survive the recession. And that’s a perfect example of why it still hasn’t been paid off: crap happens. But I do have a good job, and a sensible mortgage, and the pets are well cared-for and things are generally okay. The problem is that I know people who managed to be in this same position just a few years after college. They’re steadily saving for retirement and that word still causes me to feel extremely nervous.

So here is the best advice I can give to graduating Seniors: find out how much you will need to live on your own for the first two months, and don’t move out on your own until you have that money in the bank. (That is, unless you snag a job that pays you at least double what you need to survive every month. My first salary was $22,100 before taxes. In New York City.) And don’t focus only on the rent. Include all the utilities, groceries, a little bit of extra for entertainment, and you should be much better off than I was.

And if you’re planning to take the train to New York City, living in New Brunswick, NJ is a reasonable option, but make sure you find out first how much the monthly train pass is. Twelve years ago, it was $336. These days, it’s probably the same as the payments on two brand new Hyundais.

Published or updated May 1, 2009.

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About the author

Smithee formerly lived primarily on credit cards and the good will of his friends. He is a newbie to personal finance but quickly learning from his past mistakes. You can follow him on Twitter, where his user name is @SmitheeConsumer. View all articles by .

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

NJ Transit monthly pass from New Brunswick to Penn Station NYC is $289 a month. Maybe you’re adding in a Metrocard for the subway, or perhaps you took Amtrak.

Either way, you make a good point about looking all the expenses. When I worked in NYC dry cleaning and other clothing expenses were significant.

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avatar 2 Anonymous

I started my career and business with credit cards, and had $110,000 of unsecured debt, much of it on credit cards, when I sold my business. Of course, I didn’t graduate college, either, so I may be outside your radar. ;)


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avatar 3 Anonymous

I’m not graduating college quite yet (still need 3 years to go) but I think this is some good advice. All I ever think about is moving out as soon as I can, but until I read this post, I didn’t thoroughly think about what I would need to get by. I’m glad that I read this post because it showed me what could potentially happen if I didn’t prepare properly. Thanks!

– Rags

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avatar 4 Anonymous

That’s some good advice. Personally, I did the same. I lived with my parents and saved 50% of my income (while paying amazingly cheap rent to them). By the time I got married and moved out, I had save a ton of money which instantly disappeared (with the down payment on the house, furniture, honeymoon, etc.).

Another possibility would be to borrow money from your parents, grandparents, or friends. Many times your family (if they are able) is willing to give you an interest free loan to help you get started. What else is family for? :)

I know these opportunities aren’t available to everyone, but if they are either is much better than racking up high interest credit card bills. It is also important that parents have a talk with their kids and let them know of the available options, because how else would they know to avoid credit card debt?


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avatar 5 Anonymous

Avoid debt!

You will be bombarded with credit card offers upon graduation. Shred ’em.

Unless you have a steady, relaible and irrevocable income stream, debt is a ticking time bomb.

There may be exceptions… like a mortgage (eventually)… but be cheap and don’t sign up for any thing that you will have to pay for.

That includes cell phones. Get a prepaid phone. You don’t need a fancy smartphone unless you have a job and your employer pays for it!!

I got a TracFone for 30 bucks which comes with $30 worth of calls, so it’s almost free.

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