Learning to budget isn't easy — but it's essential if you want to successfully adjust from college student to full-time employee. In school, you may have had to budget loan payments and spending for your meals, but once you make it to "the real world," there's a whole set of new bills to pay. Plus, the better you can stay organized financially, the less stressed you'll feel.
So as you prepare to start your first job, consider the following tips to help you budget your new salary.
Understand the benefits your company offers
First things first — you just got a new job, which means it probably came with some benefits! This was likely explained to you when you were hired and noted in your contract, but if you aren't sure what your benefits are or how to receive them, set up a time to meet with your company's HR manager to go over them again.
"Taking advantage of your benefits can reduce your taxable income and add additional savings," says personal finance writer Miriam Caldwell. "You should also review your benefits each year during open enrollment. Starting a new job is a great time to establish good financial habits."
Knowing what benefits you have access to will help you determine what costs your company will cover (for example, a gym membership, parking/transportation costs, etc.) so that you can create a more accurate budget for yourself.
Calculate and track your spending
A huge mistake many new graduates make when they're just starting out is completely ignoring their spending. If you're simply setting aside some money each month and making your payments on time, that's great — but unless you actually calculate and track your spending, you will eventually end up wondering where all your money is going.
Whether you want to use an app to do this or create your own spreadsheet, the best thing you can do to help you budget when you're just starting out is go through your monthly spending and compare it to your actual income. You might not know how much you spend monthly when you're just starting out, which is fine, but make sure that after your first month, you are tracking how much you spend and adding up your fixed monthly expenses.
To begin, list all of your monthly income. If your sole income is from your job, list whatever your monthly paystub is. If you have any additional income from babysitting, freelance work or a side gig, add that in too. Next, add up your monthly expenses, such as your rent, utility bills, grocery spending, loan payments, and any others. You then need to add any additional expenses each month that you spend on doing fun activities, such as going out to dinner, seeing movies or having drinks with friends.
Now, subtract your expenses from your income. You'll either get a positive number, a negative number or you'll break even. If it's not a positive number, you need to adjust your budget by decreasing those monthly expenses.
Keep your monthly costs low, starting with your rent
As you adjust to the real world, there will be a lot of new, monthly bills to pay, like car payments, loan payments, health insurance, internet or your utility bill. But the largest monthly cost of all will likely be your rent. The key here is to keep that cost as low as you can in the beginning.
Depending on your salary, you might think about getting your own place, which would mean a higher rent. Or, you might splurge on a place because you've got a good salary. Whatever your situation, the best course of action is to start small to help you adjust to your new life. Consider living with some roommates to keep your rent lower. You can always move out later once you better understand how much money you're making and how much you spend each month.
Be choosy with your monthly subscriptions
Spotify, Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go — the monthly subscription services are endless, and add up to a lot of cash if you're not being smart about it. Now that you're working and have less time to spend binge-watching TV shows, consider cutting back on your subscription services to bring down those monthly expenses and save a little.
Be careful with compulsive spending
When it comes to budgeting, you also need to consider your discretionary expenses, which refer to the money you spend on fun activities — social events, traveling, shopping, etc. If you don't keep an eye on this spending, your budget isn't going to work. While it's nice to be able to afford things now that you're in the working world, you should be cautious about making big purchases in the beginning to avoid starting a bad habit and keep your budget on track.
Set up a savings plan
One of the best rules of thumb for a new graduate is to set aside at least 10 percent of your paycheck for your savings account. Starting this habit early is good practice for the future because you never know what could happen — and having a solid savings account in place will put your mind at ease if you hit any financial roadblocks.
Moreover, a common benefit at most companies is 401(k) matching, which means your employer will match your contributions to your 401(k) savings plan. They usually match a certain percentage of what you contribute, which will be stated in your benefits package. Whatever they are matching, you should take advantage of this benefit if you can!
Starting a new job and finally having money to spend on new things is a great accomplishment, but the more you train yourself in the beginning to be smart and budget your expenses, the more financial success you'll have in the long run — and the less time you'll have to spend worrying about your finances.