Graduating college is a major milestone and achievement in one's life, especially given that only 53% of college students graduate within six years, according to the American Enterprise Institute. After commencement, responsibilities in the form of attending classes and taking exams are soon replaced by landing a good job, launching one's career, paying back student loans and saving. The typical graduate must transition out of his or her carefree days and create as well as implement his or her individual personal finance roadmap.

Tutorial: Introduction To Banking And Saving

According to a survey by Sallie Mae, nearly four out of five college students carry a credit card balance. About two-thirds who finish four-year colleges graduate with student loan debt, according to The Project on Student Debt. The U.S. savings rates typically range in the low single digit percentage.

Financial Security for Young Professionals

  • Many companies and organizations (especially larger-sized entities) provide 401(k) matching opportunities for employees. Unfortunately, many recent college grads – now turned young professionals – cling on to their instant gratification habits where unnecessary shopping and freewheeling weekend spending occur with frequency. If you belong to a 401(k)-plan participating employer, you should take part in the program and maximize your employer's contributions to your retirement coffers. Doing so means you maximize the amount of free money that you get. Typically, employers match at least 50 cents on the dollar, while some match dollar for dollar, up to 3% or even up to 6% of pay. Your employer's contributions can have a significant effect on the amount of your retirement nest egg due to the power of compound interest. (Learn more about 401(k)s in our article The 4-1-1 On 401(k)s.)
  • Many companies, especially publicly-listed ones, allow employees to purchase company stock at a discount. The most popular rate is 15% off recently listed stock price. Employers provide these plans in order to motivate and incentivize employees by making them stakeholders in the enterprise. Equity ownership allows members of the organization the opportunity to not only participate in dividends, distributions and stock buyback initiatives, employees will be motivated to prioritize their actions that increase the overall market value of the company which increases the worth of their stock ownership. If your company offers a stock purchase program, you are able to potentially capture long-term value increases in equity. More importantly, you can assess for yourself – based on research and sound advice – whether or not the company you belong to has good long-term prospects. If not, you can consider sending your resume out and moving toward a more stable haven.

    As a young professional, it is likely unwise to learn and work in a challenging industry – unless you possess a true passion for working in that sector – such as the tobacco, retail furniture, car and steel industries. If you are unhappy with the long-term prospects of a particular company or industry, it is better to get out sooner rather than later. Your savings can significantly diminish or vanish while undergoing a lengthy job application process, should you get laid off.

  • Contributing to an Individual Retirement Account (IRA), as well as a Roth IRA, can further bolster your retirement position. There are contribution limits to both plans which depend on the size of your income. Saving a portion of your paycheck and transferring these funds to an IRA, under current laws, means that future cash withdrawals are taxable, while cash withdrawals for a Roth IRA are generally tax-free. There are all kinds of detailed rules associated with IRA and Roth IRA plans. Because 401(k) accounts have limitations in terms of how much a company is willing to match your contributions, the IRA and Roth IRA provide tax-advantageous avenues for your retirement savings.
  • Some companies offer health-related benefits such as free or discount gym memberships. Young professionals need to be mindful that seemingly small monthly expenses amount to large annualized expenditures. Paying $60 a month on a gym membership represents over $700 in annualized expenses. Your company may offer various fringe benefits that can chip away at seemingly insignificant monthly expenditures. Maybe they will pay for a business- or an industry-related publication or magazine that you currently subscribe to, which could save you hundreds of dollars a year. That pile of cash can instead be placed toward a 401(k) or Roth IRA account. If you travel frequently, your company may be willing to pay for your cell phone bill or provide you with a calling card. Business-related expenses are typically reimbursable, and you should track these and submit to your manager. (See Employee Benefits: How To Know What To Choose to learn how to choose between benefit choices.)

Financial Scenarios
College is a place for research, theories, concepts and ideas, and ivory tower thinking. Young professionals, however, are quickly thrust into the real world which functions on practical actions and concrete results. Unlike college, the real world forces individuals to act correctly, not just think properly. Knowing about personal finance is not a substitute for a sizable nest egg in your retirement accounts. Awareness of certain data points is not an acceptable form of payment when you are in line at the grocery store; they only take cash (and in certain cases, food stamps). A perfect score on a multiple choice exam has a drastically different monetary value – if at all – than the hard purchasing power of $1 million in an IRA account. Many young professionals get in financial trouble because they do not subscribe to realism and practical, common sense planning.

Let's look at two scenarios for Jim Johnson, a recent college graduate. Jim saves $500 a month for 33 years (starting at age 22 until his retirement at age 55), earning 10% a year. Jim's retirement nest egg will be over $1,544,665. His younger brother Joe, however, did not save as early as Jim did. Joe saves $500 a month for 23 years (starting at age 32 until his retirement at age 55), also earning 10% a year. Joe's nest egg is only about $532,774.

The difference between a lack of savings and prudent planning intensifies when life throws curve balls at young professionals. The salaried but freewheeling spender will encounter financial hardships once unexpected or important events occur. These can include getting married and having a family, car breakdowns, health emergencies, family tragedies and theft or destruction of property. Young professionals must plan financially and take into consideration that life will throw curve balls. Adequate savings can soften the blow when these occur, and allow for a much more comfortable lifestyle when the retirement years eventually arrive.

For more on investing at a younger age, see our article Young Investors: What Are You Waiting For?

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