According to a study recently published by Rutgers, 2009 and 2010 college graduates can expect to earn a 10% lower starting salary than those who graduated in 2006 or 2007. It's easy enough to place the blame on the housing bubble bursting, financial crises of all sorts, and the resulting economic down spin and high unemployment rates we get to deal with now. No matter where the blame lies, however, the fact is that recent college grads will be paying for financial mistakes with their own reduced starting salaries. (You don't need a degree to understand your money, begin saving and pay down debt. Check out Top 5 Budgeting Questions Answered.)
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Salaries have gone down even from 2009 to 2010, dropping an average of 1.7% according to CNNMoney.com. Students with degrees in the liberal arts, marketing and business marketing are facing even more reduced starting salaries. Still, though you may not get that first salary you wish you could, you can still make it in the real-world and build your financial future along the way.
Graduate and Get Organized
Start by consolidating and setting up a payment plan for any and all student loans. If you're like the average college student, you get a going away present of about $20,000 in student loans. It's a good idea to consolidate these into one single monthly payment, not only because you'll usually end up paying less interest that way, but also because you're much more likely to be able to keep up with a single monthly payment. And as much fun as it isn't to pay off debt, it's the first major step you need to take toward your own future financial independence.
Beware the Credit Card Trap
The easiest trap to fall into, when living on a little less than might be comfortable, is to use a credit card to soften the edges so you can still go out to eat with friends, or add to your business wardrobe, or get that repair done on your car. However, credit should only be used in the case of true emergencies; otherwise you're simply extending the time you have to live on less, because you'll be paying off that debt for a long time to come.
Keep a line of credit open, but don't carry the card with you. Leave it in your safe deposit box at the bank, in a block of ice in your freezer, or at your parents' house: somewhere where you can access it for emergency car repair, but not so much for an emergency shopping trip.
Keep Housing Costs Low
Spend as little as you can on housing; maybe you can keep a roommate, or live with the parents for a year or two, or at the very least get an efficiency apartment instead of shelling out half your monthly take-home pay on a two-bedroom space you don't really need. It's tempting to want to spread out after years of living in shared spaces, but find other ways to get space. Go for a walk, explore the city, start biking. Spend less money on living space and invest more in the financial space you want to inhabit in the future. (Make it to the end of the month, before you run out of money. See The Beauty Of Budgeting.)
Look to Mom and Dad for Health Insurance
Stay on your parents' health insurance, if you can. If your new employer doesn't provide coverage, check into your options for staying on your parents' health plan, which will be much more affordable than paying for your own, and recent legislation may allow for you to stay on your parents' insurance until you turn 26.
Don't Rush into Grown-Up Purchases
A funny thing happens with the combination of a first "real" job and the realization that you're no longer a college student; you get a strange urge to buy large pieces of furniture, or invest in expensive pieces of art, or start a wine collection. Resist the urge and focus on paying off debt and living on a budget. Sure, budgeting your grocery purchases isn't as exotic as buying a teakwood, hand-carved, six-foot-tall display cabinet for your recently acquired wine collection, but in the long run it's a better investment.
Remember, frugal is the new fabulous. Keep yourself from feeling like you can't purchase anything by planning for some extravagance. Know what you like, and what really matters most in terms of how much money you're willing to spend on it. Maybe it's clothes, shoes, music, books, travel, food, or great experiences with friends. Be economical on the things that don't matter as much so you can put a bigger chunk of your paycheck toward what does matter to you. If you've never checked a clothing label in your life, spend less on clothes and enjoy the gourmet ingredients you'd rather splurge on. Or spend the other way around. Just don't spend at the extravagant level for every area of your life. Pick one.
Besides cutting out the excess, you can also add to the income by freelancing for extra cash. Use your skills, search for gigs on craigslist or other local classified ads, and pick up the odd job here and there. You can make the extra you need for those concert tickets, that wardrobe boost, or just to buffer your bank account a bit. Freelancing gives you the ability to make some extra money without tying you to another part-time job when you've already got a full-time job going.
The Bottom Line
Perspective helps, too, more than you might think. If you start feeling like you're pinched just a little too much, go spend the weekend volunteering in a soup kitchen, tutoring at-risk kids, or helping build a Habitat for Humanity house. Even with a lower starting salary, you're making more than many other folks out there. And even though a smaller salary isn't the first choice, with some smart moves you can live well on a tighter budget, get the work experience you need and still make it financially while climbing that career ladder. (Not everyone is cut out for online or heavily-involved budgeting. Check out 3 Alternative Budgeting Styles: Which One Suits You?)