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New grad? Here are 10 must-dos to secure your financial future

You just conquered college — are you ready to master your money and make your mark in your career? Financial expert and CEO of HerMoney, Jean Chatzky, shares what women can do who are just starting out.
Three female graduate students throwing mortar boards, low angle view
Personal finance expert Jean Chatzky shares advice for new grads from her most recent book, "How to Money: Your Ultimate Visual Guide To The Basics Of Finance.” Getty Images

First of all: congratulations! The last few years of your life were hopefully a lot of fun, but they were also an incredible amount of work. It takes dedication, drive and a lot of smarts to get to where you are today — all of which you'll need to find success in your working life.

Fortunately, the May jobs report showed that now is still a great time to get hired — the unemployment rate stands at a healthy 3.7 percent, near a five-decade low. And while there's a heck of a lot more to this next stage of your life than just getting a job (and I know you're sick of hearing the question "Have you found one yet?"), the money you earn over the course of your lifetime is what fuels so many of your other big goals, like a house, a car, a round-the-world journey, and so much more.

"How to Money: Your Ultimate Visual Guide to the Basics of Finance" book cover
Chatzky's newest book, "How to Money: Your Ultimate Visual Guide to the Basics of Finance" is co-authored by the Kathryn Tuggle at HerMoney and helps new grads make smart, informed money decisions.Macmillan Children's Publishing Group

That’s why I wanted to offer up 10 of the best tips for financial success as you start your career and take your next big life steps, all of which are included in my book, “How to Money: Your Ultimate Visual Guide To The Basics Of Finance.”

Here are my top tips for new women grads:

Understand your student debt. It all starts by knowing exactly what kind of loan you have (federal or private), the interest rate, and term (length) of the loan. Once you’ve got all that information — which you can easily find in your online portal — you can create a repayment plan that works with your budget.

Keep in mind, if you’re procrastinating because you figure you should be eligible for loan forgiveness up to $10,000 under President Joe Biden’s student debt relief program — don’t. Last week, the Senate blocked approval of the program, and later this month the Supreme Court will rule on two cases pertaining to the program. In other words, it’s far from a done deal.

Get your first budget. This one is easier than you may think — a budget is the best way to see exactly how much money you have coming in and going out every month. There are countless budgeting methods, so you can find the one that’s right for you. It all starts by tracking your income and expenses, so you can make sure you’re not spending more than you earn and reaching your big financial goals.

Set your goals. As we say in “How to Money”: “The only way to get what you want is to know what you want.” Once you’ve got an understanding of your budget, take a look at what you want to accomplish in the next 5, 10 or even 20 years. What are your short-term and long-term financial goals? Whether you’re eyeing your first home or the ability to donate to your favorite charity, having goals will help you keep your eyes on the prize.

Open the accounts you need. You know those big goals you’ve got? You’ll have a much better chance of reaching them if you keep your money in separate accounts, rather than just having all your money in a checking account. (If you see it, you spend it.) Open an FDIC-insured savings account that pays serious interest at a bank or credit union for each of your goals, and have money moved there automatically each month, so you don’t have to think about it.

Build an emergency fund. One of the most important accounts you need is an emergency fund, where you’ll save for unexpected expenses, like a car repair or a hefty medical bill. Having an emergency fund ensures you won’t end up in debt when something unexpected happens because you had to charge it all to a credit card. Which brings us to…

Understand credit — both credit cards and credit scores. While credit card rewards can be pretty sweet, credit card debt (the debt that accumulates when you don’t pay off your balance in full every month) is not.

It can cost you more than 20 percent per year in interest, and having too much of that debt can quickly bring down your credit score, which can make it more difficult (and more expensive) to take out a loan for important things like a house or a car. Credit is so important to your financial future, so take some time to understand how to build a strong credit score, and make sure to pay your bills on time, every time.

Jean Chatzky
Jean Chatzky is CEO and co-founder of HerMoney and the author of over a dozen books on personal finance. She released the finance guidebook for new grads, "How to Money: Your Ultimate Visual Guide to the Basics of Finance," in 2022.Courtesy Jean Chatzky, HerMoney

Invest. As soon as you’re earning money, you should be investing money. If your employer offers a 401(k), take it! Contribute at least enough to secure the company match, because not doing it is like leaving free money on the table!

You can also open an IRA on your own. The earlier you start saving, the more time your money has to grow for your future — plus you’ll reduce your tax bill every year. A true win-win.

Increase your earning power. The best way to ensure you have enough money to invest, travel and so much more is to earn more. This means you need to negotiate for a higher salary.

The gender wage gap means that women earn less than men over time, which makes it even more important that you go into every negotiation with salary research, a list of your accomplishments and qualifications, and talking points prepared so you can speak with confidence.

Ensure your future by Insuring your future. For now, you may still be on your parents’ insurance plan. But as soon as you turn 26, you’ll need to secure your own. Debt from a medical emergency can totally derail your financial future, so make sure you’re always covered. If your employer doesn’t offer benefits, you can snag a cheap plan on the exchanges.

Know that money won’t buy you happiness — but it can make life easier. Money can either be a source of stress and anxiety in your life, or a source of empowerment and joy. The decisions you make today (saving rather than spending, paying down debt rather than putting it off) can make or break your financial future.

We all overspend sometimes (ahem, destination weddings) or have unexpected budget-busters (hello, catalytic converter) but as long as you have a plan for reaching all your big financial goals — and stick to it — you’ve got this.

In the HerMoney community, we’re changing our relationships with money — one woman at a time. Check out our free weekly insights to get all your financial questions answered.

With Kathryn Tuggle