Creating a Budget After College: Wants, Needs and Feeling the Joy

Cover of book All Your WOrth, which covers budgetsCreating your first budget after graduating from college doesn't have to be a strain. As our expert Manisha Thakor shows, managing your cash isn't about the budgeting blues, but following your joy.

"When I look back at my career, it is very clear to me that the No. 1 thing I did right financially was live within my means right out of the gate," Thakor told Money College in a recent interview. In fact, she says, sticking to a budget in her 20s gave her a financial safety net that allowed her to change careers years later.

So where do you start?For first-timers, Thakor recommends the 50-20-30 strategy that Harvard professor, famed consumer advocate and White House adviser Elizabeth Warren explains in the book All Your Worth:
  • Budget 50% of your take-home pay for essential needs (rent, transportation, student loans, etc.).
  • Keep 20% for savings, setting aside two-thirds of it for retirement and a third for emergencies.
  • Leave 30% for "wants."

"That can be a very simple but powerful tool you can use right out of school to compare whether you're on financial track, rather than the kind of line-item budgeting that can seem overwhelming," Thakor said, but not without a warning.

"The way the math works: If you don't start saving at that rate, it's almost mathematically impossible that you'll ever be able to retire," she said. "That's a really brutal statement, but that's just a bottom line."

Brutal indeed, but not out of reach for the savvy student, according to Thakor. Establish a "financial command central" with online banking tools, she says. Virtually all major banks offer some sort of wealth management and spending-tracker tools, along with auto bill pay (so that you'll never get dinged again for losing that cable bill in the couch cushions).

Hold yourself accountable by analyzing how much you spent on needs vs. wants each month. "See if there's anything there that didn't bring you joy," Thakor says. "Then you can cut that out, save money and not lose any joy." So, even if plane tickets to attend my best friend's wedding made up most of my mega $635.79 bill, seeing that once-in-a-lifetime look on her face was joy personified. But did I also have to spend $90 at Dunkin' Donuts? No way.

Lastly, don't forget to think of the positives. Passing up that cashmere sweater today means a more financially stable future, which feels even better. As Thakor sees it, "looking at both ends - what you're giving up in the future and what you're having to do today - that's what I've found most effective in helping new grads get the motivation to stay on the budget."

Kind of like a reality check? "Exactly," she says.

LeeAnn Maton, 23, graduated from Loyola University Chicago in 2010 and works as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times Media Wire. She is writing a series for Money College on financial life after college.
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