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Home  > Article

Spending Sense

By Amy Marcott

Transitioning from college student to full-time professional can be difficult, but don't let finances overwhelm you.

You landed a job, maybe you even decided to live with roommates to lower your expenses, but that entry-level salary slips right through your fingers.
So you're finally out in that world repeatedly dubbed the "real" one, and it isn't anything like the TV show. Not that you're surprised, but no one told you the transition from student to full-fledged adult could be so overwhelming. Topping your list of stress inducers: living on a budget.

You landed a job, maybe you even decided to live with roommates to lower your expenses, but that entry-level salary slips right through your fingers. Before you consider desperate measures (like moving back home with your parents), review these tips for surviving on a budget and still living like a grown-up.

Finances 101
Being on a budget means you know where your money goes--all of it. Don't scratch your head and contemplate your paycheck's disappearing act. Instead, carry a small notebook with you, and record every purchase you make within a month's time. A pack of gum, a 50-cent newspaper, your daily cup of coffee, bills--leave nothing out. You may feel obsessive recording the bag of pretzels you buy from the vending machine, but doing so will help you create a realistic budget and see that some seemingly insignificant purchases are actually small extravagances you can do without. Some other tips:

  • Withdraw your weekly allotment on a designated day, then leave your debit and credit cards in your dresser, maybe saving one credit card in case of an emergency.
  • You can also separate your money into separate envelopes, with food money in one, entertainment in another. That way you know what specific portion of your budget you've spent.
  • Plan your ATM use to avoid fees.
  • Use a credit union if possible--better rates and lower fees.
  • Don't use your credit card unless you have the cash to pay for what you want; the interest rates can provide years of debt. If necessary, set aside a little money each week until you can afford the purchase.
  • Round every purchase up to the nearest $1, $5, or $10, and keep the remainder in a jar. If you pretend that a $3.50 sandwich costs $5, you will be apt to spend less as you will reach the end of your money sooner. And you'll end up with a cushion tucked away.
  • Don't keep your money just in a savings account; opt for market funds, CDs, or mutual funds. Your money will grow more than in a savings account and may be more difficult to get at (which will cause you to use it less).
  • Use no-load mutual funds and stick with index funds for the lowest fees.
  • Invest in your 401(k) to get your employer matching portion and tax savings.

The necessities
Establishing yourself in a new place can cost plenty. Maybe you have to buy a bed for the first time, or a dresser, or a couch. Just remember that what you buy now does not have to be your lifelong furniture. If your relatives don't have furniture to spare (and you should solicit all of them), try yard sales (especially in affluent neighborhoods), estate sales, and leftovers lining the sidewalks of nearby colleges and universities at spring semester's end.

Other less tangible things we can't do without--utilities, transportation, insurance--can also strain a budget. When it comes to any kind of insurance, always search for the lowest rates. While a request for a car insurance quote can take 20 to 30 minutes, it's time well spent. If you travel via public transportation, do the math and see if a monthly or yearly pass will save you in the long run. Consider these bits of advice as well:

  • Carpool if you must commute by car.
  • Run, walk, or bike to work instead of taking public transportation or a car (or do this for part of your commute)--you'll save on commuting expenses and potentially on a gym membership.
  • Rent a car for use on weekends--it's cheaper than owning, insuring, and maintaining your own.
  • Avoid cabs whenever possible.
  • Use heat and air conditioning carefully--turn the heat down when no one is home, and agree on a comfortable temperature and keep the thermostat there.
  • Be extra careful about leaving on lights, appliances, stereos, etc.
  • Go out rather than use your air conditioning. Plenty of public places are kept cool.
  • Use rechargeable batteries.
  • Don't get cable TV.
  • Email whenever possible instead of making long-distance calls.
  • Get a goldfish instead of a dog or cat.
  • Cancel your magazine and newspaper subscriptions and read everything online.
  • Instead of making charitable donations, volunteer your time.
  • Don't buy something unless you plan to throw out the thing you are replacing. For example, don't buy new bath towels unless you really plan to throw out the old ones. This will help you buy wisely and accumulate less junk.

Eating well
Unless you're planning to fast in the near future, you must buy food. But if you plan carefully, you can lower your monthly expenditure. First and foremost, pack your lunch. Brown-bagging may take some extra time and forethought, but spending $5 on lunch every work day will cost you a minimum of $100 a month. If your workplace has a refrigerator and a microwave or toaster oven, you can bring in the fixings for the entire week.

When shopping, always sign up for your grocery store's money saving card, and scan the store circular for weekly specials. Comparison shop for the lowest prices, and use coupons. Many stores double their value, allowing you to save big. Here are some other ideas:

  • Try to not purchase food at the corner store where it's more expensive.
  • When possible, shop at wholesale clubs.
  • Buy store-brand items, especially cold medicine and pain relievers (same ingredients but much cheaper).
  • Buy juice concentrate instead of juice in bottles or cartons.
  • Plan meals for the week, trying to use the same ingredients for multiple meals, like cooking a roaster chicken and using the cooked chicken (which can also be frozen) for tacos, chicken salad, tetrazzini, lunch meat, etc.
  • Keep a variety of frozen and canned food available. Freeze leftovers, meats, and bread, reducing waste and ensuring that there's always something to eat so you don't order in or eat out unless it's for a treat.
  • Stop buying your morning coffee or tea. Either drink what's provided at work or bring yours from home in a travel mug or Thermos. A mere $1 or so a day can really add up. The same goes for your morning bagel or doughnut. Buy a week's supply at the grocery store and bring your breakfast to work.
  • Avoid using the vending machine at work. Instead, buy a bag of candy or snacks and keep them at your desk.
  • Arrange dinner clubs with your friends where each person takes a turn cooking for the group. You can socialize without the cost of eating out.

Entertaining yourself
The real world can be a fun place, and every budget should include room for simply enjoying yourself; just play within moderation. Chances are, you don't need to see a full-price movie more than once a week, nor do you need to eat out every weekend. Your monthly entertainment allotment is yours to spend as you like. A pricey dinner is fine as long as you don't mind renting movies for the rest of the month. Some other advice:

  • Use an exercise tape, run, or bike instead of paying for a gym membership, or see if you can provide a service (like babysitting) in exchange for a free membership.
  • Go to friends' parties instead of bars.
  • If you need a vacation, stay with friends, in hostels, or in cheap motels instead of pricey hotels. And, the earlier you make your arrangements, the cheaper your airline fare will be.
  • Make presents, don't buy them.
  • Use your public library rather than bookstores.
  • Investigate movie ticket deals provided by your school or employer.
  • Sneak your own lower-priced snacks into the movie theater.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Buy used CD's instead of new ones.
  • Download legal MP3s instead of buying CDs.
  • Use free Internet service providers and/or email providers.

Looking the part
Part of being a professional is looking professional, and that means new clothes. Even if you end up in a casual work environment, chances are you will need some new outfits--for interviewing, special occasions, or business presentations. Here are some tips to getting by:

  • Never allow yourself to buy any item of clothing when it is full price.
  • Shop at off-price stores or factory outlets.
  • Buy clothes that you can dress up or down for either work or going out.
  • Try to avoid "dry clean only" items.
  • To reduce dry cleaning costs, use an at-home dry cleaning kit and iron your own shirts.
  • Borrow special occasion clothes instead of buying a pricey outfit for a one-time affair. Or, "invest" with a couple of similar-size friends in a few good outfits or suits.
  • The average fabric softener sheet is larger than necessary--use a half-sheet at a time.
  • Instead of getting professional manicures, have your friends paint your nails.
  • Get your hair cut by students at beauty schools.
  • Buy solid, muted colors for jackets and sweaters and highlight with nicely made T-shirts. You can even iron your T-shirts to enhance the look.

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