Million Dollar Journey

Building Wealth through Saving and Investing

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Wealth Building Tips for New College/University Graduates

I received an email from a reader wondering where all the posts were for new graduates.  It made me pause for a moment as I realized that I don’t have a lot of material on personal finance for new grads.  I should have more as it hasn’t been that long since completing Engineering school (2003).

For those of you who don’t know, even though I came away from University with some savings due to co-op work terms and working part time during school, my wife wasn’t so fortunate.  Combined, we had a negative net worth with debt in the  $160,000 range including a brand new mortgage.  Fortunately, the last 7 years or so has been good to us where we are now close to the half million mark in net worth.

The years after University can be quite an expensive and a financially challenging time.  Most start an entry level position (thus entry level pay), need to find their own place to live, perhaps find a car to drive, and even face student loans that require re-payment.  It’s especially hard to imagine how a new grad can get ahead financially, but the great news is that it is possible.  It just takes a bit of time and discipline.

Having said that, here are my tips on how a new graduate can get on the financial fast track:

Calculate Your Current Financial Position and Set a Goal!

You can’t really know where you’re going until you know where you currently stand.  Calculate your net worth to see how your assets and liabilities stack up then set a realistic financial goal to be achieved within a specific time period.  The action plan varies depending on the goal (more actionable activities below).  Is it to pay down debt?  To save for a down payment for a new house?  To be a millionaire?  Track your net worth quarterly to ensure that you are moving in the right direction.

Create a Budget

It is likely that a new grad has some debt, so it’s important to create a budget to control spending and prevent from getting deeper in debt.  Whack away at some of those unnecessary expenses to create as much positive cash flow as possible.  It’s also just as important to set aside spending money to reduce the feeling of being restricted.  Spending less than you earn is a long term strategy and is one of the easiest and most effective ways to build wealth.  Here is a list of some ways that we save money.

Increase Your Income

On the same note of creating positive cash flow, look for ways to increase your income.  Maybe a side business that you can run after work?  Or perhaps a hobby that you can monetize?  Or maybe selling some of that stuff that you don’t need or use anymore.  Does your job offer career advancement opportunities?  What skill sets do you need to get that raise or increase your profile within the industry?

Delay Lifestyle Inflation

I know, you’re finished University and you feel like a big shot.  You feel that you deserve the brand new car, new condo/house, new clothes, electronics and the list goes on.  The problem is, all of those things cost a lot of money, money that you probably don’t have…. yet.  It takes a bit of time to build wealth and it’s better to be able to afford the toys than to put it all on credit thus creating more debt.  My advice?  Keep the student minimalistic lifestyle as long as possible to delay lifestyle inflation.  At least until consumer debt is paid off.  Any increase or unexpected income should also go towards paying down debt.

Debt or Invest?

In my opinion, it should be top priority to pay down high interest student and consumer debt before investing.  The exception would be if your company has RRSP matching – take the free money when it’s available!  How do you get out of debt?  Once you set your budget to generate as much excess cash flow as possible, put any surplus cash on the highest rate debt.  Once that is eliminated, put the previous payment plus the surplus cash towards the next highest rate debt and continue until it’s all paid off.  Here are more tips on how to get out of debt.

Investing Strategies

Some students may graduate without any debt at all, and may look to start investing.  If you’re the do it yourself type, a great way to start is with an index based portfolio.  It is a known fact in the investing world that low cost index funds simply beat actively managed mutual funds over the long term.  As cash flow may be smaller when you are just starting out, here are some tips on how to invest small amounts per month which mostly explains how to purchase low cost mutual funds.  If you want to go the Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) route, here is a comparison of online discount stock brokers to help choose the lowest cost account for your situation.

Have Fun

As I previously mentioned, it’s important to set aside guilt free spending money to live a little.  If vacations are important to you, then include it in your budget, but look for less important expenses to cut out to ensure that positive cash flow is achieved.  For our family, we aim for balance and simplicity.  We keep costs as low as possible on things that don’t bring long term joy and spend a bit more on things that do.  The more you view wealth building as a game, the more fun it will get and the bigger your net worth will grow.

Most importantly, keep reading personal finance blogs like this one. :)   What would be your financial advice for new grads?







28 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. 1. Cruiser

    A few things for that I would suggest having recently graduated, and also experience from my fiance who is about to graduate:

    1) Expect some downtime between School and Work. I had 3 months off, and I expect my fiance will have at least 4 off just due to timing. The jobs were secured in Jan/Feb timeframe of the school year. You need to include this in your budget.

    2) Begin looking for a job at the START of your last year. The best companies start hiring early and this usually has some correlation to the pay that you will receive.

    3) Start a spreadsheet…document all outstanding debts with all of the pertinent information. Amount, interest rates, special terms, etc.

    4) Begin understanding personal finance. I know when I first met my fiance, she would leave things on her credit card accruing interest (at 20%) while still leaving lots of room on her credit line. Her reasoning was that the interest on her credit card looked small in comparison to the amount of interest on her credit line.

    5) As was mentioned, hold off on the large purchases as long as possible. 3 years out of school, I do not have a car yet, and I intend to keep it this way until we have to move to somewhere that truly needs one.

  2. 2. Mark

    Question from a future Mun Engr graduate :) :

    Would learning about dividend investing be worthwhile over the long-term or is index investing the way to go?

    Oh and what discipline engineering did you study?

  3. 3. nobleea

    “Delay Lifestyle Inflation”
    Probably has the biggest impact on future wealth. Live like a student for another 5 years and you’ll be way ahead.
    “Have Fun”
    Also agree, and if you don’t, it will be one of the bigger regrets of your life. You don’t look back at your life when you’re 65 and enjoy the fact that you had a new tv and new car back when you were 25. Its the experiences that you’ll remember and cherish. Travel and explore the world while you have no munchkins to slow you down.

  4. 4. The Reverend

    What I’ve seen work for a lot of my young, single coworkers was buying a house close to the student ghetto, living in one room and renting out other bedrooms to students. This has had many implications:
    – get to maintain a little bit of student lifestyle they were accustomed to – occasional beer, pizza and video games with the students
    – often can cover off 100% of mortgage since renting rooms individually generates more revenue than renting entire home
    – rental property where you have some supervision/influence of tenants
    – share expenses (utilities, groceries, etc)

    If you can stick this out for 3-5 years after graduation, you’ll probably have lived below your means (ie you didn’t dare buy that nice 72-inch tv in case your tenants wrecked it) vs living on your own and may be able to buy your own place but keep the rental.

    I didn’t go this route as I got married right out of school, but I know a lot of people doing it and it works for them.

  5. 5. Brandon

    In regards to the Debt or Invest section — Student loans come with a tax deduction, so shouldn’t you pay off other debts first?

  6. @ Mark, if you are interested in learning more investment strategies, I would actually recommend that you do that. It’s good to know why you are going with a particular investment strategy. For me, I’m attracted to the dividend strategy for the cash flow.

    @ Brandon, it would realy depend on the after tax rate. Student loan interest is eligible for a tax credit, which federally means 15% off your interest rate (some provinces have matching).

  7. 7. Dd

    Great post. I hate my student loans :S I hate my wife’s student loans even more ;)

    I love how much you covered with this post–thanks for sharing

  8. 8. Sarlock

    “Delay Lifestyle Inflation”
    Absolutely the biggest one. Too often I see people graduating, getting a good paying job and after a few years, find themselves in even more debt and worse financial shape than they were when they graduated. It’s far too tempting to spend all of those new dollars on goodies. Patience: save and spend slowly and you’ll get all those goodies in due time with a lot less end cost (you’ll end up with way more net worth in the end).

  9. 9. Uncle El

    The best advice I can give is avoid debt at all cost, credit card and student loans, use other options first like work study or grants, financial aide. What I did was have a full time job and then set up a payment plan with the finance office and I graduated bachelors with only 1 semester of student loans.

  10. 10. Melanie Samson

    Another vote for “Delay Lifestyle Inflation” being the most important. That was hands-down my biggest (and most costly) mistake of my first 3 years after university.

  11. Great article.

    I was beginning to lose faith in this website and it’s content but the past couple weeks have been exactly what I would expect.

  12. Personally, I think wealth building for new college/university graduates should start while in university.The strategies that you have outlined above are just as applicable to university students as new graduates.

    Lots of students wind up eating out everyday. That’s really a silent killer as lattes, meals, and alcoholic drinks can really add up. Best thing for students to do is to create a budget, as this will help control life-style inflation, and debt later on.

    I think university is an amazing opportunity to build wealth. Aside from tuition, costs are still fairly low at this stage in a person’s life. This is especially true for those who still live at home. It’s great to start building wealth early. Why wait until graduation to start?

  13. 13. ldk

    the money strategies we adopted as newly-married graduates has served us extremely well….again another vote for the importance of delaying lifestyle inflation!

    We started out ONLY PAYING CASH for everything….sure, we needed a lawn mower and a washing machine, so we bought used for $50 rather than putting one of a Sears card. Paying ‘forward’ (ie.saving for what you need and paying cash) vs. ‘paying it back’ on credit has been the single most important thing we have done for our finances. We are now 40 and most of my friends are still financing everything–decks, trips, appliances, furnaces, you name it….and can’t believe that anyone would have the ‘cash lying around’ to finance a home maintenance item!!

    We’ve never financed a single consumer item, and it has made all the difference.

  14. 14. Tara

    I would say that the biggest thing is to figure out what matters to you and spend money on those things. Don’t listen to what your parents and your friends think you want – figure out what YOU want.

    For example, most of my friends thought I should buy a place right away. Ownership would be nice, but how do I know that I will stay in the city that I’m in for at least five years? I don’t. So I would rather rent until I do know that. Also, renting is a lot more flexible and it’s easier to move to a new city than when you own a house or a condo.

    I chose to rent a bigger apartment and to live alone, both of which led to paying a lot more for rent than some of my other friends. But I chose that because a bigger apartment makes me significantly happier, as does the personal space afforded by living alone, and I can afford it easily. To my friends who comment on that, I reason it out by saying that I may pay $X in rent per month, but their $Y in rent per month plus $Z on drinks per night out adds up to more than my $X in rent per month and I hardly go out drinking.

    I also spent a lot more on furniture than some of my friends. Most of my friends went to Ikea, whereas I went to a reasonably-priced, but more-than-Ikea department store for all of my furniture. This was something that was important to me, as I wanted an apartment that felt like a home. After 5 years of temporary, student housing, I wanted somewhere that felt like *my* place.

    Other people may look at my spending plan and think that I am spending a lot, but I don’t care for the following reasons:
    - The amounts that I am spending are reasonably well-controlled.
    - I am spending well within my means.
    - I am saving in pre-tax and post-tax retirement savings plans, as well as in non-registered investment accounts.
    - I pay for everything with cash. I pay off my credit card in full twice a month.
    - I am spending money on the things that are important to me and not spending money on the things that are not important to me.
    - I am conscious of how much money I spend each month and what I spend my money on.
    - I tried packing my lunches for a month and realized that I was spending approximately the same amount of money and eating disgusting, stale bread instead of the fresh bread that I would eat if I bought a sandwich from the cafeteria.

  15. 15. Tara

    @DividendHeaven: I agree with you, but everyone is different. Everyone needs to figure out what makes the most sense for him or herself while staying within what is affordable.

    I ran the numbers and figured out that spending money on eating out added up, but I also ran the numbers on my productivity. By eating dinner on or close to campus, I would be productive until 10 pm in the evening. If I went home, then I would stop being productive around 4 pm, which was a loss of 4-6 hours of reasonably solid work. Also, I would normally eat out with my friends versus eating dinner by myself at home. What is a better way to break after a solid day of working – eating dinner with your friends or eating dinner by yourself at home?

    That being said, I don’t necessarily advocate my approach for everyone. But what I do advocate is spending within *your* means and spending in a way that makes sense for you.

  16. 16. AD

    completely agree with delaying lifestyle inflation. I graduated a year ago, needed a car for my job (which I was very fortunate to get right out of school) so I bought the smallest, fuel efficient car I could; gently used ofcourse. My boyfriend (who is still in school) and I live in our own house(well, the banks) while renting out the other rooms even though I could afford all of the expenses on my salary. (its a tiny house!). Im in part time school, which my company pays for, and this allows me to save up to pay off my student loans without pay any interest. I only hope with reading all of your comments that all of this will make my future brighter :) Keep up the good work on the articles!

  17. 17. Echo

    I also agree with the delayed gratification that everyone has mentioned. Also, beginning your career on the right foot can have a major impact on your future finances.

    Many graduates have a sense of entitlement when entering the workforce and don’t take too kindly to the entry level tasks they are required to do in order to pay their dues and move up the ranks.

    Focus on separating yourself from the pile (of other entry level new grads) by working hard and taking on new tasks above and beyond your job description. You will get noticed and should advance more quickly than your peers, which will lead to increased income down the road.

  18. 18. Ben

    Good tips.

    My financial light bulb didn’t turn on until I graduated school. But, I don’t regret that. School days are great, and I had a lot of fun along the way with great memories with friends.

  19. 19. Xan

    I need some advice from you all

    I have just recently graduated from a university in Singapore. I will be working soon as a research assistant back at the university with a pay of 1700usd (I’m working in the social sciences factor and I am passionate about my work though the pay sucks). This university is at the other far end of Singapore and if I continue staying with my parents at the other extreme end of Singapore, I would need to spend about 4 hours on commute everyday. Hence, I decide to rent a room very near my workplace (5 minutes walk) for 650usd, and that is about 40% of my pay. Is it a wise decision? However, I would be using the time saved on commute to read up on and learn investments and other skills like website design. I would also be working as a part-time tutor during the weekend, which I can garner another 600usd. Despite this huge imposition of 650usd on my income, I’m generally thrifty and do not spend much (at most 500usd on food, clothes, entertainment etc).

    In Singapore, it is acceptable to live with parents after graduation and generally unconventional to rent a room outside and live alone. I am just wondering whether I make the correct, or wrong, decision in deciding to live out alone and impose strains on my income. However I find relief in avoiding the commute (transport in a densely-populated city is a headache). Thank you everyone!

  20. 20. Gates VP

    Hey @FT;

    These are always lots of fun. A few extras for you from my life:

    1. Get A’s (and A+’s): I got B’s in University and spent extra time doing TA work and helping to run some social groups. Great experience, but it cost me $10s of K in starting salary. If I had to do it again, I would have started by getting A’s and then adding “extra-curricular” later.

    2. Plan for continued education. In most professional fields, the degree is just barely “license to practice” (if at all). Your first year on the job is probably going to be as educational as your last year of school. But by year 2 or 3 it’s going to be up to you to keep learning new things. Be prepared to foot some money / time on doing personal training a couple of years after grad.

    3. Investing Strategies: put cash in the bank and avoid big purchases. Before you start looking at index funds or asking questions about dividend trading, start by putting $5-10k in the bank, just throw it in savings. That’s a lot of money on the first job, but most first jobs don’t actually last that long. There are some exceptions (government, big corps), but at 7 years out from University I know one person who still has their first job (at IBM, see exceptions).

    The reason for having this money around is really simple: flexibility. When you are young and early in your career flexibility is huge. My pay and relative quality of life have increased dramatically as a result of being able to move. Plus you get the benefit of a buffer in times of crisis.

    Managing lifestyle inflation is also a big part of this equation. If you dedicate yourself to cleaning up debts and putting aside a significant chunk of your early cash then you probably won’t have money for big purchases in the first couple of years. This will keep you open to being able to move at a key period in your career development (cash for a move and very little stuff).

  21. Awesome post Gates, thanks. Those are some great tips for career oriented readers.

  22. 22. Mat

    There needs to be more posts like this. Coming out of school a few years ago, I had the hardest time finding financial information geared at new graduates that wasn’t completely focused on debt. Its assumed now in society that all graduates leave school with tons of debt and no ability to save.

    Call me lucky but I completed a bachelor’s and master’s degree debt-free through various means (scholarships, help from parents and working full-time every summer and part-time during my 2nd and 3rd years of undergrad). That said, I was debt-free, but also savings-free. The day I started my first job ( a few weeks after finishing my Master’s), I had a net worth of $500. Now I have been working for about 2.5 years, and today have a net worth approaching $35000. In that time, I took a three month unpaid leave of absence from work to go backpacking around South America, as well as several other vacations to foreign lands. I’m now planning to go back to school to do a PhD and I intend to do it completely debt-free once again.

    I agree with most of the tips that others have said (no lifestyle inflation, start a 5-10k emergency fund, etc.). I got to where I am now solely by putting aside anywhere from 10-20% of my after-tax paycheck every single pay period since I started working. As far as I’m concerned, my salary is what’s left after that savings is cut off the top, and I live a very nice life on what’s left, not knowing any different.

    I don’t think grades matter though (in reference to Gates’ post above) if you are career-oriented. I interviewed for over a dozen professional (engineering) jobs while in 4th year, and I only remember one that asked to see my transcript. The overall impression that I got was that the grades don’t matter – a degree is a degree. If you’ve got it, you’re good to go. That said, if you have any aspirations at all of going to graduate school, then grades definitely do matter.

  23. 23. Atniz

    Great tips for students especially those who just graduated. I made my biggest mistake by signing up several credit cards after graduating. It took years to settle off the card debts. It will be easy if students are given finance class as a compulsory before graduating. Maybe, you can start with creating a new category for “Graduates” here.

  24. 24. Gates VP

    @Mat:

    I don’t think grades matter though … if you are career-oriented. I interviewed for over a dozen professional (engineering) jobs while in 4th year, and I only remember one that asked to see my transcript…That said, if you have any aspirations at all of going to graduate school, then grades definitely do matter.

    If you take a look at most career jobs (outside of engineering) grad school is really important. Take sciences: Chemistry, Bio, Physics & Math all basically require post-grad. Engineering & Comp Sci are a little different in that you can “get away” with just a bachelor’s, but grades still play a factor in tight markets.

    I graduated in January 2003, a really big slump for Computer Programmers. The top three guys in my class all got jobs out of University. I took over 6 months to find a real job. This is with a degree, a year of co-op, some independent consulting, full bilingualism and B grades. I worked the night shift at McDonald’s and looked for a job during the day (McJob = worst salary I ever had)

    About half of my grad class were still out of work the following year. Many of them went back to school.

    Cost of that mistake: I started at $30k, my IBM buddy started at around $45k (4-6 months ahead of me). Over the next 3 years our pay differential would hover around $15k / year as I upgraded and he was promoted. So not getting A’s cost me about $45k to $60k in gross earnings over the first 3 years alone. It took me 5 years, two moves and lots of independent training to close in on his pay.

    Now, in good years, this difference would seem to be a lot lower. Under normal circumstances, me and my B friends are probably all going to get jobs. But those top grads are getting jobs every time.

    By the same measure, those top grads are typically pulled in by larger companies with better pay. Microsoft, IBM, Google, Facebook, they don’t talk to you if you’re getting C’s.

    “A” students are also the top candidates for teaching assistant and summer research assistant positions. These are some of the best paying & convenient student jobs around and they’re completely inaccessible to B & C students.

    The extra work required to make “A”s during University has a really good ROI. If I had to do it again, it would have been “A”s all the way. I’d be 10% smarter and get paid 30-50% better.

  25. 25. Cristene

    Can anyone advise me?

    I have a 25k student LOC. Question is, should I put a percentage of my paycheck, like ten percent into a TFSA with lower interest rate and save while I pay down the LOC with a higher interest rate? I thought it would be better because I would have a designated fund for savings instead of paying down the LOC (if I need money, I just use the LOC again). I would always have, in the back of my mind, a savings fund. However, I know that if I consolidate all the savings and LOC, I still end up with the same net worth.

    I work for a company that offer stock options where if I contribute $2, they contribute $1 . I was thinking of exercising the stock options and putting 10% of each paycheck into a TFSA with these stocks as the vehicle.

    I graduated with a Bcomm and 2 years from CGA.

    thank you!!

  26. @Cristene, one thing you can try is build up your savings to a level that you are comfortable with, then put all cash flow into debt repayment.

  27. 27. Shiraz

    I’ve found that one of the biggest mistake recent grads make is to start spending money like crazy because they have a job and finally have some disposable income.

    Be smart with your new found cash and spend wisely. If you create a disciplined fiscal plan and follow it early, you’ll create a pattern for the rest of your life.

  28. 28. Mark

    Hi,
    Note: My questions are at the bottom of my post after all the relevant information to my current and forseeable future financial situation has been described in detail and recap’ed in summary. Please read all the info. in my post before you answer my questions so you can fully understand my complicated situation. I am grateful to the wonderful owner and contributors to this site for the vast array of financial information and suggestions, and the same with all of those who have posted. Thank you in advance.

    I have mixed feelings about making this post because of the amount of personal details to describe my financial situation with the necessary degree of accuracy to receive the information/suggestions I am seeking to the questions I am asking.

    I am currently in a low-income situation due to disability (approx. $13k/year) and as a result being on provincial disability since 18. I am 26 years old and am finishing college and getting a professional license in chosen field, becoming eligible to work after receiving a certificate for passing a professional licensing exam that I am going to take in August of 2012.

    I have $0 in liabilities, a very minimal positive net worth, and a very small positive cash flow.

    The social assistance program I am on only allows me to have a total of $6000.00 in savings, in addition to TFSA’s (which are federal, and therefore are beyond the jurisdiction of provincial social assistance rules).

    I volunteer and earn a small annual honourarium at the place I volunteer at. This small gesture has helped to improve my quality of life dramatically.

    The place I volunteer is an office that is relevant to my future career, and I have been told that there is an opening when I become professionally licensed, they would like to hire me. If not, they would like to make a good recommendation that I be hired at a similar type of office.

    My anticipated starting salary is $50000.00 plus benefits and is a provincial government job (technically).

    I am not EI eligible and have made only very minimal CPP contributions from part time work between the ages of 18-present (26).

    I want to buy a car with cash upon starting to work. I have $4000.00 currently plus money when I start working to pay for this expense.

    I have credit history, but not enough credit currently to get a credit card or LOC due to my present low income.

    I am in a relationship, and for the first while (3-5 years) of the relationship, I will need to financially support my partner…due to her health issues and present education level + goals she is working towards and the anticipated rate of speed she will achieve them.

    She is currently in the process of applying for Native Status, as she is a Native Canadian, but was adopted and providing the necessary documentation to be successful with her Native Status application is a lengthly process. I have been aware that when she receives Native Status, there are several possible positive tax implications that could help her and us further in the future.

    To recap, I have a low income, have a potential provincial government job lined up probably by the time I’m 27.5 years of age with a starting salary of $50000.00 gross and includes an annual pay increase grid (I don’t know the exact details), have a girlfriend (future wife in the due course of time, I hope) who is applying for Native status, positive credit history but not enough credit (due to low income) to get an unsecured credit card or LOC currently, a very small positive net worth, no liabilities and a very small monthly positive cash flow (due to considerable frugality, resourcefulness and assistance from various sources).

    My question is this: Based on the entirety of the information I provided, assuming that I want to take a HANDS OFF approach to investing and saving as much as reasonably possible (using financial advisers/certified financial planners and many tips from this website), keeping in mind a goal of retiring with a combined net worth between me and my partner of $1.5-2 Million by the time I’m 50-55 and she is 47-52 (I am currently 26.5 and she is currently 23.5 approximately…

    Also considering the fact that I believe there is a Canadian housing bubble and plan to rent until the bubble is burst and the mess is cleared, at which time I will likely have the resources to obtain a mortgage on a home (I plan to buy a plot of land and get a pre-formed home – one where the design is pre-done, but built by individual order and is cheaper as a result).

    AND: I forgot to mention, my partner would likely be RDSP eligible if she were to look into the process of opening such an account…

    Keeping all of that in mind

    a) What is/are the best method(s) to accomplish my goal?
    b) Is the time frame I want to set for retirement feasible for accomplishing the goal I’ve described, considering the circumstances and set of facts I’ve mentioned?
    c) If not, how should I adjust my goals to be more realistic?

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