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Paycheck 101: A College Grad’s Guide for How to Manage a Paycheck

There you are, a college graduate with your newly minted degree in one hand and a new job in the other — or the confidence that you will have one soon. For years you’ve waited for a real job with a real paycheck to get a decent car, apartment and respectable wardrobe. After all, these are the things you so richly deserve for having nearly starved to death for many years.

Well, not so fast, Buckaroo. Before you do a thing, we need to go over the fundamentals of managing a paycheck — a small detail you may have overlooked in the courses you took to prepare you for the real world.


You may have figured your annual salary — a number that has you seeing dollar signs. That is your gross salary. Do not fall in love with it. A $35,000 annual salary, when reduced by 30% for “withholding” for taxes, Social Security, etc., then divided up into 52 weekly paychecks, suddenly looks more like $470.

As a full-on adult wage earner, you must adopt a personal standard for managing your paychecks. It is not how much you earn that matters. It is how much you keep. Make it a personal rule that you will live on 80% of your net income, whatever that amount might be. Get used to this now and you’ll breeze through life as your income grows. Ignore this wisdom by living on more than you earn and your suffering has only just begun.


You need to get a handle on your true expenses, starting with absolute essentials. I can predict some of them for you: shelter, food, insurance, gasoline. You may have other essential expenses if you have arrived at your first job dragging a load of debt behind you, in which case you need to consider your student loan payment and credit card payment as essential expenses.


If there is one critical mistake you could easily make at this time, it would be to either buy or lease a new car. Get that idea out of your head. You cannot afford a car payment. And even if you think you can, you can’t. You have survived this long with that old clunker; you can do that for a while longer.


If you cannot become someone’s roommate (or several roommates to keep your expenses way low), consider moving back home for a while, if they will have you. Take it from me, the parent of adult children: If you come home with a grateful spirit, do your own laundry, clean up after yourself, carry your weight in household chores, act pleasantly, help with meals and do nice things for your parents — you will be welcomed with open arms. In fact, they may beg you to stay — at least for a while until you get on your feet.


Yes, I am aware that you have a credit card. And if you begin to see it as part of your available cash, you’ll be dead in the water in no time. This is why I want you to put that thing away. Far away, and in a safe place. Your carefree years of living on plastic are over.


If you have student loans, you may have a six-month grace period before you must begin making repayment. But you do not have to wait that long. Start now and you’ll pay less interest. You will learn from your lender that there are multiple payment plans. Go to the Federal Student Aid website for a guide to repaying your federal student loans.

In conclusion, quite possibly the most valuable aspect of your education was that part about learning to live on next to nothing, figuring out how to scrape by. You may need to do that for a few more years as you get your financial bearings. As a bonus, you’ll find financial freedom while you are still young.

If you follow what I say, one day you will thank me.

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Mary Hunt

Mary invites you to visit her at EverydayCheapskate.com, where this column is archived complete with links and resources for all recommended products and services. Mary invites questions and comments at https://www.everydaycheapskate.com/contact/, "Ask Mary." Tips can be submitted at tips.everydaycheapskate.com/ . This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of EverydayCheapskate.com, a frugal living blog, and the author of the book "Debt-Proof Living."

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