Top 10 Things That I Wish I Had Known When I Graduated College

by Hank Coleman

college graduationGraduation season is upon us.  College students across the country are quickly racing towards the end of the school year and final exams.  I was back on my college campus last week for a couple of alumni association meetings, and I could not help myself from getting a little nostalgic.  Now that I have been gone from the daily grind of campus life for several years, I have the benefit of hindsight.  Time gives a guy a chance to look back fairly objectively. 

There are a few things that I wish I had known on graduation day.  Hopefully these tips will help some of you as you prepare to set foot out in the “real world” of work…

  1. Start investing from day one! The best thing a college graduate has is time and the power of compounding interest.
  2. Focus on doing your current job to the best of your abilities, and the promotions will soon follow.  You cannot be successful at your current job when you are looking too far ahead at future assignments.
  3. Do something you love doing.  Don’t take a job just for the money. 
  4. Have a hobby or two outside of work.  Without balance in your life, the daily grind will get you.
  5. Spend less money than you earn.
  6. Save for a rainy day because there are always storm clouds on the horizon whether we want to admit it or not.
  7. A house is a great long term investment, but it is okay to rent too if the timing is not right in your life to buy.
  8. Picking the right spouse might be the most important decision we make in our young adult lives.
  9. Get out of credit card and other consumer debt as fast as possible and then never go back down that road.
  10. Never stop learning! Keep getting educated whether it is formally at a college or even informally through blogs, etc.

I asked a few of my friends and family what they had wished they had known back in the day when they graduated.  And, the answers were as eclectic as my family.  They gave ideas such as wanting to learn to drive a stick shift, do not forget about having the right amount of life and disability insurance, wanting to learn how to cook, and being careful who you trust with your finances (no one cares about your money more than you!).

I also asked a few of my favorite personal finance bloggers to also tackle the question.  Now, some of their answers are a little longer than I had anticipated, but their answers are great like always!

J Money from Budgets Are Sexy said, “I wish I knew how sexy 401ks were!  Three years of missing out on free employer matches kills me to think about today.  But it’s all a learning process, you know?  Good thing you all are reading this post.”

Patrick from Cash Money Life said, “I already had a full-time job when I graduated from college – I was enlisted in the USAF. So my situation was a little different than many fresh college graduates. Because I was “under contract,” I had to finish the terms of my enlistment before I could use my degree as a civilian. I wish I would have known more about making the military to civilian transition, which is not always an easy thing to do. It took me several months to find a job, but thankfully I was able to tie in my military experience and my degree. You can read more about my post-military employment history and how I made the transition.”

Matt from Steadfast Finances said, “Fight to keep your FICO score as high as possible.  The availability of affordable credit can jumpstart a sound financial future since you have the option (keyword being option) of buying any number of high quality assets.  And the higher your FICO score, the lower your monthly expenses will be.”

Philip from Weakonomics said, “I needed someone to stress the importance of having savings.  The process of transitioning from student to professional is financially draining.  I had to move, buy a wardrobe, get my own insurance, and deal with another dozen or so hidden costs that come from the transition.  I came out fine, but there were some moments where that next paycheck couldn’t come fast enough.”

Kevin from No Debt Plan said, “I wish I knew the stock markets, especially financial markets, were going to crash. I would have put everything I had in shorting those investments. Then I would retire.”

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Bill April 27, 2009 at 8:52 am

Value your time. Money can always be replenished. Time, once spent, is gone forever.

J. Money April 27, 2009 at 12:04 pm

nicely done, sir! I love the “learn how to drive stick shift” one too…that one can REALLY come in handy when you least expect it!

Patrick April 27, 2009 at 2:36 pm

Great tips, Hank! My favorite is #3: “Do something you love doing. Don’t take a job just for the money.”

But if you can’t do that, then follow that up with #4: “Have a hobby or two outside of work. Without balance in your life, the daily grind will get you.”

My day job isn’t the most exciting in the world, but I try to make up for that with hobbies and spending time with my wife. Bill makes a great point as well – you have a lot of free time in college, but that time rapidly dwindles once you enter the work force and start a family!

Imee April 28, 2009 at 4:49 am

Great tips you got! 🙂 There’s plenty of stuff I already knew even way before college, but one thing I never really understood was taxes (not consumer ones, the big ones like property and income taxes). I mean I hope they teach it in school–which ones to pay and what time, why you get refunds, If it weren’t for my mom explaining it to me, I’d be a total idiot about it until now!

Ryan @ SpendOnLife May 1, 2009 at 12:49 pm

You could write a book on number 5, that is the tricky one. If you aren’t saving for periodic expenses you are spending more than you make.

Great post, thanks.

SaveBuyLive May 3, 2009 at 9:53 am

Pretty good list. I don’t really agree with you on points 2 and 3 though.

If promotions are something you want you need to focus on them. You need to know the how the institution works and what your boss wants so that you can move up the ladder. Just being a workhorse isn’t guaranteed to get you anywhere. Most jobs (or at least most of the ones I’ve had the fun of working at) are not meritocracies.

“Do what you love” has to be the most obvious yet the most impossible to follow piece of career advice. What you love may not pay or may not even have many jobs available. Worse yet is that you might not even know what you love.

Matt SF May 3, 2009 at 11:02 am

Great list. I’ve seen #8 ruin a few of my friend’s lives already.

Not sure how many people heard this interview, but Warren Buffett said the “best investment” he ever made was… his marriage license!

MoneyEnergy May 4, 2009 at 12:02 pm

Great points. I would even say don’t wait until you graduate to start investing – you can be investing throughout college/university too. Lots of ways to get started even when you just have $25.

Kate May 4, 2009 at 1:35 pm

I love number 6 and number 8. I am so glad I worked part time and saved money all through college– It allowed me to make a huge career transition a few years after graduating without having to stress too much about money. By storing away a small percentage of my pay each week, back then, it turns out I used the power of small to create an emergency fund that I never knew I would need.

GloombergNews May 11, 2009 at 8:58 pm

Excellent list you have going here…please add being physically active / working out to the list here. I know this falls under hobbies but I feel that it is more than that…I go insane without it. Also, team sports in your city…something you might not have been doing much of in college but did in middle/high school.

Debt Advice December 29, 2009 at 7:41 am

You’re not wrong – this would have been helpful to have known when I left.

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