Kristin Bartlow

Financial Advisor, Managing Director

Creating customized financial plans and managing investment portfolios for Bay Area families, entrepreneurs and retirees.


July 8, 2024
Kristin Bartlow

Are You a Recent Graduate? 7 Tips to Start Your Financial Life Off on the Right Foot

If you (or someone you know) recently graduated from college, first I’d like to say congratulations! This is such a momentous milestone in your life, and you should be proud of yourself. 

Now is the time to start thinking about starting your professional life off on the right foot. But what, exactly, should you prioritize in the coming years?

I rounded up a list of seven financial tasks you might want to add to your to-do list as you transition to becoming a financially independent adult.

Tip #1: Build an Emergency Fund

Once you get a taste of independence, the thought of ever having to financially rely on your parents or relatives again becomes pretty unappealing—at least, I know for me it was. At this stage, however, you likely don’t have many assets or savings to fall back on in case of an emergency (car repair, job loss, medical bills, you name it). For that reason, now’s the perfect time to start setting aside some money each paycheck to build your emergency fund. Ideally, this fund should have enough to cover your expenses for three to six months—meaning it might take some time to build (and that’s okay!).

But once you’ve built your own safety net, it’ll be able to support you through all kinds of unexpected situations and provide invaluable peace of mind.

Tip #2: Budget Your Expenses

I know everyone says budgeting is important, but do you know what your budget should actually look like? If you’re not sure where to start, I suggest trying out the 50/30/20 rule.

Here’s how it works:

  • 50% needs: This should include all your recurring financial obligations like student loan debt, rent, insurance, utilities, groceries, car payments, and other necessities. 
  • 30% wants: This covers the “extras” that help increase your quality of life: eating out, streaming services, travel, shopping, and entertainment. 
  • 20% savings: You should be putting a portion of each paycheck into your savings accounts, including your emergency savings, 401(k) or IRA, short-term savings, etc.

Consider these percentages as general guidelines, since you’ll want to tailor your budget to suit your individual cash flow, financial obligations, and goals.

Tip #3: Contribute to Your Retirement Accounts

Most employers offer a benefits package to employees, which often includes a retirement plan option like a 401(k) or 403(b). There are three major benefits to having a 401(k):

  • Taxes: Contributions to your 401(k) are pre-tax dollars and go into your retirement account before the taxes are applied.
  • Automation: Once you authorize it, your employer will automatically deduct contributions from your paycheck and deposit them into your 401(k) on your behalf. You’ll be saving money each month without ever even missing it.
  • Employer matching: Some employers incentivize employees to use their 401(k) by offering employer matching. This means that for every dollar or percentage contributed to your account, your employer will match it (typically up to a certain amount). That’s free money that has the potential to compound into thousands of extra dollars by the time you near retirement. 

If your employer does not offer a 401(k), you may be eligible to open an IRA instead. Additionally, ask your employer if they have a Roth 401(k) option. While contributions won’t be tax deductible, you’ll be creating tax-free income for retirement.

Tip #4: Pay Down Debt (Aggressively, If Possible)

Not all debt is created equal—and by strategizing your debt repayment plan now, you can save yourself a significant amount of money in the long run.

Some debt is considered high-interest debt, typically this includes credit cards, personal loans, payday loans, etc. The higher the interest rate, the more aggressively I encourage you to pay it down. While you should still make the minimum payment on all debts (including student loans, car payments, and mortgages), consider putting anything extra you have toward the principal of the higher-interest debts first.

This is called the “snowball method” for paying down debt, and it’s a highly effective way to cut down on how much you pay in interest over time. Once your highest-interest debt is cleared, move on to the next highest, and so on down the line. Any amount you were putting toward the previous debt should then be put toward the next one, so you’re able to continue paying them down aggressively over time.

Tip #5: Never Back Down from a Negotiation

Generally speaking, you’ll have more success negotiating higher pay and better benefits during the hiring process than after you become an employee. That’s because companies tend to have bigger budgets for hiring new talent than retaining or promoting talent.

Never feel obligated to accept the initial offer from a company, even if it’s for your first job out of college. Companies are accustomed to negotiating, and you don’t have to stick to just the salary either. In fact, some people have more success negotiating for benefits like bonuses, more paid time off, work-from-home opportunities, etc.

As long as you are respectful during the negotiation process and continue to express your desire to work for the company, you should be able to engage in a positive and productive conversation with the employer.

Tip #6: Establish Good Credit

Your credit score will play a big role in your financial life for years to come. From finding an apartment to buying a car, getting a mortgage, and opening lines of credit, your credit score matters. To help build up good credit (which can mean lower interest rates in the future), consider opening a credit card or two.

The kicker? In order to build good credit with credit cards, you need to pay them off each month. Doing so will also help you avoid high-interest debt, which can grow out of control in a short amount of time. 

Opening multiple credit cards (as long as you’re able to use them responsibly) can help you keep your “credit usage” low, which is one factor in improving credit scores. The term “credit usage” refers to the ratio of how much debt you have compared to your credit limit. For example, if your credit card has a $10,000 limit and a current balance of $3,000, your credit usage is around 30%.

Tip #7: Make Short-Term Goals

Yes, long-term goals like saving for retirement are important, but you should also be thinking about what you’d like to accomplish in the near future. Perhaps you’d like to buy a new car to make your commute a little easier or save up for a down payment on a house. Consider establishing a separate savings account for short-term goals and incorporating those goals into your budget each month.

Get Your Financial Life Started on the Right Track

This is such an exciting time in your life, but it also comes with lots of questions and uncertainties. Hopefully, the tips above can help you prioritize what’s important and focus on building healthier financial habits moving forward.

Ayn Rand quote



Financial Advisor, Managing Director

Kristin is a long-time resident of the Bay Area and has helped hundreds of clients achieve the financial futures they dreamed of. As an experienced financial planner, Kristin speaks the complex language of equity compensation, charitable giving and tax liabilities. She’s devoted to her client base of families and individuals in their 30s, 40s and 50s, knowing that the decisions they make now will have a deep impact on the future they want.



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