11 things to do in the first five years after college

Now is the best opportunity you will have to keep out of financial trouble and develop a solid foundation. Learn these small financial changes that can have a big future impact.

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You graduated. Now what?

A lot changes during the years that separate college graduation from five-year reunion. After caps and gowns come first jobs and apartments, then—far too often—bad bosses and roommates, leading to second jobs and apartments. A few years later your Facebook news feed will become a sea of engagement photos, foretelling weekends inundated with weddings. In the meantime, former classmates will become lawyers, doctors, MBAs—and occasionally parents.

Throughout all this you'll wonder how you became old enough for a lease, for taxes, for a bridesmaid's dress. You may also ask yourself: How am I going to afford all this? As your life evolves in the early years of adulthood so do your finances, the relationship you have with your money and what you need it to do for you.

If you are at the start of this journey, congratulations. Now is the best opportunity you will have to keep out of financial trouble and develop a solid foundation. But there is no need to panic if you've already got a few working years under your belt, you're not old yet. Small changes can still go a long way.

Build a cash cushion. Cars break down, jobs get lost and family members get sick. Emergencies will be emotionally trying, but they don't need to be a financial drain. With each paycheck move some money into a savings account, preferably through automation. Long term, your goal should be to have enough cash to cover three to six months of expenses, but it's o.k. to start small. Consider a 52-week money challenge, in the first week save $1, second week $2 and so on, after a year you'll have $1,378. Ready to commit to more? To determine where on the three to six month spectrum you should aim, evaluate your job security, the availability of jobs in your field and if you can expect family help.

Get health insurance. You can typically stay on a parent's health insurance plan until you turn 26. For plans bought via government marketplace you have until the end of the year. Employer coverage usually ends in your birthday month, but you get a 60 day Special Enrollment Period leading up to your 26th. Use this window. This way coverage can start as soon as your old insurance lapses and you'll avoid paying a penalty for every month you aren't covered. The fine is the higher of 2.5% of household income (to a maximum) or $695 per adult per month (up to $2,085).

Do your 65-year-old self a favor. If your employer offers a 401(k) plan open an account and invest at least enough to take full advantage of company matching contribution. (Free money!) If not, open an individual retirement account and contribute as much as you can. In either case, create a road map to be making contributions of 10–15% of your income before your five-year reunion. Why? The power of compounding means saving a little bit of money now will go farther than saving a lot later on.

Give yourself a student debt-free deadline. Student loan repayment plans are typically structured to take 10 years. If remaining student-indebted well into your 30s doesn't sit well, consider giving yourself a cutoff. "A deadline can be a great strategy if it is based in reality," says Karen Carr, a financial planner at the Society of Grownups. Use a loan repayment calculator to determine how much time you can shave off by paying more than the minimum. For example, a borrower with $30,000 in debt, a 10-year loan term and a 6% interest rate could conclude payments more than a year early by paying $400 a month rather than $330, according to this calculator from Bankrate. You can also use it to find out how adding a yearly or one-time payment could change your paid-off-date. Repeat this exercise every time you get a raise, tax refund or other windfall.

Crack down on your credit. Got credit card debt? Build a plan to pay it down, taking the same basic steps as you would to cut down your student debt timeline. Another Bankrate calculator can be used to determine the amount of money you would need to put toward your debt each month to reach a desired payoff date.

Don't even have a credit card? Chantel Bonneau, a financial planner with Northwestern Mutual, suggests asking yourself if you have self-control and, crucially, whether you'll be able to commit to paying your balance in full every month. If not, either steer clear of credit cards or open a card with a very low credit limit. If you can control your spending urges, a card paid on time can be a good way to boost your credit score. A solid score will come in handy if you ever want to get a mortgage or refinance your student debt. Used responsibly, rewards points and cash back are also nice tools for subsidizing things you may not otherwise be able to afford.

Plan to be flexible. An average college graduate will hold 5.8 jobs between ages 22 and 28, according to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In a related trend, the Census Bureau has shown that people in their 20s move homes almost twice as often as the general population. This flux is why it is best to avoid decisions that will lock up your money at this point in your life. The unexpected will occur.

A friend who responded to an informal poll for this story told me about signing a two-year lease on her first post-college apartment. She liked the idea of avoiding a rent increase (multi-year leases lock in a rate). She also saw it as a way to feel grounded in a new city. A year later she ended up paying for that decision when she got the opportunity to move closer to family and friends, but couldn't get out of her lease or find a sub letter who would cover the full rent.

Life's unpredictable nature is also why, if you can't do both, you should put away a small cash pile before saving in a traditional retirement account. IRA and 401(k) contributions are made pre-tax, so if you withdraw funds before age 59½ you'll in most cases need to pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty in addition to regular income taxes. Another option is funding a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k). With these accounts you'll make contributions post-tax, which is more costly short term, but means in an emergency you can withdraw your original contributions (although not earnings) without tax or penalty.

Learn five practical skills. We pay for convenience, which is fine, but expensive. Determine which services actually improve your life. (Maybe you'll decide a wash-and-fold service is worth an extra $25 a month, but $3 on coffee each morning is not.) Don't allow not knowing how to do something force you to pay for services. Commit to attaining a few practical skills that can save you money in the long run. For example, learn to: cook a few basic meals, change a tire, fill out a tax return, paint your nails, sew. For more inspiration read about roommates who saved $55,000 with a "buy nothing" year.

Ask your significant other how much s/he earns. A 2015 survey of couples by Fidelity Investments found that 43% of people did not know their partner's salary. Of those, 10% were off by $25,000 or more. Find out. Knowing how much your partner earns will help you set realistic expectations of what your life together should look like now and in the future. "If gaps exist around basic questions like salary, couples might have other opportunities for improvement on the financial front, such as sorting through and tackling important issues together around the next big milestones in their lives," wrote John Sweeney, Fidelity's head of Retirement and Investing Strategies. "By taking time to engage in conversation and plan, your chances of creating a strong foundation and achieving your goals are greatly enhanced."

Negotiate. In a recent survey, job search and review site Glassdoor found that just 41% of U.S. employees negotiated their most recent salary offer, the rest accepted the salary they were first quoted either for a raise or new jobs. (Women, by the way, were 16-percentage points less likely to negotiate than men.) Jessica Jaffe, Glassdoor spokesperson, notes, "Of the small portion who did [negotiate], 59% were able to get more money. This shows negotiating can pay off." Sites including Glassdoor compile information on average salaries by company and job title.

Decide if you'll need a graduate degree. Step 1: Determine if going to graduate school will get you where you want to go by talking to recent grads, consulting people five to ten years ahead of you in their careers and researching average post-grad salaries for your field, location and school of choice. Step 2: Figure out how you are going to pay for school. How much will you need to fund with loans? Will your employer pay your tuition if you return after graduation? What if you go to school part-time, will your company cover any credits? Do you qualify for any scholarships? How much can you save toward future costs?

If you have undergraduate debt, you can usually defer payment for the years you are in grad school, but your loans will continue to accrue interest. This means you will leave graduate school more indebted than you go in, regardless of whether you need loans to fund this next step in your education. In this case, a key calculation in the years before grad school is whether you should use extra money to pay down undergraduate loans at a faster clip or to hide it away to eventually put toward tuition. Phil DeGisi, chief marketing officer of student debt refinance startup CommonBond, says that decision should depend on interest rates. If the average rate on loans for the type of grad school you'd like to go to is higher than the rate on your student loans you should focus on saving. If the rate on your student loans is higher, focus on paying down debt. If both rates are high, figure out if you can refinance your undergraduate debt to a lower rate.

Save and pay for something you really want. In my first few post-college years I was afraid of non-essential spending. How could I justify a new dress or a vacation if I hadn't reached my emergency fund or retirement savings goals? Eventually, fed up, I started saving every $5 bill I received. After I'd squirreled away $100 I bought sunglasses I had long coveted. Later, I used a combination of similar tactics to save $1,000 for a vacation. It felt great and didn't take away from my other goals, since I was using money that would have otherwise been spent, not money I was saving. Most importantly, paying for things that I truly wanted, with money I had saved for that purpose showed me that I had control over my finances. It motivated me to stay focused on longer term goals, because I never want to feel that money (or lack of) is controlling my decisions. As Bonneau points out, it's "hard to regress in lifestyle," but relatively easy to build sustainable habits now.

Be honest with yourself about the way you spend. Use a digital spending tracker or notebook to hold yourself accountable and to find places where you can cut back to focus on your priorities. Maybe that's a vacation fund, a shoe fund, a charity fund, an education fund or an other-peoples'-weddings fund. You decide.

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This article was written by Samantha Sharf from Forbes and was licensed as an article reprint from May 9, 2016. Article copyright 2016 by Forbes.
The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. Fidelity Investments cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any statements or data.
This reprint is supplied by Fidelity Brokerage Services LLC, Member NYSE, SIPC.
The third-party provider of the reprint permission and Fidelity Investments are independent entities and not legally affiliated.
The images, graphs, tools, and videos are for illustrative purposes only.
Fidelity Brokerage Services LLC, Member NYSE, SIPC, 900 Salem Street, Smithfield, RI 02917.
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