The Financial Advice I’d Give Myself As a New Grad

This post is a paid collaboration with Borrowell, but all opinions are my own.

I spend a lot of time thinking about financial advice.But even though my days right now are focused on things like my house emergency fund, I still often think about financial advice for new grads—specifically, the financial advice I wish I had received back then.

You know how when you first start your career, you look at job postings asking for 5+ years of experience, and you’re like “Oh my god, that’s so far away”? Not to mention the dreamy-sounding jobs that are asking for 10+ years?

Hello, it’s me, a person who can’t believe she’s closing in on 8 years of career experience, with four of those years spent writing about the financial side of life.

A big part of my work on Half Banked has been informed by the first few years of my career, when I honestly couldn’t have told you the difference between my RRSP and TFSA (despite having and contributing to both) and frequently thought I’d never earn more than I was currently making.

I remember those years so vividly when it comes to my finances, because they were such a source of stress, and it always felt top of mind. I’ve always tried to remember that feeling when I write about money, but I’ve never sat down to really think about what I’d say directly to my former self if I had the chance.

So in partnership with Borrowell, I sat down to really think about what I’d say to my 22-year-old self as she was starting her career.

1. Personal finance rules are the pirate’s code of money

First and foremost, personal finance can be a daunting place when you’re just getting started, and it seems like there are rules for everything. There’s usually a good reason for the rule, and often (but not always!) they’re considered a best practice, but if you’re just getting started, think of personal finance rules as the pirate’s code. 

They’re more like guidelines.

You may not be able to save the recommended percentages, or fill up the recommended amount in an emergency fund just yet, but that’s ok. If you look at them as guidelines, you can treat anything that gets you one step further towards them as a win.

Can’t save 10% of your income for retirement? Going from 0% to 1% is a big win, even though you’re not “following the rules” just yet. 

2. Know what you can get for free

You don’t have to be paying for some of the basics when it comes to your money. 

I’d like to think that there’s more awareness these days for the awesome free options for managing your money than there was when I was just starting out, but maybe that’s just my bias because I write about them for fun. 

So to be clear: you can get a lot of great financial products for free. 

There are plenty of free chequing accounts, free (and very high interest!) savings accounts, and you can even monitor your credit score for free with Borrowell—which you should definitely do, because it’s a key measure of your overall credit health, and can help determine your eligibility for bigger credit items like a mortgage or a car loan. 

You can earn free cash-back using services like Rakuten, even if you don’t want to pay an annual fee for a baller cash-back credit card. 

You don’t need to pay for a basic bank account, a baller savings account, credit monitoring, or great cashback offers. You can get them all for free.

Quote image: Do what you can, and don't panic that it's not enough.

3. Do what you can—and don’t panic that it’s not enough

Saving $10 a month is better than nothing, and the most important thing you can do right now is to build the habit.

If you’re able to save more in some months, great, but don’t beat yourself up if in other months you need to scale back a bit. In the best case scenario, you’re starting from zero when it comes to your finances, and it takes some time to get the hang of what works on a month-to-month basis. 

Saving anything is more important than how much you save when you’re starting out.

4. Always keep a small fun budget

In the same way you should aim to build a habit of saving, build a habit of letting yourself spend some money guilt-free on fun stuff.

I like to call this my fun budget, and it’s actually one of the best things you can do for your savings goals. Even a small fun budget can help you stick to your other money goals, as weird as that might sound.

Knowing you have even $10 a week to spend guilt free on lattes, or save up for your cherished monthly manicure, can help make sticking to a fairly tight budget a lot easier. Sure, you’re probably not going to be jetting off on fancy vacations using your fun budget just yet, but as your income grows, so can your other budget categories (including this one!)

5. Avoid the mistakes that will have the biggest impact

Make sure that you’re aware of what’s happening with your credit overall—it’s one of the biggest ways you can impact your future money situation.

That means three major things:

  • Understanding your current debt. You should know how much debt you have, and what kinds of debt you have. It might be hard to look at but really knowing your exact numbers is powerful information to have—and it might motivate you to avoid taking on additional debts.
  • Make a payoff plan. You may not be able to accelerate your debt payments right now, but exploring the option is worth it, especially for high-interest debt like credit cards. As your income goes up, you’ll be prepared to know which debt you want to tackle first, and the overall amount you could save in interest.
  • Keep tabs on your credit score. Monitoring your score can help flag issues you might not have caught otherwise. Maybe you forgot to pay off the last $2 on a card you never use, or there was an error reported on your credit score. Both of those things would be easy to miss if you’re not keeping track of your score, but if you are (which you can do for free with Borrowell) you’ll see your score drop as those issues arise, and it’s a good warning sign to help you investigate and fix the issue before it gets worse.

6. Make earning more money a priority

This is the most terrifying advice out of all of these, because quite frankly I never thought I’d be able to earn more than I was in my first job. It was a really major source of stress for me at the time. That said, it’s also the one thing that has single-handedly made the biggest difference in my finances, and it’s not even a close comparison—so I have to say it.

For you, making more money might mean investing in training, carving out time to side hustle, or actively job searching for a higher-paying job.It might mean making time for networking events, and learning about your industry and what salary expectations should be at your level. (If you’re reading this as someone who is more advanced in their career, please share your experiences and knowledge about salary levels openly when asked by juniors in your field.)

There’s only so much you can save on an entry-level salary, and your goal should be to grow in your skills and knowledge so you deliver more value over time—and get compensated fairly for that value

The more money you have, the more you can do with it. 

TL;DR: Do what you can, when you can

Really, all of this boils down to doing what you can with the money you have. Your priorities and your financial situation are your own, so any advice you get needs to be applied to your personal situation—and that means sometimes, you need to recognize when it doesn’t fit. 

As long as you’re doing the best you currently can, you’re doing fine. That’s what I’d really tell my 22-year-old self if I could go back and calm her the heck down about her financial stress.