Congratulations, graduate, and welcome to a slow, static economy that is about as bad as it has been in about 70 years.Your parents have likely spent an enormous amount of their money and you have spent an enormous amount of your time and your money on an outdated model of post-secondary education that was better suited to 1953 than 2013. Still, you have (hopefully) mastered a basic liberal education or even mastered a field like engineering or accounting that will more readily prepare you for the workforce. Either way, there are some very fundamental habits you should commence now so that you live a healthy, happy, life later on, when your life is more entrenched and you do the things that matter most to you.
These are our top five:
- Work. You may have gotten a degree in 17th Century Slovakian literature, and the only job you may find is as a file clerk, a waiter, or a fast-food “burger flipper”, but take it. Then, recognize that you have two jobs: the job you’re paid to do because you have to and the job you do to find the work you want to do.
- Network. Stay in touch with the people you knew in college and high school. Stay in touch with close friends of your parents. Facebook is OK, but a phone call or, better, grabbing a cup of coffee, lunch, or beer every six months or so works better. Join and participate in your college alumni association or social or professional associations in which you have membership. Devoting time and service to one or two quality organizations is better than joining many and doing little.
- Brand. The most important aspect of your career life is you. You’re the person who is ultimately in charge of it; you’re the person who will be responsible for delivering the product or service of your employer. Sure, you might “work for” XYZ, Inc., but their customers or clients to which you are assigned are expecting you – personally – to fulfill their needs – make sure they know you. If you’re stuck as a file clerk or a waiter, make the best of it: make sure you get to know your boss’ job; then, ask to do it when they’re sick or on vacation. Better to brand yourself as a “Fill-In Manager” or even ”An Assistant Manager” than as a full-time burger flipper. (Besides, you might learn some skills useful elsewhere, like budgeting, scheduling, and running a staff.) Make sure that you are an expert in your field, no matter what it is. If you have that degree in Slovakian Literature, make sure your expertise gets known and gets recognized: submit an article you’ve written every other month or so to a publication in your field of interest and shop it around. Yes, you’ll collect scores of rejections (or simply be ignored), but keep at it. Post the articles that are rejected on a blog and build followers through social media and your personal network.
- Save. No matter how much you earn, save at least 10% of your take home pay, consistently, in a fee-free savings account. It may mean a crummy used car, a crummy apartment in a crummy neighborhood, with 4 other roommates instead of one (or the studio or one bedroom apartment your better-off peers can afford.) It will definitely mean “milk crate” furniture, but do it anyway. If you work for an employer that has a 401(k) plan, contribute the maximum, but don’t count those tax-deferred savings against the 10% you’re saving from your after-tax, take- home pay; that’s a separate savings target. Don’t try to keep up with your better-paid friends or networking pals because you can “afford” it by incurring finance charges on your Visa. The simple rule is: if its not in the budget and you can’t pay cash for it, you can’t afford it.
- Invest. Put your money into the bank until you accumulate about six months of your living expenses; then, invest 80% of your earnings in equities and 20% in your cash bank account. Start out with a good quality no-load mutual fund, like an index fund, until you’ve accumulated another six months of your monthly living expenses. After that, invest in your passion: businesses in industries you know or in a field you enjoy and would have an interest in studying. If your degree is in Slovakian Literature, and you enjoy that field, invest in Eastern Europe and get to know that area’s business better than anyone. If you like running, get to know Reebok, Nike, or New Balance – what their products will be next season, what will work and what doesn’t. It doesn’t matter what you enjoy, but find your passion and find a way to make money at it. Keep in mind, though, that only a very few people actually earn a living “doing what they love,” and those who do usually have a fairly sizable trust fund that allows them to work for $22,000 a year at the Slovakian Literature Institute. Your passion should be channeled into a side business, investments, or perhaps a consultancy. But do what you need to do to pay your own way, earn a living and not rely on Mom and Dad.
And two last things that are more personal than career: First, call your Mom, at least once a week. Mothers like to hear from their children and it means a lot to them when they do. Second, next time you meet your parents for lunch or dinner at a restaurant, pick up the check. Its a small price to pay for what they have given you