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Now that you’ve graduated college and entered what most will call “the real world,” it’s time to start working on your adult financial life. For many, this is a big step and can be very overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. If you take a deep breath and break down your adult financial life into small chunks, then getting your financial life together will seem easy and manageable. Follow these six steps to get on the right track.

1. Establish financial goals.

As the saying goes: “If you fail to plan then you are planning to fail.” As cliché as that may sound, it is important to realize that the first step of establishing your financial goals is the most important step to take—especially when attempting to get your financial life together after college.

Start by separating your goals into three buckets: short-term goals (between 0-3 years), mid-term goals (between 3-7 years) and long-term goals (7+ years). Once you have identified which goals fall under each category, map out a plan of action that will help you achieve each financial goal within the given timeframe. It is also a good idea to make each goal a S.M.A.R.T. goal—Not SMART as in intelligent but S.M.A.R.T. as in Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. This will help you organize your financial goals into bite size chunks that are digestible and doable.

2. Build an emergency fund.

Building an emergency fund is one of those necessities you don’t realize you need until you need it. It’s sort of like car insurance; you drive your car every day with the hope that you never get into an accident, but if ever you do, you need a system in place that will help!

An emergency fund is just that—preparation for the unexpected that will make you whole again. Emergencies can be the loss of a job, significant medical expenses, home or auto repairs, or any other situations that disrupts the flow of your life. An emergency fund should be between three and six months worth of your monthly expenses. This figure gives you enough lead-time to get back on your feet if needed.

Start small by saving at least 10% of your income with a goal of saving one month of expenses. Once you you do, increase your goal to two months and so forth. But remember, you must pay yourself first! This means that before you pay your bills, buy groceries, or anything else vital before setting aside a portion of your income to save. In essence, the first bill you should be paying each month is to YOU!

3. Create a monthly spending plan.

Now that you know your financial goals are and have a process in place that will help you build your emergency fund, it is time to create a monthly spending plan. This will help dictate where your money should go.

To begin, separate your needs from wants. Your needs can be fixed expenses: rent, utilities, food, clothing, transportation, taxes, health care, childcare, and (possible) home repairs. Wants can include entertainment, cable, Internet service, magazine subscriptions, eating out, hobbies, and cell phone bills. Once you identify your expenses, start by paying yourself first (as discussed in step 2), then create a system where you are paying all of your needs/expenses in a timely manner. Make them automatic if you can. Your wants should be included in your budget, but make sure you are keeping track of everything you spend to assure you are not veering from your plan.

4. Start banking on your future.

Banking and the future have more in common than people know. Whether it’s starting up a savings account or contributing to your employer’s retirement plan, an individual retirement account, or stocks and bonds, where you put your money and how you allow it to work for you will help you get your financial life in order.

You must start by choosing the right bank—ideally not a bank that will bombard you with unnecessary fees, but a bank that cares about your bottom line, is convenient, and can help empower you financially. Interest rates should be competitive and you should have a wide network of ATMs available for free. Your online transactions should be secure and you shouldn’t have to worry about a minimum balance.

5. Stay on top of student loan obligations.

“I love student loans,” said no one ever! Regardless of how much you despise your student loans, it is imperative you stay on top of them to avoid getting into financial trouble. Student loans can really have a negative effect on your financial life if you don’t manage them properly—not only will they affect your credit by showing up as a derogatory account on your credit report, but in some cases your paycheck can be garnished and bank account levied.

Make sure you are, at least, paying the minimums. If your current financial situation doesn’t permit this, speak to your lender about a deferment or forbearance so your loans stay in good standing.

6. Use credit wisely.

Lastly, using credit wisely will only help your financial situation. Good credit can help you rent an apartment or buy a home. It can allow you to finance a car, save money on insurance, or even help get a job (in some states employers check credit before making job offers).

The first step in using credit wisely is to understand that credit is not free money and should not be used for everyday purchases. It should be use for emergencies. Also, it is important to check your credit report at least once a year to make sure what is on your credit report is accurate. Visit www.AnnualCreditReport.com for your free credit report from all three credit bureaus (Transunion, Experian, and Exquifax).

Graduating college may signify an end to your collegiate era and the beginning of “the real world,” and this beginning shouldn’t be daunting. Implement these steps and you will see that the real world can be fun and enjoyable, especially when you manage your financial life well too!

What are some post-grad financial questions you have? Share them with us in the comments below.

6 Tips for Getting Your Adult Financial Life Together was originally published on TheEverygirl.com.

Ash Exantus aka Ash Cash is one of the nation’s top personal finance experts. Dubbed as the Financial Motivator, he uses a culturally responsive approach in teaching financial literacy. He is the Head of Financial Education at BankMobile and Editor-in-Chief at Paradigm Money. The views and opinions expressed are those of Ash Cash and not the views of BankMobile and/or its affiliates.

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Cutting Off the Joneses: The Art of Managing Lifestyle Inflation

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The road to reaching your financial goals can sometimes be very difficult and tedious. We tend to hold back from buying certain things, and sometimes, we live on a tight budget in order to make ends meet. But all this seemingly comes to an end when all your hard work pays off and you get a raise, and finally, you can treat yourself to something nice. However, getting a raise can lead you to one of the biggest challenges to reaching your financial goals — and half the time, you don’t even notice it.

Have you ever heard of lifestyle inflation?

Simply put, lifestyle inflation is when your spending increases as your income increases. This can include moving to a more expensive apartment, getting a new lease on a car, or making small, repeat purchases that add up over time. All these can make it hard to break out of living from paycheck-to-paycheck even when your paycheck gets a little bigger.

It’s easy to fall into this trap. After all, what’s the point of working so hard to get a raise if you don’t treat yourself?

While there’s nothing wrong with splurging a little, the cause of lifestyle inflation goes much deeper than simply wanting to treat yourself. An article by Marcus on why ‘Rising Income Levels May Lead to Lifestyle Inflation’, found that young professionals use material markers to express who they are, in order to demonstrate that their career or chosen path is rewarding. In other words, lifestyle inflation is generally caused by the desire to prove your position in life — manifesting itself through material items, the house you live in, or the places you go to. And although doing this can feel good in the short-term, lifestyle inflation poses a problem in the long run, as Trent Hamm of The Simple Dollar explains that lifestyle inflation hinders you from reaching your financial goals. Allocating most, if not all, of your new raise to your spending budget means that you’re not saving or investing any of it for later on — marking a roadblock to your journey towards debt freedom and financial wellness.

If you recognize yourself in these examples, fret not. Here are a few ways you can break the cycle:

Set goals for yourself. Our resident writer Ash Cash stresses in ‘Saving 101’ the importance of setting financial goals in order to save better. Having goals allows you to constantly remind yourself what you need to save for, and why, especially if it’s something you want badly. That way, you won’t be as tempted to stray away from your plan!

Cut out what you don’t need. You’d be surprised at the number of things or activities that you spend on, but can easily cut out of your expenditures. Of course, we don’t recommend doing this all at once. Start small and cancel subscriptions you don’t use anymore, or start eating out just once a week. Make small, manageable moves, and soon you’ll find yourself celebrating the joys of meeting your goals and saving more.

Track your expenses. After receiving a raise, the Balance cite that the best way to identify lifestyle inflation behaviors is to track your spending — even for just a short time. Once you recognize these behaviors, you can start cutting out purchases you don’t need.

Keep a “splurge” budget. Not buying or doing things you want will make you miserable, but overspending won’t be good for you in the long run, either. That’s why it’s a good idea to create a splurge budget for a week or month, and to stick to it. Purchases you don’t “need” come out of that budget, such as buying a new video game, ordering something online, or getting a coffee at a café even if you have a coffee maker at home. If you want something pricier than your budget for the week or the month, try to “save” that budget and let it roll over the next month so you can purchase the item. This way, a splurge budget lets you treat yourself, but also keeps you in check.

Article written by Anna Levy

Exclusively for paradigmmoney.com

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11 Ways to Save During the Holiday Season

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The holiday season is upon us, which means significantly more spending—and more potential to encounter financial trouble. Because of the emotional play many retailers use to get you to buy from their stores, it’s important to be overly vigilant with your spending during this time. Below are 11 ways you can save (instead of spend) during the holiday season.

1. Decide how much you can spend and make a plan.

Many people don’t like to use the word “budget” because it seems restrictive. However, creating a holiday budget or “making a plan,” as we’ll call it here for all intents and purposes, is imperative during the holiday season. By making a plan, you’re avoiding overspending and essentially telling your money what to do—rather than allowing it to be in control.

2. Open a holiday spending account.

Using your main checking account to do your holiday shopping is one of the biggest mistakes you can make during the holidays. Doing so allows you to tap into money allocated for other important things like bills and groceries. By opening a separate checking account for holiday spending, you’ll help yourself stay on budget. And once the money is gone, you have a clear stop on holiday shopping. Make sure it’s a free checking account, opening an account that charges fees would defeat the purpose of doing so.

3. Account for splurges.

Let’s be honest: you’re going to splurge this month. A dress for your office Christmas party? A sale at your favorite retail store? The jeans you’ve been eyeing for months are suddenly 40 percent off? We could go on and on, but you get the drift. Set aside a dollar amount that you’re willing to spend on yourself this month. Knowing how much you can afford will keep you from being swept up by “can’t-miss” deals.

4. Cut back on expenses.

Cutting back on expenses during the holiday season—or even before—will give you more money to allocate towards the holidays. Small changes like cutting your cable (you’ll be visiting family and friends most of the month anyway!) or avoiding takeout meals will save extra cash and make a big difference in your budget.

5. Track your spending.

Using a spending log is essential this time of year. Gifts aren’t the only thing affecting your budget—more social occasions means more spending. From extra Ubers to hostess gifts, your expenses can add up quick. This usually forces people to make decisions that they may not want to make, like tapping into credit or using money that is not allocated for holiday shopping. Using a spending log will keep your spending in check.

6. Narrow down your list.

It’s easy to get caught up in the fun of the season and want to gift something to everyone you’re close to. Let us remind you (as corny as it sounds) that presents are not what the holiday season is about. Take a look at your holiday list and be honest about what you can afford. It’s not fun, but your loved ones don’t want you hindering your financial future for them.

7. Set gift-giving expectations.

Setting gift-giving expectations is really important: If your love ones assume you’re going to spend a lot of money on them, they may feel obligated to do the same in return. Having a conversation early on about gift limits will allow both parties to avoid overspending, not to mention it will sidestep any ensuing embarrassment or guilt that comes with one party not giving an equally as lavish gift.

8. Take advantage of store offers and coupons.

Taking advantage of store offers and coupons should be a given, but you’d be surprised at how many people pay full price for things during the holiday season. Many people feel like they are competing against other shoppers to get the best gifts, so they don’t spend the necessary time finding the best deals. Don’t believe the hype! Make a shopping plan for each individual on your list. Research where you can find the best deals on the product and then sign up for company email lists. Follow sales and make purchases at the right time. Ordering presents in advance (or price shopping with ample time) not only assures that you get the best deals, but also that you don’t spend excess cash on things like rush shipping.

9. Be creative.

Being creative is about understanding that you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg in order to show your love ones you care. There are many people who are more appreciative of the thought that goes into a handcrafted gift than a purchased item from a big box store. Being thoughtful can have a lasting and more memorable effect than breaking the bank. Spending quality time with an elderly relative, helping a friend clean her home the day after a big party, or offering to babysit for a couple are just a few ideas.

10. Reduce decoration costs.

You may feel inclined to go all out when it comes to decorations, but if you’re crafty enough, you can save a lot of money by creating your own. If you really love holiday decor, wait until the season is over and purchase for next year. Prices for decorations are inflated during the holidays, so buying them during the off-season can save you a lot of money.

11. Remember the reason for the season.

We cannot repeat this enough: remember the reason for the season. The holiday season is not all about gift giving. Sometimes your presence is better than your present! The holiday season is about family and friends, and should be cherished in that way.

Do you have a holiday season savings hack that you swear by? ‘Tis the season to share!

11 Ways to Save During the Holiday Season was originally published on TheEverygirl.com.

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5 Tips for Holiday Break

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Photo credit iStock by Getty Images

Like most students, you’re probably looking forward to spending time with family and friends over the holiday break. But before you relax, take a little time first to size up your finances for next semester. Here are a few tips to get you started: 

Review Your Spending from Last Semester

Not sure where all your money went? Now is a good time to examine your spending from last semester by reviewing your bank account statements, check register, credit card statements and receipts (if you saved them). One way to do this is to make two lists: one with all your unavoidable expenses, such as tuition, rent, basic food costs and insurance payments, and another with everything else—in other words, purchases you wanted at the time but did not necessarily need. Now take a look at that second list. Bet you’re surprised at how many things you spent money on that you could have done without, or don’t remember why you purchased in the first place! Make a pledge to cut back on some of those items and watch your savings grow.

Save Your Cash Gifts

Did you get some cash in your stocking? You might be tempted to blow it on those irresistible post-holiday sales, but take a moment to think about your needs for next semester. Will you have enough money for books, school supplies, gas and other school-related needs? At the very least, plan to save 10-20 percent of your extra cash for unexpected expenses like car repairs or medical emergencies. Knowing that you have a little nest egg set aside will give you some peace of mind and allow you to focus on your studies.

Budget Your Anticipated Financial Aid Refunds

If you will be receiving a refund from your financial aid award next term, keep in mind that a good portion, if not all, of these funds may be from student loans that you signed up for. These funds will have to be repaid when you graduate or leave school, so it is important to budget and spend them wisely, and make sure you have enough money to last the entire semester.

Re-apply for Financial Aid

Remember, you must re-apply for financial aid every year. You can submit the federal FAFSA form beginning January 1, 2015 for the 2015-16 academic year. Your state and school may also require you to re-apply or update your information, so be sure to visit with your school’s website or contact the financial aid office for information on deadlines and other requirements. Also, check out Mary’s article in the Huffington Post for more information and tips on applying.

Look for Part-time Job Opportunities

If you think you’ll be running low on money next semester, start looking for some part-time job opportunities or increasing your hours at your current job. The best place to start your job search is right on campus. There are lots of jobs available, from library clerk to food service worker—check with the employment office or website. You might also want to consider capitalizing on your own talents to make some extra cash by offering services such as tutoring, babysitting, dog walking, or repairing cars or electronics.

Following these tips will allow you to enjoy your much-needed break and put you on a path to financial peace of mind for next semester—so start today!

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