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Dave Carpenter

Save, budget, and be wary of debt: It’s all good advice for recent graduates

By Dave Carpenter
Associated Press / May 14, 2010

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Time is running short for parents of graduating high school students to impart financial wisdom as their kids prepare to head out the door. I’ve been barking out periodic reminders to mine lately. Save 15 percent of everything you earn for retirement! Embrace index funds! Chasing hot stocks is not investing!

OK, I may be getting ahead of myself. Most students won’t make enough to do more than help pay down tuition debt or pocket a little spending money. Serious saving and investing come later.

What teenagers really need to master first are money skills. It’s about to be sink-or-swim time. Here is a list of basic financial tips:

Draw up a budget and stick to it.

Start by estimating monthly expenditures for major categories such as school, transportation, food, clothing, and entertainment.

“Don’t worry that it’s going to be like filling out your taxes,’’ says Laura Levine, at the nonprofit JumpStart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy. “It can really be done on just a piece of paper.’’

Keep tabs on spending on an Excel spreadsheet, or through a personal finance site such as Mint.com, which can send you alerts about bills due, credit limits, and bank fees. Or just jot it all down in a small notebook. Compare your records with bank and credit card statements to make sure they’re correct.

Use caution with credit.

Credit card companies are no longer permitted to issue cards to applicants under age 21 without an adult cosigner or proof of adequate income. But even if you can get one, resist the temptation.

You can get by for now on a debit card or a prepaid card. With a credit card you risk starting bad habits that can sink your credit score, making it harder to borrow money and clouding your financial situation for years.

“If you can’t pay for it with cash, you don’t need it,’’ says John Chladek, a certified financial planner.

Be aware of costs and fees.

Debit cards are handy. Your parents can put money in the account periodically, and the cards function almost like credit cards, with less risk. But they have pitfalls. You can incur penalty fees by overdrawing a debit card, so keep track of your balance. Try to avoid fees for an ATM that’s not part of your bank’s network. And pay all bills on time or you’ll be slapped with late charges. If your parents cosign a credit card for you, read the fine print.

Start saving.

It may not be feasible to immediately meet that 15 percent goal I preach. But even a college student with a part-time job can save a small fraction of his or her pay. Consider setting aside 10 percent of every check in a Roth Individual Retirement Account. The earnings will grow tax-free and the money can be used for a first-time home purchase.

Guard against identity theft.

Young people are the biggest targets. Treat financial and other data as top-secret information.

Dave Carpenter writes for the Associated Press.