Finance for Grads

Many students will be graduation from college in the next few weeks. Kelli Grant, Senior Consumer Reporter for SmartMoney.com, offers some tips to get them started on the right financial track.

First, reassess your accounts. Odds are good you have the same bank account you've been using since childhood and whatever credit card Mom and Dad picked out. Shop around using a site like BillShrink.com to make sure you have the best. For credit cards, look for low interest rates and no annual fee. For banks, make sure there's a decent interest rate, few fees and locations nearby.

Next, boost your credit score. Buying a home or new car may be years away, but once you're ready you'll need a credit score of at least a 700 on the 300 to 850 point scale to get the best rates. Pay bills on time and pay down those balances. You can track your score over time for free on CreditKarma.com.

It's also a good time to put your savings to work. It's not easy to save a lot when your finances are already stretched tight, but building an emergency fund is vital. Pay yourself first by scheduling automatic contributions to a high-yield account. Put it in a separate online-only, high-yield so it's harder to dip into for non-emergencies. SmartyPig.com has one of the higher yields out there now, at 2%.

Also, set up a budget and stick to it. Learning to keep a budget is a skill that will help you for the rest of your life. It's easy, too, thanks to a host of free sites including Mint.com and Wesabe.com that automatically track and sort every transaction. They alert you when your spending is close to limits you've set and will even prod you to pay bills.

And finally, spend within your means. Credit card rates have gone up precipitously over the past year, some as high as 30%. Debt can take years to pay off, so make sure to keep your head above water now, especially if you're also juggling student loan debt. Don't buy what you can't pay off the same month. Stick to cash if you notice your balance creeping up.

For more tips for graduates and other personal finance topics, click here.
by Kelli Grant and Jenn Eaker