Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Graduating? I've Got One More Class for Ya.

Shortly, the Baltimore-Washington Metro Area will be awash in caps and gowns and U-Haul trucks hauling the junk of newly graduated twenty-somethings to locales near and far. In honor of the 10th anniversary of my graduation from a storied institution of higher learning, I present the realities that confronted me during the transition from student to theoretically independent adult:

1) Health insurance is necessary, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. If you're temping or working a gig that provides no health care option, go here and get it independently. When I was 21 (Holy Mother of God, was that really TEN years ago?), I forked out a measly $100 per month. It's worth it. You don't want to debate if you can muscle through strep throat without magical antibiotic elixirs. Oh, and if dental insurance is an option at your place of business...GET IT. Again, if you have a Grand Canyon-sized cavity, you'll want it tended to and you likely won't be able to afford the hundreds of dollars it'll cost out-of-pocket.

2) Try to be financially independent from your parents, because if you accept subsidies from them, you also must accept advice, frowny faces about the quantity of shoes you've purchased, and admonitions about the expense of going out to eat.

3) On the financially independent tip, the rule of thumb of your monthly expenses* is:
  • 30% housing (this includes rent/mortgage, utilities, etc.)
  • 20% car/transportation
  • 15% total food & drink (includes going out)
  • 10% savings
  • 10% retirement
  • 8% personal insurances
  • 5% entertainment/donation
  • 2% personal care/services
It's easier to do this now than it will be later, so you might as well set up the framework at the start of your budgetary life. Understand that YOUR STYLE OF LIVING WILL NOT BE THE SAME AS YOUR PARENTS', or even the same as it was in college since your parents likely paid for that as well. These next few years will mean roommates, eating cheaply, and possibly selling some of your stuff on eBay to finance nights out. Oh, and pay your bills on time. You don't want to apply for a car loan and get turned down because you owe your gym eighty bucks.

*This is based on gross pay. Gross pay is the dollar amount you start with. Net pay is what you have left over after FICA, social security, taxes, and pre-tax benefits take their collective bite. I think it's called Gross because it is gross how much disappears before you even cash your pay check.

4) And again on the financially independent tip, DO NOT BUY STUFF YOU CANNOT AFFORD. Sounds simple, I know, but this is a humdinger of a lesson to learn. And by "cannot afford," I mean, "cannot pay for with cash." Do not use credit cards as a buffer. A little tiny balance is good to start a credit history, but pay most or all of it off every month. I speak from mad crazy unfortunate experience on this. That $100 dress that I bought for a formal dance in May of my senior year of college likely cost me $1,000 by the time I paid it off. Credit cards aren't inherently evil, but man alive, a person racks up some unfathomable interest charges over time.

5) If you move to a new city where you know zero to three people, make some friends. And try, oh try, to make them outside of the office/graduate school as well. If you have a half a dozen friends or so from different walks of life, then you won't be totally reliant on only a few people to stave off loneliness. I know it's awkward making new friends, but it's a little easier if you meet people in places you already go for fun, like softball leagues, or church, or book clubs, or whatever. You'll already have something in common, right? If you're friendly with people from only one area, like the office, then you're facing all kinds of gossipy incestuousness. And who needs that in the work place when you are trying to build a career?

By the way...IM, e-mail, texting, MySpace, Facebook and blogs don't count as friends. You can't go out to a bar with your blog. So, keep in touch with your old friends, but not to the exclusion of making new ones. Modern messaging devices make it extraordinarily easy to reach out and touch someone, but that can stunt your ability to forge new relationships that will connect you to the here and now of your life.

6) Sometimes it's better to live with someone you don't know very well instead of someone you do. When you know someone really well, it's easy for them to walk all over you and take advantage. So, if you don't think you can have healthy conflict with an old pal (i.e., tell her calmly and matter-of-factly that you really didn't want her boyfriend to move in with you, or that you aren't her maid service, or that he needs to ask if he can borrow your things), then go for the tabula rasa of someone you only sort of know, like a friend of a friend, or a cousin's college roommate.

7) If you choose to move back home with your parents, set a time line for moving out. Can you really become whomever you're going to be if your parents are telling you that you should be home by midnight, or that you're working too hard?

8) Speaking of working too hard...You might have a college degree, but you're still going to have to do grunt work. So, get over yourself. You might have a Bachelor's in Political Science, but you'll be low person on the turnbuckle, and you're going to have to learn the ropes before they'll trust you with anything besides filing.

9) But if you get to a point where you are having nightmares about a job, it might be time to quit and move on. Unless this is the third job you've quit in as many months, don't worry about what it will look like on the work experience time line on your resume. As someone who has hired her fair share of recent grads, if I saw that someone had a year or two at a job, that assured me that s/he wasn't flighty and wouldn't be a waste of my training time. Anyway, some offices are just plain dysfunctional. If you can't answer "YES" to at least two of the following questions, break out your local paper's Help Wanted section: (1) Do I like what I'm doing? (2) Am I learning? (3) Am I happy with what I'm being paid?

10) Don't have a job lined up yet? If you have a degree in something that doesn't logically plug into a job opportunity (shout out to my fellow English majors), then you will need to point out how your vast knowledge of 18th Century Women Writers applies to that marketing job at the museum. Because if you can't figure it out, how are your potential employers supposed to do that?

I won't be able to give any of my own offspring this advice for a good twenty years, and even then it'll likely be dismissed with a roll of the eyes. Oh, and uh, wear sunscreen. Me, I wear sunBLOCK because any exposure to the sun's death rays and my pasty self will explode into flame. But you crazy kids, you can get a way with just the 'screen.

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