One of the most exciting milestones is landing your first “career job” out of college. You’ll likely be making more money than you ever have and have access to benefits and workplace retirement plans.
It’s also a critical period in your financial life, and the decisions you make can have a significant impact on your financial future.
There are four areas to focus on early in your career to put you on the right path financially.
Avoiding lifestyle inflation.
Focus on increasing your salary in the early years of your career.
Always strive to be “underpaid.”
Maximize all your employee benefits, especially your retirement plan.
This post serves as a guide to help young working professionals manage their money.
More money, more problems
Lifestyle inflation is a strange phenomenon in which people spend more money as they make more money and, as a result, end up saving very little.
Lifestyle inflation is a very subtle and natural occurrence, which is also what makes it so dangerous. When you land your first “career” job, you’ll probably be making more money than you have ever been accustomed to in the past.
With this new money, you might be tempted to upgrade your lifestyle.
Moving into a nicer apartment.
Buying a new car.
Going on more vacations.
Buying fancy clothes.
The number one thing a young professional can do to set themselves up for a life of financial success is to avoid the temptation to upgrade your lifestyle.
Keep living like a student
The best financial decision I have ever made was to keep living like a student for several years after landing my first career job after finishing graduate school.
I kept living in the tiny apartment above the health food store with my two roommates.
Instead of buying a new car, I kept driving my 13-year-old Chrysler neon.
I maintained my college diet that consisted of a lot of rice.
I didn’t go to any expensive vacations.
All of that might sound like a whole lot of sacrifice, and frankly, if I were to live like that today, it would be. Since I was already living that way for years, it did not require me to make any changes whatsoever, making it a lot easier than you might think to simply keep doing what I was doing.
Keeping my cost of living so low, allowed me to save a lot more money and pay off my $50,000 in student loan debt. Having that debt paid off put me in a position to buy my first house, which put me in a position to buy a rental property a few years after that.
If I had decided to upgrade my life right away, I’d probably still be working on paying off my debt and have next to zero in terms of assets.
A little bit of sacrifice early in your career goes a long way to establishing good financial habits. The best part is that if you are already accustomed to living a modest lifestyle, it’s not a sacrifice at all.
The compounding effect of your salary
Personal finance bloggers often preach the virtues of compound interest when it comes to your investments. Over a long period of time, the interest that your investments return begins to earn interest and it creates a snowball effect that can help you build wealth.
One thing that does not get discussed nearly enough is the compounding effect of your salary. The income you earn from your job is the greatest investment you will ever have. It is what pays for your lifestyle and makes all other investments possible.
Each year when you get a raise at work, either through performance or a cost of living adjustment, it is based on last year’s salary. The more you can focus on increasing your salary early in your career, the more your future income will benefit from compounding returns.
The difference $5,000 can make
Let’s compare the difference in lifetime earnings of two 25-year-old workers.
The first has a starting salary of $50,000
The second has a starting salary of $55,000
If they each received a 3% raise per year, after 40 years, the person who started with a $55,000 salary would make $377,000 more than the person who started out earning $50,000.
If the person making $55,000 invested the extra money they made each year and earned an average of 6% per year, they would be able to generate an additional $1.24 million in wealth over those 40 years.
Compounding returns is an important concept to apply to all areas of your financial life, including your salary. The more you can focus on increasing your salary in the early years of your career, the better off you will be.
Accruing organizational equity
It’s pretty rare for young professionals to spend the bulk of their career with the same employer. According to a report from Workopolis, only 30% of workers stay at the same job for more than four years.
I surveyed my readers on this question and asked them how often they change employers.
11% change jobs every year
44% change jobs every 2-3 years.
44% stay at a job for at least 10 years.
While changing jobs more frequently can help some people leverage higher salaries, I have chosen to stay with the same employer for the past seven years.
I was fortunate to get promoted early in my career, which added to the compounding returns of my annual raises. However, there is a real benefit of staying at the same employer for a long period.
The longer your relationship with your employer, the more organizational equity you accrue. When I say organizational equity, I mean more freedom to do your job in the way you think it should be done.
After seven years of excellent job performance, I have accrued a lot of equity with my employer. I’ve been able to leverage that equity into more flexible work hours and the ability to work from home when I want and even the luxury of working remotely for a while.
If I were changing jobs every 2-3 years, I would never be able to accrue that type of organizational equity.
If you like your job and work for a great organization, think twice before deciding to jump ship to work elsewhere.
Understand and max out all your benefits
One of the biggest, and most avoidable financial mistakes young professionals make is not taking advantage of the benefits provided to them by their employer.
When you start a new job, you should receive an employee handbook that highlights what benefits you have and the process to enroll to receive those benefits if necessary.
Many employers offer a workplace retirement plan. However, employees are not always automatically enrolled and must choose to opt into the plan. Most workplace retirement plans offer a matching contribution by the employer up to a certain percentage of your salary.
For example, your employer might match every dollar you contribute to the plan up to 5% of your salary. If you made $50,000, you would put in $5,000 and your employer would match that $5,000.
You just doubled your money by doing nothing.
The other great benefit of workplace retirement plans is that they are automatically deducted from your paycheck. That means you never have to make the decision to save once you have enrolled in the program.
In addition to retirement plans, it’s important to understand how your other workplace benefits work, such as healthcare and different types of insurance. For example, some employers offer life and disability insurance as part of their benefits package.
A few simple decisions can put you on a path to financial success
When you are young, you have the most incredible asset in the world and something that great investors like Warren Buffett do not; time.
You can leverage time your advantage by making a few simple decisions early in your career.
First, avoid the temptation for lifestyle inflation and be happy living below your means. If you ever hope to save money, you’ll need to learn to be happy with what you have right now and not keeping up with the Joneses.
Leverage the compounding impacts that a long time horizon provides not only in your investments but also in your income. Since raises are based on a percentage of your current salary, the quicker you can increase your income early in your career, the more you will benefit from the compounding of your salary.
Don’t assume that changing jobs is always the right move. There is a lot to be said for gaining equity and trust with your employer.
Finally, make sure you enroll in your workplace retirement plan and understand how all your employee benefits work and begin using them to your advantage.
Managing money does not need to be overly difficult. If you can make these simple actions early in your career, you will make your financial life a lot easier.
This article is for informational purposes only, it should not be considered Financial or Legal Advice. Consult a financial professional before making any major financial decisions.
If you're interested in learning more about money management, I invite you to enroll in my personal finance classes on Skillshare. Get two free months of access when using this link.