I grew up thinking that a college degree would be my ticket to wealth or at least entry into the upper echelons of the middle class. But after taking most of my 20s to dig myself out of $65,000 of student loan debt amassed after a B.A. in political science, a MS.Ed in bilingual education and an Ed.M in organizational leadership, I realized that the correlation between a college education and building wealth is pretty weak.
Although my credentials positioned me to earn more—my income nearly tripled from my first degree to the third—my degrees did not position me to save more, invest more or be more discerning about credit use; only strong skills in money management could position me to do that.
Here are six wealth-building strategies and principles that I used to build a strong financial foundation for myself over the past 15 years.
1. Get organized and knowledgeable about your student loans. Part of being a millennial college graduate is being responsible and informed about your student loans. Take several weekends to educate yourself on the ins and outs of your student loans. Create virtual and/or real folders to organize the following information:
a. The type and number of loans you have: Do you have subsidized and/or unsubsidized loans? Do you have federal loans, private loans or both? Keep the name and number of your lender(s) in your phone, on an Excel file on your computer and in hard copy form for easy access.
b. The amount of the principal and the monthly interest accrued: You need to know how much money you owe and the amount that is accrued monthly to the penny so your efforts to eliminate debt are grounded in accurate numbers instead of approximations.
c. The repayment loans and options: Have you educated yourself on loan forgiveness programs, the Pay As You Earn repayment plan and the discounts applied to student loan payments for setting up automatic withdrawals from your checking or saving accounts? Researching these options can save you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on your student loan payments.
d. The life of the loan in years: How long will it take to repay your loan if you make only the minimum payment? How long do you want to carry this debt? What are the opportunity costs of prolonging the repayment process? Will extending the life of your loan delay purchasing your first home, quitting a job, starting a family or new business, or paying for a wedding?
2. Live at home for as long as you can. Without the burden of high rent prices, you can start to build a six-month emergency fund, save to buy your own home, put a big dent in your college loans or free yourself to take low-paying, high-passion opportunities and jobs, thus preparing you for bigger, greater and more meaningful long-term gains.
On the other hand, if living at home is not an option, scout out neighborhoods and cities that will cost less than 30 percent of your total take-home pay. This may mean having to share your space with a roommate to keep your expenses low and shopping sparingly for home furnishings.
3. Understand that everything has diminishing returns, including education. This may be a hard pill to swallow, especially since we as African-Americans have been historically and systematically locked out of access to higher education opportunities, but pursuing graduate studies for the sake of pursuing graduate studies or “enriching” your life is waste of money if you are not clear about the financial returns on that investment and if you are already in debt.
If you are committed to lifelong learning, consider a certificate course, self-study or one of the many low-cost or free online opportunities that some of the most prestigious colleges and universities offer until you are absolutely certain you need that second or third degree.
4. Aim for the 50-30-20 rule when it comes to budgeting. Wealth is a decision. It is a lifetime sum of day-to-day financial decisions, which begins and ends with tracking your spending and knowing the difference between needs and wants. If you need a budget-starter tip, try the 50-30-20 rule. Use 50 percent of your income for your needs, 30 percent for your wants, 20 percent for your savings and investing. If you want to jump-start your journey to wealth, flip those last two percentages: Save and invest 30 percent of your income, and use 20 percent of your income for your fun, wants and desires.
5. Use your youth to your advantage. While making universal mistakes, trips, and falls in the way of career and love are all a part of growing into your adulthood, your 20s shouldn’t be your “throw away” decade when it comes to building a legacy of wealth. Speak to your human resources representative about enrolling in the company’s 401(k) program, Tax-deferred annuity program, or the like so you can plan for your retirement. Speak to a financial advisor about investing as soon as possible so that your money will outpace the rate of inflation. With compound interest and youth on your side, you will not have to play catch-up when it comes to planning your post-work days.
6. Monitor and manage you credit score. There will definitely come a time when you will want to buy a home, car, or start a business. For each of these, you will need to leverage your credit score to apply for loans with the most desirable interest rates. Since the Fair Isaac Corporation (FICO) score is arguably the most well-known credit score, it is crucial to know what constitutes poor, good and excellent credit scores through this lens. Scores above 720 generally receive the best rates. On the other hand, you run the risk of enduring hefty interest rates or not qualifying for loans with FICO scores of 660 or lower.
For competitive credit scores, limit your credit card spending only to necessities, maintain low credit-to-debt ratios, pay your bills on time and refrain from opening up new credit cards unnecessarily. Also, order a free copy of your credit report and purchase your credit scores annually to monitor your growth, check for mistakes and make long-term plans.
Life as a millennial is extremely exciting, full of unexpected changes, joy, pain, and a lot of growth. Make sure that as you pursue your passion, fight for love, find your voice and stake out your claim, you are also building both personal and generational wealth along the way.
Kara Stevens is the founder of the personal finance and lifestyle blog The Frugal Feminista, an online home for financial empowerment, girl power and juicy living. Connect with her on Twitter @frugalfeminista.