Finding yourself where you are

It’s time to get your money in order.

We want to meet you wherever you are.

If you are already in the job market, we help you. Still at school? We can help. Looking for work? We have some ideas.

But no matter what situation you’re in, here’s the most important advice: Ask for help. No one – and we mean no one – is born or finishes school or enters the workforce knowing all this money stuff. You’re not alone in your confusion, and there’s no shame in raising your hand and asking a question (or 20).

People with a little more experience than you have learned some things, often the hard way. Then ask a colleague for help. Find an older student or school administrator who has worked in the systems you are just beginning to navigate. Wait in line at the unemployment office or wait on the phone and keep asking for clarification until you get an answer in plain language. Or ask us and we may answer your question in a future newsletter.

None of us are as smart as all of us and we are all in this together.

Your salary is your salary, at least for now. You’ll want to ask for a raise every now and then and keep a file of things that went well on the job – and things that a supervisor asked you to do better and that you did successfully. This will make it easier to ask for a raise, something my colleague Tara Siegel Bernard has written about in the past.

If you are evaluating a new job offer, remember that your compensation is not just your salary. Compare vacation time (each additional paid day off is like getting a raise at that point), health plans (say, the size of premiums and deductibles), and other benefits. Salary and vacation are the pieces you can negotiate frequently.

The world of employee benefits is probably new to you, and there isn’t always someone around to patiently teach you what they are and how they work. (I wrote a guide in 2008 that works very well.) Often, though, these benefits are worth thousands of dollars.

A medical benefits package may include access to physical therapy, coverage to see a psychologist, and money to freeze your eggs. An employer may offer a retirement savings plan like a 401(k) or 403(b), which is an easy way to save because you can have money sucked out of your paycheck before you even see it. (And if the employer matches some of your savings, even better – take advantage of them.)

If you are self-employed or have a job without benefits, this is a little more difficult. One thing that often surprises people in your situation is how deep the tax cuts are when you don’t have an employer who can withhold taxes for you and send the money to the government periodically. An unexpected tax bill can generate debt, and the IRS doesn’t play games.

You can read more about managing taxes on your own in Tara’s 2020 guide here. We’ve written two other tax stories for freelancers since then.

Maybe you’re a graduate student with a parent who helps you with financial decisions and want to play a bigger role. Or maybe you just started graduate school.

But if you’ve already involved any families, now is a good time to ask how they want to be involved in the future. Who is paying for what? Can you stay on your parents’ health plan, which is generally possible until age 26? If there is a family cell phone plan, how long can you keep it? What about cars and insurance for them?

It can be difficult to ask these questions. It may seem to you – or your family members – that you are asking for things because you have an expectation of endless support. Or perhaps you’re worried about making family members feel guilty if they can’t provide additional or ongoing support. In this case, you can prepare a script and rehearse it.

Something like this might work well:

“Mom, I’m trying to take more responsibility in my financial life. I am so grateful for everything you have done for me and I expect nothing more from this day forward. But you may want to continue helping or even do more if you can, or just serve as a buffer in case I get into trouble. So I can plan, I just need to ask about some ongoing or upcoming expenses. Can we set up a time to talk about this?

Most people who graduate from college took out loans to do so. This is normal (although we should never completely normalize the fact that students in the United States do not receive as much government support as in many other countries). Remember, you can always ask for more scholarship money from your school if your circumstances change, or even if they don’t change. You don’t get what you don’t ask for.

As for your debt, start tracking it. If you don’t have a list of the loans you’ve taken out and their amounts, it will be difficult to begin the repayment process in an organized manner. Before you start repaying them, spend some time studying about income-driven repayment plans for federal student loans. They’re changing due to political changes and legal challenges, but the discounted payments are more generous than you might think if your income is relatively low.

No longer on your parents’ health plan? Be aware of any school-provided insurance and its limits. They can be quite insignificant. If you are not married, consider who should have access to your health records or have decision-making authority in the event of a serious emergency. Fill out permission forms describing your wishes.

If you have been laid off, apply for unemployment benefits. There is often paperwork and a bit of waiting. No guilt, no shame here – unemployment taxes exist so that when we lose our jobs, we can access this compensation.

The same thing happens with food stamps – you or your family pay into a variety of government systems for precisely this moment. Many colleges have their own food pantries for students. It’s depressing that it’s necessary, but it’s extremely useful if you’re in a pinch.

Owners may cut you some slack. Explain yourself and ask for a month or two off. If that doesn’t happen, ask about a lump sum payment at the end of the lease or some type of mid-term payment plan. Many landlords did this kind of thing at the beginning of the pandemic.

In the meantime, let’s just reiterate the importance of relying on your community. You’ve probably done a lot of good things for people over the years. This is the time to ask how they can help you.

And if you’re lucky enough to be employed, think about how nice it would be for someone who is in a bad situation to be invited to dinner or taken out to lunch. Now, go ahead and get in touch.

Ask us here.

Did you miss the first day? Follow here. Day 2 arrived, day 3 arrived, day 4 arrived and day 5 arrived.