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Let’s Talk Money: Managing Financial Stress When You’re a New College Graduate

Essential tips for the class of 2020 — who graduated into a job market and economy they never would have imagined.

Getty Images/Thrive Global
Getty Images/Thrive Global

Welcome to Let’s Talk Money, where you’ll hear about the small changes you can make to build sustainable money habits, reduce your stress, and set yourself up for financial and personal well-being. Money is a top cause of significant stress for Americans, and unchecked stress levels have been linked to issues from heart disease to diabetes to depression. What’s more, 82% of individuals feel that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a bigger negative impact on their financial stress and well-being than any other event in recent history, according to a Thrive Global original survey of 1,000 Americans. The good news is that there’s a powerful, impactful approach to managing our finances and our health, based on the latest behavioral science showing that starting small — with too-small-to-fail Microsteps — is the most effective way to make habits stick. Read on for advice on how to take control of your financial and overall health, one small step at a time.

Leandro Ramlo, who graduated from the University of California, Berkeley last month, had been looking forward to an exciting new chapter in her life. Ramlo, 22, intended to remain in the Bay area and move into an apartment with friends. “The plan was that I would start paying off my student loans and saving money,” she says. And, of course, the plan was to get a job — possibly in communications. 

Like graduates everywhere, Ramlo’s dreams have been derailed by COVID-19. In March, when Berkeley’s campus shut down, she went back home to L.A., where she’s been sheltering in place with her parents and sister. “Since returning home, the day-to-day emotions I’m experiencing range from sadness to fear,” says Ramlo. “I’m concerned about the future, but I still feel a bit stuck in the past, grieving the final goodbyes I could not say in person to friends and professors — and the irreplaceable moments of celebration.”

“There’s a real sense of loss for new graduates,” says Risa Mish, J.D., a professor of management at Cornell University. “Even some students who had positions set up have had job offers withdrawn or start dates delayed — it’s very unsettling.” 

For Ramlo, the uncertainty has begun to impact her financial security. “The world outside feels scary and volatile,” she says, “and as a result, I am worried that I won’t have the tools to make the smartest decisions about how to support myself financially.”

Ramlo isn’t alone in those fears. When Discover and Thrive Global surveyed new graduates in the U.S. to find out how the coronavirus crisis is affecting them, almost half said they felt that the pandemic has had a negative impact on their finances. And according to a Monster with Wakefield Research poll of 1,000 recent or soon-to-be U.S. grads, ages 18-24, and 500 U.S. non-graduates, were asked about how they feel about joining the job market amid COVID-19, more than half (55%) of respondents said they have applied to jobs they felt were the wrong fit in the wake of the pandemic, just because they want a way “out of desperation.”

“Financial insecurity is one of the biggest causes of stress for graduates now, but there are things you can do to mitigate that stress,” Lee Baker, president and founder of Apex Financial Services and a member of CNBC’s Financial Advisor Council, tells Thrive.

When it comes to money, there are always factors outside our control, but we do have choices about the financial decisions we make. And those choices can play a powerful role in our overall well-being. Read on for eight tips to help you navigate this period of your life with less stress and more optimism: 

Stay flexible while job hunting
“While things have changed, that does not eliminate the possibility of getting a job or even a paid virtual internship,” says Baker. One advantage of looking for work at this time is that so many companies have gone remote — your next job could be anywhere. It’s also important to remember that “this is your first job; it’s not the last job you’ll ever have,” says Mish. So don’t rule out jobs that may not seem like a “perfect” match.

What’s more, if you have an entrepreneurial spirit, now might be a great time to explore a business idea. A new report from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), sponsored by Babson College and Baruch College, found that millennials and Gen Zers are showing higher interest than other generations in starting new businesses. “We have students here at Cornell, for example, who’ve established grocery delivery businesses during the pandemic,” says Mish. Even if you don’t launch a full-fledged company during this time, you may be able to turn a hobby or passion into a small online business to generate some income. (Etsy masks, anyone?)

Get comfortable networking

While you may not have a lot of experience in the professional world, that doesn’t mean it’s too soon to be networking and making connections. “Contact everybody you know who might be in a position to tell you about openings at their company and get you in the door,” says Mish. The alumni association of your university, as well as former professors, are a great place to start to build your LinkedIn network. 

And don’t be afraid to reach out to other professionals you respect, too. If you’re sending a cold email, make it clear why you’ve chosen to email them specifically. For instance, cite recent initiatives or accomplishments of theirs that you admire. When people feel that you’ve taken the time to understand their work and are qualified to help you, they may be more likely to respond.

Microstep
Take one minute to reconnect with a LinkedIn contact or add a new connection.
Shoring up your professional network is a great way to feel less stress and more control during this shaky economic time.

Understand your student loan obligations 

It’s no secret that graduating with student loans can be a big source of stress. Many studies, including one from the University of South Carolina, have shown that the student loan burden can have a significant impact on individuals’ mental health. Well, you may find some comfort knowing that payments for any student loan held by the federal government are being automatically postponed until September 30 — and you won’t be accruing additional interest for the months that payments are suspended. 

Keep in mind that Perkins loans that your school owns, or loans from private lenders, are not eligible for this deferred payment — but the holders of those types of loans may be offering separate assistance programs, so reach out to them to find out.

Try “talent stacking”

If you find yourself waiting longer than expected to land a job, you don’t have to see it as a “waste of time.” Use this period to build new skills that employers are seeking, says Mish. Talent stacking, a concept coined by Scott Adams in his book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, is the idea that it’s beneficial to develop a wider skill set that broadens your career options (and earning potential!), rather than being narrowly focusing on cultivating one skill. 

As for what “in demand” sectors to focus on, with many future jobs expected to rely on coding skills, taking a free online class in coding, like through Codecademy, could be worthwhile, says Mish. Similarly, data analytics, digital marketing, and project management are other areas you might want to look into.

Beef up your money expertise 

While you’re exploring e-learning, it doesn’t hurt to “take the opportunity to educate yourself about personal finance,” says Mish. Unfortunately, many people graduate from college without having learned the basics — but digital courses are making it easier than ever to pick up what you don’t know (and they’re more reliable than a Google search or asking your friends). Udemy, for instance, has a large collection of courses available online, many of which are career- or money-focused, like “Personal Finance 101.” Coursera is another site to try, with free courses that will teach you how to manage and understand your personal finances. 

Find out what benefits you’re entitled to
Sadly, many recent graduates were disappointed to find out they would not receive $1,200 from the government, as adults who have been claimed as dependents by their parents on their 2018 or 2019 tax filings were left out of the relief package. That said, it’s important to do some research to find out what financial help you may be able to get — depending on your individual circumstances. 

For instance, if you were working part-time or full-time while you were enrolled at college, and you were laid off due to COVID-19, you may be eligible for your state’s unemployment benefits. Additionally, if you had a job lined up for after college and that offer fell through, you may be able to receive some assistance. (You can learn more about unemployment in your state by going to the site CareerOneStep, which is sponsored by the Department of Labor.)

Use a budget reframe

Budgeting is an essential part of life, and even more important when every dollar counts — as it does for many new graduates right now. This requires getting very clear on what you can afford, even if it means avoiding spending on non-essentials, or living with your parents for a while. 

Once you’ve established your budget, it’s important to avoid viewing it as something punishing, which could stress you out even more. “Reframe ‘budgeting,’ which sounds punitive, to ‘creating a healthy spending plan,’” says Mish. Get into the habit of thinking of it as an empowered way to manage your money — so you can work toward having the things that truly matter to you down the line, like living on your own.

Microstep
Take a few minutes to audit your monthly expenses and think about where you can cut back.
Whether that’s canceling a membership or switching to a less expensive cell phone plan for a few months, any funds you redirect to savings or an emergency fund can bring you peace of mind during tough economic times.

Give back 

You might be thinking, “How can I give back when I’m the one who needs a paying job?”. But giving is a great way to get (and it doesn’t have to involve donating money). For one thing, volunteering helps you hone your existing skills and develop new ones, which can enhance your resume and even make you more attractive to potential employers. If you studied marketing in college, why not get involved with a nonprofit that needs help with their communications strategy? Or if you have experience in engineering, you might help an organization you respect build a website. Ultimately, “You’ll be creating a dynamic that will make you feel good about yourself as you help others,” says Baker. 

And while you’re giving to others, remember that one of the best ways to give back to yourself during difficult times is through self-compassion. Having hope for the future doesn’t mean you can’t mourn your current losses.

Microstep
Allow yourself to grieve a financial or job loss.
The act of identifying your experience as grief can help you be more compassionate with yourself, and more quickly move towards acceptance and taking action.

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