Welcome to the Real World - My Best Advice for New Graduates

by Xin Lu on 16 June 2008 13 comments
Photo: Flying Caps

I graduated from college just three years ago, so the confusion and anxiety I felt after graduating college is still quite fresh in my mind. I moved out of my parents' house a week after graduation and started at my new job, and since then I have learned a lot of things about the "real world". Here are some of my best advice for new graduates who are transitioning from the safe structured environment of school to a seemingly infinitely larger world.

Learn to manage your money - It does not matter how much money you rake in if you do not know how to manage it and make it grow. You can learn about personal finance by going to the library or reading the great personal finance blogs such as this one. Everyone has a different money management style, but the bottom line I adhere to is to not spend more than I can afford. Basically, live below your means and you will always have something to fall back on.

Work towards financial independence
- I would have said "save for retirement now", but when I heard the word retirement at age 22 I figured it was 40 years away and I had plenty time to prepare. Now I know that I do not want to plod along for another 40 years , but I want to be financially free much sooner. I am sure most of you do not want to be bossed around for another 40 to 45 years, so mark the date you will be free and work towards it by saving, investing, or building a business.

Explore the world around you - I wish that I had taken a year off after graduating and just traveled around the world. In the last three years I did have the opportunity to go to remote areas of Southern China, and I was amazed by how diverse my own country is. I truly believe that traveling and seeing how others live give you perspective and insight into how to live your life. Once you are settled down with young children it would not be as easy to run away to the end of the world for a long time. You do not need too much money to explore and travel. For example, David DeFranza wrote a great article about exploring your own world by walking .

Keep in touch - Since graduating many of my best friends have scattered around the world. It is tough to keep track of everyone, but a few emails and an occassional phone call keep us in contact with each other so when there are times we could see each other again we can meet up. I think keeping friends is always better than losing them.

Build new relationships - I think many new college graduates feel the pain of loneliness when they leave school and move into a place far away from friends and family. Like I said before, most of my old friends are no longer near by. So this is a great time to build new relationships. I found a couple roommates when I just graduated so I would not be so lonely. Then I joined a great church and found new friends. Making friends is not as easy when you get out of school, but it is possible, and somewhat essential for your sanity.

Never stop learning - School is out, but there is a lifetime of learning ahead of you. Now you can take the art class you never had time for in college or you could read about the newest web technologies. You can learn just about anything you want without worrying about tests and grades and you can Learn from everyone and everything around you. With the wonders of the internet, you can even follow along courses from some of the top universities in the world .


Stay active
- When I was in school I walked everywhere and took physical education classes to stay active, but now I am working and my lifestyle has become extremely sedentary. It is important to stay fit and be healthy because whatever you produce and earn comes from your body and mind. Staying healthy lets you enjoy life much more and you can save money on healthcare in the long run.

Always be on the lookout for better opportunities
- Face it, for most of us, our first jobs are not our dream jobs . So do not be afraid to move on to a better opportunity. Usually the better opportunities do not just fall into your lap, so it does not hurt to constantly search for what you really want to do. If you want to be your own boss, quitting a crappy job and starting your own business is a lot easier when you are young and do not have to support others with your income.

Talk to your parents
- Both my husband and I found that after college our relationships with our parents got a lot better since we became independent from them. Our teenage angst was all gone and now we know that our parents are probably our best allies in life. I know every family is different, but the time after college is a great time to show your maturity to your parents or former guardians. Talk to them as adults, and ask to be treated like an adult if they do not do so already, and your relationships may improve.

Give back - I think all of us have a human duty to give back to the world and make it a better place to live for everyone. You do not necessarily have to donate large amounts of money to charities, but you could do small things like planting a tree, or even save energy. Every small gesture that benefits the environment and others will also benefit you and your children.

Finally, do not be discouraged if these years right after graduation are difficult and you feel like you are in a crisis. It is normal to feel bewildered by a completely different lifestyle. You are young, and you have time to figure out what makes you happy and what works for you. Have fun, and never give up on improving your life and yourself.

This post is a part of the MoneyBlogNetwork Group Writing Project focusing on financial advice to new graduates. Check out other great posts on this topic:

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Fred Lee's picture

Nice words, Xin. I think it's hard to find your way when you're fresh out of school but the academic world is so sheltered and it's easy to fall into an unrealistic sense of oneself. Life is simpler (not necessarily easy) when all you have to think about is studying.

I think the advice that I would embrace the most is to explore the world around you as much as possible. It's the only way to really figure out what means the most to you. While I admire kids who have it all figured out by the time they're freshman in college, and are consequently focused like a laser, I think they can also miss out on a world of adventure in exploring their opportunities.

And let's face it, how many 18 year olds, or even 21 year olds for that matter, really have the wherewithal to know what life is all about? I'm forty and I'm still figuring it out. Like Henry Miller said, life is a journey of discovery, and many of us lose sight of this in the pursuit of our careers.

Will Chen's picture

"I wish that I had taken a year off after graduating and just traveled around the world."

Me too!  People are always putting off stuff like that for the "right time"  

Great advice Xin. 

Guest's picture
Elizabeth

I'm not sure I agree about the round the world trip. Yes, I would have done it if I could have afforded to do it. But going into more debt didn't seem like a financially responsible decision at the time (for me).

What I really I had done was started budgeting for travel when I started work (i.e. setting aside money each pay cheque). I know people who worked for four years and saved 25% of their salary each year so they could take the fifth year off to travel. Perhaps that's a bit extreme, but if you can't afford travel when you graduate and it's something you really want to do, then start planning for it as soon as possible.

Julie Rains's picture

I love your advice -- it took me many years to learn what you already have, though I did practice much of that -- I just couldn't articulate it that well in my 20s. Also making changes is something I should have pursued earlier on.

Re: travel. I didn't travel the world but I did take a cross-country trip right after college, using my earnings from a college job. I planned a trip from North Carolina to Yellowstone Park (where my traveling buddy took a summer job) and then took a Greyhound Bus to LA, where I met up with a college friend who was going to law school at Pepperdine. I knew of someone else who worked his way around the world, working manual labor jobs for a few months and then moving on.

Guest's picture

My post today is "Are You Your Job?" You can get a taste of what kind of mental/emotional/physical boot camp your company might send you to if you don't follow your heart/bliss to do what you love -- even if you are the superstar employee in your company!

Friends are very important. Too important just to keep for the sake of keeping them. Some are better left to fade away. Ask yourself if you continue to add value to one another's lives. If not, even old -- or for that matter, new -- friendships can become clutter that take up precious space and time in our lives. And, very demanding or needy friends are just more trouble than they're worth. My free ebook Cuckoo in Your Nest! is about how to get rid of these folks who cling to us and try to suck us dry.

I totally agree with taking care of (1) your health with regular exercise (most young people have no idea how much injuries or bad health cost: lost earning capacity, and, hence, investment opportunity; exorbitant medical bills; increased risk of loss of mental/emotional health, i.e., depression, anxiety, etc.), (2) your mind with constant learning about yourself, your chosen field, and other people in general, and (3) your money (starting to invest with just $50 per month -- and who can't sock that away? -- can make you a millionaire by the time you retire without any effort at all! Just set it up and let it grow.

Most young adults don't realize until it's too late that the one thing they have over us older folks is time and that time is actually money when it comes to the magic of compound interest.

Finally, I'd advise young people today to not trust government, employers, parents, friends (especially friends! -- they don't know much more than you do), or anyone else (including me) to tell you the truth about money, finances, relationships, or how to live your life. These decisions are for you to make and eventually live with. The decisions you make now are the ones that you will either be very proud of down the road or regret for decades to come. There are great self help books out there that at least will let you know what your options are. Then, it's up to you what you pick from the buffet of life's lessons.

Good luck to all the recent graduates! Life is an adventure!

Guest's picture

I didn't travel when I finished college, but knew it was something I definitely wanted to do. So I've built myself a business that I can take with me, and saved some money in the process, and now I leave Sept 1 for at least a few months. I'm getting some comments about how I'm a little bit older than the average backpacker, but at 28, I don't think it's that big of a deal. In my opinion, being a few years out of college has helped me gain perspective on why I should take this trip anyways, and what I want to do while I'm in Europe.

Guest's picture

I am also new to the "Real World". I had the chance to study abroad for a semester when I was in school. It is a great experience to travel and it opened my eyes to the world and everything around me. I am a little confused and bewildered but this gives me the opportunity to find what I want and what I'm looking for. Having financial freedom is a little frustrating, however I feel that I can manage. I do plan to go back to school for my masters. I believe everything you say is important. I just hope that I can follow where I want to go.

Guest's picture

Keep a "happy" file of nice notes, projects that turned out well (including scope, impact and your role), awards, etc., that you get while at work. So much of the time when I talk with people about the areas in which they excel at work or ask for specific information about projects they worked on, they are stumped.

Keeping accomplishments in one spot - an electronic or regular file folder - will help when asking for a raise, updating your resume or even for getting to the big picture of what you want to do next. Looking at ones accomplishments and asking, "What did I love doing that I'm really good at?" will help inform career decisions. Plus, it's a great lift for a gray day!

Guest's picture
Trish

One good thing that I've learned to do since I graduated was to start a blog! A blog is really a great way to express yourself, whether you're frustrated or completely ecstatic about life. Even though you don't get to see people in a physical sense, you can connect with them emotionally.

You shouldn't stay glued to your computer every night writing in your blog, but you should have a healthy balance between going out with family and friends and writing about the things you love (or hate)!

Guest's picture
Jay

Hey Xin,
Great post, you have a lot of financial wisdom for someone so young. I wish more people my age understood that if you "live below your means, you will always have something to fall back on", that's great advice for everyone, including young grads.

I found this blog because I now have a young grad living with me. He wanted to live and work in Dallas, we're from the same small town, and I'm good friends with his father so my wife and I agreed to put him up for a few months. He's curious about personal finance and investing so I wanted to find some information that is really geared toward his generation. This seems to be the right place!

I haven't explored much. Do you have any personal favorite posts that your readers we're really excited about or do you write anywhere about what got you enthused enough about personal finance and investing to start a blog?

Thanks & keep up the great writing!
Jay
www.Money-and-Investing.com

Guest's picture

Those are great words of wisdom.  For me personally a few of those really hit home.  Particularly staying in touch with friends which can be very difficult, exploring the world around you, and giving back.  It is easy to lose sight of these things when we get stuck in our daily routine.

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Guest's picture
Nic

One thing I would add is do not believe everything the media tells you. I've tended to find that the media would have us believe that the graduate jobs market is broken and that it's one long bath of acid for graduates. And it's simply not true. A degree is what you make it, and there are other factors that employers take into account other than your subject, degree classification, what Uni you got it from etc. But you hardly ever hear the media talking about that.

Graduates need to be patient and tenacious and flexible. And presumably, if they've survived three years or more of terrifying deadlines, evil lecturers and come out with a degree, they already have those qualities.

Guest's picture
Lance

Great advice but tough to keep up with I think as you get older. 15 years on from graduating, it get harder to pursue all interests and keep up with learning and being active. In particular when job and family commitments ebb away more and more of the week. Though starting young and being realistic with your expectations the key.

Also taking your time in finding what you want to do after you gradaute before you commit will save you a lot of time and headaches later. If you do commit and decide that the career you chose is not right for you, make up your mind early. It get harder as time goes on.

In helping my sister-in-law find her way I find the Internet a better source of information in deciding on the best course than in my day. Sites like http://targetjobs.co.uk/careers-advice/career-clueless provides some sort of perspective for the clueless graduate job seeker.