After all those years of schooling, endless tests and enormous essays you’ve completed, you’re now about to receive an unavoidable crash course in personal finance. This is something that probably wasn’t part of the curriculum even though it’s one of the most important things you’ll end up learning. Your twenties are a critical time on just about all levels – social, professional, financial – and it’s full of opportunities. Here are some money lessons you’ll wind up learning now that you’re done with college.


Form a Basic Budget

Making a budget sounds like an overwhelming task, but these days it’s not that difficult. Tools like Mint and You Need a Budget make the process easy and allow you to easily track your spending. Knowing where your money goes is an important skill that helps develop healthy financial habits for the rest of your life. It’s also fascinating – and a little frightening – to see just how much might be spent going out for the night.


Start an Emergency Fund – Now!

Before you pay off your debts – keep those minimum payments going – or consider putting money away for retirement, set up an emergency fund. The general guideline is to have at least three to six months of your living costs set aside in case the unexpected happens. Whether it’s losing a job, breaking your car or getting sick, an emergency fund means you won’t be completely blindsided when something bad happens.

It’s so easy to get along fine financially and then end up totally hindered by an unexpected expense. An emergency fund helps give you peace of mind even if you don’t end up using it.


Hone Your Skills – and Learn New Ones

Even though college is over, it doesn’t mean learning has to be. Staying on top of industry trends and picking up related skills will make you important in the workplace and marketable to switch to better jobs. Sites like Lynda (subscription based) and Coursera can help round out your skills and develop your interests. A couple hours a week working on some things you’re interested can be both useful and a little therapeutic.


Focus on Yourself – Not Others

Some of your classmates might have landed dream jobs right after college – or at least that’s the image they convey to the rest of the world. It’s easy to get jealous when it looks like someone else’s life is going perfectly, but it’s not useful. Just keep working hard and focusing on yourself. Ignore the noise.


Credit Cards Can – Sometimes – Be a Great Thing

In the wrong hands, credit cards are a dangerous thing. The average household credit card debt in the U.S. is a staggering $5,700. The interest keeps piling up and becomes insurmountable for people who aren’t careful.

It’s a little scary, yet credit cards can be a great resource if you’re responsible. They’re incredibly convenient and it’s easy to track your spending through credit card statements. Most credit cards offer rewards that save you money assuming you pay your bills on time.    If you keep the number of credit cards you have to minimum – one or two should suffice – and don’t get tempted to do anything crazy, you’ll be in good financial shape.

If you don’t think it’s possible to show discipline, then don’t tempt yourself.


Brace Yourself for Taxes

There’s that moment everyone experience when you receive you first paycheck. We all take a look at the statement with eager eyes, only to be deflated when you see the final amount. “Is that it?”

There’s a big difference between the salary you’re told you’ll be earning and the actual take-home amount. It’s a fact of life. Odds are taxes are the furthest thing from your mind when starting a career, but it’s not something that you should put aside completely. There are a number of ways to reduce your tax burden, whether it’s by tracking work-related expenses or deducting the cost of moving for a job. Also keep in mind that you might end up having to pay the IRS during tax season if you’re not careful. Make sure you fill out your W-4 form correctly to ensure this doesn’t happen.


Find Extra Work if Needed

Your twenties are the most financially fraught time of your life. Most graduates are saddled with debt and not earning nearly as much as they will in the future. Keeping your eyes and ears open for other opportunities is a useful way to earn some extra money. Freelancing or part-time work helps out a lot when you’re just starting off and trying to get your finances in order.


Get the Most from a 401(k)

If your employer offers a 401(k), get on it ASAP. Companies typically match a certain amount of the 401(k) contributions. The specific amounts vary company to company, but a common benefit is if you contribute up to 6 percent of your paycheck, your employer will throw in 50 percent of what you give to your retirement account. It’s free money and it’s tax advantageous. Make sure you’re at least contributing up to the maximum amount that they’ll match.

Losing that extra money in your paycheck for money you can’t touch until you’re in your 60s is a bit of a downer, but the money you contribute to your retirement account now makes an incredible difference in the future. Broadly speaking, history has shown the stock market – aka your contribution – doubles every eight years. Thinking long term pays off.


Don’t Freak Out

There are times that are overwhelming, from problems at work to dealing with terrible roommates. Despite the stress of working a real job, paying down debts and planning for the future, this is an exciting time in your life. Don’t let the details stop you from doing the things you want to do. Everything will come together, so go out and have some fun. You’ve got this.


What financial lesson would you list as #10? Let us know in the comments!

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Sarah Landrum is the founder of Punched Clocks.

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