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5 Things I Wish I Knew When I Graduated

Posted By Jim On 11/11/2008 @ 7:17 am In Personal Finance | 14 Comments

It’s been five years since I started my first job back in the summer of 2003 and in that time I don’t believe I’ve ever written a “Things I Wish I Knew” post. In looking back, I was probably as green as they came in the corporate world. I had some internships while in college but never co-op’ed anywhere and certainly didn’t know how to truly live on your own (college is more like training wheels). Now, five years wiser, having gone through two jobs, I think there are at least five things I would tell myself five years ago.

Work Life Balance, Spend Save Balance

One of the big phrases of the decade seems to be “work life balance,” referring to how workers should be careful to balance the amount of time and energy they spend towards work with what they spend on their personal life. The funny thing about that term is that employers don’t mean the two should be equal, just that they need to be “more in balance.” It’s an important concept to understand as a student because the workplace differs from college in one important respect – there is no visible end. In school, it was a series of sprints. In the workplace, it’s a 40 year marathon.

The same is true with your money. Spending and saving should be in balance, you shouldn’t sacrifice one for the sake of the other for too long a period of time. When I started working, I didn’t save much. I spent a lot of my paycheck because it was so much more than I was used to. I was still finding good deals and making the most of my money, I just wasn’t saving much of it (more on this later). After the first few months, the pendulum swung back as I thought about what I wanted to do in the future (buy a house). For a period of a couple months, I only went out to the bars a few times, brownbagged my lunch in more often, and spent little. While it didn’t “hurt” persay, the lesson I wish I learned sooner was to be more balanced about it. Going ultra-frugal for a while, especially if there’s a goal, is fine. I can’t go ultra-frugal or ultra spendy and expect myself to last for the long haul.

Set Realistic & Stretch Goals

A few months into my first job, I attended an off-site with about fifty other young professionals that were hired within a year or two of me. When collectively asked about our future aspirations, about 80% said they wanted to be managers. I was one of them. I wanted to be a manager because I thought that was what came next. I would only learn later that I definitely didn’t want to be a manager, I would rather be a lead on a part of a program. Either way, it’s important to set goals for yourself because it gives you a direction to go in. You can set goals using the SMART model (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely) or any other method, but it’s crucial that you give yourself direction (in your professional and personal life).

It’s also important to set stretch goals to give yourself something to strive for. Those are the ones where “attainable” is a little hazier and timely may be a little farther. Just think about the guy in your office or workplace that always has those big dreams, dreams that you think are closer to pipe dreams than reality. Well, those should be your stretch goals. Being #1 is hard, but someone has to be #1 and that has more to do with attitude, dedication, and hard work than anything else.

Windfalls Are Infrequent, Save Them

When I graduated in 2003, my job offer at a defense contractor included a very nice “signing bonus”/”moving stipend” of several thousand dollars. Some of it went to actual moving expenses but the bulk of it went to some frivolous expenses. I was a college kid, feeling flush with money, in economically rosy times… I did the irresponsible thing and bought some junk! One of the purchases was a paintball handgun, something I had always wanted when I was playing recreational paintball in college. It wasn’t too expensive but I’ve used it only a handful of times.

I wish I had told myself to use that windfall more intelligently. Windfalls, especially ones that don’t come with emotional anguish, are very infrequent in life and they offer an opportunity to save for the things that truly matter. Rather than spend it on a silly paintball gun, I should’ve put it away to get farther along in my house fund. While the choice to spend it didn’t derail any important plans, the opportunity to get a little ahead of the curve was, somewhat, squandered.

Take Advantage of All Opportunities

Another moving related benefit my first job offered was paid housing expenses had I stayed in a hotel while I sought an apartment or house, a maximum of thirty days. In addition to the room, they would pay for food as long as it wasn’t groceries (i.e. purchased from a restaurant). I didn’t take advantage because I was eager to get settled and get on with things. The only downside of taking that offer was that I’d have to live in a hotel for thirty days and I wouldn’t have access to most of my belongings.

Looking back, I should’ve taken advantage because it could’ve saved me an easy $600 in rent. $600 tax free for a little bit of headache? No brainer…

Building Relationships As Important As Performance

When I started working, there was this one guy who always seemed to be in the spotlight. I didn’t know how hard he worked or how strong of a performer he was, but he could kiss ass with the best of them. That’s when I learned that the workplace was different than school. In school, you took tests, you wrote papers, and you worked on projects – your grades were mostly the result of your performance. If you were buddy buddy with the professor, maybe he gave you some extra help or hints, but by and large it was performance driven.

In the workplace? It’s more “relationship based” and people who can brown nose and be “well-liked” can often shoot ahead. This is especially true in industries where the spread between a strong performer and a weak performer is very small. I’m not saying that you can be terrible at your job, kiss some butt, and expect to succeed… but…

Do you have any lessons I should tell myself once I build my time machine?

(Photo: wallyg [3])


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