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Financial Tips to Help You Get Ahead When You're Just Starting Out

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Remember when you were still in school, longing for graduation and the day when you could start making real money? But then, the next thing you know, you have student loans to pay off, an apartment with high rent, and mounting bills to pay — all on an entry–level salary. As overwhelming as it all may seem, it is possible to both enjoy your life and still meet all of your financial responsibilities. Here are some good personal financial management tips on how to get started:

Focus on your goals.

It's a common feeling: the sense that you're just spinning your wheels, able to keep up with bills or do what you want to do, but not both. To get ahead of that mental trap, Beverly D. Flaxington, author of Make Your Shift: The Five Most Powerful Moves You Can Make to Get Where You Want to Go, offers this simple financial tip: make a wish list to clarify your goals and therefore better focus your efforts. "Figure out what you'd like to do, whether it's take a vacation, give up your roommates and rent your own place, buy a car; when you would like to do it; and how much money you need to do it," she says. This isn't meant to be a huge budgeting exercise; it's a financial planning process to help you focus on achieving something that matters a lot to you. Break down how much you need per month to make it happen in the time frame you've set. Flaxington insists that making a habit of "pausing before purchasing" will be a key tool for the effort. "If you're able to ask yourself, Do I really want this more than I want what I'm saving for,' you'll start to master that art," she says.

Get tricky.

"I've learned a little trick to make sure everything is taken care of before I get to enjoy myself," says Lisa Iannone, 25, of Long Island. "I have multiple bank accounts, each dedicated to certain bills. I divide up every paycheck and make sure my loans and bills are covered before I get any spending money. This method has really helped me keep a balance of being responsible and having a little fun." Iannone also has a financial planning process for big-ticket goals, such as her wedding next year. "Any unexpected funds, like a tax refund or a bonus or an unexpected cash gift, go right into that account. I don't look at it, think about it, no discussion. That habit has made the wedding we want within reach," she says.

Start small, but start.

Even though you've probably heard "The earlier you start, the better!" a zillion times, socking away money in a retirement fund is likely last on your personal financial management priority list. But taking that leap can be much more painless and easier than you think. Laura Adams, author of Money Girl's Smart Moves to Grow Rich and host of the Money Girl Podcast, urges taking advantage of an employer's retirement plan or 401(k).The money is often taken directly out of your paycheck, before taxes. Start with a 1% contribution if that's all you think you can manage, then bump it up as you go. If you think you can swing more, it's a great idea to take advantage of any "match" your employer offers, Adams says. For example, a 3% match means that your employer will kick in the same amount to your 401(k) account that you do, up to 3%. So if you contribute less than 3%, it's like turning away money. "I take advantage of the 401(k) my company offers," says Iannone. "It makes me feel a little bit more secure knowing that I am putting money away for when I'm older and cannot work."

Seek new opportunities.

Meredith Hirt, 24, a website editor in Brooklyn, N.Y., shares a common lament among those just starting out: "I face balancing the need for money now versus money in the future. As a relatively low employee on the totem pole, stretching my paycheck to meet rent, bills, groceries, healthcare, and some semblance of a social life is difficult enough without considering saving and investing as well." Hirt has found one way, though, to make ends meet a bit better. "I seek out freelance opportunities outside of my 9 to 5. If I can take on a few extra assignments every month, I can buy shoes, enjoy a dinner out, and visit friends out of state. I feel that since this is 'extracurricular,' I earn the right to spend it on extracurricular activities."

Car shop online.

Transportation – or lack thereof – is a universal concern when you're struggling to get your life into gear. Getting a reliable car at a price you can afford is pretty important for many twentysomethings, but virtually everyone dreads the haggling and pressure of car shopping. That why "lots of dealers are trying to make it less stressful by working with customers online," notes Matt DeLorenzo, managing editor for Kelley Blue Book's People don't realize they can order a new car from a local dealer online, and just go down to the showroom to sign the paperwork and pick it up. Even so, DeLorenzo stresses the importance of shopping around, in person or online. Do your research and make sure you know what car you really want. Then look at a couple of different dealerships and compare.

You can shop online at local used car dealers as well, but keep in mind that can be a bit trickier, cautions Rob Infantino, founder and CEO of Openbay, an online marketplace to cross–shop, book, and pay for vehicle repair. The main problem he sees is when a car shown online has "just been sold" when you get down to the lot. He recommends calling or emailing the dealer first and asking if the specific year, color, and make of the car that you've identified is currently on the lot. "Ask, 'If I come down, is that car there?' That's a better experience than getting down there and having them bait and switch, he adds.

As you start out on the road to financial independence, check out more ways to help maintain a good credit history with 6 Tips for Becoming a Smart Credit Card User.

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