According to USA Today, our generation carries an average individual debt of $45,000. With that in mind, the widening pay gap between Boomers/Gen X and Millennials is grounds for considerable worry. Our 100-percent debt-to-income ratio (given an average starting salary of $45,000 out of college) is unhealthy, and our wages seem stagnant. Perhaps we really are the “Stuck Generation,” as Forbes alleges. If that’s the case, then tell me again—why do we keep hearing that we need to save for retirement?

Sure, IRAs, 401Ks, and other acronyms might sound nice—maybe even luxurious—but if we’re not financially solvent, retirement investing becomes just another burden. Our overarching financial goal should be freedom, not oppression.

The longer we wait to pay off our debt (like when we’re dumping money into a retirement account that won’t pay out for another four decades—or so), the longer we’ll have to wait to truly become free. In retirement, we’ll end up spending a good portion of our meticulously accumulated savings to pay for the mistakes of our youth. Let’s be smart.

Being money smart requires the skill of prioritization: rank-ordering our steps to both short- and long-run freedom. Here are four steps to both avoid losing money and gain ever-increasing financial freedom:

  1. Start an emergency fund. The word “emergency” implies a lot of things, one of the biggest being its inability to be predicted. Rather than let yourself get into even more debt when your car suddenly comes to a halt in a busy intersection, start saving. Sacrifice nice-to-haves for the most critical expenses.
  2. Pay off bad debt. Back in 2008 I explained the difference between good debt (student loans) and bad, revolving debt (credit cards). Apply this balancing act to your repayment strategies: pay off revolving debt first, starting with the highest interest-earning amounts (interest-earning is a bad word in this context).
  3. Live the modified 50/30/20 rule. Though challenging, living this rule will help you more clearly separate wants from needs—and get rid of unnecessary burdens. At the very most, 50 percent of your after-tax income should be consumed by necessities (food, housing, transportation); 30 percent, by paying off debt; and 20 percent, by lifestyle choices (we call these nice-to-haves).
  4. Invest. Notice that this is the last step. After you’ve planned for disasters, escaped the shackles of credit card debt, and changed your spending habits, you’re finally in a position to plan for long-run freedom. Restructure the 50/30/20 rule: keep 50 percent for necessities, move 30 percent to lifestyle choices, and throw 20 percent into investing. Oh, and stay out of unnecessary debt.

Yes, ignoring the high-return reputation of IRAs may be difficult (e.g., if you start saving $100 a month on a 6-percent yielding account at 20 years old, you’ll have over $250,000 by the time you’re 65—over a 500-percent return), but if we don’t stabilize our financial foundation, any riches we build for the future may just go towards another unpaid, maxed-out credit card bill.

Investing early pays off, but only if you’re working with a sound foundation. Escape the oppression of revolving debt, then start planning for a rich retirement.

Photo by OTA Photos via cc

 

It's always better to have more, right? More laughter, more passion, more cupcakes, more kittens, more [insert any word here]. The same goes for internships. Two is better than one -- just ask Boys Like Girls and our girl Taylor Swift.

The bottom line: most colleges and universities require students to have an internship, job shadows and volunteer experience to equip them for the job market. Having more than one internship will help navigate your resume into the "yes" pile instead of into the trash.

As a current intern with Central Michigan University's PR team and prior internship experiences at the Detroit Zoological Society and Detroit-based business-to-business agency Eisbrenner Public Relations, I know a thing or two about having a competitive edge with multiple internships.

Here is why the more the merrier:

Experience. You can only learn so much in the classroom. Your education sets a foundation and experiences build the walls to landing that gig you've always wanted. Knowing how your field works and doing it on your own is much more promising than reading about it in a textbook.

Stepping-stones. One not-so-glamorous experience will most likely lead to something better. Each internship experience brings you closer to your end goal and a bigger paycheck.

Diversifying your skills. Each internship experience will present diverse opportunities and room for growth. The more you have, the more you can prove to employers that you have a cornucopia of skills to bring to the table.

Discovering your passion. With all the possibilities, there's so much room for discovery. It's better to find out you don't like something in a temporary position than in a full-time job. Even better, you could find that what you're doing is right where you're meant to be.

Kicking it with professionals. It's important to know how to fit in with different office cultures and environments, as well as with people other than your peers. Knowing how to appropriately address them if you have a problem or how to be friends without bordering on unprofessionalism are things you can only learn if you experience them for yourself. Besides, seasoned professionals have tons of advice, tips, and insights you will benefit from.

Smoothing out the kinks. With any internship, a learning curve is expected. You aren't going to know everything and you will make mistakes. Having the opportunity to be a sponge and take in everything will better prepare you for the real world and you won't make the same mistakes again. You may even learn how to iron your clothes.

The internships I've had as a journalism and public relations student have been priceless. I have the confidence, skills, and experience to dive into the market and prove myself.

What are you waiting for? Go get 'em.

Photo by Phil Whitehouse via cc.

Applying for college can be quite the challenge. No longer are you automatically admitted with decent grades and a few hours of community service. If these seemingly important aspects aren't always the answer, what is? As an academic orientation mentor, I often answer similar questions for families and students. And, after talking with Krista Casey, an admission's officer at Central Michigan University, I think I have found the answer: leadership experience.

I know we've all heard it before, but having some past leadership roles can really make you stand out from the pile of applications sitting on the admissions officer's desk.

So, why leadership? As an admissions officer, here's Krista's take: "Leadership experience certainly stands out to me on a student's application, and while an admissions decision is not based entirely of leadership experience it does aid in the decision-making process. It helps us to learn more about a student's talents, skills and capabilities."

Here are five questions admissions officers can answer if they see leadership experience on your application:

  1. Are you motivated?
    When an admission officer sees something like "student council president" or "captain of the soccer team" on a student's application, it is clear the student went above and beyond to help lead his or her peers. They know you are well-rounded and motivated to excel.
     
  2. Can you communicate?
    It isn't always easy to effectively communicate with a group. Communication is key when applying for jobs and it's no different for a university. Admissions officers want students that will be successful. Strong communication skills can be an accurate indicator of your potential to achieve great things once you're on campus.
  3. Are you responsible?
    While responsibility may seem like a no-brainer, admissions officers like to know they're picking students who can follow through. We know it requires responsibility to lead a group, so seeing leadership experience shows that responsibility is one of your core skills.
  4. Can you solve problems? 
    Schools want students who are critical thinkers and can successfully navigate conflict. And, it's not an easy skill to acquire. As a leader, admissions officers know you can effectively handle problems. A student with quality conflict resolution skills is likely to be successful at a university.
     
  5. Do you like a challenge?
    Krista said any student can be successful if they are ready to work hard and are motivated to succeed. Past leadership roles can show that you're not the type to take the easy way out. Students who are ready to jump at an opportunity are the ones admissions officers want on their campus.

While there is no sure-fire way to get admitted to your dream school, there's definitely an easy way to make your application more likely to sit on the top of the pile. Lead on!

Photo by Lisa Williams via cc.

So, you've earned that college degree, nabbed your first job and have been on the clock ever since. But, now you think you're ready for the next stop.

In 2011, I was in this same position. Before graduating from Central Michigan University, I had a job offer in hand as an account executive at a local marketing communications firm. But, after the six-month honeymoon cruise, I realized I didn't enjoy the work or the clients. I decided it was time to make a move, despite Michigan's dismal economy and skyrocketing unemployment. It took hard work and determination for me to earn a job offer from a nonprofit foundation.

If you're ready to jump ship, here are a few tips before you turn in that resignation:

It's easier to find a job when you have a job. Not happy? Don't quit unless the situation is truly toxic. While I didn't enjoy the work, I stuck around because it helped me continue to grow my skills and knowledge while I prowled job postings. Don't quit until you've signed on the dotted line with your new employer.

You need patience. The market is flooded with recent grads and people who have been laid off. Your first interview probably won't lead to your first job offer. I never imagined my job search would take 11 months. I applied for 20 jobs and I was interviewed by two universities, a community college, a credit union, a national construction company, one of the "Big Three" automotive companies, a health insurance company, a software company and two nonprofits. It's important to be patient while you do everything you can to differentiate yourself from the other jobseekers.

If you're sending out 20 résumés a day, you're doing it wrong. For each application, I completely revamped my resume and cover letter. I made sure that each time I was positioned as the perfect candidate. You can do this by aligning the bullet points on your resume with the actual job description. You should also show how you made an impact rather than describing your duties.

Ask for help. Reach out to people in your network (such as former colleagues, fellow alumni, friends, family and that guy you chat with at Starbucks) to tell them that you're looking to make a move. It must work because 8 out of 10 jobs are found through networking (Recruitingblogs.com).

Go above and beyond. Everyone uses a similar Microsoft Word template for their resume, so consider flexing your creative skills to design one (or befriend a graphic design major). Create an online portfolio or personal website. Put together a folder of work samples to leave behind with an interviewer. And, for goodness sake, check your Facebook privacy settings.

Searching for a new job is exciting and draining. But, when you're able to take the wheel under a new captain, suddenly you realize it was worth roughing the seas for awhile.

Photo by Kate Hiscock via cc.

Having a position as an intern presents many difficulties. There's no telling what you might face on the job; you may come across tasks way out of your pay-grade (if you're paid at all), or receive too many coffee orders at once--it's definitely a tossup. One thing is for sure though – you’re going to come across some awkward, uncomfortable situations.

As a "veteran" intern, I've had my fair share of awkward work situations. I started my career as a reporter for Central Michigan Life, interned in the communications department at the Detroit Zoo, and at Michigan’s leading business-to-business agency Eisbrenner Public Relations, and I am currently on-board at University Communications at Central Michigan University for the second semester. With all this internship experience, I've learned ways to make those uncomfortable situations less awkward. Allow me to share with you some tips:

  1. Not knowing what’s going on. If you don’t know what someone is talking about or forgot to do something, red flags will pop up. Keep a notepad and write down everything so you have something tangible to refer to if needed. Before you ask a question, make sure you communicate what you’ve been trying to do to understand for yourself.
  2. Requesting time off. It can be really awkward trying to communicate that, although you love your internship, you also love the beach. Be aware of the company’s vacation policies and try to abide by them. Be proactive: offer up-front to make up for the time you’ve missed and explain that your team members have your back (which requires talking to your team members before you ask for time off).
  3. Seeing people outside of work. So, you’re at a restaurant, and you see your boss. Say hi. The worst thing you can do is play the I-don’t-see-you-game.
  4. Drama. It’s going to happen – someone is going to lure you into the gossip trap and say something bad about someone else. My best advice is to kindly say, “I’m sorry, that’s not my experience with him or her,” and change the topic.
  5. Feeling mistreated. There may be times you are treated unfairly or disrespected by co-workers because--let’s face it--you’re an easy target for mean people. If something happens that you’re uncomfortable with, take it with a grain of salt, brush it off, and keep your confidence strong. If it keeps happening, document what is going on and approach your supervisor one-on-one to express your concerns. Remember to keep your cool and never retaliate against the “work bully.”

In the end, the biggest things to keep in mind as an intern are: be yourself, prove yourself, and discover your skills.

Photo by Mitch Hell via cc

As a student in my last semester, job-hunting is a major stress in my life. Burning questions arise, such as, “What are employers looking for?” and “How do I market myself?”

The key to landing any job or internship is to show that you have acquired skills throughout college that are transferable to the workplace. No matter what field you’re going into, certain aspects of professionalism and communication are imperative to your success.

Through your cover letter, résumé, and interview, you can focus on key messages to convey yourself in a marketable way. In every opportunity, show you have the following transferable skills:

Public speaking. The ability to communicate your thoughts and ideas to a group of people is essential to any job. Show employers you have the ability to speak publically by including any significant presentations, speeches or public speaking courses on your resume.

Teamwork. Working effectively as part of a team is an essential aspect of any career. In order to assure your future employers that you are a team player, share stories during your interview about tough team situations and how you worked to resolve them. It can also be helpful to research the culture of a company and give the interviewer specific reasons why you feel you’d fit right in.

Written communication. Whether it’s emails, news releases or memorandums, chances are you’ll be writing in the workplace. A great way to showcase your skill is to bring writing samples with you to your interview. Even better, create an online portfolio of your written work and put a link on your resume.

Ability and willingness to learn. Employers know you aren’t going to know the ins and outs of a job or company on your first day. What they do want to see is that you’ll put in the necessary effort to become a pro at your position. Show employers you have a willingness to learn by telling them about your learning process in previous positions or experiences. It's also key to heavily research the company before your interview to show interest and initiative.

With these attractive skills, you are bound to land an internship or job in your field.

Photo by bpsusf via cc.
 

If you asked me in high school what I wanted to major in, I would have told you public relations. But then freshman year at Central Michigan University rolled around and I thought maybe biology would be a better way to go.

Fast forward to the tail end of my sophomore year. After several changes, I went back to my original plan. There was just one problem: I wanted to graduate on time. That meant I had a little over two years to complete 70 credit hours, plus my university requirements.

Two years later, here I am. I'll graduate on time and I'm still in love with my major. It wasn’t always easy, but I did it. Changing your major doesn’t mean adding on years to your college career.

Here’s how to do it:

Find classes that double-count. If you’re interested in a few different majors, see if you can find a class that will count for both programs. Then, you’re covered no matter which you choose.

Avoid choosing anything until you’re absolutely sure. Take advantage of your freshman year and explore different major options. Even if you think you’re sure, wait to choose a major until you’ve explored a few different options. By jumping straight into a major, you run the risk of taking classes you won't need in the end.

Meet with an advisor. Whether you’re trying to decide on a major or have switched majors for the third time, meeting with an advisor is the best way to jumpstart your path to success. They’re great resources for planning classes and figuring out careers.

Make a plan. Make a list of the classes you will need to take in order to graduate on time and then sit down and plan out your schedule for the next few semesters. Looking at your college career as a whole will help you to take all of the classes you need in a timely manner.

Utilize summer classes. Summer classes are a great way to catch up on missed credits. They normally only last a few weeks, so you still get to feel like you have a summer. Plus, they can help keep your course load light during the school year. You can even look into taking them at a community college near your hometown to save money.

Cut the fat. If you’ve changed your major but are determined to graduate on time, you might have to make some sacrifices. The best part of college is the chance to take unique classes, which is hard to do when you're trying to complete your major in a few short years. Decide which “fun” classes are worth the time sacrifice and take those, or have the best of both worlds and take unique electives. Either way, know that graduating on time means you can’t do it all. Decide what’s important to you and make it happen.

Photo by Britt-knee via cc

Paid and unpaid internships offer students the same benefits: You gain real world experience, build your resume and network, obtain references and letters of recommendation, and even (wait for it) potentially land yourself a future job.

Figuring out if an unpaid internship is worth your investment of time can be tricky. Understanding the basics of internships can help you figure out which internship opportunities are worth investing in.

Most internships are unpaid.
Internship opportunities are everywhere, with employees always in need of more help. The sad but honest truth is that most internships today are still unpaid. However, this doesn’t mean you should disregard the value an unpaid internship can provide.

Know the program.
Ultimately the most important part about internship hunting is understanding the experiences you will gain from the program. Will the internship offer you opportunities to produce real life results for the company? Or, will you primarily be observing your supervisors work while you help out with the more basic tasks? Both of these internship opportunities can be considered valuable depending on your level of experience. By the time you reach your last year of college you should begin evaluating internship programs more closely based on what types of higher-level opportunities they will provide.

Understand your worth.
A first year college intern compared to a fourth year college intern will produce different results. While your first or even second internship might not be paid, by the time you reach a higher level of education and experience you should begin to reevaluate your worth. Think about the first job you had after turning 16 – hostess, server, babysitter, newspaper route – and think about what you were paid. Most jobs consisted of a minimum wage compensation to do basic tasks. In a higher-level internship program you will be expected to produce results for a business. At this point, you should reevaluate your worth and expect an internship program to give you some form of compensation for your work.

Paid and unpaid internships offer students value regardless of their different compensations. Understanding the value of an internship program and your level of experience, however, are key to deciding what internships are worth investing in.

 

Photo via Sean McEntee via cc

In a perfect world, we could all wear yoga pants to work--not just because they’re comfortable, but also because they’re a lot cheaper than a suit.

The truth is, it’s hard to dress professionally without breaking the bank. Sure, every college student can make it through an interview or two. But, once you’ve landed your first internship or job and have to wear business attire five days a week, it can be hard to look professional constantly without going to the mall and going broke.

I found that out the hard way this semester. After years of waiting tables, I landed an internship at Central Michigan University in its public relations department. It’s my first foray into the business world and it has been a big wake-up call as to what it means to dress professionally on a regular basis. I love my job, but I think it’s safe to say that neither my closet, wallet, nor I was prepared for the reality of wearing business attire five days a week.

Half way through the semester, I’ve managed to show up for work every day looking good. And, I’ve done it without breaking the bank.

Here are my secrets:

Invest in a few quality pieces. To get the most for your money, you first have to know where to spend it. A black business suit that fits you perfectly is worth shelling out for. Anything super trendy? Not so much. Spend your money on classic pieces that are versatile and will last at least five years. We’re talking business suits, blazers and dress pants.

Take advantage of secondhand stores and garage sales. Stores like Goodwill are great places to pick up extra pieces and expand your wardrobe without spending much cash. Look for fun, trendy pieces to complement your staples and plan on only spending a few bucks.

Utilize the power of accessories. You can wear the same black T-shirt twice a week if you pair it with different jewelry. On Monday, try a statement necklace. For Thursday, throw on a blazer and a scarf. You can find accessories everywhere and they will extend the life of your basic staples without costing a lot of money.

Get creative. Gone are the days when you had summer and winter clothing. With a little creative dressing, you can extend the life of your wardrobe to cover all four seasons. The best way to do this is by re-using the same pieces for different seasons and adding season specific layers. Think about shoes, jackets, tights and other pieces.

Lastly, remember my golden rule: People who see you have no way of knowing where you bought your clothes. If you don’t feel comfortable shopping at Goodwill, take a road trip to another town where nobody will recognize you. Don’t let your pride cause you to go broke.

 

Photo by Mike Nelson via cc

I’m sure you’ve heard it all: clean up your Facebook page (no, your employer will not be impressed with the apparent “creativity” of your Halloween attire), have a firm handshake, and so on.

But, to get the internship of your dreams, step out and take the curveball. I’ve nabbed three internships: Detroit Zoological Society, Eisbrenner PR (a business-to-business PR agency specializing in the automotive industry) and Central Michigan University’s communications team. I’ve also had journalism experience writing for Central Michigan Life. And, I worked hard for every single opportunity!

Before you nab that coveted internship, you should start in the minor leagues. Your first internship may be unpaid and involve standing at the copy machine for four hours straight (yes, I’m speaking from experience). Keep a positive attitude and know each experience will lead to that perfect gig.

Once you have established your credentials, start the application process and turn-up that professional swag. Here are some tactics that will help:

The pre-interview process:

  • Find a way for the hiring committee to notice you. With the hundreds of cookie-cutter résumés received, it’s easy for yours to get lost in the pile. Determine the company’s culture by looking at its blogs, social media channels and website. If it’s appropriate, do something out of the ordinary such as mailing your shoe to get your “foot in the door.” But be careful. Trying to be too creative could come off as cliché. Sometimes the traditional route is the safest.
  • Tailor. I’m not just referring to your pants. Tailor your résumé and cover letter according to the company’s core values or job description. Find out what makes you stand out and effectively convey your strengths.
  • Follow-up. Show them you want to work there. Sometimes a little bit of persistence is all it takes. Call, email, send a pigeon with a note -- do whatever it takes!

Before the interview:

  • Research. Know the company inside and out. Did it recently win an award? Congratulating them in the interview on a recent accomplishment shows you’re in the loop. And, people like to be flattered (not to be mistaken with brown-nosing).
  • Why you? They are probably going to ask why you are the best fit for the job. Really do some soul-searching and find out why you really believe you are the best fit. The more confidence you have, the better the interview will go, and people can identify a confident person.

Positioning yourself to land the internship of your dreams isn’t easy, but it will pay off when you get the call that you’ve been offered the position. And plus, it would be nice to get out of your parents’ basement, eh?

 

Photo by Jesús León via cc