Whether it's a $30,000 salary or $130,000, your first "real job" is probably the biggest income change you'll experience. Sure we'll get gradual raises here and there, and maybe even a major promotion or two, but going from an income of nothing to a full time salary is quite a jump.

As a result, managing your first few paychecks can be difficult. It's easy to overestimate disposable income and end up spending money on things you really can't afford. Rent, food, loan payments, and other necessities are obvious items to add to your budget, but there are other essential expenses you might not realize.

Emergency Savings
Bad things happen to good people. That's just the way life goes, so you need to prepare for the worst. Layoffs, car accidents, unexpected illnesses; whatever the case, you should have between 3-6 months of living expenses saved to prepare for life's unexpected expenses. It may seem unattainable at first, but saving a little bit at a time will help you reach it. And, once you have 3-6 months of your living expenses safely stored in your savings account, you'll sleep a little better at night.

401K / Retirement
When you're twenty three years old it's hard to grasp the concept of retirement. Why should you save for forty years from now if you're already struggling with money today? Shouldn't you get out of debt first, and then start to save?

Although that might make sense to you, it's not making cents for you. Your early 20s are a crucial component to your retirement saving. Saving even a little now can make a big difference later. If you start saving $1,500 a year at 24 in an IRA, you'll have around $340,000 at 65. However, if you wait until you're 34 to start; you'll have about $164,000--less than half the money.

Christmas / Vacation Club Account Savings
The holiday season falls at the same time every year, yet somehow people still seem to find themselves drowning in debt by the New Year. Instead of waiting until the last minute and swiping your credit card to cover holiday costs, set aside a few dollars every payday.

$20 a month adds up to $240 by the holidays (saving for 12 months starting in January), which can make a huge difference. Some credit unions even offer a designated Christmas Club Account that earns interest. The same concept goes for a vacation, wedding, or any major purchase in your future. If you know it's coming, start saving now.

Spending Money
It takes a few months, at least, into your first job to get a true grasp of your budget. Patience is key. Don't over estimate your disposable income off the bat and start making impulsive purchases--they might come back to haunt you. Just because your checking account balance is starting to grow, it doesn't mean you need to spend it.

On the flip side, don't limit yourself entirely either. It's human nature to seek enjoyment, so you should reward yourself from time to time. Just make sure you're rewarding yourself with money you don't need elsewhere.

Making smart financial decisions in your 20s will set precedent for your future. Having patience and understanding long term goals are two skills you need to work toward, and the earlier you learn, the stronger your financial future will be.

Photo by John Lambert Pearson via cc. Image was cropped. 

When I finally got to the point where I could start saving some money, I had visions of a steady flow of income from interest payments. So I started shopping for the best rates -- boy, was I given a rude awakening. Savings accounts paying 0.5% interest ; money markets at 0.9%; and CDs not too much better at 1.1% and maybe as high as 3% if I agree to lock up my money for FIVE YEARS. I was looking down the barrel of turning that $1,000 into $1,005 through a savings account after a year -- and that was before any fees. So I started looking for something better.

I found some research suggesting over 60% of the total return in the stock market over the past 20 years has come in the form of dividends, not just the stock price going up. I had to get on this train. How did I find some good ones?

Dividend Yield
The dividend yield is dividend per share paid divided by the current share price. So, if a company pays $1.00 per share dividend per year and is worth $20, the yield would be 5%. That is TEN TIMES more than a savings account can offer -- worth the risk if you ask me.

Historical Dividend Payments
I leaned towards companies that had lengthy histories -- decades -- of paying dividends to shareholders. I even came across Dividend Aristocrats -- major companies that have increased their dividend for 25 or more consecutive years. Nice!

Low Payout Ratio
This is the dividend per share divided by the company's earnings per share. If a company earned $2 per share and had a $1 per share dividend, that is a 0.5 or 50% payout ratio -- this suggested that there was still room for the dividend to grow and had some margin for error if they had a bad year.

Heeded Too Good To Be True
A search for stocks with the highest dividends brings you some very interesting results -- companies with 10% and higher dividend yields. These can be good investments but can also be very speculative investments. I stayed away from these.

A big pharmaceutical manufacturer caught my eye. The stock was around $25 and paid $1.28 per share of dividends -- a whopping 5.1% yield. I was feeling good. But then, they cut the dividend in half and the stock price fell as low as $15 - ouch. I nearly panicked but remembered my strategy -- I wanted that safe, dividend income. So, what did I do at $15? I bought more. A 64 cent per year dividend at $15 stock was a 4.3% yield -- not bad. A few years later, the stock has doubled in price from those lows and the dividend is now $0.96 per year -- and some analysts think another dividend raise is in the works. The shares I bought at $15? Well, I am earning a 6.4% return on those shares I bought at those levels. Sure, the stock goes up and down each day, but each quarter, the checks keep rolling in. Sure beats a savings account.

There may be more opportunity with dividends than with straight interest bearing accounts, but obviously there's also more risk as well. This isn't the smart move for everyone, but it's an option that's sometimes overlooked for growing your money.

Photo by Simon Cunningham via cc. Image was cropped.

I remember in college hearing friends say, "I can go out tonight; my student loan refund just came through." At the time, I thought nothing of it-- I even had a boyfriend wait for his student loan money to come through to take me out on a date. To us, a $5,000 loan payment hitting your bank account was just that: $5,000. Who cares what you spend it on? Nice restaurants, new clothes- a big TV; it doesn't matter.

Except that it does. Because student debt carries substantial principal and interest payments, it should only be used for its intended purposes--books, school supplies, groceries, rent, utilities, to name a few. It isn't money that should be spent on frivolous expenses, or unrelated activities. Instead, "fun" money needs to come from a job.

For one, if students aren't careful they can wind up unable to afford an actual educational expense because they wasted their student loans on unrelated activities. Also, that new television or weekly restaurant outing with friends may seem like an easy purchase at the time, but it's going to cost you a lot more over time. Why? Interest.

Think about it like this: Let's say you use funds from your student loans to go out to eat throughout your four years of college. On average you spend $40 a month, so around $500 a year and $2,000 for your college career. Look at the difference $2,000 more can make on your monthly payment and total interest paid:

Loan Balance: $20,000
Interest Rate: 6.8%
Loan Term: 10 years
Monthly Payment: $230.16
Total Interest Paid: $7,619.31

Loan Balance: $22,000
Interest Rate: 6.8%
Loan Term: 10 years
Monthly Payment: $253.18
Total Interest: $8,381.04

In a sense, those nights out to eat with friends cost over $750 in interest. That's a lot of money, and for students spending more than $40 a month, it only gets bigger. Or, let's say you're only able to afford a monthly payment of $200. It will take you an additional 2 plus years to pay off the $22,000 than it will to pay back a $20,000 loan.

Students are notorious for taking out more loans than they truly need, and they end up paying for it-- quite literally. You should only use your student loans to fund what you need for your education; everything else should be paid for by money you make from a part time job, etc. No one is there to monitor how you spend this money, except you. So save yourself from the unnecessary debt so many college grads have to deal with, and make smart decisions with your loans.

Photo by Denise Carrasco via cc. Image was cropped.

Finding the right job is an art and it takes you to know yourself and what you like and what you want. Often people search for jobs in their field without paying mind whether the job will fit their needs or lifestyle. Few people have the luxury to turn down a job opportunity, especially how the economy has been. But during a job search it’s important to search for employment in companies that you will be comfortable in. After college graduation, I searched and applied for jobs at every company that had an opening and ended up with jobs that I liked and didn’t like. However, I learned a lot about the atmospheres within different sized companies and all of them have perks and downsides depending on what kind of job that can get close to fitting your lifestyle.

Working from Home
If you are a freelancer or contractor or own your own business, working from home can be a wonderful opportunity or it can be someone’s downfall. A couple of years ago, I worked as a freelance publicist to a small, one-person company. It wasn’t until I started working for her that I realized I didn’t enjoy working from home, sitting at my computer, and sending promotional emails all day. I was happiest interacting with coworkers and customers face-to-face. Also, if you want any kind of success working from home, you have to have excellent time management skills and the keen ability to keep from procrastinating. However, for people who have young children or who just enjoy freedom, working from home can be a viable option.

The Big Corporation (5000 or more employees)
People who prefer to work nine to five, want their weekends off, and like a set structure will enjoy working at a larger company. When working for a company with a lot of employees you end up being exposed to many different points of view and meeting a variety of people. A higher salary, better benefits, and a retirement plan can be a perk as well. However, when I worked for a large corporation, I felt insignificant among so many people, and I had fewer opportunities to stand out and have my work recognized.

The Small Startups (5-9 employees)
Every job has its boring spells and startups are no exception, but often there is more variety and there is a certain level of exhilaration when a small group of people work toward a common goal of creating a successful company. Startups are fast-paced and they require flexibility and adaptability; you are always on your toes and must be ready to find a solution to any setback. I’ve learned more working for a startup than I ever did in any of my other jobs. I may not get paid as well as I did when I worked for a larger company, but I make a large contribution to the success of the company with my diligence and skills.

Everyone is different when it comes to job preference and when looking for a job it’s best to ask yourself what job will fit your lifestyle the best. Do you want a higher salary or are you willing to sacrifice a higher salary for better experience and skill building? Are you willing to work on the weekends or do you want a job with set hours so you can have time for other things? Do you like the idea of a small company or a large company? Are work relationships a necessity for you? Do you prefer working alone at home or at an office in a team? No job can fit all of your needs, but the size of a company can play a large part in helping you find the right job for your lifestyle.

Photo by Calita Kabir via cc

Imagine having a job where you are in complete control. You set your own hours, make as much money as you want and get to do what you love! This might sound too good to be true, but it is possible to take charge of your life when you start a business, whether it is a consulting firm, landscaping service or restaurant. No matter what your age or bank account, the sky’s the limit, and starting your own business is easier than you think. Maybe that’s why there are nearly 28 million small businesses in the United States. Yours could be next – start with these three steps:

1. Identify your dream job or business.
The best advice I’ve ever gotten is “do what you know,” so think about the things you know better than anyone else. What strengths, skills or talents do you have? What interests you (e.g., animals, technology, numbers, food, shopping, entertainment, etc.)? Do you like working with people or do you prefer to work solo? Do you like making things or would you rather serve others in some way? If you could start any business, what would it be?

Do some brainstorming with friends and family or visit your local community college to do a skills assessment to get ideas. At this stage, don’t limit yourself by potential obstacles like time commitments or funding. Consider every possibility, and envision yourself being successful. Which business idea stands above all the others?

If you need some motivation or want someone to help you along the way, there are lots of free resources available. Contact your local SCORE chapter, the small business development center in your community or the Small Business Administration (SBA) for articles on everything from deciding if starting a business is right for you to how to choose the appropriate legal structure.

2. Create a workable plan to make your dream a reality.
It's time to transform your idea into a viable business. The steps you need to take will depend on what type of business you start. For example, opening a coffee shop will have different steps than starting a consulting business. For professional advice, you can turn to SCORE, the SBDC or SBA. For real, front-line experience though, talk to anyone you know who owns a business – maybe your parents, an entrepreneurial friend who started a business in college, or your next door neighbor who started a side business when he retired.

The SBA lists 10 steps to starting a business including writing business and marketing plans, choosing a location (unless it is a home-based business), getting appropriate licenses and permits, etc. In addition, think about the timing of your business. If you already have a full-time job, you might not be able to start your business right away. The income from your current job, however, can provide you with some financial stability while you work out the details of your plan. For example, you could start your business on the side, working evenings and weekends, to work through the obstacles. Think low risk.

3. Fund and launch the dream.
Now that you’ve figured out what type of business you want to begin and have created a plan for starting it, it is time to jump in and make it happen! Depending on the business, this might involve securing funding from outside sources. If you are offering a service such as bookkeeping, landscaping or dog walking, overhead will probably be minimal, so you may not need outside financing. For larger businesses like a retail store or a restaurant, you may want to explore loans, grants and other funding sources. The SBA offers a lot of great resources to help you explore different funding options.

Once you’ve secured funding and have executed your step-by-step business plan, you are ready to open for business. Shout your news from the rooftops. With your marketing plan in place, tell everyone you know about your new business – ask friends and family to support your new venture, share the news on social media, advertise and host an open house to celebrate!

Sounds pretty good, huh? Are you ready to start your own business? In an entrepreneurial economy with countless resources, you are only limited by your drive and your imagination. Go for it!

Photo by Marcus Embra via cc. Image was cropped.

My 11 year old earned about $200 of dividends last year. She got there by her loving dad investing a few dollars every month into stocks via Direct Stock Purchase Programs (DSPPs). I have been using them for years to build an investment portfolio for myself and my girls. Despite not being a financial professional (ahem, disclaimer), it is where I tell nearly everyone to start if they are looking to get into investing.

What are they?
The name pretty much gives it away. Rather than buying shares in the open market via a stock broker, you buy shares of stock directly from the company.

Why do I like them?

  • Many recognizable names offer DSPPs. 
    For starters, you will feel more comfortable plunking your cash into a company you see every day driving down the street versus one that you have never heard of.
  • Low fees and commissions, if any. 
    DSPPs often have very low fees or are sometimes even free to participate in and to buy shares. This means that more of your cash goes towards buying actual shares versus paying big commissions.
  • Invest automatically every month. 
    You have heard it before – you have to keep saving. Most DSPPs feature the option to deduct funds from your bank every month and automatically buy shares. Some even offer small discounts off the stock’s regular selling price when you do automatic investments.
  • Full investment of your cash & dividends. 
    Good news, there are low initial purchase requirements – sometimes as low as $25. And every dollar you invest goes towards shares. If a stock is at $30 and you invest $50, you’ll have 1.67 shares. Those little fractional shares can add up quite nicely over time.
  • Easy access to your funds, but not TOO easy. 
    In a DSPP, when you need your funds, it may take a few business days to actually get the cash into your hands. That small obstacle to make a withdrawal from your DSPP may be the deterrent you need to keep your funds invested versus blowing it all on hats on a whim.
  • Information comes the good old-fashioned way – snail mail. 
    Read – read – read. If you don’t learn about the business you are investing in by reading their reports, press releases and filings, you’re going to have a bad time (as a certain South Park ski instructor would say). The colorful annual reports you get in the mail will be harder to ignore and easier to pick up instead of an email that gets lost in your inbox.

How do I get started?
Think about a big name or business – maybe your favorite fast food joint or department store. Maybe you have some warm, fuzzy feelings about your cell phone provider? Most offer DSPPs. You can usually find details in the investor relations portion of their web site. Spend some time reviewing any minimums, fees and most importantly, the merits of the investment you are about to make – and if the investment is right for you, you’re on your way to having your first investment portfolio.

Photo by OTA Photos, tradingacademy.com, via cc. Was cropped.

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.