5 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Graduated From College

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I’m ashamed to say it but it has been nearly 15 years since I graduated from college. I’m even more ashamed to stay that when I graduated, I knew more about my alma mater’s football team than I did how to land a good job, get ahead and start investing financially for my future. Nonetheless, spring, graduation and regret-free new beginnings are in the air this time of year.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers estimates that nearly 1.8 million students will graduate from college. That’s a lot of new bodies in the work force. Watching my younger brother walk across the stage last weekend to receive his diploma in technology education reminded me how I felt 15 years ago when I set out to find a job with nothing but an expensive piece of paper (and load of student loan debt) in my pocket.

As I look back, there are many things I know now that I wish I knew back then. I thought I’d share a few of them with you in case you find yourself, or someone you love, fresh out of college.

Hard Work Trumps Your Piece of Paper


Unless you earned your degree from Harvard or Yale, then the piece of paper you got mailed to you months after you walked the stage is meaningless. What helps you stand out, to a certain extent, in the “real world” is hard work. Sure, it’s also who you know but hard work will help set you apart like very few things will.

If you’re lucky enough to get a good job right out of college, work to impress. If there are new projects coming down the pike then find one you like and volunteer for it. Look for ways to grow yourself professionally and expand your capabilities. I can’t think of a better way to make a name for yourself than this.

Networking, Networking and More Networking


This really is something I overlooked greatly when I graduated from college. To be fair, I had not picked the best of majors and job prospects were slim. That said, it’s not what you know but who you know. I have seen this borne out in my own career and those of friends and family members.

You can beat your fist against an iron ceiling trying to get into a certain company, department or position; often, how qualified or talented you are means little if you don’t know someone who can help you get your foot in the door.

At the end of the day, despite what anyone says, business is personal and getting in or moving up comes down to relationships. Look for ways to meet new people, especially if you’ve moved to a new city as the result of landing a job.

One of the best ways to do this is to find out if your college has an alumni group in that area. If they do, try going to some of their events and don’t be shy. You already have something in common with many of the people there – you went to the same college!

These connections can prove to be invaluable as you never know who that person knows. Just remember that networking is a two way street and is not all take and no give. When you see an opportunity to help someone with your influence, take it!

Allow some Lifestyle Inflation…Within Reason


I know that lifestyle inflation may be a taboo topic, and I am not saying to go crazy on the spending. But, what I am saying, is allow yourself some fun money. Whether it’s a set aside amount of money to go out with friends every once in a while or money to buy something you want for your new home, buy it! Just make sure you do it within reason – don’t go buy a brand new sports car and then complain because you can’t afford the car insurance.

Please, please avoid my mistake of going crazy with lifestyle inflation and racking up debt on your credit cards with no second thought. The key is to set aside an amount each month for “fun” or “entertainment” and live within that. This assumes of course that you’re already budgeting and living below your means each month.

Using a credit card isn’t bad, per se, just make sure you know where the money you’re spending that card is coming from.

Start Paying off the Student Loans Right Away…if You Can


I’ve read numbers that claim that the student loan debt bubble is at or near $1 trillion here in the States alone. That said, I am sure that those who have graduated from college with little to no student loan debt are in the minority.

I know that with many federal student loans they give you a six to nine month window before you have to repay them, but am not certain how it works with many private loans. Once that period ends, you should start repaying them, if at all possible.

Many student loans will allow for you to get hardships or deferrals and should be used if you absolutely need to. I learned that lesson the hard way; deferring my student loans only made it take longer to get them paid off. In the long run, the deferrals simply weren’t worth it.

All deferrals do is tack more interest onto the loan and further delay paying off your student loan debt. I am happy to have finally paid off my student loans last year but am saddened that it took me nearly 15 years to accomplish the task.

Invest in the Stock Market as Soon as You Can


I know for many that have just graduated from college that investing in stocks is often not even on their minds. It was not for me at least. I wish I could go back to my younger self and smack him silly. If you can afford it, saving for retirement is likely one of the wisest decisions you can make once you’ve gotten that job and entered the real world.

Do a little bit of research and determine what might be the best online brokerage for you and open a Roth IRA.

Time is so often overlooked when it comes to investing that you can really put yourself ahead of your peers when it comes to this. Another thing to do is take advantage of your 401k match, assuming your company offers one. That’s free money, which is the best to receive. If the 401k plan is not very good then invest enough to get the match and put whatever else you can afford in your Roth IRA.

If opened once you start your first job out of college, then you get to take advantage of the wonderful aspect of growth. If you start now, you may amass a nice sized portfolio by the time you are ready to retire.


What is something you wish you would have known when you graduated from college? Would you smack your younger self silly?


Photo courtesy of: Pbinder

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John is the founder of Frugal Rules, a dad, husband and veteran of the financial services industry whose writing has been featured in Forbes, CNBC, Yahoo Finance and more.

Passionate about helping people learn from his mistakes, John shares financial tools and tips to help you enjoy the freedom that comes from living frugally. One of his favorite tools is Personal Capital , which he used to plan for retirement and keep track of his finances in less than 15 minutes each month.

Another one of John's passions is helping people save $80 per month by axing their expensive cable subscriptions and replacing them with more affordable ones, like Hulu with Live TV.

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  • pauline says:

    If I had known how little I would have used my degree, I would have taken online courses to learn the same things in half the time and entered the workforce early. Unfortunately, to land your first job, you do need the diploma. Then like you said it doesn’t really matter.

    • John says:

      I was in the same boat Pauline. Sadly there’s not much use for a History degree unless you’re looking to teach or go into law school.

  • Glen @ Monster Piggy Bank says:

    I wish I would have looked into more alternative methods of generating and income rather than focusing on finding a 9-5 job.

    • John says:

      You and me both Glen.

    • KK @ Student Debt Survivor says:

      Ditto! It never even occurred to me that there are jobs outside of the normal 9-5 gigs. I wish I’d taken more time to really explore my interests and find out what I was good at, instead of just “following the herd” to college and getting a degree I never really used because that’s what people “do”.

  • Jon @ MoneySmartGuides says:

    All great points. I think many college grads, myself included, expected to land the first job earning $50K plus and be earning six figures in no time at all. In reality, you start off at the bottom rung and have to work hard and show your worth in order to get the big salary.

    • John says:

      It’s funny how many of us think that. I think a lot of it goes back to that’s what many of us are told. I agree, that for 99%+ that they do start at the bottom rung…if they’re lucky enough to get a job right away.

  • DC @ Young Adult Money says:

    Great tips, John! I definitely agree with your networking tip. It’s a lot easier NOT to network, especially for introverts, but it’s so important for getting into the right job at the right company. While I did work hard and got the grades in school, I also had a key contact at the company I now work at (did not know he worked there even until the interviews were all done!).

    • John says:

      Thanks DC! I agree, it can be difficult to network if you’re introverted. I would consider myself more introverted and it just requires a little creativity to network effectively.

  • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

    All great advice, John, and something I think should be taught at every college! Thanks for sharing.

  • Matt Becker says:

    Agree with all of these points. I was also a clueless college grad, like you said much more interested in how our basketball team was doing than figuring out how to make a career. Ahh, to be young and dumb! Lucky for me my dad convinced me to start saving for retirement right away, but I’m only just now figuring out how to really advance my career/earning potential. It would be nice to know all of these things even before you start school, but sometimes experience is the best teach.

    • John says:

      I agree Matt, experience is the best teacher. I just wish that I did not like to learn the hard way so often. πŸ˜‰

  • Holly@ClubThrifty says:

    I totally agree that hard work trumps a degree. I know people with degrees who can’t get promoted because they don’t put in the effort. I also know people without a degree who are wildly successful because of their work ethic.

    • John says:

      I do as well Holly and the thing is that many will write that off and say that you must have a degree. There are many things out there that you can be successful with and still make a very decent living without that piece of paper.

  • Kim@Eyesonthedollar says:

    I agree with all of your points. I used to think getting the degree was the hard part, but being a student is the easiest thing in the world as far as responsibilities. And yes, pay off those loans as soon as you can!

    • John says:

      I totally agree Kim. I used to think that being in college was so difficult…when in fact those were the days. πŸ™‚

  • Michelle says:

    I agree with what you have said. Experience is important and I think it’s much more valuable than a degree overall. If you can’t apply what you have learned, then it wasn’t worth it!

    • John says:

      I completely agree Michelle. I look back at my Bachelor’s degree and it really was not worth it from the perspective of the money I spent on repaying those loans.

  • My Financial Independence Journey says:

    I would second all of those. Except the first, which I would rewrite as “The piece of paper gets you in the door, hard work keeps you there and let’s you move up.”

    Networking is insanely important. Even if you’re an introvert, you’re going to have to suck it up, show up, and make every effort to be social for a few hours. As an introvert, I’m not going to tell you its’ easy to network, but it’s so important that it’s worth the pain.

    • John says:

      Great point on the networking MFIJ. I am an introvert myself, but the networking is vital. It just means that you have to be creative with it plus find ways that you can do it effectively.

  • Grayson @ Debt RoundUp says:

    Awesome tips John. I agree with all of them. I wish I could have told myself that credit cards can be used for good, but have to be controlled. I would have invested more early on and would have tried to create a cleaner budget. I knew about networking and all of that because I already had a job before I was done with college.

    • John says:

      Thanks Grayson. I wish I would’ve told myself the same thing about credit cards. They can be a great tool…as long as they’re used wisely.

  • Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies says:

    I think don’t be afraid to try something different and jump around a lot. Early in your career is the best time to make those kinds of moves.

    • John says:

      That’s a great point Mrs. Pop! It is a great time to do it, especially if you’re not happy with what you’re doing.

  • Budget & the Beach says:

    It’s funny because my transition to the workforce from college was super easy since my internship led to a job with Ford. And if was always easy after that…in a sense too easy because I never developed the skills I would need much later in life and that is how to deal with hardship and financial difficulty. I was never fully prepared. So I think I’d go back and teach my younger self how to make sure I was always prepared for that rainy day.

    • John says:

      That’s a great point Tanya! Not everything is easy, even if we work hard at something. I know that I did not fully appreciate that when I was in school and paid for that on numerous occasions since.

  • Jacob@CashCowCouple says:

    John, great post! My wife graduates in a week! We are having a tough time trying to find a new job in a new town for her. It’s a sucky market for the entry level 9-5! We’re hoping to network once we move and see what we can find.

    • John says:

      Thanks Jacob! Congats to Vanessa for being so close to being done! It really is a bad market right now, so that networking you’re doing is vital.

  • Mackenzie says:

    High five to those of us who graduated during the Clinton years! πŸ˜€

    Love this post John; I graduated college 13 years ago (has it really been that long????) and every one of the reasons you listed above is spot on, especially the networking. Jeez, I really wish I would have utilized that one…

    • John says:

      Ah…the Clinton years. πŸ˜‰

      I know, it’s so hard to believe that there are people now driving who were born the year I graduated…ok I am going to FORGET I just remembered that. πŸ˜‰ I wish I would’ve networked more myself.

  • The Happy Homeowner says:

    Save for retirement and long-terms savings yesterday. Network like a mo fo. Don’t burn bridges. Smile and relax–the real world will kick your ass if you let it! πŸ™‚

  • Girl Meets Debt says:

    I wish I could have told my younger self to start paying off my student loans right away. I’m lukcy that my student loans don’t have any interest accruing but oh how I wish I could have started paying them off when I graduated 5 years ago…Thank you for such a great post John! πŸ™‚

    • John says:

      Thanks so much GMD, I appreciate it! I wish I would’ve told myself that as well. To think of the years I could’ve shaved off the repayment is crazy.

  • Midlife Finance says:

    I would net work and focus on soft skills more. It’s fine to be good at your job and focus on it, but to get ahead you need other skills too.
    – net working
    – public speaking
    – self promotion
    – improve writing skill

    • John says:

      Great point! Many overlook those soft skills as well as growing yourself. Both of them are vital to preparing yourself to move on.

  • debtperception says:

    There’s nothing I really wish I knew after graduation but I would smack my pre-college younger self silly about walking blindly into lots of student loan debt I didn’t understand, especially for a practically worthless degree.

    • John says:

      That’s a great point! I wish I would’ve done the same thing as well. The student loan debt is no fun to say the least.

  • My Money Design says:

    These are all solid tips that I also wish I knew before I had graduated 10 years ago. Especially the first one – your diploma really doesn’t count for much anymore. Experience, ambition, and personality can take you a lot farther than a degree can in many instances it seems.

    • John says:

      Thanks MMD! I agree, that experience and ambition can really help set you apart and many (myself included at the time) do not see that.

  • JC @ Passive Income Pursuit says:

    It’s pretty amazing how many people end up not doing anything related to their degree. My first job was in my field of study but my current one doesn’t really relate and my plans for after reaching FI won’t involve my degree either. Oh well, it’s experience, hard work and networking that will get you places. Along with hard work, a willingness to take risks and learn something new is very important. You can be the hardest worker at whatever you do but if you don’t step out of you comfort level it’s very easy to get stuck in that place as the go to person for whatever task you’ve specialized in.

    Starting investing early is also key. Get that 401k started as quick as possible at least up to the company match if one is offered. It’s very easy to say I’ll take care of that next year and then 10 years pass and you have nothing saved.

    • John says:

      Stepping out of the comfort zone really is vital. Having hard work is great, but if you step out and learn something new you become that more important. I could not agree more on your investing sentiment. Starting early is incredibly vital.

  • Shannon @ The Heavy Purse says:

    LOL! Great minds do think a like, John! Great post! We place so much emphasize on earning that degree, but like you said, the degree helps open some doors, but true success will be the result of your hard work, not that piece of paper. Even though we’ve been diligently saving for our girls’ college education and hope to cover the majority of tuition, you can bet before they head off to school we’re going to have lots of conversations to make sure they understand it’s true cost and their responsibilities.

    • John says:

      Yes they do Shannon. πŸ™‚ I was reading your post this morning thinking you must’ve been in my head. πŸ˜‰ I agree, that hard work and ambition is really (in general) what’ll be that will open those doors for you.

  • Edward Antrobus says:

    I actually received my diploma the same day at the department ceremony after the school-wide one.

    I wish I had changed gears sooner so that I had time to get some internships.

    • John says:

      I never really took advantage of many internships either. Looking back I would’ve changed majors and worked to get internships as opposed to what I graduated with.

  • Greg@Thriftgenuity says:

    Most of these would have been good for me to follow before school. I would add that some majors are best left as hobbies than careers. Luckily, I was able to pick up a minor that helped me find a decent job after college. Others are not so lucky.

    • John says:

      That awesome you were able to turn your minor into finding a decent job. I think doing something like that is important as it can help you be more diversified as you come out of school.

  • Sicorra @Tackling Our Debt says:

    Very important tips! I was lucky to graduate college without any student loans, but then again my tuition wasn’t as high as what students pay these days.
    One of the things I wish I had done during college was to find jobs during the summer break that related to what I was studying instead of working as a cashier. Having related work would have looked so much better on my resume.

    • John says:

      That’s a great point Sicorra and one that I really did not do myself either. Working was just fine, but it really did not help further me along in terms of what I was going to school for.

  • Pretired Nick says:

    I think when you graduate from college, you’re so focused on getting your first real job and then career moves that a lot of this strategic thinking isn’t even considered. I wish this was part of the curriculum in school so people were more prepared for the long-term when they get out.

    • John says:

      That’s a great point! I think many would benefit from classes revolving around that in order to better help prepare those graduating.

  • Nick @ says:

    Great tips John, every recent college graduate could benefit from reading this! I love the idea of allowing yourself some reasonable lifestyle inflation, but still keeping it under control!

    • John says:

      Thanks so much Nick! I agree that allowing for some of it is key, otherwise life will just get boring. By allocating yourself some money to have fun with it can really help protect against just foolishly spending.

  • anna says:

    Oh hey, I graduated just two years shy of you. πŸ™‚ I think these are great tips, and I agree with hard work (and networking!). I was definitely an idiot of lifestyle inflation (with money I didn’t even have), but better late than never in getting on the frugality train, I suppose.

    • John says:

      Thanks Anna! Yea, I was in that same boat too. I wonder what on earth I was thinking, but am thankful I finally learned my lesson.

  • Mo' Money Mo' Houses says:

    Totally agree on the networking front! It’s so important, sometimes more important than getting good grades honestly.

  • Canadian Budget Binder says:

    Great post John,
    Networking is what helped me score my first job even before I finished my education if you can believe that. I participated in the schools Career meet and greet fair which brought big name CEO’s and HR recruiters to the school. I was asked a trick question by the CEO of an organization ( I had no idea who he was) and I called him on it. I was right he offered me incorrect information to see if I could correct him, I sure did. He talked to one of my main professors to get a feel for who I was without me knowing. He gave me a glowing recommendation and he came back and offered me a job and if I wanted it to come by to see him. So volunteering and networking is great and you never know who you will meet and always be on your game because it might just be your next boss talking to you. Cheers Mr.CBB

    • John says:

      Thanks so mu Mr. CBB! That’s an awesome story, and exactly what I was thinking about. You never know who you’ll meet and who they’ll know.

  • CashRebel says:

    I think the most important piece of advice is allowing for a small amount of lifestyle inflation… but not too much. So many folks go nuts after college and start buying fancy cars and nice condos. Maybe keep a roommate but upgrade the apartment.

    You don’t hear a lot of people advising that you should buy stocks right after college, but knowing what I know now, that’s awesome advice.

    • John says:

      I agree CR, so many do go nuts and I was one of them. I think by keeping a leash on it you’ll be able to control it better.

      You’re right, many do not talk about investing in the market much after you graduate…but if you can you’ll set yourself up quite well.

  • Alexa says:

    I actually never finished my degree. I quit college when I got pregnant at a fairly young age. I wish I would have stuck with it but I have considered going back.

    • John says:

      Wow. The situation you found yourself in is not an uncommon one. As a parent, I respect your decision and know that we do whatever we must to take care of our kids.

  • Mrs. 1500 says:

    Right on! I can’t think of anything good to contribute regarding after college stuff. If I could to back just a little bit further, I’d tell myself to pick a different major though.

    • John says:

      I would’ve done the same thing Mrs. 1500. There’s not much you can do with a History degree if you’re not going to go into teaching or law school.

  • Brian @ Luke1428 says:

    “…it’s not what you know but who you know.” Couldn’t agree more John. My wife got her job in accounting because she was good friends with one of the CPAs at the firm who put in a good word for her. The days of getting jobs solely by turning in a resume are pretty much gone. Resumes just go into a stack with other resumes from people just as qualified. We need more courses in schools (especially college) on how to network, make friends and influence people. That would be an incredibly skill which would benefit a graduate the rest of his or her life.

    • John says:

      That’s a great point Brian and one that I think many would benefit from. There are so many resumes that you really do need something that’ll set you apart.

  • Brick By Brick Investing | Marvin says:

    “Hard work trumps your piece of paper” I absolutely love that because it’s so true. I have seen some of the smartest people I have ever met crash and burn when it was time to perform. The sad truth is some individuals excel in academia but cannot transfer the knowledge into actionable skills.

    • John says:

      You’re exactly right Marvin! Having that book knowledge is great, but if you can’t apply it and live it out in the real world then you’re generally up a creek.

  • Daisy @ Prairie Eco Thrifter says:

    Networking is something that can be done throughout your career, so even if you didn’t know it was important while you were in college, there’s still hope! Otherwise, I completely agree. Lifestyle inflation should be expected and you shouldn’t beat yourself up over it. You can’t live like a student forever!

  • Chad | The Stock Market and I says:

    All good points. I would have to add one on a more social level: time speeds up and there is no such thing as a time out. You are in the game and how you adapt and plan will go along way toward your success.

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