Now that you have earned a college diploma, it’s time for a crash course in personal finances. This course isn’t theoretical like a lot of college classes. It’s about taking action for your own financial well-being in the laboratory known as “real life.” And according to financial planning experts, it’s a course college grads can’t afford to miss.

“Once you’re out of college, you need some kind of plan — whether you have a job with a six-figure salary or you’re just scraping by,” says FPA member Amy Jo Lauber, CFP®, President of Lauber Financial Planning in West Seneca, NY.

Here’s a quick look at the Personal Finance 101 syllabus for recent graduates:

Open checking and savings accounts. First, find a bank that offers no-fee checking and savings accounts. You shouldn’t have to pay a bank for these accounts; if anything, it should be the other way around. For flexibility, look for accounts with low (or no) minimum balances. Use checking for day-to-day needs and savings for the rest (like graduation gift cash).

Develop a spending plan. This is as simple as tracking what you spend and what you take in each month. “It gives you a sense of structure and purpose,” Lauber explains, “so you’re less likely to squander your money.”

Start stashing cash for future spending. Build up an emergency fund of three to six months of living expenses so that you won't go into debt if you experience a lay-off or some other change in your situation. Another important thing to keep in mind is to start saving for future goals such as a new car, a wedding or a down payment on a home. Also, it’s never too early to start saving for retirement, even if your career is barely underway. If your employer offers a retirement plan, contribute to it. If not, open an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) yourself. Contributing even a minimal amount each month to a retirement plan now — starting, perhaps, with some of your graduation gift cash — will pay huge dividends later.

Resist the lure of plastic. Graduation isn’t an invitation to the debt party. If you want a credit card, get one with a reasonable interest rate and a low credit limit, so you won’t be tempted to run up a big tab.

Seek relief from student loans. For recent grads burdened with student loan debts, loan forgiveness and loan restructuring programs — such as the Income-Based Repayment (IBR) program and the Federal Student Loan Repayment Program — can be a great way to get out from underneath that burden quicker. There’s also the Federal Student Loan Interest Deduction, a tax break of up to $2,500. Learn more about about this deduction.

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