Graduating from college is exciting. It can also be scary financially. From landing a job to paying down student loan debt and building your credit, there are many new aspects of your finances that you’ll need to manage.
As you embark on your post-college life, you may want some guidance on getting your financial house in order. There are, of course, many free online resources that offer money tips and educational material, but you can also find free and low-cost services through nonprofit credit counseling agencies. These agencies offer a range of financial education and counseling services, including help with setting a budget, understanding your credit report and paying off student loans.
We talked with Lauren Matovina and Raymond Sullivan, certified credit counselors with GreenPath Financial Wellness, a nonprofit credit counseling agency and member of NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor team, about how credit counseling can help new grads who are getting started on their own.
How can credit counseling help new graduates?
Matovina: Someone who is just graduating from college is at the beginning of many exciting changes and new challenges. For many, it will be the first time they’re living independently. They’ll be earning their first real income and will be responsible for paying all kinds of new expenses that someone else may have paid for previously. Speaking with a credit counselor can help them transition into this important phase of their financial life.
A counselor can educate new grads on creating a budget, establishing goals and using credit responsibly. A counselor can also help them understand their credit reports and the significance of their credit scores, and encourage them to develop good financial habits early so they’ll enjoy the rewards for a lifetime.
Most credit counseling services are provided free. There may be a small fee, $50 to $200, associated with specialized programs like student loan counseling.
Sullivan: Credit counseling can help new grads in several key areas, including managing student loans, coming up with a budget and understanding their credit. Strong credit scores are more important than many people may think, and having a solid financial planning system in place early on can minimize stress and help new grads save money. Laying a solid financial foundation now will help set up new grads for future success.
What specific financial issues might a credit counselor help a new grad with and how?
Matovina: The first and most important task is to build a comprehensive budget. A counselor can help assess income and develop a spending plan. The best budgets account for all expenditures. This will help new grads evaluate their fixed expenses and discretionary spending.
Credit counselors can also provide tips and tools that can help new grads stay on the right path. They can help develop a savings plan and advise new grads to talk to their employer about a company retirement plan. Many first-time employees may not be aware that their company may match their contribution to their retirement savings.
Sullivan: Some specific financial issues facing recent grads include the time it takes to land their first job and paying off student loans. Credit counselors can customize strategies for getting started in an ever-changing job market, providing many resources for clients who are facing underemployment or unemployment. They can also help new grads determine the best strategy for managing student loan payments.
Those coming out of graduate programs may have additional concerns about finding permanent housing and starting a family. Pre-purchase housing counseling can help those entering the mortgage world, covering topics like fair lending practices and what to expect at different stages of the homebuying process. A credit counselor can also help recent grads prepare their finances for having children. A credit counselor can address new grads’ financial concerns and help them form a plan that fits with what’s happening, whether it’s getting married and adjusting to joint finances or welcoming a new addition to the family.
How can credit counselors help new grads with student loans?
Matovina: Determining when and how much to pay toward student loans can be daunting for even the savviest grad. Student loan counseling by certified credit counselors can provide a wealth of information. Counselors are educated on all types of loans, both private and federal, and the repayment plans associated with them. They can help new grads determine which payment plan aligns best with their goal, whether it’s to pay the loans off as fast and aggressively as possible or to create an income-based payment plan.
Counselors can also educate student loan borrowers about loan forgiveness programs and the consequences of continually placing loans in deferment or forbearance. It’s not always the best idea to postpone payments, because most of these loans will continue to accrue interest, and balances inevitably will grow larger. Counseling can also cover the consequences of nonpayment and how this can affect credit scores.
Sullivan: Student loans can be an intimidating hurdle for a new graduate. There are three major types of federal loans and at least seven repayment plans. It can be overwhelming to consider loan consolidation or deferment, loan forgiveness programs and occasional new legislation. Private loans can be particularly confusing if the options for alternative or hardship programs are unclear.
Credit counselors can help grads assess the options available to them and form a clear plan for tackling student loan obligations. Even with a plan in place, it can be hard to take the first steps in managing loans, like knowing what to ask a loan servicer. Credit counselors can offer support in making those calls to help new grads reach their goals.
GreenPath Financial Wellness is a nationwide, nonprofit financial counseling and education organization.