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For many, college graduation is the pinnacle of one's academic career filled with excitement and promise. But as a first-generation college student with little to no knowledge of finance, credit or investing, my journey from school and into the workforce during the coronavirus pandemic was a turbulent one.
I attended Mississippi Valley State University where I earned a Bachelor of Arts in English, with an emphasis on creative writing. I graduated early, in just under four years, in November 2020.
It wasn't easy for me, but thankfully I had a small savings account and support systems in place to help me make ends meet while I started the long process of looking for a full-time job. Five months after graduation, I'm making it work as a freelancer while I look for something more long-term. Here's how I manage my finances after graduation.
I got my first checking account before college. I chose the Chase College Checking account because it waives minimum balance requirements for students between ages 17 and 24. Soon after, I signed up for two credit cards to build my credit, a 0% APR card and one with an interest rate of 24.99%.
I didn't know much about credit cards, other than I could use them to build credit. But when my car needed maintenance, I took advantage of the 0% APR window on my first card to pay for the $3,300 repair bill.
The extra expense took me by surprise, and I knew I needed to create a budget that worked to pay down my debt. In June 2018, I got a job where I made $11.50 per hour. I worked full-time, plus occasional overtime. It took me almost the full duration of my college career to pay off the $3,300 balance, from July 2018 to when I made my final payment in December 2020. But I was relieved to be credit card debt free right after graduation.
I've never been someone who found it fun to balance a checkbook, but I learned a few ways to make budgeting feel hassle-free as a college student working an hourly job.
One resource I found useful was the Spending Summary feature for Chase accounts. It breaks down your weekly/monthly expenses using a color wheel-type chart. Each expense category is color-coded for easy reading. It also features your account's total withdrawals divided into sections like bills, utilities, food, shopping and travel.
I started looking at my budget breakdown whenever I logged in to the Chase mobile app on my phone or computer. Growing up, I associated budgeting with something people do only in times of hardship. But getting into the habit of looking at my budget breakdown every month helped me learn the importance of managing money even during comfortable times.
Monthly maintenance fee
$6, with options to waive, including being a college student 17 to 24
Minimum deposit to open
$5,000 average beginning day balance unless you're a student 17 to 24
Annual Percentage Yield (APY)
Free ATM network
16,000 Chase ATMs
ATM fee reimbursement
Mobile check deposit
Graduating from college is always a little scary, but as I prepared to enter the job market during a recession, I knew I'd need to pad my emergency savings. Last December, Forbes reported that for people aged 25 or older with a Bachelor's degree or more advanced degree, the unemployment rate was 4.1% in November 2020, down from the peak of 8.2% in April 2020 but well above the 1.8% unemployment rate in November 2019.
When I graduated, I had just over $5,000 in my checking account from a mix of scholarships, income from my job and higher education relief measures included in the CARES Act. My university had refunded students for expenses like room and board because because our campus was closed due to the pandemic. I lived with my parents and was still claimed as a dependent, so I didn't get a stimulus check.
Finding a job as a writer with an English degree has been challenging, but I've made progress that will help me propel forward. I started freelancing in order to gain experience and earn money while building my writing portfolio.
I now live with my partner, who makes significantly more money than me. But that's OK with us. I no longer have my hourly job, but between us, we have enough financial stability that I can focus on my writing.
We split things up fairly, according to what works for us: Our rent and utilities come to around $1,200 per month, and then there's all the other costs like food, gas, and car insurance. I allocate about $500 per month to our shared expenses, and my partner covers the rest.
As for bank accounts, we keep things separate but keep each other accountable. We set reminders on our smartphones to make sure our bills are paid on time. We've cut down on unnecessary costs like eating out and leisure activities by cooking and staying home.
I've also applied to some coronavirus-related grants, which has helped me on my journey. I was fortunate enough to get a $500 Covid-19 relief microgrant by Critical Minded for cultural critics in underrepresented communities. I've learned about a lot of Covid-relief funding through Twitter. On a normal day, I wake and check my feed for opportunities. I like to visit my favorite job board accounts and scroll through their mentions, as this is the quickest way to jump on an opportunity before it is posted.
Between freelance income, my partner's support, additional grant funding and the budgeting skills I learned in school, we've managed to make things work while I set my sights on a full-time job.
While the road to employment for 2020 graduates has certainly not been easy, I'm finding some comfort leaning on the resourcefulness I developed while in college. Keeping an open, curious mind and reaching out to other young professionals and writers through social media has kept me motivated. I look forward to being able to look back on this time as the beginning of a successful career, but I know that, until then, the choices I make now will impact the future to come.