By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University
There’s a lot of emphasis on work in your first year after college – what type of work you will be doing, where you will be doing it, how to get it done – but figuring out life in this first year is no less important. And, sometimes, it’s no less challenging. Sure, you may have lived on your own before, and those are great experiences to draw upon, now. But the first year after college is your opportunity to start to create an intentional, adult life for yourself that honors who you are and what’s important to you. This is where getting clear on your core values – those things you hold sacred – will be so important, as they will guide the choices and decisions that you make. What do your values say about how you should be spending your time? What do they say about the financial choices you are making?
Your time. The pace of life as a working professional is different from that of a student. No longer do you have short bursts of productivity interspersed with periods of rest, study, socializing, or exercise. If you’re working a regular, 8-5 job in an office, there is a good chance that you will spend most of your day sitting at a desk and staring at a computer. And while that doesn’t sound exhausting, it actually cam be. Your body hasn’t acclimated yet to staying focused or sedentary for long periods of time. Nor is that very healthy for you. You’re going to need to figure out how, and when, you can build in breaks, which may look like a lunchtime yoga class, or may just be a ten-minute walk. The choices you are able to make during the workday will depend on the flexibility and reality of your workplace.
But you will have downtime, of course, after work and on the weekends, and it’s up to you to figure out how best to use it. Much like you did in college, you may try to fill every bit of downtime you have with something “productive.” You may say yes to social engagements and join a gym and sign up to volunteer and make sure every hour of every day has something in it from the time you get up until the time your head hits the pillow at night. Or, you may feel a sense of anxiety because you aren’t able to fill those hours with things you normally would, and you feel like you should be doing something. But here’s the thing. You don’t have as much time as you think you do. And, you need to pace yourself.
Being an adult means going to the grocery and fixing meals, doing laundry and cleaning the house, staying in touch with friends and family and taking care of your health by getting some exercise. If you’re going into an office, there is the commute to factor in. If you work a regular 8-5 job (let’s be honest, most jobs these days extend well beyond those hours), all of these “extra” tasks leave you with a limited amount of “free” time at the end of the day and on weekends. Something has to give. It’s up to you to decide what that thing or things will be.
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable, especially in the first few weeks and months. It’s OK to have some alone time. Give yourself a few weeks, if not a few months, to figure out your patterns. What time does the workday end? When is it best for you to do some kind of exercise, to hit the grocery, to catch up with friends and family? Figure out a pattern that works for you and your new adult professional life, and that aligns with the person you are becoming.
Your Finances. Managing your money as a young professional means not just focusing on long-term planning like retirement, which is important and should start right now, but also getting smart about your short-term budgeting and spending. Far too many young people get into debt way too quickly and it’s a hard place to escape. Staying on top of your finances, sticking to a budget, and being smart about saving now (so that eventually you can start really saving) are all hallmarks of being a smart, responsible adult. It can feel challenging, at first to stay on top of this or to save anything, when your expenses are high, and your income may not be. Right now, what’s important are the habits and practices you put into place, and that starts with making a budget.
Creating and using a budget does not have to be difficult. You have a fixed amount of money coming in each month, and an identifiable set of expenses. Take a spreadsheet – one you create or one that’s available online – and name all the categories you can think of where you spend money. These will include things like rent, utilities, groceries, eating out, and so on. Then, for several months, track every single dollar that you spend and take note of your patterns. Is there some place you can make a cut? Is there some place that needs additional resources? Once you have that information, then you can create a budget, which is the target amounts or limits for each of those categories. By having those targets, you can start to make smart choices with your spending. Getting into the habit of budgeting and making smart financial choices now, allows you to make other choices, later.
For more information on managing your time, your money, and your life as a new professional, check out Year One, our resource for new professionals in their first year after college.