After years of internships, student jobs, and even seasonal retail work, I thought I had finally “made it” when I started a salaried position after graduating from college. Within a year, I realized that getting a raise doesn’t automatically improve one’s financial situation. Without the right financial framework in place, it’s easy to start living beyond your means – meaning you’ll either find yourself accumulating debt or spending your entire paycheck without planning for the future. In this post I’ll share the decisions I’ve made (or plan to make) that will help you avoid making the same mistakes I did when I first graduated from college.
Wait until you actually get the raise
One semester before starting my first full-time job, I decided to trade in my car for something much newer and nicer (I needed Bluetooth!). It might be the worst financial decision I’ve made so far. For the four months between my car purchase and my first salaried paycheck, my car payment was roughly 30% of my monthly take-home pay – and almost equal to what I was paying for rent! As a college student approaching graduation, it was exciting to anticipate what the future. I was already working for my current employer as an intern, and it seemed likely that I’d have a full-time offer waiting for me when I finished school. But what if plans had changed? Don’t spend money you don’t have based on anticipation of an upcoming raise – whether it be due to college graduation, annual performance reviews, or a promotion. There’s no guarantee that plans or promises related to pay raises won’t change in the future. This time, I committed to waiting to make any decisions related to my personal finances until after the first paycheck was deposited in my account.
Revisit your budget
It’s easy to overestimate the impact that a raise will have on your finances. When I got a raise, the first thing I did was update my monthly budget with my new actual take-home income (after taxes, health insurance, etc). The actual increase in your take-home income is only a fraction of the raise you’re given. After accurately calculating how much new money I’ll actually see each month, I asked myself:
- Are there any expenses that I can cut? Getting a raise is a great time to reevaluate your existing budget to make sure it still reflects your goals and values. If it’s been a while since you’ve reviewed your personal finances, this is an excellent reminder to check your credit report as well.
- Which variable expenses were affected by my raise? If you got raise by taking a new job or relocating to a new city, you may spend more or less money than before on transportation, housing, etc.
- Where can my money have the most impact? For personal finance beginners, there’s an “order of operations” of sorts. Create an emergency fund and be sure to take advantage of any employer match available to you. Pay off your high-interest debt (which will also help you get a higher credit score). Try to budget as much of the new money as possible toward your #1 financial goal.
Increase your contributions toward debt or retirement
When I got a raise, I committed to only spending the same amount of money that I was before. It’s tempting to increase your standard of living after you get a raise, but living below your means is critical to building a healthy financial future. It’s much easier to keep your spending at the same level when you get a raise than it is to scale back your lifestyle to trim your expenses later. Instead of falling victim to lifestyle creep, choose to allocate your increase paycheck toward paying down or saving for retirement. If you are focused on eliminating debt, consider increasing your automatic payments to pay off the debt make quickly. The money you pay above the minimum payment will go toward the debt’s principal, meaning you will pay less interest over the life of the loan. If you want to boost your investments, start by making sure you are taking advantage of the full employer match offered on your 401k accounts. After that, you may want to increase your investments toward the 401k or Roth IRA limits. By committing all of one $300/month raise toward retirement, you may find yourself with another $360,000 after 30 years – enough to shave years off your retirement timeline.
So can I still celebrate that I got a raise?
When you first get a raise, you may feel like you’ve suddenly become rich.After years of earning a modest wage with student jobs, my first paycheck as a salaried employee felt like I had won the lottery. Unfortunately, many lottery winners end up losing every penny. The best thing you can do after getting a raise is to wait until you’ve acclimated to the new earnings. Eventually, though, you may want to reward yourself and do something fun. During my two-week waiting period since receiving a raise, I came up with these three guidelines for celebrating my raise:
- Commit to spending only a percentage of your raise. After bolstering your emergency fund, paying down debt, and increasing your investment contributions, consider the rest to be “guilt-free spending money.” Not sure how much is appropriate to spend? Consider setting aside 5-10% of your post-tax raise amount, which may still be enough to provide a modest vacation or phone upgrade.
- Don’t spend your reward money all at once. You won’t earn your raise in one lump sum, and you don’t need to spend your discretionary money in one lump sum either. Choose a modest reward that will help scratch that “I’ve got money to spend” itch, then set aside any remaining money for later.
- Reward yourself with one-time purchases. Opt for one-time purchases rather than increasing your future expenses. Buying tickets to a sporting event or purchasing new clothing is a great reward; moving into a nicer apartment will affect your finances for months or years to come.
Of course, celebrating your raise doesn’t have to involve spending additional money at all! You may be content with rewarding yourself by enjoying a long weekend with some time off from work or by enjoying dinner or entertainment that already fits within your existing budget.
This time around, I’m more confident that my personal finances will improve because I got a raise. It’s not about how much more money I’ll be making – it’s because I have a specific plan on how I’ll use it. You can make the most of your next raise, too. Wait until after you’ve received a few paychecks at the new amount. Review your budget to reflect your actual take-home income. Set aside a recurring portion of your new income toward paying down debt or investing toward retirement. Give yourself a modest one-time reward for your hard work!