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Archive for Sunday, May 22, 2005

Real world 101

Grads to take financial leap

May 22, 2005

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Steven Davis is feeling pretty good.

He's graduating from Kansas University today, starts his first job this week and will be leaving town without the student loans or other mountainous debts that constrain many of his fellow classmates.

But even from his comfortable seat Thursday afternoon at Kauffman Stadium - as Emil Brown hammered a three-run homer to center, giving the Royals an unfamiliar 6-0 lead in the third inning - there's still a trace of trepidation in his authoritative voice, which soon will handle play-by-play radio duties for the Idaho Falls Chukars.

To borrow a call from other sports broadcasters, Davis is about to be going, going, gone into the real world.

"Right now, my expenses are kind of minimal: rent, car payment, food," said Davis, a lifelong Lawrence resident who's starting his broadcasting career in the minors, for the Royals' Rookie League club. "They say living as a college student is on your own. But it's not really, because you get some help, still, from family.

"I'm a little scared, actually, about being on my own. But I'm kind of excited for it, too."

Davis will join more than 4,000 fellow graduates expected to walk down Campanile Hill this afternoon, among the 6,625 recipients of degrees this academic year from KU's 14 schools. It's a scene that's being repeated this graduation season at Haskell Indian Nations and Baker universities and hundreds of others across the country.

And many of those graduates will be facing a strong dose of financial reality once they put away their mortar boards, open their graduation gifts and start looking ahead to the next chapters in their lives.

"It's part of the educational process," said Kent McAnally, an adviser at KU's University Career Center. "We just hope, in our field, that we're able to get to them, to educate them about these things that are coming up."

For those who may not have paid much attention during the past four or five years, here's a Cliff's Notes version of financial lessons to be learned for the future.

Call it Real World Finance 101.

Lesson 1: Be realistic

Graduates need to compile, or at least consider, putting together an honest and workable personal budget, said McAnally, whose office helps more than 1,000 students and alumni each year.

"It's a matter of having a personal budget," McAnally said. "You have to look at your salary is and what you can afford.

"Sometimes, student expectations are that - and this happens quite often with the current generation - they want to leave school and have the same standard of living as their parents. Well, their parents have worked 30 years to get where they are. These kids have to understand that they're not going to be able to do expensive vacations, and spend a whole lot on entertainment, and buy a fancy car and all those things, because they're going to have to match what their expenses are with the paycheck.

"And that's not easy."

Lesson 2: Consider benefits

Not everyone graduates with a job, but virtually everyone wants one.

Before settling on an employer, McAnally said, be sure you take all of its benefits into account. The turn-off of a relatively low wage might be offset by other factors, including a worthwhile retirement plan, low-deductible insurance coverage or other programs and perks.

"Too often college graduates become very concerned with the salary figure and forget about the other things that go with it," he said.

Lesson 3: Get insured

Anyone interviewing for a job should be sure to learn as much as possible about the company's health insurance plan, said Charlene Bailey, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Insurance Department.

And anyone who doesn't have a job lined up yet should secure coverage on the open market.

While many students are fortunate to be covered as part of their parents' insurance policies, such coverage often stops upon graduation or soon thereafter.

Among Bailey's insurance tips:

¢ For the time between graduation and a first job, consider - at a minimum - enrolling in a short-term medical plan. Such plans typically span one to 12 months.

¢ Self-employed graduates may opt for a catastrophic policy, to cover major medical expenses such as hospital stays and surgeries.

¢ When enrolling in a plan, either at work or on your own, graduates often choose to save money by opting for a plan with a relatively high deductible, Bailey said. Such deductibles can range up to $10,000.

"The higher the deductible, the lower the monthly premium," she said.

A graduate might pay $825 a year, or $68.75 a month, for a policy with a $1,000 deductible and a 20 percent co-payment. Or the graduate might pay $615 a year, or $51.25 a month, for a policy with a $2,500 deductible.

"But because he's healthy that's a reasonable risk, and he'd be protected in case of catastrophe," she said.

And while she's talking about insurance, Bailey said, graduates who choose to rent a residence after college should consider buying renter's insurance to cover their belongings in case of a disaster.

"It's very inexpensive, maybe $125 a year," she said. "For $125 a year, if a tornado blows the roof off your apartment - like what happened (2003) in Lawrence - your belongings are covered. If you don't have renter's insurance, you're out of luck."

Lesson 4: Review student loans

The average KU senior graduates with $16,945 of debt from direct federal student loans, according to the Office of Student Financial Aid. And that doesn't include credit debt, loans from parents or other sources of financial I.O.U.s

Anyone about to start paying on a student loan should remember one thing: Don't default, said Stephanie Covington, associate director of the financial aid office.

"Otherwise, that will affect your credit," she said, and she's not talking about in a good way.

Be sure to stay in contact with your lender, should you become unable to make a payment, she said. Payment plans can be adjusted to reduce payment amounts.

Loan consolidation also is an option.

The College Loan Corp. says that graduates can save "potentially thousands of dollars" by consolidating their loans to lock in low interest rates before their expected rise July 1.

Covington encourages graduates to do plenty of research before making such a decision. For information about options and applications, she said, contact the Direct Loan Servicing Center at (800) 557-7392, or click on www.loanconsolidation.ed.gov.

"It's definitely something worth considering, to lock in a low rate," she said.

Lesson 5: Think long-term

Many employers offer 401(k) plans for employees, often with a "match" from the corporate coffers. If a company offers to contribute money to an employee's retirement plan, the employee should take the business up on it.

As soon as possible.

"As they get into the business world, the first thing you should be looking at is the 401(k)," said Matt Neis, a financial consultant for A.G. Edwards in Lawrence. "I tell younger individuals: Put as much in that plan as possible. A lot of companies will match their contribution up to a certain percentage. A lot of companies will match 50 cents on the dollar up to 6 percent. They need to put in at least 6 percent, because they're just giving away money if they do not."

Another option: Starting a Roth IRA. Such individual retirement accounts allow people to contribute money that can be withdrawn later, before retirement, without penalty to be used for buying a house, paying medical expenses or otherwise getting "out of a bind," Neis said.

Investing early is the key, he said.

Say a 22-year-old invests $2,000 a year until age 30. That's eight years of investing.

At an 8 percent nominal rate of return, compounded monthly, the investment would generate $446,238 by age 65, Neis said.

Someone who waits until age 31 to start investing $2,000 a year, and does so until age 64 - that's 33 years - with the same assumed annual rate of return would end up with $396,916, he said.

"The person starting early only invested $18,000 and ended up with $50,000 more," he said. "The other person put in $66,000, and ended up shy. That's the benefit of time.

"That's what people have to realize, and it's so hard - they're going out and they're buying cars, they're buying homes, they're getting married, they're having kids. They have got to think about retirement, though. It's a crucial age."

Final exam

Davis, who's spent the past five years on Mount Oread, said he was looking forward to moving to the Pacific Northwest. He has his radio job for the summer; after that he intends to be back in the Lawrence area, looking for work like many others.

He's ready for the real world.

"Until I've been out a year or two, and been through the job market and see how much things cost and how much it's going to take to save, and set up retirement accounts and things like that, I have no idea what it'll be like," Davis said. "You're never ready until you go through it once and experience it. And you can always think you're ready, but one thing I've learned is you never really know what to expect until you've actually done something."

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