Feature

As you near the graduate school finish line, it might seem that the long chapter of your life marked "education" is winding to a close. But your financial education is just about to begin.

Newly minted doctorates can find themselves in a tight financial spot, say experts. Despite new psychologists' professional degrees and salaries, expenses like student loans and business start-up costs can leave them unexpectedly strapped for cash. The alphabet soup of savings options-like 401Ks and IRAs-can be intimidating. And recent graduates don't have much experience managing their money because thus far they haven't had much money to manage.

"In a way, you're entering a new developmental stage," says clinical psychologist and registered financial consultant Rob Ronin, PsyD, whose private practice focuses on helping people control the negative thoughts and feelings that lead to financial mistakes. "It's the 'early professional' stage. And the challenge in this stage is to begin to think about the needs of the future, like retirement, while also taking care of your needs in the present, like paying back student loans."

Below, Ronin and certified financial consultant Athena Chang offer some tips to help ease the transition.

Define your financial goals

Too many young people, Ronin says, make the mistake of simply stashing whatever money they think they can afford into savings, without any particular plan or goals in mind. "They just hope that someday, it'll be enough," Ronin says.

For some people, he adds, the resistance to drawing up a financial plan stems not from laziness but from anxiety: "There's a fear that the reality will be scary."

New workers can conquer that fear, he suggests, by thinking about what they're saving money for, and how much they'll really need 20, 30 or 40 years in the future.

"If your goal is to retire at 45, that's very different than if your goal is to retire at 75," he says. A good financial planner, he adds, can help you define those goals and figure out how to meet them.

Chang, of McLean Asset Management in McLean, Va., agrees that even people without much money to invest can benefit from professional advice. She advises recent graduates to seek out an independent planner not associated with a particular product or investment. A "fee-only" planner-one who is paid by the hour rather than receiving a commission for selling a particular product-is the best bet for objective advice, she says.

Dealing with debt

For many students and recent graduates, the biggest money stressor is debt: Student loans and credit card payments can seem insurmountable.

Ronin's general advice for people with multiple sources of debt-such as student loans and multiple credit cards-is to attack the smallest debt first. Pay the minimum balance on all the others, and then put any extra money toward the smallest, eliminating them one by one. There are two reasons for this, he says. First, smaller debts usually have higher interest rates. Also, getting rid of even a single debt can be empowering.

"It shows progress is possible," he says.

Finally, Ronin says, don't put yourself deeper into debt than you have to. "Sometimes," he notes, "people have the sense that 'I'm out of grad school, I need to reward myself by buying a home or a car.'"

Generally speaking, he says, before you stretch to make those major purchases, you should have all significant debts paid off.

If that's not possible, he adds, the next best thing is to talk to a financial planner or someone else who can help you figure out what you can afford to buy, while still paying off student loans and saving for retirement. But, Ronin says, few people are that disciplined.

"Instead, people get out of grad school and they buy the most expensive house that they can get a loan for," he says. "Then they've obligated themselves to a huge mortgage, and when unexpected things come up there's simply no money."

Save, don't spend

With all those debts to pay back, does it really make sense to start trying to save for retirement right away? Absolutely, says Chang. "The biggest mistake people make is to underestimate the importance of saving when you're young," she explains. "The earlier you start saving, the more your money grows. Money generates money."

Ronin concurs, saying that many people don't develop an "emotional awareness" of the need to save for retirement until well into their 40s-and so miss out on decades when their savings could have accumulated.

As a general guideline, Chang says, many experts recommend that young workers try to put about 10 percent of their earnings into retirement savings-although the exact number is different for everyone and depends on individual circumstances. Then, as workers get older and closer to retirement, that percentage can increase.

If you can save 800 dollars per month for 20 years, and invest it at the long-term stock market rate of 11.5 percent, you'll have a quarter of a million dollars, Ronin points out.

Planning for retirement early is particularly key, he says, for psychologists in private practice, who don't have an employer offering 401K plans and matching funds.

"Many psychologists in private practice kind of live in denial about what their retirement needs will be," he says, noting that most experts suggest that people need about 75 percent of their pre-retirement income to live on once they retire.

But even psychologists who are university or government employees-who may in the past have relied on pensions in retirement-need to take responsibility for their own future, he adds: "Our country as a whole is moving from defined pension benefits where the employer pays the pension to plans where the employee is responsible for creating their own nest egg, and at 65 they're on their own. So more than ever, people really need to think about saving early."