We're halfway through April which means that at colleges across the country, a new crop of soon to be grads is feverishly looking for their first post-university gigs. For some that quest will end in an exciting entry-level opportunity with a decent salary attached.

But in a still tough job market others will have to settle for a great learning opportunity that pays a pittance, or even worse, a crappy first job that simply covers the bills while they hunt for something better. Is there anything that can take the sting out of checking your bank account after your first post-college paycheck and being unpleasantly surprised by the number you see?

While nothing is going to make a less-than-stellar starting salary something to cheer about, financial planner Derek Tharp insisted there is a silver lining to lean first paychecks in the Wall Street Journal recently. What's the positive side of being underemployed?

"Starting your career in a lower-paying job can actually help you retire sooner," he claims. "The key to understanding this counterintuitive dynamic is the underappreciated role that lifestyle creep... plays in preparing for retirement."

Keeping a lid on lifestyle creep

To see what can go wrong if you're lucky enough to land a substantial salary straight out of school, imagine what most 20-somethings do when, for the first time in their lives, they have a healthy income to spend. Being young, excitable, and happy to be finally free of education, a great many sign big leases, buy new cars, and treat themselves to that handbag or trip of they always wanted.

A little bit of celebratory spending isn't a terrible thing, but the indulgences get worrying when you start to feel obliged to keep up a certain expensive lifestyle. This is the "lifestyle creep" that Tharp warns about, and it can easily push grads to spend more, save less, and sacrifice long-term career happiness for short-term financial concerns.

Instead, if you're first paychecks are less impressive, you'll make more thoughtful choices about your lifestyle, putting you on a healthier path going forward. "If graduates can maintain that same modest lifestyle as their income grows, they can quickly wind up more prepared for retirement than their higher-earning peers," Tharp explains.

Retirement??? I'm only 22!

To which the average recent grad will respond: "Are you out of your mind? I'm only 22 and have massive student loans. The last thing I'm thinking about now is retirement!" That's natural enough, but Tharp encourages 20-somethings to do the math (his article has a lot more detail if you're curious). A little calculation reveals that not only will starting saving earlier add up (you probably knew that already), but keeping a lid on lifestyle creep also means you'll eventually need less saved to retire comfortably.

The bottom line is twofold. First, don't be too bummed if you're not raking it in immediately after college. It's true that slinging Starbucks for years is no one's idea of an ideal career trajectory. But your classmates with flashy first jobs may soon feel more imprisoned by their high-priced lifestyles than excited by them. Meanwhile, you can build your career more thoughtfully and your lifestyle more gradually. That often pays long-term benefits.

Second, sorry to be boring, but it's not too early to start thinking about retirement. It's far from the most pressing issue in your life right now, by any means, but just setting up the basics and getting the idea on your radar can save you immense amounts of annoyance and anxiety later on.

Published on: Apr 25, 2017
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