This is part of the storyCNET’s coverage of how to make smart money in an uncertain economy.
I am officially a year away from graduating college and I have no idea what lies ahead. A job, hopefully. Graduate school, maybe? For me, college is preparing to enter the workforce, arming me with all the skills I need to succeed. Now is the time to start applying for jobs and planning for long-term financial stability, which is pretty scary.
Even in a healthy economy, entering the job market comes with endless challenges. And talk that we are one regardless, the past few months have demonstrated how difficult it is to stay financially stable during a shaky economy. Inflation is at historic highs and wages are not keeping up with the cost of living. Higher interest rates make houses, cars and other big-ticket items more expensive and inaccessible.
And that makes the idea of entering the job market all the more terrifying.
Older generations who have already lived through the recession may be more prepared. Millennials, those born roughly between 1981 and 1996, are experiencing some deja vu. Many in this cohort entered the job market just as the Great Recession was underway, and the years that followed changed their career paths and economic trajectories in important ways.
I caught up with five millennials who completed their undergraduate studies between late 2007 and 2009 and managed to navigate the last recession. From layoffs and tightening budgets to career pivots, I want to know how they’ve been affected and what skills they’ve developed to stay afloat. Each had a unique experience that affected their financial approach today. Now, as he reflects on that time, he sees the hard-won lessons and shares his best advice with the next generation.
The power of investing for the future, such as taking advantage of employee-match programs and routinely contributing to 401(k)s and Roth IRAs, stood out. All the millennials I spoke to encouraged Gen Zers to invest early in their careers. And they had more nuggets of wisdom to pass on to us — including how to make the most of the first few years out of college, how to talk money with employers, discuss finances with partners, and build a successful career in unexpected ways.
Here’s what he shared via email.
Accept and adapt to career uncertainty
Katie Olker, St. Paul, Minnesota
Katie Olker worked in the accounting department of a bank after college while living with her parents, mainly to build some savings and pay off private student loans. That eventually allowed him to return to school to earn his master’s degree in education.
Since Olker did not want to pursue a career in banking or accounting, he always took advantage of different learning opportunities offered through his job, such as training sessions or conferences. “If you don’t like what you’re doing with a master’s degree, or even if you do, there are always educational opportunities that can help you further your career down the line,” he told me via email.
That career-building focus came in handy when he decided to pivot again, this time to become a certified business education instructor. After teaching courses ranging from personal finance to marketing at two different high schools, she now runs her own business as a freelance writer and money coach. Having flexibility in her vision allowed her to navigate the recessionary job market and explore new industries.
“I’ve never been afraid to open new doors and try something new when it comes to career and educational opportunities, and it has paid off,” she said.
Talk to your partner about money, even if it’s difficult
Jared and Katie Pogue, Atlanta, Georgia
Before getting married, Jared and Katie Pogue learned that they needed to find productive ways to talk about money, especially how to build a family. Both had different views on economic planning, which caused anxiety. Katie had many long-term goals, but Jared described his approach as “ignorant optimism.”
He developed a routine to talk about money. He set aside one day a week and slowly worked through his finances. They were finally able to set their goals, which helped them make big financial decisions, like how to finance a home, when to have children, and whether they should go back to school. They came up with a division of labor, with Jared taking care of the daily and monthly payments and Katie taking care of the more long-term planning. No one could play their role alone.
“Once we started making tangible progress and got on the same page, our financial conversations became more fruitful,” Jared said.
Negotiate for more despite your doubts
Sarah Gifford, Hatsville, Maryland
Sarah Gifford’s first full-time job out of college was not her ideal choice. But with the labor market tightening, she felt compelled to accept an offer from the company where she had interned.
“I settled for a job where I was expected to work 60-plus hours a week for laughably low pay, and I didn’t negotiate my salary or benefits because I thought the employer had all the power,” she said. Accepting such low compensation at her first job made it difficult to advance her salary standards in future negotiations.
Although recessions put more pressure on workers to avoid asking for higher wages, Gifford said that shouldn’t discourage you from negotiating other benefits, such as travel stipends, paid vacation and flexible or remote work hours. If the employer doesn’t agree to any perks, it could be a sign that they’re watching. “If the company pulls the offer, that’s such a red flag.”
Although she regrets not asking for a better salary, she is proud that she took advantage of the opportunities to network and learn new skills. Everything came in handy when she decided to quit and build her career. Today Gifford runs her own marketing strategy company.
Identify your money priorities
Adam Eisenberg, Huntington Woods, Michigan
Adam Eisenberg still works for the company that gave him his first job in sales logistics. After college, he got his money goals in order, which included immediately prioritizing payments toward his student loans — rather than moving out of his parents’ house.
“I put my commission checks to pay off my debt. It took four years to do it, and I lived in my parents’ house for the first three, but it was worth it.” While everyone’s preferences are different, identifying them early can help you decide where your money should go.
In fact, Eisenberg originally had a second job offer he was considering and took a similar approach when comparing his options — he prioritized the one that mattered most to him. They decided that a higher commission rate, even if the base salary was lower, was ultimately more beneficial to them. Another attractive factor is the company’s growth potential.
Those entering the job market should extend beyond their usual job search to “make sure they have a foundation for future success,” Eisenberg said.
Budgets can be your calm in the storm
Jonathan Skrull, Indianapolis, Indiana
In late 2008, Jonathan Skrull was fired from his second job after graduating. He was unemployed for six months before securing a new job and felt he had to postpone starting his long-term career and delay saving and investing. That, he says, will cost “a lot of money in the long run.”
Looking back, he found itHelped relieve some stress. “Looking at the figures in front of me the situation is much clearer and easier to understand,” he said. Even with no income, having a way to track his expenses helped him find new opportunities to reduce his expenses. Looking at their entire financial picture is not just income, because “the numbers don’t lie.”