On Thursday, inspired by Rebecca Traister’s recent column in the New Republic calling for the return of home economics, I asked readers which life skills they wish they had learned in an actual classroom setting. The results were a striking illustration of just how many lessons we learn in our first decade or so out of college.
We often get taught by experience when it becomes pressing, rather than stockpiling knowledge for when we will actually need it. Our educations were often the result not just of trial and error, but of bitter disappointment or heartbreak. It would be very difficult to actually fit some of these subjects into a formal course, not least because of differences in norms, values and finances among students.
But I thought I would aggregate my readers’ thoughts into a list of 10 subjects that anyone receiving their degree this spring, or in the springs to come, should expect to grapple with in his or her first years out of college. I cannot promise you solutions to all of these challenges — I do not think I have them all mastered in my personal life. But in the flush of graduation, and for many of you, new jobs and new homes, this will at least give you a sense of what will be coming your way.
1. Actual budgeting: If you are renting a room or an apartment, you probably know that you need some sort of security deposit on hand in addition to your rent money. Housing costs are just the start of budgeting and financial planning, though.
Lots of you have loans. You will encounter everything from variable electricity rates to the sticker shock that comes when your introductory rate on cable and Internet ends. You will have to figure out what your food costs actually are once you have abandoned the idea of cooking dinner every night and bringing delightfully bento-boxed lunches to work everyday. If you live some place where it gets extremely hot or extremely cold, your running shoes may not be enough to keep you working out in bad weather.
Adult life, in other words, comes with a lot of costs. Your first salary may feel exciting, but build plenty of room into your budget for the costs that had not occurred to you when you were apartment hunting. Which brings us to a second point.
2. Financial planning and navigating financial institutions and instruments: Harold Pollack’s now-famous index card is a great place to start as you consider a particularly important category of your spending: saving for the future. But if you are lucky in your employer, your choices for saving may actually be fairly complicated. Roth IRAs, 401(k) plans and pensions (for those of us lucky enough to work for places that still have them) all have their advantages, and you will need to pick your way through which combinations work for you.
Financial planning is just part of financial literacy. Get ready to learn a lot more about credit card rates, credit scores, how various types of bank accounts work and whether you need a checking account, even though they seem awfully outdated. Mortgages count as a leveling-up topic, but if you learn about interest rates and your creditworthiness now, you will get a head start.
3. How to read documents and understand your rights as a consumer and a renter: The legal documents around finance and housing are incredibly hard to understand. But if if you are living on your own, fresh out of college, picking through legal and bureaucratic language to understand your rights is incredibly important. I cannot tell you how many of my friends have had terrible trouble with bad landlords who wanted to avoid responsibilities that ought to have been theirs, either by state or city law, or by terms of a lease.
You have the right to be safe and warm in your housing and to certain kinds of treatment as a consumer. Do not sign anything you do not feel comfortable with or do not understand, and never let fear of seeming young or ignorant stop you from asking.
4. Emotional and stress management: One thing I heard repeatedly from readers that surprised me a little bit is how many of them wish they had some sort of preparation for the emotional strains of adult life. But as I thought on it, that request makes a great deal of sense.
In the working world, our friends have less time than they might have had as full-time students to help us manage our griefs and failures. However bad campus counseling and advising services are, their existence is something of a luxury. And most schools have some leeway on things like exams or course credits to cushion students from failures and setbacks that might be met with less tolerance on the job. Finding ways to work through your anxieties, bad breakups and awful interactions at work without melting down, and developing an appropriate sense of proportion, are critical parts of adult life.
5. Time management: I know, this sounds like grade school. But if you were a full-time student before graduation, the transition to work may feel exhausting, whether because you have to shift your sleep patterns to be on the job on time or because your schedule is much more structured than it ever was before. Figuring out how much sleep you need to meet those demands, how much social time leaves you fulfilled, how much exercise, worship and alone time you need to recharge and feel healthy, how long it takes you to recover from illness and how frequently you need to see your significant other and family will all take time.
6. Basic cooking and meal planning: This is the idea that is most closely tied to Traister’s proposal about home economics. But it is a real skill nonetheless. Buy too much food, and you will end up with a lot of wasted dairy and produce. Overestimate your enthusiasm for leftovers and you will slog through a dreary week of eating. Miscalibrate your consumption of certain food groups and you might feel listless or get heavy or sick. There are an infinite number of ways to teach yourself to cook and plan: I learned from the now-discontinued Everyday Food magazine, but the books adapted from it are still available.
7. Negotiation: From the terms of your lease, to the price of your car, to the size of your first salary and number of vacation days, it can be intimidating to know that you can ask for almost anything. It is even harder to figure out what to ask for, once you know that you can ask at all, and then to determine how to ask for it, adjusting for age, gender, race and other biases. Women of the class of 2014 may be getting a lot of copies of “Lean In” this year, but the job is one site of grown-up negotiation.
8. Career planning: Especially in the present economy, just finding a first job out of college may seem like an exhausting process. Figuring out an actual trajectory is much more challenging. You will learn a lot of things from your first workplace, but beyond the mechanics of the job, try to take away ideas about what makes you productive and fulfilled, what you can put up with and what you just cannot tolerate and how the happiest people in your office got where they are. All of this information will be hugely valuable as you think about where to go next and where you want to get in the next decade.
9. Basic home, clothing and car repair: Things in your life will break. In some cases, you will have supers who are there to fix things for you or condo associations who are responsible for various parts of your apartment. But in a lot of cases, you will be on your own. Being able to sew a button back on, patch a hole in drywall, unplug a sink or change your own oil will not just save you money, it will save you stress and anxiety.
10. How to travel: This is a luxury, not a basic, but it came up frequently. “Travel” could be a stand-in for any luxury you want to stretch for during your first years out of school. Figuring out what it really costs is a great exercise in budgeting in miniature. Determining what you are comfortable with, whether it’s the accommodations in an Airbnb apartment or the size of the plane you’re traveling in, is a great way to determine your own limits (and yes, it is fine that they exist). And learning whether a beach vacation or a trek through Croatia leaves you feeling refreshed will be part of your education in time management.