This month's college graduates are heading out into challenging financial times. It's not easy to become an independent money manager in the best of times, but it's even tougher in a tight economy. So what does a graduate need to know now that Mom and Dad are no longer footing the bills?

Saving matters.

Having cash in the bank is important any time, but it's especially crucial (and comforting) these days. But saving also means more than just having money in an account. People who save have learned to live within their means. They likely have mastered how to budget and how to spend wisely. The best news is that people with savings have options they can better weather a job loss or medical emergency, and they can often buy a car or take a vacation without going into debt.

Read the fine print.

Nearly every transaction these days seems to require a written agreement from rental leases to gym memberships. Don't take these lightly! Read all contracts carefully, as if you were on a scavenger hunt for key facts: What exactly do you owe and when? What happens if you're late or miss a payment? How do you end this agreement? Knowing the significant details will help you make better decisions and avoid expensive surprises.

Focus on the total cost.

Salesmen and lenders may try to lure you into buying something more costly or extending a loan by touting only the monthly payment. Before you agree, calculate the full cost over time, including interest and fees. The longer the repayment period, the more interest paid, which may result in paying thousands more in the end.

There is a permanent record.

It's not your academic transcript that will stick with you, but how you manage money. Your credit score is like your financial GPA for life! Calculated by credit bureaus based on how much debt you have and how well you manage it your credit score will follow you through your adult life. Over time, that credit score will affect how much you can borrow, the interest rate you'll pay, whether you can rent the apartment you want and sometimes whether you can get a certain job. Young people won't start out with the highest credit score because they don't have much of a credit history. But a credit score improves if a person pays bills on time and keeps debt at a minimum. A high credit score, like a growing bank account, means more options. Ultimately that's what a healthy financial situation is all about having choices to get wherever you want to go.

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