This story is part ofCNET’s coverage of how to make smart money navigates an uncertain economy.
I’m officially a year away from graduating college and I have no idea what’s next. Work, I hope. Maybe high school? For me, college was about preparing to enter the workforce, armed with all the skills I need to succeed. Now that it’s time to start actually applying for jobs and planning for long-term financial stability, it’s pretty scary.
Entering the job market presents endless challenges, even in a healthy economy. And regardless of the debate about whether we’re in one, the past few months have shown how difficult it can be to stay financially stable during a volatile economy. Inflation is at an all-time high and wages are not keeping up with the cost of living. Higher interest rates also make houses, cars and other large items more expensive and unaffordable.
And that makes the idea of entering the job market all the more terrifying.
Older generations who have already experienced the recession may be more prepared. Millennials, those born roughly between 1981 and 1996, are feeling a certain déjà vu. Many of this cohort entered the workforce just as the Great Recession was underway, and the years that followed fundamentally changed their careers and financial trajectories.
I caught up with five millennials who completed their bachelor’s degrees between late 2007 and 2009 and managed to weather the most recent economic downturn. From layoffs and tightening budgets to career pivots, I wanted to learn how it affected them, and what skills they developed were most important to staying afloat. Each of them had a unique experience that influenced their approach to finance today. Now, as they reflect on that time, they see hard-won lessons and share their best advice with the next generation.
What stood out was the power of investing for the future, such as using employee choice programs and routinely contributing to 401(k)s and Roth IRAs. Those millennials I spoke with encouraged Gen Zers to invest early in their careers. And each of them had additional nuggets of wisdom to impart—including how to make the most of your first few years of college, how to talk about money with employers, discuss finances with partners, and build a successful career in unexpected ways.
Here’s what they shared via email.
Embrace career uncertainty and be flexible
Katie Oelker, St. Paul, Minnesota
Katie Oelker worked in the audit department at a bank after college while living with her parents, mainly to build up some savings and pay off private student loans. This eventually allowed her to go back to school to get her master’s degree.
Not wanting to pursue a career in banking or auditing, Oelker always took advantage of the various learning opportunities her job offered, such as training courses or conferences. “If you don’t like what you’re doing after graduation, or even if you do, there are always educational options that can help you in your next career,” she told me via email.
This career-building focus served her well when she decided to branch out 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 financial coach. The flexibility of her vision allowed her to navigate the recessionary labor market and discover new industries.
“I’ve never been afraid to open new doors and try new things in terms of career options and education, and it’s paid off,” she said.
Talk to your partner about money, even if it’s difficult
Jared and Katie Pogue, Atlanta, Georgia
Before they got married, Jared and Katie Pogue learned they needed to find productive ways to talk about money, especially how to afford to raise a family. The two had radically different views on financial planning, which caused anxiety. Katie said she has many long-term goals, while Jared described his attitude as “ignorant optimism.”
They have developed a routine for talking about money. They set a time limit of one day a week and slowly worked their way up to the finances. Ultimately, they were able to align their goals, which helped them make big financial decisions, including how to finance a house, when to have children, and whether they should go back to school. They came up with a division of labor where Jared took care of the daily and monthly payments and Katie oversaw the longer term planning. Neither could do their part alone.
“Once we started making tangible progress and got on the same page, our financial conversations became much more fruitful,” Jared said.
Negotiate more, despite your doubts
Sara Gifford, Hyattsville, Maryland
Sara Gifford’s first full-time job out of college wasn’t her ideal choice. However, with the job market tightening, she felt compelled to accept an offer from the company she was interning with.
“I settled for a job where I was expected to work 60+ hours a week for ridiculously low pay and I didn’t negotiate my salary or benefits because I felt the employer had all the power,” she said. Accepting such low pay in her first job made it difficult for her to move forward in future negotiations.
Although recessions put more pressure on workers to avoid asking for more pay, Gifford said that shouldn’t deter you from negotiating for other benefits, such as commuting stipends, paid vacation and flexible or remote work hours. If the employer doesn’t agree to any benefits, that may be a sign to keep looking. “If the company withdraws the offer, that’s kind of a red flag.”
While she regrets not asking for a better salary, she is proud to have taken advantage of the opportunities to network and learn new skills. All this came in handy when she decided to leave and build a career. Today, Gifford runs her own marketing strategy.
Identify your financial priorities
Adam Eisenberg, Huntington Woods, Michigan
Adam Eisenberg still works at the company that offered him his first job in business logistics. After college, he got his financial goals in order, which for him meant immediately prioritizing student loan payments — instead of moving out of his parents’ house.
“I deposited my commission checks to pay off the 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 priorities are different, identifying them early can help you make better decisions about where your money should go.
In fact, Eisenberg originally had a second job offer he was considering, and he took a similar approach when weighing his options—prioritizing what was most important to him. He decided that a higher commission rate would be better for him in the end, even if the base salary was lower. Another attractive element was the company’s growth potential.
Eisenberg said those entering the job market should expand beyond the usual job search to “make sure the foundation is there for future success.”
Budgets can be your calm in the storm
Jonathan Schrull, Indianapolis, Indiana
In late 2008, Jonathan Schrull was laid off from his second job after graduation. He was unemployed for six months before finding a new job and felt he had to delay the start of his long-term career and delay saving and investing. That, he said, cost “a lot of money in the long run.”
When he looked back, he found outhelped relieve some of the stress. “When I saw the characters in front of me, the situation was more tangible and understandable,” he said. Having a way to track his expenses, even without any income, helped him find new opportunities to cut back. It was important to look at his whole financial picture, not just his income, because “the numbers don’t lie.”