It's graduation season, which means there's no shortage of lectures for new college grads about the things they shouldn't buy. This isn't one. No matter how tight the budgets of new baccalaureates, some spending is required. Here are a few of the items that should be at the top of every grad's shopping list.
Go to lunch. This isn't to endorse eating out when leftovers at your desk will do. But there's great value in calling a senior colleague at work, a recruiter at a place you want to work or a mentor from a previous job and asking them to lunch. You'll build connections, gain valuable insight and show your employer — or potential employer — that you're serious. Ditto for networking events, professional designations and relevant classes. "It's not written about much, but you can create so much more value in your career than putting $200 a month in your 401(k) is ever going to turn into," says Larry Carroll, of Carroll Financial Associates in Charlotte, N.C.
Get renter's insurance. If something happens to your apartment or your building, renter's insurance will replace your belongings and may pay for a stay in another apartment or a hotel. "Maybe you won't set fire to your building, but your neighbor might," says Farnoosh Torabi, author of You're So Money, a financial guide for young adults.
Get health and disability insurance. If you're fortunate enough to have a full-time job that offers these, great. If not, remember it just takes one broken leg or unanticipated diagnosis to land you thousands of dollars in debt. Until you're 26, your parents' health insurance should cover you. If you have a part-time job without benefits, try offering to take a pay cut in exchange for insurance. If you work freelance, join a trade association that negotiates group rates for members.
Go shopping. Really. Invest in one or two good suits that will last you for years. Everything else — shirts, necklaces, belts — you can do on the cheap. Consider sharing clothes with roommates. Shop at consignment stores and scour the Internet for deals. "People sometimes think, 'Who shops at consignment shops?' " Torabi says. "But a lot of Fifth Avenue women go there for their Chanel bags, because how did they get rich in the first place? They spent their money wisely."
Get an expert. If you are lucky enough to have some money to invest, pay for an hour with a fee-only financial planner to make sure you are investing it wisely. Ask your parents, your parents' friends or your colleagues for recommendations for planners.
Get prepared. It might seem like one of the most unrewarding ways to spend money, but setting up an emergency fund is essential. Aim to accumulate six months' worth of living expenses, says Joe Wilson, a wealth management adviser at TIAA-CREF in Atlanta. You don't know when your car will break down or you'll have to fly out of town for a funeral, and it is always better to pay with savings than with a credit card.
Don't kid yourself. Don't buy a fancy new laptop or gadgets you don't need and justify it by saying they'll help your career. Wait until you actually need something before you buy it. J.D. Roth, editor of GetRichSlowly.org, remembers that he wanted to buy "everything my parents had" when he graduated. "It never occurred to me that they were 25 years old than I was," he says, "and it had taken them 25 years to get it."