Many college graduates find that managing their money in the real world is more difficult than they anticipated. They live paycheck to paycheck, run up credit card debt, and take out large auto loans – all things that prevent them from achieving financial freedom. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are the four things you must know about personal finance before graduation, to make sure your financial future is protected:

Preserve your credit score

Your credit score is key to a strong financial future. If you have bad credit, you may not be able to lease an apartment, take out an auto loan, or refinance your student loans. And later on, it can prevent you from taking out new credit cards and qualifying for a mortgage. Protect your score by never missing a payment on your credit cards, student loans, or utilities. To do this, we recommend setting up automatic payments for all of your monthly bills.

Set a budget

You can’t achieve personal finance freedom if you’re living paycheck to paycheck, or spending money without knowing how much of your income is going to non-essential things like dining out, entertainment, and clothing. You have to set a budget. To do this, write down everything you spend money on each month – including housing, food, transportation, entertainment, and bills. If there’s nothing left to contribute to your savings at the end of the month, look for ways to cut back. For example, eat out less, limit yourself to one drink when you’re out with friends, and take public transportation instead of taxis.

Start saving now

The minute you get a full-time job, you need to start saving an emergency fund that can cover at least six months of living expenses in case you lose your job or another unforeseen expense arises. Once your emergency fund is set up, start saving for retirement. The earlier you save, the more you’ll benefit from the power of compounding interest. This is especially important if your employer matches your 401(k) contributions, because you’re essentially earning free retirement money.

Be proactive about your debt

In an ideal world, you won’t run up any credit card debt after graduation because you’ll pay off your cards in full each month. However, if that’s not possible, it’s important to be proactive about your debt to avoid getting into trouble. To take control of your personal finance, start paying off your cards with the highest interest rates first, and then work your way down. For your student loans, consider refinancing to make them more manageable. As long as you have a good credit score and a full-time job, doing so can earn you a lower monthly payment and a lower interest rate, saving you a substantial amount of money over the life of the loan.