For college seniors, the months leading up to graduation – aka, the final countdown to the “real world” – is an exciting time. But while post-graduate life frequently includes increased independence, it also comes with increased responsibilities.

In many cases, mom and dad will no longer be financially supporting their young adults. And that reality can be frightening. After all, school doesn’t typically prepare you for the real world of personal finance – paying bills, managing credit, insuring your health and assets, and getting out of debt.

To help you get you started on the right financial path, here are four important financial tips that you can get to work on right away:

Start planning a budget.

Whether you’re living with your folks or on your own, have secured a job or are still looking, it’s important to know how much money you have coming in and how much is going out. It will only get more complicated as you get older, so it’s a good idea to start now to establish smart budgeting habits.

This is also the time when you may discover your budgeting style. Some people like to jot their income and expenses down on paper, others keep an intricate budget spreadsheet and still others prefer using a free, online budget planner that does most of the work for you. It doesn’t really matter how you keep your personal budget so much as picking a method that makes sense to you and one that you will maintain regularly.

Get familiar with your credit report.

Your credit report can open doors for you, but it can close them as well. Whenever you apply for a job, rent an apartment, lease a car or buy a home, your credit report plays a role – and often a large one. If you aren’t responsible with paying back money you owe – whether it’s credit card debt or loans – you may miss that job opportunity, lose that apartment, or not qualify for that car or home. If you do qualify, a poor credit history means you’ll pay more with higher interest rates.

Eighty-four percent of college students have at least one credit card, according to a Sallie Mae survey, and two-thirds of 4-year undergraduate students graduate with some debt, according to If you have either a credit card or loan, you’ve already established credit. However, because your credit history is not a long one, your credit score may need some work. If you’ve never opened a credit card or taken out a loan, you may have no credit history at all, so you’ll need to build your credit from scratch.

Now is the time to learn what’s on your credit report and what goes into your credit score. The most important thing to remember is to always pay all of your bills on time every month. If you manage to do this, your credit score will likely fare well.

Get health insurance.

When you graduate from college, you gain a lot – knowledge, experience, a diploma – but you also lose a few things too, including your health insurance. The good news is the new health care reform law allows you to stay on your parents’ health insurance plan until you’re 26 years old. This provision goes into effect in the fall of 2010.

If you choose not to stay on your parents’ insurance or are unable to for whatever reason, don’t go without health insurance. If something happens to you and you’re not insured, you could wind up with a mountain of debt and experience financial ruin early in life. In fact, out-of-control medical bills are the cause of more than 60 percent of bankruptcies in the United States, according to a recent study.

Consider getting an inexpensive health plan on your own. Some companies like Blue Cross offer plans designed for cash-strapped 20-somethings.

Avoid falling into debt.

Piling on debt in your young adult years is arguably the worst financial mistake you can make. Some of it may be unavoidable – like student loans to allow you to go to school – but some of it is simply irresponsible borrowing.

The average college grad is nearly $20,000 in debt, according to The Economic State of Young America study. If you paid $200 a month to pay down that debt and it carried an average interest rate of 10 percent (perhaps it’s a combination of student loans and credit card debt), it would take you nearly 18 years to pay it off completely. Assuming you take on no other debt, that means you’ll be close to 40 years old when you finally become debt-free.

If you already have debt, make it your mission to pay it off. Live frugally and put all of your available money toward that debt. When – and only when – you’re rid of debt completely does the money you make become truly yours to do with as you please. There are several techniques to help you pay down your debt and stick with it. But much like budgeting, it’s less important what method you use than it is that you actually do it.