UPDATED: May 7, 2024
PUBLISHED: August 15, 2021
Furthering Your Education on a Budget

The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that the average undergraduate tuition at public colleges during 2018-2019 was $18,383.00, all included (fees, tuition, housing, etc.) and $47,419.00 a year for private, nonprofit universities. With numbers like that, it seems unavoidable that most people will leave their undergraduate education with at least a few thousand dollars in student loan debt, and possibly tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars for masters or graduate degrees. 

After you’ve spent all that time and money and are now paying it back, you might not be excited about the prospect of more education, especially if it comes with a hefty price tag. Still, there are ways to continue to increase your skills at work without spending a massive amount of money. 

Rich & REGULAR with Kiersten and Julien Saunders is no longer releasing new episodes on the SUCCESS Podcast Network, but you can still listen to the full conversation below.

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What’s the Benefit?

If you’re reading SUCCESS magazine and listening to our podcasts, you probably already fall into the category of lifelong learner, and you already take classes on topics that interest you. For us, that might be finding a sommelier class, taking a pasta-making class with friends or hands on learning about digital currency. Those types of general knowledge classes are great and absolutely have a place in your life, but it’s important to distinguish between general interest classes and education that will further your career and paycheck. 

Some professions like teachers, medical professionals and real estate agents are required to take continuing education classes in order to maintain a license, while for other professions you may need to self guide your curriculum based on your career goal and the needs of your company. There are a variety of open-source curriculum available from various universities and institutions around the web, which can be a good starting point (especially the bibliography section) for your continuing education journey.

Have a plan.

As with most things, knowing where you’re going will help you get to your end result faster, and hopefully on budget. Take some time to determine what accreditations you actually need in order to meet your goals, and consider everything involved to get you there. 

If all that’s required is giving up a weekend or two to an online conference or seminar, then the effort may be worth it for the payoff. But if you’re planning to go after a degree, you will need to plan much more extensively. Use the following ideas to help you create a road map. 

Know your end goal. 

When you’re trying to optimize your learning around a budget, it’s best to determine your goal, and keep it in front of you when you start signing up for classes. Course catalogs and seminar sites are full of interesting topics that can distract you from your primary goal.

If you only have a vague notion of how much your salary stands to increase before beginning this work (or haven’t considered it at all), take some time to do so before you formally sign up for anything. 

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What is your ultimate goal (promotion, raise, more knowledge, all of the above, etc.)?
  • How will taking this class/seminar/program help me get to my ultimate goal?
  • Is there a cheaper way to accomplish this?
  • How am I increasing my earning potential by doing this? 

Once you’ve determined what you need to do to reach your goal, start considering how each class, conference or seminar fits in. Make sure that you have a plan to get you from enrollment to graduation and think about things like: 

  • Each course you need to take: cost, time commitment/schedule and transportation time (if not online)
  • Textbooks, fees, other course materials or any required continuing investment, such as an online community or additional classes
  • Prerequisites required in advance of actual course work

Set your budget.

Once you’ve determined your goal, figure out what it’s going to cost you. Make a habit of putting money away from every paycheck into a savings account strictly for your continuing education. If you’re planning to formally return to school, the amount you will need to set aside is probably much larger than if you just purchase a book or conference ticket every so often, so plan accordingly. 

Make sure you’ve considered all the free or low-cost options before you spring for the expensive tuition or private coaching, and determine your expected return on investment so you can evaluate your success. 

Seek out online professional networking groups.

Rather than take formal classes or certificates, consider joining an online professional networking group in your industry. There are many such groups, and you can often find them geared toward specific demographics such as working moms, women’s-only groups or alumni of specific universities or schools. 

These groups can help you keep current on industry trends, ask questions, solve problems and keep you abreast of any new literature or classes that others might be using. 

Some of these groups do have a membership fee or paywall, so be sure to take that into consideration before signing up.

Look into employer tuition reimbursement.

Ask your manager or human resources department at work if they offer tuition reimbursement. These programs can be a win-win for both you and your company—you get to explore new skills and have a place to put them to immediate practice, and your employer gains an employee with an increased skill set and more company engagement. These programs can be a great way to complete a full degree or other accreditation at low or no cost to you. 

Be sure you know the ins and outs of your employer’s particular program. Some places have clauses that require you to work at the company for a certain amount of time after obtaining your degree or you may be obligated to pay back the full amount of your tuition.

Buyer beware.

It’s important to note that completing a degree or other program will not automatically net you a raise or promotion at your current employer.  If you’re going to put in the time and energy to pursue a degree, then you may need to be prepared to take your new skills elsewhere. 

Ask your colleagues at work what they know about raise or promotion chances for people who hold the accreditation you’re looking into. Does your company have a track record of promoting from within?  

Look at open positions in your field and see what kind of qualifications the company is asking for. Make use of salary comparison websites to research what people with your current education level, and those with the degree you’re pursuing are making in their roles.

Keep learning.

Whether you decide to formally pursue a new degree or certificate, or just want to dive deeper into your industry, continuing to seek out opportunities to grow and learn is important. Start with free or low-cost options and make sure that you aren’t just taking classes without a plan to have it increase your earning potential. 

Being willing and curious to learn something new—whether just for the sake of learning or for implementing at work- can be hard to find in a corporate setting. Make sure you keep that flame lit by exploring the continuing education options available. 

Julien and Kiersten Saunders, Money Editors for SUCCESS magazine, are the couple behind the award-winning blog and forthcoming book, rich & REGULAR. They are producers and hosts of the original series, Money on the Table, which blends their passion for food with thoughtful conversations about money

Julien and Kiersten Saunders, Money Editors for SUCCESS magazine, are the couple behind the award-winning blog and forthcoming book, rich & REGULAR. They are producers and hosts of the original series, Money on the Table, which blends their passion for food with thoughtful conversations about money