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Going Back to School Takes Money & Courage (

Going Back to School Takes Money & Courage

Perhaps you’re contemplating going back to school to pursue a degree, complete a certificate, or some type of training. Not only does going back to school take the financial means (aka money) and time, it also takes a boatload of courage (fueled only by determination)!

When I was in my early 30s I decided to return to my alma mater to complete a degree I’d failed to complete when I left school at 22 (long story for a future post). I left a well-paying job shortly before I got married. I chose not to work or go to school my first year of marriage because my husband was scheduled to deploy to Iraq the day before our first anniversary. Needless to say, my priority was maximizing my time with him. I needed extreme flexibility which I wouldn’t have had as an employee or student.

The technology landscape when I left college in the mid-90s

I left college (the first time) in the mid-90s when email and the internet was just becoming mainstream. We had dial-up connections, I spent hours on AOL Instant Messenger and scouring the internet for information with “Ask Jeeves.” Microsoft Word was a God-send as we only had portable word processors when I was a freshman. Only one of my friends had a cell phone and she carried one because she had a heart condition and needed access to emergency services. The cell phones when I left school were big, flip phones with extendable antennas. Does anyone remember this? Seems like ages ago.

The pre-midlife crisis

After almost ten years post-college, I was living in NYC, working in the technology and finance industries, earning a healthy salary. I hit a pre-midlife crisis around my 29th birthday and found myself questioning my purpose in life. I hadn’t accomplished even half of what I wanted, was years behind the successes I’d dreamed of professionally, personally, and financially. It was depressing (almost devastating). So, what did I do? I decided I needed some time away from the rat race to re-prioritize my life and figure out my next steps. I could accomplish this if I quit my job, moved back home and went back to school. To do this, I needed to save enough money for my move, classes, books & fees, and then just a small savings to get me to my next city and job after I finished school.

Step 1: Figure out how to save $25,000 to go back to school

I crunched the numbers and decided $25,000 would do the trick. Now, for those of you who had personal finance and investment knowledge and discipline in your 20s, please don’t judge me. I did not. Although I didn’t live paycheck-to-paycheck, I wasn’t really saving, investing and generally lacked financial direction. But, that meant there was room for improvement and made it relatively easy for me to start saving. Here are the steps I took:

  • Brewed my own coffee vs. buying one or more coffees a day.
  • Started grocery shopping (which used to happen maybe once a month and included toilette paper and bottled water), cooking and packing my own lunches and dinners. Embarrassingly, I ate out 2-3 times every day.
  • Gave myself an allowance for happy hour and other fun activities.
  • Filed my taxes (I had two years’ worth of taxes I hadn’t filed because I wasn’t organized enough with my financial documents). Well, now I was motivated and it was time to get organized!

I was able to save $25,000 in less than eight months. My rapid savings also fueled my pre-midlife crisis. I cringed when I realized what I could have achieved financially the last few years had I been motivated. Again, devastating.

Not sure where to start saving? Try the expense avalanche or read about my experience with Digit to start saving.

Step 2: Pause my plan for a year because I ended up meeting my husband and getting married

Another story for a future post…

Step 3: Enroll in school, pick classes to maximize time spent on campus and my commute (which was 1.5 hours EACH WAY)

When my husband left for Iraq, I moved back with my parents for nine months to resume by original plan. Note, back in the day, my parents paid for my school, I chose to work (didn’t have to) and lived on or near campus the entire time I attended school. The second time around? Well, it was my turn to pay for school and I was going to have a 1.5 hour commute…each way. Why am I doing this the hard way? Why didn’t I just finish my degree when I was 22? I had these thoughts every day. But, I pressed on (with numerous pity parties along the way).

The good news was, I managed to group the classes I needed on two days (Tuesdays and Thursdays). The bad news: my first class started at 7:40 am and my last class finished at 3:30 pm. Did I mention, this was the winter semester and I was moving to the Midwest where snow falls frequently? My commute would therefore start between 5 and 5:30 AM and I’d get home (during rush hour) between 5 and 5:30 pm. And, I wasn’t getting paid to go to work, I was paying to spend my days this way!

My first day of class as a 30-year-old in the mid 2000’s: What’s this Facebook thing and where are my left and right mouse buttons?

Quick recap: When I left school in the mid-90s email and the internet were just going mainstream, only one of my friends had a cell phone, and a couple of my friends had computers.

My first class was a technical writing class that started at 7:40 am. I walk into the class and there were computers at every station. The class was filled with teenagers and speckled with maybe one or two 20-year-olds. Everyone was on their computers looking at something called “Facebook” (might have been “The Facebook” back then), which I had never seen or used (laughing as I manage organizational Facebook pages now).

I was the only non-traditional student in this class. So, I picked a seat, took off my coat and decided to log on to my computer. I was very comfortable with PCs, excel, word, data analysis, browsing the web, etc. – also very comfortable with numbers, technology and email communication as a result of my previous career. As I sat down and looked at the screen I saw unfamiliar icons. I looked at my mouse and it was missing the left and right buttons. What was this machine? OMG – it was a Mac. I was a PC girl. I leaned over to the gal sitting next to me and asked her where my mouse buttons were and she kindly explained that Macs don’t have a left and right button – you just click. What?!?

And so my life as a non-traditional student began. Not to mention, while I was walking to my second class (now there was daylight) I saw everyone on their phones, carrying laptops…what a different landscape a college campus was now. . I felt like a dinosaur!

The benefit of going back to school as a non-traditional student

After I got the hang of things and the initial shock wore off, I realized I had advantages that most of my peers did not: life experience and the drive to competently complete these classes.

First, I was paying for this experience. Whereas many of these kids had school paid for them, just like I did the first time around. I had work and life experiences these kids didn’t – I had perspective and could more easily relate and apply these classes and concepts to life and work. Lastly, I was an experienced verbal and written communicator – I didn’t grow up just texting.

My experiences gave me the courage I needed to successfully complete my classes. I realized even though some of these young adults were extremely smart and creative, none of them had been in the real world or workforce for ten years. I had.

Money and courage helped me complete my degree

Did I mention I needed a 4.0 that semester to meet my graduation requirement? Yes, this was to offset the 0.0 I received my last semester to meet the minimum 2.0 of your last 30 hours requirement. Don’t ask. I managed to get all As and earned my degree. Success!

Although I needed this time and finished my degree for myself, I also wanted to make my parents proud (even as a 30-year-old), namely my mom. She had a hard time seeing past my incomplete degree. Graduating made her feel like all the money they had spent previously wasn’t wasted and their hopes that I would earn a degree were finally realized.

In addition to my degree, going back to school and stepping so far out of my comfort zone has given me the courage to face challenges, try different career paths, and take on projects with no or limited subject knowledge. Since completing my degree, I’ve earned other certificates, learned many new skills and am fearless when it comes to trying something new and different.

Of course nowadays, you don’t have to fork out tons of cash to learn or take classes. To learn about free or low cost options, read my post about changing careers or  expanding your knowledge with a free education.

You can go back to school at any age!

The point is, if you want to go back to school for whatever reason (even if it’s been a decade or four), make a plan and do it! If you make going back to school a priority, dig deep for some courage, you’ll get through it and be a stronger person when you do.

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