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Karen BarnettEasing the Transition: Financial Strategies for Returning to School

by Karen Barnett

After ten years of a professional career obtained with my four-year degree, I decided to go back to school and reinvent myself. The career path I was on was limited and I felt the subtle, yet constant urging to expand my options. One thing to my advantage was living in a large, metropolitan area with an excellent university practically in my own backyard. This made the commute and logistics of travel and attending classes a cinch. What was not so simple was the adjustment of going from a salaried position to making ends meet on financial aid overnight. In order for me to pursue the graduate program I chose, I had to give up my full-time job, changing my income and lifestyle drastically.

The motivation to not let this deter me was rooted in the fact that I would wind up with a graduate degree, and hopefully many new career options at the end of the degree-seeking journey. However, it was not easy. Here are some issues to consider to help you make a smooth transition, should you find yourself going from a steady income to living creatively on financial aid:

1. Eliminate debt. Ease the sting that will be inevitable when your income is reduced by getting rid of as much debt as possible prior to re-entering school. Postponing school for even a few months to get yourself financially more prepared will pay off. Take a second job to pay down bills or stash the extra income for future emergencies before hitting the books.

2. Evaluate your current lifestyle. Take a hard look at how you live and what you can change to accommodate the impending loss of income. Going back to school is a big decision and once you’ve made it, you’ll want to devote your energies on the curriculum, not dealing with money issues.

Lifestyle accommodations to consider are: a) Downsize your living arrangements or take in a roommate to slash living costs. I sold my house and rented a small apartment close to campus to eliminate a mortgage hanging over my head. b) Reduce your transportation costs by selling your car and invest in a good used auto while in school to reduce car payments and insurance bills. Rely on public transportation; many colleges offer free shuttle service on campus and to residents in the immediate neighborhoods surrounding campus. If you live close to campus consider buying a bike with a good lock—the benefits are both economical and healthy. c) Stop spending money on entertainment and seek out the free opportunities that are available all over campus. d) Evaluate your current food bills, and make as many reductions in this category as possible. Remember these lifestyle changes are
temporary accommodations to get you through school, they are not permanent and forever.

3. Put yourself on a realistic budget. Begin thinking in terms of a semester’s worth of bills, not a month’s worth. As a working person, you are probably currently programmed to anticipate a paycheck every two weeks, with bills arriving monthly, and a budget established on this time frame. The bills will continue to arrive monthly, but your income will be on a very different schedule. Financial aid checks are distributed at the beginning of each term and have to last until the end of the term, or the beginning of the next distribution cycle. Avoid overspending in the fat, early weeks of each semester by being vigilant about your finances. Calculate your money and establish a new student budget in terms of a semester’s length (generally 90 to 120 days), not the typical 30 days in a month.

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