How to Afford a New Degree

piggy back with graduation cap and diplomaThinking of going back to school? Smart savings practices can give you a strong head start toward a new degree and reducing your student loan debt. College savings can make the process more affordable than you might have thought.

To get started, all you'll need is some careful budgeting to make sure you can fulfill your academic dreams while still making ends meet.

The first step is picking a program that suits your needs. Traditional colleges or universities are a good place to start, as many have educational options beyond the traditional four-year degree.

Check into online learning, accelerated programs, community college courses, certifications and other options to find the classes that suit what you want to do and will take you where you want to be. For those looking to get a master's degree, there are many programs geared specifically toward working adults so you can still earn a paycheck while taking classes.

Can You Squeeze It Into Your Budget?

Once you've selected your program, you can figure out the ballpark price and how much you'll need to spend each month. Then you'll need to determine if you can trim your budget to cover the increased costs.

Cutting your home Internet connection might not be the best idea if you are going to need it to help with class work, but try examining how much you are spending for other monthly costs. Maybe you can trim back your TV package, movie rentals or other entertainment expenses that you might not have the time to enjoy when you're back in school.

A student ID can also bring discounts in many places. Ask about your potential school's student benefits to see if some might help you save money, such as a more affordable gym membership.

Before you register for a class, try out your new budget for a few months. Set aside the money that would go to classes and put it into savings. Can you live on such a budget? If not, it might be time to look at other funding options.

Your School or Work Might Be Able to Help

Check with your school's financial aid department, where the staff will be able to give you options on how to pay for the classes you want. You might find new scholarship opportunities for "nontraditional" students and those seeking a master's degree.

If you are looking to change professions entirely, check to see if there are special programs aimed just for the professions you are looking to join. Some in-demand careers offer tuition assistance to help bring people into the profession, particularly mid-career adults. Professional associations are a good place to start looking for information.

Similarly, check to see if your employer offers any tuition assistance programs. Particularly if your classes are directly related to your job, there might be some money already put aside for educational opportunities for employees. Talk with an accountant, too, as there may be tax benefits to going back to the classroom.

Take a Look at Student Loans

If your current income and potential financial aid aren't enough, you can always turn to student loans. Your first step is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which is available online.

Regions Bank offers a Sallie Mae Smart Option Student Loan® which will help cover everything from tuition and supplies to room and board. Be sure to check with a Regions financial advisor, because you might find you can get even better loan rates with a home equity line of credit or other lending option.

One key benefit of student loans is that you won't need to make payments while enrolled in school. This gives you a great opportunity to set aside some money each month into an interest-bearing savings account. That way you'll be making headway on paying off your debt before you even get the first bill!

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  • Save Money - Save money by keeping it at arm's length: If you direct deposit your paycheck, set your checking account to automatically transfer $50 or $100 every pay period from your checking to a special savings account that is strictly off limits. Within a year, you've saved $1,200-$2,400!
  • Save for the Future - Tired of hearing about "staycations" where you vacation at home instead of an exotic destination? Then use it to your advantage! Add up the airfare, hotel and dining out expenses for a family holiday away and then find a friend or family member with an idle lake or mountain cabin you can borrow — and promptly deposit the savings in your emergency fund or a retirement account.
  • Save Time - Identity theft is an insidious crime and can become a time-consuming ordeal to repair the damage done by thieves — the Federal Trade Commission estimates 33 percent of victims spend 40 hours or more resolving problems relating to their identity theft. Learn more about how you can protect yourself.
  • Save Money - Make a virtue out of necessity: every time you stay in and cook at home, make a note of the money you saved and transfer that to your savings account. The $10, $25 or even $100 you save will add up quicker than you expect!
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This information is general in nature, is provided for educational purposes only, and should not be relied on or interpreted as accounting, financial planning, investment, legal or tax advice. Regions neither endorses nor guarantees this information, and encourages you to consult a professional for advice applicable to your specific situation.