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Question: Can I afford to go back to grad school to make more money?

Piggy bank with mortarboard

I am 35 years old and only began saving for retirement this year through a combination of a 401k and Roth IRA. I would really like to return to school in three or four years to get a double-Masters in economics and finance, taking off one year to study Chinese in China. I know that I will earn twice as much once I complete my degrees as I earn now, but I am concerned about stepping away from full-time work and benefits for five years while only taking part-time jobs or internships in my new field. While I am in school and traveling, although I will be able to support myself financially, I won't be saving for retirement. Can I really afford to go back to grad school to make more money?

August Mileaux

Response:

When it comes to the excitement of international travel and learning, I'm a sucker for adventure -- especially when you're single and only need to support yourself.

I'm sure you may be thinking: 'If only I were 25 and not 35!' Good of you to consider losing out on several years of retirement savings, but I don't feel like that cost is necessarily worth the expense of not doing what you seem driven to do. Even better, what you want to do is a big investment (a doubling-down, so to speak) on yourself and your career. Stay driven and set time limits on yourself. Finish those degrees as quickly and as cheaply as you can (because when it comes to education, quicker makes it cheaper) and set deadlines for completing the travel and returning to the workforce. Crunch your numbers: How much would this all cost you in terms of tuition, lifestyle, travel needs, plus the cost of losing out on saving for retirement. How soon could you recoup those costs if you are able to raise your income with that double-Masters and Chinese proficiency under your belt? Are you okay with knowing that it could take five-plus years after you graduate to catch-up?  

Before you leap, I have two more questions for you to consider: Are you willing to work beyond age 65 if you have to? And are you okay with the worst-case scenario--that you have trouble finding a job after taking several years off? What's your Plan B should that happen?

Life is short. I once stepped out of the workforce to dedicate myself to getting a Masters degree in one year. I took out loans for tuition and living expenses. I knew the risks and the costs were high, but like you I also realized it was a great investment in me and my future. I doubled my income after I got that degree. It was worth every penny.  

Know yourself and know your 'fire.' Live long and prosper.

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