A few months ago I shared on social media that I’d finished my Master’s Degree 1 month before my 30th birthday and am now the most educated woman in my family. What’s more, I had paid for it in cash exclusively with money earned outside of my full-time job.
Sharing this actually became my most upvoted post to date on every single platform. I got so much feedback and so many questions I wanted to share a little more about why I chose to do this and how I managed it.
The thing is, I wrote this article almost entirely months ago, then couldn’t bear to finish it. I had started putting forward just the parts of the story I was proud of, but that just wasn’t the whole picture. And, if I’m here sharing my story to inspire others, you deserve to hear a little bit more about both the good and the bad parts.
Why Get a Master’s Degree in the First Place?
I’ve always been deeply passionate about constantly learning. It helps me be a better version of myself in many ways and ensures I am continually growing. Formal education is certainly not the only way to learn, but it is one way that I happen to be quite passionate about. In fact, I put “Get an advanced degree” as one of the first items on my bucket list years ago. Other than a few abandoned PhD applications in 2012, I hadn’t made a single move toward this goal in years.
But, now there was one particular, very affordable, degree program that was calling my name. It had the power to equip me with knowledge that would provide life-long tangible benefits. It would also put some letters behind my name that would give me a big advantage for future jobs.
Why Pay for it in Cash?
We are in the midst of the student loan crisis where graduates collectively now owe over $1.5 trillion dollars and the average student loan debt is $32,731. Having debt like that can shape your life in a lot of really hard ways. We’ve been there. After me and Mr. Hippie paid off $25,000 of student loans when we got married, I was especially not eager to ever deal with student debt again.
Why Pay for It with Side Hustle Money?
I also didn’t want to put our journey to financial independence on pause.
Education for education’s sake may resonate with me emotionally, but it is not a sound financial argument.
By the time I was applying, I was in my mid/late twenties and we felt like our net worth was in a good place. We were on track to hit financial independence between 35-40 and giving up on that dream didn’t feel worth the cost of this technically unnecessary degree.
I also didn’t have a job where getting this degree would immediately make me eligible for a promotion or a raise. After graduating, I would have to rely on my ability to negotiate a new position with a new company to see any benefit from the degree. Sure, the prospective field is growing and offers plenty of stable positions with modest salaries (under six figures) … but would those salaries be more than what I was earning at the time in a semi-related field?
Honestly, it was a gamble.
So, I decided that, financially, I was going to classify this degree as an expensive personal indulgence and would pay for it outside of our mutual budget. I alone decided to take this program on, so I wanted to challenge myself to see if I could pay for it on my own as well.
When explaining why I chose to do this, I think it’s really important to also share that I experienced the immense privilege of receiving financial assistance from my family for my undergraduate degree. I’ve heavily wrestled with the feeling that I was undeserving of this particular privilege over the years. This time around, I wanted to do this on my own and impress myself.
So, I started saving my money from my side hustles about a year before I began my program to prepare.
The total cost of all tuition and all fees for my program was $14,446.11. I attended school for three years via a program that offered both online and in-person classes and is usually completed by full-time students in two years. I cannot stress enough how crucial to my success it was to find a program that was affordable as well as reputable. I easily could have paid $50,000 a year for the same degree at another, slightly more reputable institution without seeing $135,000 worth of additional value from the degree.
My Full-Time Job
My full-time job was somewhat flexible and allowed me to sneak away with my laptop to attend my classes about 90% of the time. But, I was also essentially on call 24/7 and my job frequently required extensive work on nights, weekends, and even holidays. I averaged about 50 hours of time every week but heavily ranged between 30 to 80 hours each week. During the three years I was in school and working full-time I essentially moved up two rungs in the corporate ladder within my industry and was even managing a large team by the time I transitioned out.
My Side Hustle
I focused mostly on doing well paid independent contractor work relevant to my day job. I prioritized gigs that were logistically very easy for me to fit into my schedule and would be potentially fun. I also did a little bit of consulting for a local organization which was funded through a $2,500 grant from school.
Balance (Or Lack Thereof)
Adapting to this kind of schedule was absolutely grueling. I quickly learned that I needed to do all of the housework, shopping, and meal prep for the week on my day off because otherwise it would not get done (aka I either lost a ton of time or could not eat). Learning to meal prep freed up hours every week and was incredibly important to ensuring that I wasn’t compromising on my diet.
I got really good at multitasking. My unwinding time could also be my social time which could also be my entertainment time which might also be when I ate, exercised, cleaned the house, or worked a fun gig.
Another secret to keeping it together was getting involved in a really intense exercise program. I found a lot of stress relief from having a workout routine that was so complicated and kicked my ass so hard that I couldn’t think about what was going to face me in the office or my next lecture. I also meditated everyday for nearly a year and still continue with regular meditation. These two components together were massive in contributing to my stress reduction, which is why I continue to tout their usefulness.
There were a lot of times when I felt like I was challenging myself to become harder, better, faster, and stronger. There were other days where I felt like I was just struggling through 14 hours of bullshit until I could curl up in bed with an episode or two of something terrible.
Along the way I also lost several loved ones and dealt with major illness in my family. Because I had so little bandwidth left to grieve, this hit me incredibly hard. The thing is, grief is not linear and the 1-3 days of bereavement leave that most companies “generously” offer is never enough. Dealing with death and trauma is awful even if you’re in the best of health. When you have a 16 hour daily routine 6+ days a week, there’s just not much left to put into unanticipated emotional triage.
After losing my third loved one in three years I dropped my part-time job, my grad program, my workout program (I definitely don’t recommend this), and everything else I could and sought out working with a therapist for the summer semester.
Going through this reaffirmed my belief in the pursuit of financial independence. Had I been able to prioritize just my health, I would have dropped my job in a heartbeat and taken the space I needed to heal. As it was, I had a very hard and dark next few months where I just couldn’t push past the difficulty of the last few years anymore. Sometimes I wonder now if I was pursuing my goals so relentlessly and staying so freaking busy in order to not deal with myself and my baggage. I know that I felt like leaving my job would be irresponsible, and therefore unthinkable. I’d recently gotten a large promotion at work and I felt like I was too loyal to my company to walk away from it.
But, five months later, I had reached a breaking point where I was over my misplaced loyalty and was considering leaving my position no matter what. Then, I got what ended up being the best news I had heard in months.
My entire department was being terminated and my position was being eliminated.
It was then that I realized that this was an incredible opportunity to dramatically change course. I readjusted my focus back to my Master’s program and decided that I would take a sabbatical from full-time work until at least my graduation date. I had been concerned that I would need three more semesters to graduate, but with my newly found time affluence, I cut this down to just two semesters. I was eligible for a small, one month severance payment and standard unemployment benefits. Mr. Hippie and I had also recently bumped up our emergency fund to cover 1 year of expenses, and I would continue working part-time to pay for the last semester of tuition. The math checked out.
After taking the last 11 months at a reduced pace, I can say I’m feeling a million times better. My relationships are stronger, I’m significantly healthier, and my stress level has plummeted. I’ve even started having creative thoughts and engaging in hobbies again, which was bizarre to realize that I’d phased out in the first place.
As a direct result of my shiny new degree, I also recently accepted a position with a nearly 10% higher base salary and significantly better benefits than my last job. Due to the nature of this position I’m also anticipating working much closer to 40 hours a week instead of 50, which will bring my hourly compensation up by about 25% in total.
Since I began grad school nearly three years ago, we’ve funneled over $300,000 into investments and have substantially increased our net worth.
What I Learned
This journey has made me trust myself more and realize how disciplined I can be when I fully commit to my goals. I have proven that I will keep the promises I make to myself even when it pushes me to the absolute limits of my capabilities. And, this got HARD at times. I was pretty regularly pulling 70+ hour weeks minimum and there were months at a time where I didn’t get a day off. I knew I was strong and capable before, but knowing that I have what it takes and can be held accountable for anything is truly incredible.
Would I Recommend This?
The path I took is not for the faint of heart. It was not easy and it was not fun. I would label it as “extremely difficult,” “possibly dangerous” and put a massive “Proceed with Caution” warning on it.
Take care of yourself out there, guys. You may get twice as far when going double speed for a little while, but there are massive consequences if you keep it up for too long.
That being said, I feel absolutely fucking incredible having accomplished this.
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