If You’re Learning for Financial Reasons, Here’s How to Make the Most of It

Questions to ask yourself before spending money to learn

Kai Wong
Kai Wong
Aug 28, 2020 · 5 min read
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

As the summer winds down, we’re heading towards what would be the start of the school season for many young people.

At least, if this were a normal year.

But in this crazy day and age, going to school “Just because it’s fall” is no longer a good enough explanation.

So for many people, they’re learning for economic reasons: rather than trying to fight for jobs in an economic recession, they’re taking time to better themselves and make themselves a more attractive candidate.

It’s wisdom that dates back centuries, or even millennia in some countries: when times are tough, educate yourself.

But if you’re learning for a better financial outlook, you need to keep new questions in mind. So here’s what to consider if you’re pursuing learning from a financial perspective.

Listen, I can’t speak for your personal experiences during a degree. Maybe you meet your future spouse, make lifelong friends, or learn something that will change your life.

But financially, if you’re only going for your Bachelor’s at this time, the traditional route of college may not be right for you. Why?

Consider a top-tier school like Harvard. They have stated that they are going to be charging full tuition for the upcoming year, which is around $26,000 for the Fall semester. At the same time, most or possibly all of their campus life and courses may be online only.

As a result, many of the intangible benefits of campus living, such as networking or joining organizations, may not be available.

Now consider edX, founded by Harvard and MIT. They may offer similar online courses for $166/a credit or a total of around $2500 for a ‘full semester course load’.

Is it any wonder that many people are reconsidering whether they want to spend that price tag?

The fact of the matter is that if you’re just considering an undergraduate degree purely from a financial perspective, other options such as trade schools may be a better deal (both in terms of cost and potential earnings).

Graduate degrees, on the other hand, are still largely a good investment: whether Masters or PhD, they still tend to be a financially beneficial.

However, you should still learn what is valuable about the degree to industry if you’re not planning to stay in academia.

My graduate advisor once told me this: “What you study in grad school doesn’t matter: how you study it does.”

I didn’t understand what that meant until I entered industry. Here’s the truth: Nobody cares about your dissertation. They care about the skills you learned getting to that process.

Communication, qualitative and quantitative research, data analysis, and the ability to write are some of the major selling points that people in the industry are eager to hire you for, which means that they are some of the things that you should seek to develop as useful skills to develop during that time.

The other popular thing to do right now is to gain certifications. Whether it’s through MOOCs like Coursera and Udemy or coursework created by global organizations, certifications are another way to showcase your experience learning something.

The thing you have to get in your mind, though, is two things: certifications do NOT act like a 4-year degree, and there’s a difference between certificates and licenses.

Certifications are a way to certify and showcase that you know a subject by taking an exam.

As a result, their validity varies immensely from the typical 4-year degree. In college, you may have tests, quizzes, readings, homework, and even the dreaded group project. These are multiple methods to show that you understand the subject matter and that it’s been reinforced multiple times.

Certifications, as a result, are more like promises: it shows an employer (or someone who values that skill) that they can be confident that this person knows this skill, and also proves to the person that they know it as well.

Break that promise by delivering poor quality work, and that certificate becomes near worthless.

So showing that you know this subject beyond just a single exam is very vital: consider actions like creating real-world projects with the knowledge, writing about the subject, or even just uploading code to GitHub to showcase that you know this subject if your certification doesn’t come with an expiration date.

The reason why I bring up expiration dates is that certifications with built-in expiration dates tend to be more valuable, such as ones provided for nurses. The point of these certifications is to keep students up to date with the latest techniques, so these types of certificates are often very valuable and necessary for obtaining jobs.

Lastly, if you’re just taking this time to learn a new hobby, consider whether or not it helps you build a talent stack.

The Talent Stack is an idea created by Dilbert creator Scott Adams, in which he posits the following:

Good at one skill + Good at another related skill > Excellent at one skill

To give an example: if you’re average at drawing and average at writing humor, you may have better success creating comics, which uses both of those skills, than if you were only excellent at drawing.

That’s the way that Scott considers himself: he’s called himself a mediocre writer, artist, and cartoonist. But because he fills a niche that no one else does with his overlapping talents, he’s in high demand with a net worth of around $75 million.

So if you’re learning a hobby, ask yourself this question: is this something that overlaps with another skill? Perhaps you might find something that combines those two talents to be something worth pursuing.

Or the opposite question: if I want to achieve X, what are some skills that I might want to learn that will help with that?

Of course, not everything has to be about one central goal: perhaps you’re just a person of many interests. But I’ve found that sometimes, there are hidden benefits to many skills, either intentional or not.

For example, my hobby of playing piano not only helps me on a mental acuity level but has also assisted me with UX Design endeavors.

So if you’re interested in picking up a hobby, ask yourself if there’s anything else you currently do that supports this or list out other things that may be of use to you to learn as well.

Listen, if you want to learn simply for the sake of learning, more power to you. But in this day and age, doing these learning exercises is no longer the default thing ‘to do’.

As a result, people are turning to learn new things for financial benefit. But for that goal to work out, you have to ask yourself different questions about finances to bring clarity as to why you’re doing the things that you’re doing.

So consider what value it brings to you, and act on it. You might just find yourself more motivated to continue if you know the reason why you’re doing this.

I write about UX, Healthcare, and Productivity regularly. If you would like to learn more about UX, I’ve created courses about Design Communication and UX Research on a budget.


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Kai Wong

Written by

Kai Wong

UX Designer, Author, and Data Visualization Enthusiast. Author of Data Persuasion, a UX-centric journey to learn Data Visualization: https://tinyurl.com/rndb9bw



A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Kai Wong

Written by

Kai Wong

UX Designer, Author, and Data Visualization Enthusiast. Author of Data Persuasion, a UX-centric journey to learn Data Visualization: https://tinyurl.com/rndb9bw



A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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