The Cheapskate’s Guide to Educating Yourself

Tuition costs are rising. Textbooks might as well be printed on gold. You’re contemplating selling a kidney on the black market to pay off your student-debt. Does learning have to cost that much?

Saving Money at School

Here’s some tips for keeping costs down at school:

Know your purpose before applying. Costs vary dramatically in tuition. Education quality also varies, but I believe it doesn’t usually match the cost. If your ambitions are entrepreneurial, picking the most expensive school might not be useful if the education is rated the same. Know why you want to go to school or the money will be wasted.

Used, New or Not at All? Ask past students of a course whether the textbook is necessary to learn or understand. Some classes teach almost entirely through lectures, while others come straight from the textbook. I’ve avoided buying some fairly expensive packages because I learned they weren’t necessary.

There is a limit to how much you can reduce the costs of formal education. Cheaper schools, used textbooks and creative cost-saving measures can help, but ultimately university is going to be expensive. The good news is, if learning is your goal, it doesn’t need to take place on a campus.

“I never let school get in the way of my education” – Mark Twain

With the boom of the internet, you have little reason to complain about the cost of learning. You can learn almost anything for a shoestring budget. In many cases, those added skills can start to pay for themselves, if you know how to translate your knowledge into value for another person.

How to Teach Yourself for Free (or Close to Free)

I’ve always been a fan of low-cost self-education. I’ve taught myself several programming languages, web design, graphic design, public speaking and business skills for basically nothing. Tuition to You University tends to be fairly low.

Here are some of my tips for reducing the cost (both in money and time) for educating yourself:

Project-Based Learning – The quickest way to learn is by doing. Design a project that will force you to learn a particular skill or branch of knowledge. If you want to learn web-design, start with a project to build your own website. If you want to become a confident speaker, make it your goal to practice for a speaking contest.

Keep Projects Challenging, But Doable
– Don’t try to climb Mount Everest if you’ve never hiked a hill before. At the same time, trying a project that doesn’t force you to learn new information is also a waste. I strive to include at least several new aspects in every project I attempt.

Buy a How-To. If the knowledge you want is fairly technical (tax law, programming, design) buy a how-to book. This usually won’t run more than 30-40 dollars, and if you find one in your library it’s free. These are invaluable as a reference when you get stuck.

Practice, Practice, Practice. If you want to master a soft skill (writing, speaking, selling) then you need to set up an environment you can train yourself in. Athletes don’t become fast or strong by reading about exercising but actually hitting the gym.

Set Aside Learning Time. There’s no attendance taken in the classroom of life. Unfortunately, this can mean you might not show up if things get busy. Set aside a certain amount of time each day for your self-learning project. Commit to this for at least thirty days or until the project is finished.

Network. Get friends who already have the skills you want to master. When I started blogging, I made a conscious effort to connect with other successful bloggers. Not only are they available to answer questions when you get stuck, but a network can tell you what to emphasize and what to ignore. Little details that don’t get corrected unless you have the connections.

Test Objectively. There’s a reason schools emphasize testing so much. Without it, you can’t be sure where your skill level rests. A test can be in the form of successfully completing your project. Even better is to put your knowledge into the real world. Enter a contest, sell a product, apply for accreditation.

General Research.
If you want to know, rather than do (theoretical physics instead of karate) you need to research. Start by browsing over places like Wikipedia and internet forums. From there, get yourself the basic books on the topic and move up. Try to find books that take a general look at the topic rather than emphasize on specific point. Those books tend to be more entertaining, but lack the foundation that real knowledge is built on.

Make Your Skills Pay for Themselves

Education is an investment. Get your investment to start paying for itself by learning to create value with the abilities you’re learning. Almost any skill can be transformed into a minor Freelancing. Programming, writing, designing, accounting, speaking or photography can all help you get freelancing work. I wouldn’t worry about being the best at your skill, but becoming best for your clients. Soft skills like marketing yourself, responding to client needs and being responsible can matter more once you have the minimum level of technical skills.

Sell. Create a product and sell it yourself. This requires more business skills than freelancing, but it can be successful if it helps you earn money without putting more effort into it. Operating your own blog, information product or software can all provide passive income.

Get Hired. Many companies look for portfolios and specific measurements of abilities rather than diplomas when you look for a job. If you can do what they need you to, that can help pay for your education right there.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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