Read Time: 6 minutes

The following is a guest post by K.D. Swineford. This is a great story about being able to get a higher education, while working a full-time job! See more about the author at the end.

Higher education is a goal for many, but not everyone can afford to cut back on work hours to make it happen.

Even the hefty price tag of a degree these days is enough to deter people from chasing after their dreams.

I was an average 20-something year old who desperately wanted a graduate degree, but faced the same challenges with finding the time and finances to make it happen.

Here is how I successfully juggled working a demanding full-time job while completing a full-time MBA program in exactly two years…

Setting Goals

When I was facing my 27th birthday, I found myself working a customer service job that I absolutely hated, and worst of all for a ridiculously low salary.

I had a Bachelor of Arts degree in music under my belt and after a few years having a great time working as a musician, this is where I landed.

After almost two years of dreading each work day, I made a decision to do something about it.

Not only did I want a job that would mentally challenge me and provide a sense of purpose, but I also wanted a certain level of financial security and room to grow.

To accomplish this, I knew I needed sound business experience and a better education.

Homework

I set a goal for myself to complete graduate school by the time I turned 30.

Finding Support

I knew that I would need to find a way to finance my graduate degree while earning a reasonable living.

After assessing my employment at the time, my salary and working conditions were not going to support me through a degree program. So I set out to find a new job and employer that would provide tuition assistance and the work experience I would need later on to land a good job.

I landed an entry-level job with one of the world’s largest insurance companies.

The company provided a salaried position, good benefits, a flexible schedule, and most importantly over $5,000 in annual tuition reimbursement (after being employed for one year).

Tip: When searching for a new job or considering a career change, take the time to make a list of search criteria. What is most important to you in a job?

Finding the Right Degree Program

Now that I had a good job that would help supplement the cost of tuition and provide an excellent base for business experience, I had to find the right degree program.

I knew I wanted a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA), but there were so many options from night classes at the state university, online programs, accelerated programs, and the list goes on.

It was important to me to get my degree by the time I turned 30 as planned. Now in a new job, I needed to wait a full year to be eligible for the tuition reimbursement program, so it gave me time to research and apply to schools.

College

Another major factor for me was finding a program that fit with my learning style. I don’t test well, but I like writing papers. So I wanted a program that focused mostly on writing, research and projects rather than lots of testing.

I knew I had the self-discipline to handle an online program, and I didn’t want the added expense of commuting to a classroom every week.

With all of this in mind, I found an accelerated online MBA program through the University of Phoenix that was focused on research, discussion, and writing papers. Best of all, the program allowed me to focus on one class at a time. These were condenses 6-week classes that ran back to back.

Tip: When choosing your program, make sure your school and degree program will fit your lifestyle and pay off in the end. Go to open houses or schedule a meeting with an enrollment counselor to ask about how their programs are structured. Ask the hard questions like what percentage of graduates become employed in their chosen field.

Finding the Time

The early bird gets the worm. It’s not the most original statement, but it certainly worked for me. Setting a routine was crucial in staying productive.

I had the option of flexible work hours Monday through Friday, so I went in to work at 6:00 AM every morning and worked until 2:30 or 4:00 PM each day. Getting started early every day guaranteed that I would at least get out of the office before rush hour.

Study Buddy

My study buddy! He was a good sport about early mornings and late study sessions.

I would then commit at least two hours each evening to school work during the week. Saturdays I treated as another work day, got up early and worked on school work for most of the morning. If I was super productive, that meant I was done for the week on Saturday afternoon and I always tried to reserve Sunday for family and to do something fun.

In total, I spent 40-50 hours per week at work, plus another 15-20 hours per week on school work.

Tip: Turn off the TV! If you are having trouble finding the time to get things done, think about how much time you spend watching TV or on other hobbies. If you cut back, you will probably easily find an extra hour or two each day to focus on school work or other projects. I have not had cable service since I started grad school simply because I find it too distracting.

Taking Breaks

This is a marathon, not a sprint. Education takes time, discipline, and a whole lot of energy. To stay motivated and make sure that I consistently produced my best work, I took breaks.

Honeymoon in Spain

Honeymoon in Spain.

I had the option of taking up to 2 weeks off in-between each class, and I had the option of taking a leave of absence from school for up to 6 months without penalty. I didn’t take breaks in-between every single class, but I would usually take two classes back to back (total of 12 weeks) and then take a 1-2 week break before starting the process over again. This gave me time to relax a little and recharge.

I also took a 3 month leave of absence over one summer to get married. I knew there was no way I could keep up my schedule and stay sane while planning and preparing for my wedding!

Tip: Use holidays and vacation time wisely when studying for big exams or working on projects. I used quite a bit of my vacation time to stay home and write papers while in school.

Finances

Paying for school is always a challenge. With my employer’s annual tuition reimbursement program, they paid for approximately 45% of the total cost of my degree program. I could have stretched out the program over a longer period to get more tuition reimbursement dollars, but that didn’t fit with my goal to get it done by my personal deadline. The rest I financed through Federal student loans at an APR of 6.8%.

My loans were in deferment while I was enrolled in school, but I made voluntary monthly payments right away plus lump sum payments with tax return and annual bonus money. By treating my loan as if the normal monthly payments were already due, this significantly reduced the amount of interest owed on my total loan, and took years off of the repayment plan.

Tip: When budgeting for tuition costs, make sure you calculate how much the entire degree program will cost including tuition, books/materials, parking, activity fees, etc. Don’t forget that tuition usually increases each year. If taking out a loan, be sure to estimate how much the monthly loan payment will be once you graduate with the Sallie Mae student loan calculator.

Reaping the Rewards

As planned, I graduated with my MBA exactly two weeks before my 30th birthday. The entire program took me two years to complete from May 2011 to May 2013 (including breaks). At that time I also had three years of experience with my employer which put me in an excellent position to apply for more demanding jobs. The summer I graduated, I interviewed for three jobs within the company, and I landed what I consider to be my dream job only three months after I graduated.

In comparison to where I started as a 27 year old working a miserable low paying job, I completed my MBA with a 3.5 GPA, landed my dream job, and gained an overall base salary increase of 58% in approximately 3 years!

If I can make it happen, so can you.

About the Author:
K.D. Swineford is a professional number cruncher and risk analyst, personal finance enthusiast, omnivore, and advocate for all around good living. As the founder of buildstealthwealth.com, K.D. is dedicated to helping like-minded folks work and save their way to financial freedom.