Congratulations! Whether the goal is an undergrad or an advanced degree, going back to school can be a great way to advance at your current job or switch to a new career.
But in order to get that degree, you may have to reevaluate your finances. If you’re going from a dual-income household down to a single breadwinner, the financial changes can be drastic and a little scary.
I should know.
My husband has been in graduate school the entire duration of our marriage. And while I’m incredibly proud of him, it hasn’t always been easy to manage our finances given the fact that he’s in school. Relationships and money are a tricky combination at the best of times, and graduate school is rarely the best of times.
Fortunately, we’ve developed a few tricks for making it work, financially speaking.
If you’re wondering how to manage your finances while you or your significant other is in grad school, there are two main things I recommend: advance planning and lots of communication. Here’s how we do it.
Discuss Your Goals
When you have two income-earning partners, it’s easy to be a little careless with your money and assume that you’re still in good shape.
But when one of you goes back to school, and the burden of rent and retirement falls on the shoulders of just one person, you may discover that you two have very different plans in mind for your money.
When we first married, my husband’s goals were simple: get through grad school without debt.
Mine were a bit more complicated: I wanted an emergency fund, retirement accounts, money set aside for travel and hopefully to start an investment portfolio before we turned thirty.
Avoid the mistake we made and discuss your goals before one of you heads back to school. To ensure that you are both on the same page and managing your money the same way, take time to sit down and discuss your financial goals.
Are you saving for retirement, planning an overseas trip, or hoping to put a down payment on a house? Is having “fun money” important to you both, or are you content with movies from the library and an occasional bottle of wine at home?
Make sure that you not only have a plan for your money, but that both partners have the same plan. You’ll avoid a lot of stress and arguing six months down the road.
Don’t Stop Saving
My husband is the only grad student I know of in his program with an IRA. We each have one, and every month a set amount is transferred automatically into them, as well as into our emergency fund. Yes, that means we have less disposable income left over at the end of the month. But to us, it’s absolutely worth it.
When your household income decreases dramatically, it’s natural to focus on short term needs and ignore your long-term plans. But even when one of you is in school, it’s still important to keep saving for your emergency fund or putting money into retirement accounts.
For your retirement savings, take some time to explore your options. You may want to open an IRA for the partner that lost an employer-sponsored account, or bump up contributions for the partner that is still working to take full advantage of employer-matching.
For general savings, you may need to cut back on some fun expenses in order to keep putting money away every month, or simplify your goals for as long as one partner is in school. Setting up an automatic monthly transfer to your saving accounts might be helpful, as the money will be saved without you having to remember or think about it.
No matter how you decide to make things work, it’s important to keep saving, even while one person is in school. Compound interest is your friend, and you want to keep taking full advantage of it — even when your household income decreases. Think of it as paying future you first.
Look Into Financial Aid Options
My husband’s school offered him a teacher’s assistant-ship for his first four years, which came with full tuition reimbursement. When the position wasn’t available the following year, we panicked a little, but then he looked into other options and discovered that he could still receive full tuition coverage if he worked as a research assistant for his adviser. He’s also applied for a dissertation-completion grant, which would cover his tuition for the remainder of his time at school.
The lesson? Don’t automatically assume that you’ll have to pay for school entirely with loans.
If you’ve gone from two incomes to one, you might suddenly find you qualify for a scholarship or a work-study program. If you’re working towards a PhD or a JD, you may be eligible for TA work, which can cover most of your tuition and sometimes even comes with a small living stipend. Set up a meeting with a financial aid officer at your new school to see what is available.
If the degree you’re working towards will help you advance in your current career field, you may find that your employer is willing to cover part of your tuition costs. Talk to your immediate supervisor and to the HR department to see whether your company sponsors continuing education for its employees.
However your chose to pay for your degree, make sure to explore all your options. Your partner and your bank account with both appreciate the diligence.
Talk About Money
Talking about money in relationships can be difficult and uncomfortable, especially if you have different saving or spending habits, so many couples skip it entirely.
But when one partner has gone back to school, and the other is left as the primary breadwinner for a few years, talking about money becomes even more important. It’s easy for the partner in school to feel uncomfortably like a dependent, for the working spouse to start resenting the burden of earning, or for both of you to lose sight of long-term financial goals.
After we married, my husband and I decided that managing our finances would be my job. Somehow, this quickly turned into us not talking about money at all: I crunched the numbers every month, gave him occasional updates, but mostly handled things on my own. Even when things started to get out of control and I realized our expenses were outstripping our income, I tried to manage alone.
It didn’t take long for both me and our budget to turn into a mess.
The solution? Talk about it.
If you make a point of talking about money regularly, you ensure that both partners have a safe space to express how they feel. You are also more likely to notice when one of you needs to reign in your spending a little bit, or find that there’s a little extra money in the budget for a weekend trip or a fun night out.
Those moments can make all the difference in balancing personal comfort with financial stability.
Have you ever dealt with a spouse quitting work to go back to school? How did you prepare your finances for the change?