How to Save and Invest Your Money Like a Boss in 2019

 

As the end of your Peace Corps service looms large, it’s easy to feel like you’ll have it made in the shade once you land a job and can pay your own rent.

Then student loan invoices start rolling in. You see your parents aging. And you can’t help but notice how many of your friends bought homes and cars while you were swatting at mosquitoes and farm fowl on multi-hour bus rides.

Just getting by each month doesn’t feel so satisfying anymore. You’d like to manage your money, save, and maybe even invest. But where to begin?

“I’ll know I’ve made it when…”

Here’s a simple step-by-step guide to building and managing your wealth!

 

In this article, we’ll walk you through these crucial steps to building wealth:

  1. Switch to a fee-free checking account
  2. Establish a money market savings account
  3. Build your safety net
  4. Pay off (most) debt
  5. Max out your Defined Contribution Plan every year
  6. Max out an Individual Retirement Account every year
  7. Save for big purchases
  8. Establish an Individual Taxable Account

We’ll also give you lots of context on tax regulations, tell you what to avoid, and make recommendations of awesome financial services to help you make all of it happen.

Just so you know: This information in this article has been immensely helpful to our clients, and we would never ever steer you wrong on purpose. That said, Songgaar is not licensed as a fiduciary or financial adviser. You can read more in our disclaimer. 

1. Switch to a fee-free checking account

First thing’s first: stop paying more than you have to. Find a checking account that has no minimum balance requirement, no international fees, and no ATM fees. We did some research on your behalf, and Schwab is a strong choice. You’ll get an investor account when you open the checking account, but it’s not required that you use it. Which is good, because there’s definitely better investment accounts out there (more on that later).

2. Establish a money market savings account.

Pro Tip: If your savings account doesn’t earn about 2.5% interest per year, your money will lose buying power over time due to  inflation .”

Ever hear fun facts about how a loaf of bread used to cost a penny, and a day’s wage was a dollar? It’s hard evidence that money loses values over time, so you need more of it to acquire the same loaf of bread, and you expect more of it for your labor. That’s inflation at work. It’s the rise in cost of goods and services over time. In the USA, it tends to be about 2-3% a year. This is why a lot of companies give annual raises of a few percent; it’s not really a reward, it just maintains the employee at the same buying power as the costs of the things they need rise. In terms of your savings, inflation means that if the dollar amount remains the same, then you’ll be able to buy less and less with it as the years pass.

What to do? To ensure that your dollars maintain their buying power, they need to spawn and produce offspring. Putting your money in an account that earns interest will do just that.

Banks caught on to this a couple decades ago and started offering a small interest rate (aka Annual Percentage Yield or APY) on savings accounts. This made people feel like their money wasn’t losing value, so they were more likely to leave it in the bank instead of putting it into investments. But a whopping 0.25% annual interest in an economy that inflates at 2-3%? SMH….Hard pass. 

Good news: there’s something better out there. Money market accounts offer the same FDIC insurance on your money as traditional banks, and they give you over 2% annual interest. Most money market accounts allow 6 transfers a month, so you can freely move money into your checking as you need it. There’s plenty of good money market accounts out there. Looks for as high an APY as possible, FDIC insurance, no fees, and a $0 minimum balance. Comenity stood out during our research, and one finance-savvy reader has recommended Marcus by Goldman Sachs

 

Before we move on, let’s be clear about the purpose of your savings account (hint: it’s NOT where you keep your savings.)

 

  1. Money you expect to spend over the next 1-2 weeks, plus a cushion (let’s say $200) should live in your checking account.
  2. Money you expect to need for the rest of the month should live in your savings account. That’s it. No $10,000 savings account balances, people!!

So what to do with everything else you’ve saved? So glad you asked.

 

3. Build your safety net

 

Before you do anything else, make sure you have a backstop for when shit hits the fan. The here is that if you were suddenly unable to work, you’d have enough to continue living your same lifestyle for at least 6 months, and ideally a whole 12 months.  The Safety Net can also be very useful for major unexpected expenses, like if you have a car accident or get really sick. Meg (our transitions coach) knows this awesome woman from their Peace Corps Paraguay days named Paula Perhach. Paula calls her Safety Net the Fuck Off Fund, because sometimes people just suck and it’s worth having a cash stash with which to fund your escape from a sleazy boss or a spouse turned scrub .

How to make it happen:

1. Count up all your expenditures for the past few months and divide it to get a monthly average. Don’t forget rent, gas, utilities, insurance, groceries, Venmo, mortgage payments, subscriptions, loan payments, cash from the ATM, credit card charges, and direct transfers from your bank account.

2. Are there any annual or semi-annual costs that aren’t included in this? (For example, service memberships, car maintenance, insurance premiums, travel). If so, be sure to include an appropriate portion of these in your monthly average.

3. Now multiple that by 6 (or 12 if you’re feeling motivated).

4. Open an account that accrues at bare minimum 2% annual interest. See the Pro Tip box below for our recommendation.

5. Only put Safety Net moolah in this account. Keeping it separate from the rest of your money is crucial to keeping track of exactly how much is in it.

Pro Tip: This is the first of several times in this article where we suggest opening an interest-accruing investment account separate from your other accounts. “

The challenge here is that you’ll want multiple investment accounts, and most financial institutions only allot one account per client. That means either keeping track dollar-for-dollar of your balance and interest gains every month (who does that??) or maintaining accounts with several different banks. On top of that, just about all financial institutions only give you one choice in terms of risk. Put your money in a super-safe savings account, and it loses value over time. Put it in high-risk stocks, and it may not be there when you need it. Ugh. There must be a better way. So we did some super rigorous research into what else was out there. 

The verdict: Betterment far-and-away offers the best approach for implementing a lot of what we suggest in this article. Here’s why:

  • It will keep all your accounts in one place
  • Each account stays completely separate. You can name it and set a time horizon and purpose for it. Betterment will help you set up the account in the best way possible to maximize your benefit based on when you want to use the money and for what.
  • Even as each account is separate, Betterment’s algorithm’s will automatically coordinate across your accounts to reduce your taxable earnings using Tax Loss Harvesting and Tax Coordinated Portfolios. This stuff is complex enough that humans can’t really do it effectively in a reasonable amount of time. It’s pretty much the stuff of computer algorithms.
  • Plus, you can move money between accounts whenever you want (an important note on this later), change the purpose and timeline, manually adjust your risk factor and what you invest in, whatever. And Betterment guides you through all of it with clear, helpful information.
  • Betterment adjusts to your style. You can set it and forget it, or you can dig in and learn every facet of managing your own money. Whichever way you choose, Betterment helps you out as much as you want, and not more or less.
  • Betterment ultra-diversifies your investments by spreading your money across loads of mutual funds that in themselves each have loads of stocks. Managing investments in that many stocks yourself would be more than a full time job. It makes your investments robust and less risky. Diversity rules!
  • This is crucial—tons of risk-vs-reward flexibility for each account. Betterment will help you make sure your Safety Net account is going to be available whenever you need it without losing value to inflation across time. They’ll help you make sure your retirement account has enough risk to actually build value across time. And they’ll automatically reduce the risk as the time approaches when you’ll withdraw the money.
  • Peace Corps people are almost all Questioners—we want to understand why things are the way the are. Betterment offers incredibly helpful tools, graphs, and articles to help you easily see what is happening with your money and why. This is pretty cutting-edge in a world where many online investing platforms don’t even show you how much you originally invested vs. how much you’ve gained since then. You’ll actually learn how to manage your money better by using Betterment.
  • The RetireGuide tool is incredible. It will walk you through implementing many of the things we suggest in this article.
  • Customer service is phenomenal. When we called, we got to talk to a real person who seemed to genuinely enjoy answering our basic financial questions in approachable, non-technical terms.
  • The management fees are the best out there. They are only a fraction of more traditional platforms like Fidelity and offer way more features and diversity. There are other algorithm-based services that are free; however, as we dug into the fine print, it became clear that every one of them is limited in important ways that end up making them more expensive. For example, they may only offer investments in their own funds. (Betterment doesn’t have its own funds, and goes with the best performers out there.) Others don’t offer services that will save you big bucks, like Tax Coordinated Portfolios and Tax Loss Harvesting. (Betterment has both.)
  • You can actually sync all your other bank accounts so you can see everything in one place. And if you want, you can automate transfers.
  • The referral program is super stellar. Every time someone signs up via your personal referral link, you’ll both get a generous serving of free account management.

 Betterment got even cooler when they offered to give our readers a freebie. This link  will get you anywhere from a month to a year managed totally free. So open your account, drop some money in there, and try it out! If you hate it, you can transfer your money back out, no loss. Let us know what you think.

Even cooler: Every time someone uses this link to start a Betterment account, Peace Corps Transitions by Songgaar gets a small affiliate commission from Betterment. It doesn’t cost you a cent, so it’s an awesome and totally free way to support our pro-bono services to Peace Corps folks. Thank you!!

And just so you know, we’ve been recommending Betterment for quite a while based entirely on our objective analysis of the services available. We recently reached out to them to ask for a freebie for readers of this article, and they generously offered an affiliate link to boot. Everybody wins. Thanks Betterment!

OK, back to that Safety Net:

6. Put money in this account as fast as you can until you hit the 6- or 12-month estimate you calculated in #3.

7. Don’t touch it. If that fat stack is threatening to burn a hole in your pocket, write up a list of instances in which you have permission to tap into your fund, and stick to it. The “nice to have or need to have?” litmus test might also be super helpful to you. New car? Nice to have. Cast on your broken leg? Need to have. Vacation? Nice to have. Quitting your job because HR didn’t take your harassment complaint seriously, and now you’re stuck working with the sleaze bag? Need to have.

8. If you do use part of your Safety Net, fill it back up before you put money on anything else.

9. Whenever there’s a big change in your life, like a move or a big purchase, recalculate your monthly expense average and beef up your Safety Net if needed.

 

4. Pay off (most) debt

 

Debt is NOT a bad thing. It lets us make smart investments that earn a ton of money in the long run, like getting an education or starting a business. But poorly managed debt is outrageously expensive. And we are trying to be affluent here! So once you’ve gotten your Emergency Fund up to par, it’s time to turn your attention to dealing with debt.

1. Compile a list of all the debt you have. This includes student loans, car loans, credit card balances that you’re carrying from month to month, mortgages, and other bank loans.

2. For each one, figure out the annual percentage rate (APR) and write it next to the loan.

3. Put them in order from highest APR to lowest. Most likely, credit card debt will be at the top, followed by car and bank loans, student loans, and mortgages.

4. Read the fine print and make note of any that have pre-payment penalties (credit cards never do). If any of them do, figure out the cost of paying the penalty vs. the cost of paying interest on the loan for the full loan term.

5. Start paying off the one at the top of the list first. Don’t be tempted to pay off the smallest loans to get it out of the way. Knock out the highest APR first, always.

6. For pre-payment penalty loans: If you determine that it’s cheaper to pay interest than pay the pre-payment penalty, keep paying the maximum amount you can each month on that loan without incurring a penalty. It’s important to know the difference between the minimum amount due (many loans will only bill you for the premium each month) and the maximum you can pay without being penalized. Put any remaining money you have that month toward the next loan on the list. And never again sign for a loan with a pre-payment penalty.

7. Once you get down to the end of the list, take note of any loans that have 0-2% interest. Set up automatic minimum monthly payments on these.

Pro Tip: The most conservative investments, and even some money market accounts, earn over 2% a year. So if your debt APR is lower than 2%, it actually pays to just make minimum monthly payments. Put the rest of the money you could be using to pay off the loan into investments. That way your money will grow even faster than your debt!”

This is a great example of how debt, when managed properly, be a really smart investment that helps you make money. The key here is actually INVESTING the money. If you spend it instead, all the benefit of not paying your loan is gone. As you get more comfortable with how much interest your other investments are accruing, you might choose to hold onto loans that have interest rates as high as 7%. But for now, 2% is a safe place to start. Read on for how to invest!

5. Max out your work-sponsored Defined Contribution Plan every year

 

Once you’ve established your Safety Net and paid off your debt, it’s time to start putting your spare income to work. Most employers offer a Defined Benefits Plan and/or a Defined Contribution Plan.

Pro Tip: Defined Benefits Plans are pension systems. You’re required to participate, and you’re guaranteed a given amount upon retirement.

That amount is usually determined by your years of service, salary, and/or position. Employers that offers DBPs, such as government entities, often pay less. Nevertheless, having a DBP is well worth the trade-off: pensions are super sweet deals because they don’t rely on the health of the stock market. So you know exactly what you’re going to get. Like all things, DBPs are not without problems, but that’s for another article. If you get a choice in your DBP, go for lowest-fee index funds. Vanguard funds, and in particular the Vanguard 500, are great choices. 

A Defined Contribution Plan is a voluntary program that gives you the opportunity to invest part of your salary into the stock market. You get to choose how the investments are made, and you’re not guaranteed anything; your gains will depend entirely on stock performances. We are going to focus on DCPs here, because you actually get to make decisions about yours.

You may encounter DCPs under 4 different labels. The name varies depending on the type of organization you work for, but they are functionally the same.

  • 401(k): private companies
  • Thrift Savings Plan: US government
  • 403(b) and 457(b): non-profits, including charities, schools, and state and local government

All four types of DCPs are worth investing as much as you can in. The money you put into them will be protected from some taxes, so you’ll lose less money to taxes across your lifetime. In fact, the benefit is significant enough that the government actually limits how much money you can put in these accounts. So put in as much as you can each calendar year.

Here’s what to do about your DCP:

1. Double check that the investment plan is one of the four listed above, and not simply an opportunity to purchase stock in your own company. Having all your eggs in one basket is a red flag in the investment world.

2. Decide whether to make pre-tax or post-tax (roth) contributions. Basically this boils down to whether you’ll have a higher taxable income (=owe more taxes) now or in retirement.

Pro Tip: To fully appreciate the balancing act happening here, it is important to understand how  tax brackets  work.

 Bear with us here. American tax code is designed to be colossally difficult to grasp.

A lot of people think their income level determines their tax rate, and the entire income is taxed at that same rate. FALSE!

In fact:

  • the first $10k or so you earn will be taxed at 10%
  • the next $20k or so at 12%
  • the next $40k-ish at 22%
  • and so on…

(The exact cut-off amounts and rates vary year to year, but here is the table for 2019.)

That means if you have…

  • $10,000 of taxable earnings this year…
  • and $60,000 next year…
  • you’d pay $1000 in taxes this year…
  • and $13,200 next year…
  • for a total of $14,200 of taxes on $70,000 of earnings.

Now let’s compare that with a scenario in which you have…

  • $35,000 of taxable earnings this year…
  • and $35,000 next year.
  • You’ll owe $4,200 in taxes this year…
  • and $4,200 next year…
  • for a total of $8,400 in taxes on the SAME $70,000 of earnings.

Take home lesson: evenly distributing your taxable earnings across tax years means paying less taxes in the long run.

Things that decrease your taxable earnings:

  • Low total income
  • No investment income or other income sources
  • Deductions for dependents
  • Deduction for a mortgage
  • Other deductions, such as for medical expenses and student tuition
  • Living in a low-tax state
  • Federal law (a moving target)

 

So about those pre-tax and post-tax (aka Roth) contributions to your DCP. If you choose pre-tax contributions, then your employer will make the contribution out of your income BEFORE your income is taxed. That means your taxable income decreases. When you withdraw the gains on your investment in retirement, they will be taxed.

If you choose post-tax contributions, your employer will make the contribution out of your income AFTER it’s taxed. So your taxable income doesn’t change. When you withdraw the gains on your investment in retirement, you won’t owe any more taxes on them.

In the spirit of evenly distributing your taxable earnings, if your taxable income is likely higher now than it will be in retirement, then pre-tax is the way to go. If your taxable income will likely be higher in retirement than it is now, then post-tax (roth) contributions are probably the way to go.

What if there’s probably not much difference between your taxable earnings now and in retirement? Go with post-tax. Why?

  • There’s a gradual upward trend in tax rates across time.
  • Also, your investment will hopefully grow across time, meaning you’d withdraw more than what you put in.

Retirement accounts generally require you to withdraw gradually, which evenly distributes your earnings (remember why that’s important?). That means these are pretty minute factors that don’t become important until all other things are equal.

If you’re still wavering over pre- or post- tax, cover your bases by splitting your contribution between the two. If your employer doesn’t offer this up front, simply go to HR part way through the year and ask to change your election (you can do this at any time, and there’s no fee or penalty).

Whew. Now that we’ve figured out that pre- vs post- tax beast, let’s get back to managing your DCP.

 

3. Find out if the company matches your contributions, and if so, how much.

4. Opt into the investment plan (talk to HR) and select your investments. Here’s some hints to help you pick:

    • Look for mutual funds—they are extremely diverse and thus relatively stable
    • Look for funds with longstanding companies like Vanguard. The Vanguard 500 is one of the best performing in history.
    • Look for funds labelled as lower-than-average risk and higher-than-average returns (you might have to Google the fund name).
    • Look at the historical performance compared to the overall stock market chart. If the fund stays close or slightly above the stock market, and doesn’t drop as severely as the stock market, it’s probably a great option.
    • Spread your contribution out over lots of different funds. Diversity is strength.

5. Contribute as much as you can. Do this even if you’re already contributing to a DBP. At the very least put in the maximum amount your company will match, because it’s free money. Aim for the legal maximum of $18,500/year.

6. If your organization offers both a 403(b) and a 457(b), split your contributions between the two, and aim to maximize both.

Pro Tip: Non-profit employers have the option of offering both 403(b) and 457(b) DCPs. If both are available, you can put $18,500/year into EACH account.

This makes a well-paid position within a non-profit organization (including state and education jobs) very competitive with high-salary private sector jobs. While your paycheck may appear smaller, you’re also getting a stellar opportunity to pay less taxes. So you can end up with a very similar amount of cash in hand. And many of these same organizations also offer a DBP to boot. Ask about the availability of 403(b), 457(b), and DBP accounts when you’re deciding between two jobs.

6. When you leave the organization, roll your DCP into your Betterment  account rather than into your next organization’s investment plan. You’ll pay far lower fees, and it’ll be way easier to manage your money effectively. It will show up in your Betterment account as a Traditional IRA or Roth IRA (more on that below). And don’t worry, they’ll keep track of whether you’ve already paid taxes on it or not.

6. Max out an IRA every year

So you’ve got a Safety Net, you’ve paid your debt off, and you’re maxing out your Defined Contribution Plan (or your company doesn’t have one). Well done! Now it’s time for IRAs.

Investment retirement accounts (IRAs) are like personal investment accounts for retirement. There’s more limitations on them than company-sponsored investment plans, but they still give you tax advantages and a great way to save. They exist because not every employer offers a DCP. Nevertheless, even people who have a DCP can use them. The legal annual contribution limit is $6,000 (or $7,000 if you’re age 50 or older).

The same pre- and post- tax concepts that apply to company investments plans also apply to IRAs. Pre-tax lowers your taxable income now and increases your taxable income in retirement. Post-tax gets taxed now, and decreases your taxable income in retirement.

In the IRA world, pre-tax is referred to as Traditional, and post-tax is called Roth.

The tax break on Traditional IRAs works a little bit differently than for company-sponsored retirement plans, but the effect is more or less the same. Instead of the investment being made before your income is taxed, you get to claim your Traditional IRA contributions as a tax deduction. So your earnings get taxed, come to you, go to a Traditional IRA, and then come back to you in the form of a tax return.

You are eligible for a Traditional IRA tax deduction if:

  • If you don’t have a DCP at work.
  • You have a DCP at work, and you earn less than $74,000 annually.

 

If you don’t qualify for a Traditional IRA tax deduction, then there’s zero reasons to have a Traditional IRA account. Instead, go for a Roth IRA. Just like a post-tax DCP, it won’t reduce your taxable income now, and the money will be tax-free when you withdraw it in retirement.

  1. Decide whether a Traditional or Roth account is right for you. As with company-sponsored programs, you can also choose to split the maximum legal amount between a Traditional and a Roth account.
  2. Open an IRA account. Once again,  Betterment is the best place to do this. Start a new account and choose “Retirement”. They’ll guide you through the rest.
  3. Put as much as you can in this account each year. Aim for the legal maximum. 

Pro Tip:You can contribute toward last year’s legal IRA limit all the way through April 15.

So from January 1- April 15 of each year, you can be super strategic about evening out your taxable earnings by choosing which tax year your Traditional IRA contribution will count toward. For Roth it won’t matter. No surprise here: Betterment  makes sorting this out a breeze.

7. Save for big purchases

Maxed out your annual IRA contribution and still have dough left over? Hot damn! It’s time to reward yourself with the fun stuff: saving up for your next big purchase!

  1. Start a Big Purchase account in Betterment. If it’s for Education, pick that option. One of our clients uses the Big Purchase account to save money to care for his parents in their golden years. In this case, a retirement plan would not be appropriate, since it’s not for YOUR retirement. (Most retirement plans restrict access to the funds until the account holder is of retirement age.)
  2. Decide how much you need and by when.
  3. Divide by the amount of time between now and then, and set up automatic recurring transfers from your checking account.
  4. Watch your nest egg grow!

8. Start a Individual Taxable Investment Account

If you don’t have a Big Purchase in mind, or you have some extra cash you want to put to work, then it’s time for our personal favorite: general investing!

Taxable investments technically aren’t as cool as company-sponsored or IRA investments because they aren’t protected from taxes as much. Taxes are taken out of your income before it’s handed to you, you invest it, and then when you withdraw it, any gains are also taxed. That said, you can access the money at any time without penalty, until retirement accounts. And it sure is fun to see your money spontaneously multiplying from one day to the next.

One really smart thing to do at this point is to start moving your wealth out of US Dollars. This is a great way to bring even more diversity into your wealth-building, and is a good cushion for times of recession. Real estate is the top choice for most; it’s a relatively stable and reliably growing market. It used to be that purchasing property was the only way to get into real estate. That comes with it’s own set of issues: saving for years, going into debt, keeping up with mortgage payments, and, of course, having your success hinging on just one or a handful of properties. Our favorite generation (Millenials, of course!) solved this issue with the rise of easily accessible online shared equity platforms.

Here again, we did plenty of research on the reputation, fees, and diversity of all the providers out there, and Fundrise comes out on top for us.

Other options for moving out of US Dollars are cryptocurrencies and foreign currencies, such as the Euro. Unlike many other countries, there are virtually no reasonable services available in the USA for holding foreign currency. Revolut is aiming to come to the USA soon, and will change all of that. Robinhood offers free purchasing of some cryptocurrencies.

If you want to stay in the stock market for now, Betterment far and away offers the best service for taxable investment accounts in that regard. Open a General Investing account. If you’ve input all your info into the RetireGuide, Betterment will set up the risk level for you. Research shows that there’s very little or no gain across the long term between medium- and high-risk investments, so we suggest sticking with medium.

In both cases, you’ll have the option to reinvest dividends. Choose this if you want all the gains from the account to stay in the account. If you choose not to reinvest dividends, you’ll get a little bit of income from it every month. This could be a good thing if you’re needing some extra passive income, but definitely not a good thing if you are already earning enough; it will increase your taxable income unnecessarily.

Congrats! You’re poised to build wealth.

If you’ve established your Safety Net and paid off your debt, you have a strong financial future ahead of you. If you’re maxing out your DCP, you’ll be ready for retirement in no time. Getting through all these steps every year? You’re well on your way to an early retirement!

 

A few things NOT to do

1. Don’t use Smart Saver.

Betterment isn’t perfect; the one service we don’t see much value in is their Smart Saver account. It offers about 2% interest on your savings every year. However, this amount is not guaranteed, since the 2% interest comes from stock and bond investments, and, like all investment accounts, your money is not guaranteed by the FDIC. This isn’t such a big issue for long-term investing like the accounts described in the previous steps above. But it’s not a great place for money you expect to need this month. Money market accounts guarantee the percentage interest, and they are FDIC insured. It’s a clear win in the savings account category.

2. Don’t withdrawal from DCP and IRA accounts.

You’ll get hit with some pretty harsh fees (there are some exceptions that reduce the loss, but it’s still a very last-resort option). This means that, while you should put as much as you can into retirement accounts, put it in knowing that you won’t use it again until you’re about 60 years of age.

3. Don’t fiddle with your taxable investment accounts more than necessary.

Every time you adjust the risk level or make a withdrawal, stocks get sold. Every time stocks are sold, you’ll owe taxes on any gains they made. Gains from stocks that you’ve owned for less than 6 months get extra heavily taxed. If you do need to make a change, rest assured knowing that Betterment’s complex algorithms go a long way to reducing taxes owed through some cool reallocation functions that leverage that 6-month rule.

4. Don’t get TOO crazy with individual stock/ currency purchases.

By owning portions of dozens of mutual funds which each have dozens of stocks in them, you probably already own a little bit of most companies on the stock market. That said, the more you get into finances, the more likely it is that you’ll eventually want to invest in more in a particular company. Some people eventually decide to diversify into cryptocurrencies. In this case, we suggest:

  1. Limiting yourself: don’t stop investing in your other accounts, and set an amount in advance
  2. Use an app that offers free trades, like Robinhood or M1
  3. Stick with stocks/currencies that are stable and have a long growth outlook

5. Don’t hesitate to reach out.

Got more questions about juggling your finances? Every Peace Corps affiliate gets a free coaching session. No spam, promise. We just love helping Peace Corps folks.

Don’t look at the price tag.

In the United States, well-reputed schools’ annual tuition, fees, and expenses per student easily exceed the median household income. Many students see those numbers and immediately rule out the possibility of ever attending a prestigious university. But it’s not that simple.

That annual cost estimate reflects the price of providing an education, along with the many other services on campus, to each student. But the trick is, it’s not generally an indicator of what students pay for their education. So don’t let the bulky number that pops up when you Google “how much does Stanford cost per year?” sumo your dreams quite yet.

“Don’t let those bulky tuition and fee figures sumo your dream education quite yet.”

The Sales Event of the Year

Think of the price tag on your education as the MSRP on a new car. It’s what’s written on the sticker, but it’s probably not what you’re going to pay. Because you’re almost inevitably eligible for a discount—or a few of them. In the world of higher education, your discounted price will be the result of two factors: your academic potential and the school’s endowment and research programs.

 

Academic Potential

Basically, academic potential is your likelihood for success in higher education. There’s no objective measurement for academic potential, which is why admissions officers exist. They use your application to make a guess at how likely you are to be successful at their school.

It’s helpful to keep in mind that schools are businesses. Like all organizations, they rely on income and reputation for their continued existence. And while it may seem counter intuitive, schools want students that will be wildly successful a lot more than they want students that will pay tuition and fees. 

That’s because their reputation rides on their graduates knocking the baseball of life out of the park. And reputation gets them the big bucks: more students, more grants, and more endowments. Which means they’d rather invest a full-ride scholarship in a student with stellar academic potential than accept full-price tuition and fees from a student with who may or may not do well. And that’s why academic potential matters.

 

Academic Potential Factor 1: The Numbers

Test scores and GPA used to be the silver bullets to academic potential, and incredible numbers are still the heavy hitters in determining academic potential. However, as grade inflation has reached epidemic proportions and more and more students clamor to get a degree, schools have begun to consider other factors more heavily when identifying academic potential. That’s where Factor 2 and 3 come into play.

 

Academic Potential Factor 2: The Story

What’s the point of those onerous motivation and personal history essays anyway? In short, admissions officers are searching for evidence that you have personal characteristics, such as passion, grit, tenacity, or inspiration, that will help you achieve tremendous success in academia (watch for our upcoming article on writing great application essays). A killer essay shows these characteristics through a compelling story.

Your story may be that you’ve been obsessed with solar panels since the age of 5, or that you grew up in a refugee camp and beat the odds as an immigrant in North Dakota. Whatever your story, writing it well is key. Yes, this system favors strong writers. It also favors people who are willing to put in the work and get the help they need to write a great essay. It’s the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that grit and tenacity they are looking for, and excellent practice for all the essays you’ll be writing for classes.

 

Academic Potential Factor 3: Diversity

Schools are expected (and sometimes required) to have a student body that more or less reflects the demographics of the region. Sure, it would be great if everyone began the race at the same starting line, and we could just reward those who were most successful without considering their gender, color, or income. But as it stands, our social system givessome group a significant head start through no virtue of their own .  Ensuring that a representative proportion of those who had to start 10 paces back get a chance to keep running the race is the least we can do.

In addition, many donors of scholarship funding seek to support individuals that are overcoming this in-built systematic social discrimination by getting an education.

That means for each of the below that applies to you, you’ll get a bonus point or two in the academic potential department:

  • Female
  • Racial minority
  • Ethnic minority
  • Non-native English speaker
  • Low income
  • LGBTQ
  • Immigrant
  • Non-US citizen

 

Academic Potential Factor 4: The Hole-in-One

Counter-intuitively, all-star athleticism buys you winner-takes-all academic potential. Even if you never really learned to read well. (This only applies to undergraduate degrees. Graduate program admission remain uncorrupted by collegiate sports.) This bizarre exception is so widely practiced, in fact, that it became a massive back-door entry to academia, which was only recently uncovered in this blow-out scandal.

That is not to say that excellent scholars are not or cannot be outstanding athletes. That is to say that, as previously mentioned, schools are ultimately businesses that rely on income and a great reputation. Crazy good athletes attract huge crowds of paying fans and loads of press. And they go on to professional sports careers that schools are proud to add to their list of achievements. So if you’re high-achieving in both sports and academics, more points for you! Leverage your athletic prowess to get your dream education.

And if you’re just high-achieving in sports…well, you still get all the points. And the university will take care of the academic stuff for you.

 

Academic Potential in Sum

Academic potential is a game of both quality and quantity. Think Malala. She’s a female, low-income, non-native English speaker minority immigrant with outsized academic performance and a story of grit and determination so inspiring as to make her a household name. And she’s been offered full scholarships and honorary degrees at renown institutions around the globe.

You needn’t narrowly escape death to be admitted to school, but the point is:

  • the better your GPA…
  • and the stronger your test scores and…
  • the more compelling your story…
  • and the less American-born middle-class white male you are…
  • or, of course, the more likely you are to get recruited to pro sports…

…the higher your academic potential.

 

So what does academic potential get you?

 

A Funded Education

 

Endowments

Scholarships. Fellowships. Grants. We all want them. But where does the money come from? In large part, from endowments.

Endowments are the institution’s cache of funds. It comes from myriad sources, including sizable alumni donations and bequeathed estates. Many donors specify who their donation should support. (For example, students of a particular minority, geography, or in a particular field of study; this is another reason why diversity helps your academic potential.)

In general, the more reputable the school, the bigger the endowment. And the bigger the endowment, the more students get discounts on their tuition, fees, and expenses. (We get this question frequently: Very few scholarships hand you a check; they just cancel out the cost on your bill. That means you can’t, for example, live in a hyper-cheap apartment and send the extra money home. You just have to live in the dorm room that’s been paid for you on campus.)

Research Programs

In addition to endowments, reputable institutions also win funding for large research programs. That means teaching assistantships and research assistantships. In these cases the student becomes a type of employee of the school, with compensation being cancellation of your tuition and fees (including health insurance) and maybe even a living stipend paid directly to you. 

 

So What’s the Sale Price?

The most prestigious schools have massive endowments and concomitant generous funding opportunities, and they also charge the most for an education. That means that, ironically, a steep price tag may well be an indicator of abundant opportunities at a full-ride education.

The students with the highest academic potential at the schools with the largest endowments get the steepest discounts on their education. If you’re a golden ticket, like Malala, you’ll probably have multiple full ride scholarships to Ivy League schools to choose from.

So don’t pay too much attention to the ticket price.  Far more important is the percentage of the student body that gets financial assistance, and on average, what percentage of their total costs are covered. From there, consider your academic potential. If you’re above or below average in terms of academic potential, then your discount probably will be, too.

Watch for our upcoming article on maximizing your academic potential in your application process.

 

“It was so great to talk to a returned volunteer that has COSed and found her way. As a current volunteer I struggle with the ‘whats next’ and it was incredible to talk to Meg and be frank about my feelings knowing that she gets it. She really knew how to give me great relevant advice that is setting me up for success down the road.” -PCV Fiji

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“If you’ve decided that it is indeed time for you to do a graduate degree, congrats! But should you be considering an international degree? “

 

Grad school abroad in 2019?

Here’s the factors you should consider.

 

Have you ever considered going to graduate school in another country? Here’s the low-down on why grad school abroad may or may not be a great fit for you.

Before you go any further, make sure you read our other articles on grad school. They’ll help you figure out when and if to go to graduate school.

If you’ve decided that it is indeed time for you to do a graduate degree, congrats! But should you be considering an international degree? Here’s all the important factors to consider when comparing international and domestic degrees.

 

1. Best reputation

Having the name of the best program in the business on your resume makes a huge difference. No employer is going to research the unknown school you attended to figure out the quality of your education. They’re going to go with the candidate whose education they know is cutting-edge.

So before you do anything else, find out what academic institutions are the best in the world for your area of study. Be aware that many U.S. resources will release “best schools” rankings that only consider U.S. schools. This is one of the reasons many Americans incorrectly believe that the best education is always available in the USA.

Find out why the top 5 or so are ranked highly, and which of these factors are of high priority to your career. For example, if you know you want to be an international aid nurse, then a nursing program with an international or community development focus might be your top pick, even if it’s not #1 in the rankings.

Also consider your personal well-being. If your social life circles around diversity and inclusion, check the student demographics. If long winters depress you, think twice about Canadian and Northern European schools.

 

2. Price

American schools are notoriously expensive compared to those in just about every other country. Many students are able to pay international school fees out of pocket without loans. Given the massive American student debt crisis, loans are a bullet well worth dodging. (Watch for our upcoming post on grad school costs!)

The Golden Rules of Grad School dictate that you shall not pay for your education. This generally holds true internationally as well, with some important qualifications. Since grad programs are generally affordable in other countries, there are fewer mechanisms in place to enable students to pay for school. As such, you may find at foreign schools you get e.g. all fees waived, but no stipend to cover personal expenses. Local students likely work to offset these expenses. As a foreigner, you will likely be allowed to legally work on campus only.  Under-the-table work opportunities vary widely from one country to the next. Not all foreign schools, even the most well-reputed ones, are approved for US student bank loans. Invest some time into thoroughly understanding what financial situation you’ll find yourself in.

 

3. Length

International graduate programs may be shorter than those of American schools. This is particularly true for MBA programs; the standard in the USA is 2 years, while in Europe and Asia it is just one. The length of the program affects how many years you’ll be paying for fees and living expenses. Even more importantly, it affects how many years you’ll be out of the workforce. The lost income (and the interest it doesn’t generate between now and retirement) is by far the greatest monetary cost of each additional year of schooling.

 

4. Networks

One of the most important aspects of grad school is getting to know and work with the current and future leaders of the field. This is another reason why #1 is so important. You’ll develop personal relationships with the most widely respected academics and professionals in your field. And don’t forget to be nice to your classmates; within 5 years they’ll be in the position to help you get a job. Programs that foster strong classmate connections, support alumni networks, and help you get placed in your first job position give you a leg up in this regard. Networks—not applications–are how most great jobs happen.

 

5. Desired future location

The network of people you build in grad school will inevitably spread out. But most will tend to stay in the economic region where they’ve studied. Consequently, that’s the region where you’ll have the most network opportunities. And as I just mentioned, networking, not applying, it what gets the job. That’s why it’s smart to go to grad school in the world region you want to live in, or at least one you would be happy to live it. So if you really want to settle in the USA, Europe may not be the place for your degree program.

This isn’t to say that you’re sentenced to work in the country where you earned your degree. Rather, the opportunities to make a leap across the pond will be fewer and farther between, and you may initially have to compromise on your ideal to get your foot in the door. There’s also plenty of international organizations that will have you globetrotting, or maybe even getting assigned to an international post.

 

6. Orientation toward employment

As we’ve discussed in previous posts, the American education system is almost completely unfocused on developing employable skills in its students. Many European grad programs take a much more modern and practical approach, in which immersion in the industry is a significant portion of students’ education. Look for professional placements, internships, and first-job rates in the program descriptions. Take note, this is applicable to professional studies (e.g. Business Administration). Approaches to academic studies (e.g. Literature) tend to be, true to form, academic, on both sides of the pond.

 

7. Language of instruction

The most well-reputed programs tend to teach in English to accommodate the significant international student population. So if you’ve followed #1 above, you’ll likely have an English-language option. This might be a bit disappointing to you polyglots. If it is, dig around the Internet or ask the program coordinator about options to take courses in the local language. You’ll likely have to prove fluency in order to be eligible. Importantly, also ask if you’ll retain the option of switching into English-taught courses as needed. It might bruise your pride a bit, but this is a great option to have should you find your grades at risk in a particularly challenging course.

 

8. Degree rigor equivalency

Just because the degree carries the same name doesn’t mean the same amount of work went into earning it. For example, in Europe, Masters programs are quite challenging and rigorous, while PhDs are relatively quick add-ons. The in USA it’s the opposite: Master’s are pretty quick and easy, and PhDs are in for the long haul. In the end, a European PhD holder and an American PhD holder will be equally qualified. But Masters holders might find themselves caught off-guard. Your hard-earned European Masters will likely be underappreciated in the USA. And your American Masters could mean you’re in for some major catch-up work to get the most out of a European PhD program. Don’t let this be a deal-breaker. Just be aware of it and ready to adapt as needed.

 

9. Internationalism of your field of work

If your field of study has the word “international” in it, then studying outside of your home country is a two-for-one deal. You get a degree AND some relevant experience in cultural adaptation. The weight of this factor varies with the extent of your previous experience abroad, and how similar your study environment is to your future work environment. Plan to study International Business and never been abroad? A program in any developed country, and especially in an urban area, will add significant cred to your resume. Just got back from Peace Corps and plan to study International Development? You’ve already got all the international street cred you need. Of course, if you want to work for the European aid organizations, showing them you can actually live happily in Europe can only help you.

 

Overwhelmed?

If the above list helps you identify a slam-dunk graduate program, huzzah! More than likely, however, you find yourself grappling with a toss-up of advantages and disadvantages. If that’s the case, it may be helpful to consider that the above are generally listed in order of importance (greatest to least). That means that whichever program is best reputed should seriously get your attention, while the internationalism of your field of work only warrants a bonus point or two. Of course, your unique circumstances may mean one factor has an outsized impact.

If you’d like our thoughts and input on your particular situation, please schedule a call with us! It’s totally free, and we won’t try to sell you stuff. We just like helping Peace Corps folks.

 

“It was so great to talk to a returned volunteer that has COSed and found her way. As a current volunteer I struggle with the ‘whats next’ and it was incredible to talk to Meg and be frank about my feelings knowing that she gets it. She really knew how to give me great relevant advice that is setting me up for success down the road.” -PCV Fiji

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Should you get a graduate degree?

You’re thinking of going back to school, but you’re not sure if you’re ready.

Is the expense worth it?  Will a degree get you where you want to go?  Which degree should you pursue?

 

Follow your gut

Should you get a graduate degree? The short answer is: Until the Golden Rules of Graduate School are in place, it’s probably not the right time.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of alternatives to graduate school, ways to figure out if it’s right for you, and methods for accelerating yourself towards those Golden Rules.

In this article we highlight 12 extracurriculars that no prospective student should ever overlook.

 

Going through the steps we outline here will help you in 3 important ways:

 

  1. If you have a lot of interests or don’t know what your career goals are: 

This is absolutely the only way to get clear answers to those questions. The key to success here is to make this process an exploratory, “safe to fail” and “safe to learn” experience. Realizing that you actually hate the day-to-day of your lifelong career dream is a GREAT THING. Spending money on classes that ended up being meh is absolutely awesome. Why? Because you gathered crucial information—about yourself and the world around you—that you will inevitably use in the future. Think of it as putting together a puzzle or going on a treasure hunt. Knowing what doesn’t work is just as important as knowing what does.

If you’re like me, you really eschew the idea of a career goal. Why focus in on one thing that may not ever happen? You’d rather keep your eyes open to all the amazing possibilities and let opportunities come to you organically. DON’T lose that mindset! It is becoming increasingly crucial in today’s job economy. However, DO channel your powerful curiosity through the process described in this article before you let it burst onto your professional scene. You’ll find that you’re able to explore a lot more at a much more reasonable cost. Jobs and grad programs are huge sucks on time and money. Life is just too short and too full of opportunities to give everything on the buffet 1+ years of your attention out of simple curiosity.

 

  1. If you know you need a boost, but you’re not sure whether a degree is the answer, or which degree is best: 

One of these options will probably do the trick. Many times, just following the steps below is powerful enough to catapult your career to the next level. This is especially true if you pursue several of the options we suggest. Why? All of these activities will give you the confidence and foundational knowledge to speak intelligently on a topic and quickly learn more. And the best part is, unlike a grad degree, none of these will suck away years of your life and/or thousands of dollars.

 

  1. If grad school really is the answer to your career goals:

Then it will become clear to you through this process. As you become increasingly involved in your field of interest, you’ll realize where most of the job opportunities lie, what skills you need to move forward, and where all leaders in the field got their degrees. You’ll learn about scholarships, internships, and organizations that aren’t widely known. You’ll build a network. And all of this will foster your advancement organically, including helping you discover your ideal grad program.

 

Find the answer

 

Step 1: Gear Up

This step is especially important if you can’t decide between your many job and degree options, or you just don’t know which one is best for you. That clarity is crucial to making a graduate program worthwhile.

First, establish a running list of the job fields and degree programs you’re considering.  You can add and remove items from this list whenever you want. Ultimately, the goal is to whittle it down to just one shining star option that you’re absolutely in love with. This process will guide you toward that goal via dedicating some of your free time to the kind of work or study you’re considering. If you’re like most people, your shining star is not currently on your list. But don’t worry—it will show up!

 

Step 2: Get Your Feet Wet

OK, you’ve got your list and you’re ready to get started. Find one way to explore each of the potential options on your list in a free or low commitment way. We’ve listed a few ideas below. Some of these ideas are better suited to different topic areas than others, and you don’t need to try all of them. If these low-commitment activities begin to feel anything less than exciting, abort mission and mark that option off the list. Keep the ones that become a highlight of your week. Try to be cognizant of the fact that a dismal environment can make even the most intriguing of topics miserable. So if the professor is awful or you can’t find a club in your area, give it another shot before striking that option off the list.

 

  • Audit a class

University professors typically welcome people who are truly interested in their course material. If there’s a community college or university near you, find the course schedule online. Email the professor in advance or show up early to class. Explain that you’re interested in the topic and ask if you could sit in on one or more days of class. If they give you the opportunity to submit homework and tests, take it.

 

  • Informational interviewing

Find people that work in or have previously worked in your field of interest. Let them know you’re considering something similar and ask them to share their insights. What tasks do you perform daily? What’s your favorite parts of the job? Least favorite parts? What do you wish you had done differently? Who else would you recommend I speak with?

 

  • Join a club or Meetup

If there’s not one in your area, try creating a Meetup group and see who joins.

 

  • Online skill building

There’s plenty of free and low-cost resources online to brush up on your skill set and get your brain back in gear. Almost all jobs require computer skills; if you aren’t proficient with Excel and Powerpoint, it’s time to get started. Learning the basics of online communication platforms (like Slack and other project management softwares) and more advanced computer programs (Photoshop, GIS, Premiere Video Editor, Articulate, Access) will put you another step ahead. Vanessa Da Costa, who offers career services for those in public health-related fields (and discounts for RPCVs!) has a regularly updated list of online learning resources. Khan Academy, YouTube, Esri, LinkedIn Learning, Udacity, SAS Programming, SwirlStats, edX, and Open 2 Study are great places to start.

 

Step 3: Jump In

You’ve marked some ideas off your list, and hopefully you’ve added some new ideas too that you’ll be testing. For those that have already made it past Step 1, the next test is to publicly commit some time and/or money and see how much you still enjoy it. We’ve listed a few more ideas below.

As you try these out, notice how you feel. Do you find yourself getting excited about what you’re hearing? Dreaming of all the ways the information is applicable in real life? Learning more in your free time just because? Are you feeling invigorated? Do you find yourself naturally connecting and forming friendships with the people in this field? These are great signs; on to Step 3! In contrast, if the topic feels like a chore, or you can’t wait to get out of there, then mark it off the list. If you’re not excited now, you definitely won’t be after graduate school.

 

  • Take a course

Sign up for a class at your local community center, county adult education office, university, or college. Alternatively, there’s lots of classes available online. But be sure to do your homework! A weak instructor can make the most riveting of topics miserable. For online courses, find out how much face time you’ll actually have with your instructor and classmates. Interacting with people will give you a much better feel for how much you enjoy the topic.

 

  • Attend a conference

Find a conference on your topic area of interest and register. The level of focus is important here. If you’re broadly interested in community development but not sure where you’d like to go with it, don’t go to a conference on modeling groundwater contaminant fluxes in developing communities. Instead, look for an event schedule that covers topics ranging from community water resources to maternal health to sustainable farming to community entrepreneurship. If you’re a groundwater modeler considering community development, then the former might be just right for you.

 

  • Volunteer

Whether you’re interested in community organizing, teaching, or corporate marketing, there’s likely an opportunity to volunteer out there. While an opportunity to try your hand at what you actually want to do would be great, it’s also good to take on a supporting role that allows you to see a lot of the different activities happening in the organization (administrative assistants know everything). A lot of organizations don’t publish volunteer opportunities, but may well be open to having a volunteer. Their primary concern is that you won’t get in the way or cause trouble. Be clear that your priority is to learn and assist without impeding them in any way.

 

  • Intern

Similar to volunteering, except that the organization has recognized that the work you do will actually benefit their operations. You’ll be asked to commit for a given period of time. In exchange, look for some type of reimbursement of your expenses (mileage, free lunches, lodging, etc.).

 

  • Consult

Another step up from interning, and a more appropriate term for anyone that brings relevant experience to the table. Typically paid, but in some cases (like Farmer to Farmer) only expenses are covered.

 

Step 4: Grab Your Goggles

Peace Corps folks are by nature Jacks and Jills of all trades. We are also really used to getting done what needs to be done without considering whether we want to or enjoy doing it. That can make it really hard to home in on a great career choice. If you’ve gotten through Steps 1 and 2 and it still feels like there’s a million different ways you could go, then it’s time for some outside perspective. This can feel like an unnecessary cost, but it’s a lot cheaper than realizing 3 years from now that you don’t like your job.

Peace Corps Transitions by Songgaar has an Career Assessment that’s especially designed for Peace Corps folks. You can add it to your wishlist, request pro-bono services, or even book a free session.

 

Step 5: Start Swimming

You’ve been taking classes, volunteering, interviewing, and learning a ton. You’ve added things to your list that you didn’t know existed before, and you’ve marked off plenty of things that might be fun once in a while, but aren’t meant to pay your bills. Now you’ve got just one or two items left that you never seem to get tired of doing. That means it’s time to up the ante by committing even more time or money to those things. We’ve listed a few ideas below for getting invested. You should love the things on your list enough that these suggestions sound like a freaking blast. If your initial reaction is more along the lines of “ugh, that’s a lot of work” then go back to Step 3. It’s better to take your time now, while you’re in the “safe to learn” zone, than try to backtrack later.

 

  • Part-time work

Computer-based work naturally lends itself to part time schedules. There’s tons of writing, coding, teaching, marketing, and design jobs out there with flexible work schedules. For other fields, you may have to take a non-directly related position that nonetheless gives you tons of exposure to the day-to-day in your field of interest (think admin assistant).

 

  • Complete a Certification

A certification typically consists of a series of classes with some time of award or title granted at the end. This could be anything from an EMT certification to a Project Management certification. It typically takes some time and you have to pay out of pocket. May be online or in person. Bonus points if you’re currently employed and can make a case for your employer to pay for the classes.

 

  • Intensive short courses

Similar to a certification, except the coursework is done intensively over a short period of time. Short courses are typically done in person. This might feel more inconvenient than an online course, but getting facetime with future potential colleagues is a massive advantage. This is also a very unique opportunity to gauge how much you enjoy being immersed in your topic of interest for multiple full workdays on end. Intensive short courses are usually on pretty specific topics. By this point you should have enough context in the field to know what specific topics you need and want to learn more about. If you don’t, go back to Step 3.

 

You did it!!

Take a moment to turn around and enjoy the view from the incredibly beautiful mountain you just climbed. You’ll know you’re where you’re supposed to be because you loved every minute of the hike, AND it got you where you wanted to go. 

 

So, should you get a graduate degree?

What did you learn? What would you change? Comment below, or email us anytime! We read and respond to every single one. peacecorpstransitions@songgaar.com

 

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“It was so great to talk to a returned volunteer that has COSed and found her way. As a current volunteer I struggle with the ‘whats next’ and it was incredible to talk to Meg and be frank about my feelings knowing that she gets it. She really knew how to give me great relevant advice that is setting me up for success down the road.” -PCV Fiji

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“Think about it: we all do everything we do because we wish for happiness.”

Yes, You Really Can Change Your Life Forever

How’s that New Year’s Resolution going for you?

If that answer is….um, not so much…here’s some great news.

Think about it: we all do everything we do because we wish for happiness. Why did you decide to lose weight/meditate/earn more money in 2019?

You might say it’s so you can enjoy longer life, a more peaceful mindset, or your dream chateau in southern France. And why do you want to do that? Because it will help you experience HAPPINESS. 

 

So if your resolution is on the rocks, consider ditching it and taking Harvard’s advice instead. Their landmark 75-year study yielded one extremely significant result. And they have really practical recommendations for making it happen. Now that’s a resolution well worth your effort.

 

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“It was so great to talk to a returned volunteer that has COSed and found her way. As a current volunteer I struggle with the ‘whats next’ and it was incredible to talk to Meg and be frank about my feelings knowing that she gets it. She really knew how to give me great relevant advice that is setting me up for success down the road.” -PCV Fiji

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Update Your College MO

 

Higher education’s 20-year identity crisis is verging on an acute case of multiple personality disorder. Degrees are increasingly costly and increasingly expected, but the payoff for having one is steeply declining.

And this state of flux isn’t going to be slowing down any time soon. So how do we deal?

It’s time to give the tired old college advice you’ve heard a million times a major face lift.  

 

“Degrees are increasingly costly and increasingly expected, but the payoff for having one is steeply declining.”

Old: What degree you get isn’t as important as long as you get a degree.

New: Don’t get a degree until you’re clear on why you’re doing it and where it can take you.

As we’ve discussed in The Decline of the Higher Degree Part 1 and Part 2, having a degree for the sake of having one is immensely expensive in terms of time and money, and won’t necessarily make you attractive to employers.

 

Old: Study what you love.

New: Study what will lead to a life that you love.

For most of us, an important part of the life we love is making good money. Some of us make money having fun, and others make money doing something rewarding to pay for our fun. If you’re already doing something you love, career outlook resources can shed light on how likely it is that you can make money doing it. If you haven’t had the opportunity to get neck-deep into a passion project, or lots of things seem interesting to you, then career coaching tools (like our signature career assessment) are key. They will help you figure out what work you will enjoy and make good money doing, so you don’t end up with a PhD and mounds of debt in something that seemed like a good idea.

 

Old: Community colleges don’t offer the same quality experience as 4-year institutions.

New: Completing your first two years at a community college is almost always a good idea.

It’s true that going away to a 4-year institution offers maturity and life skills that sticking with your local community college simply doesn’t. If you’ve managed a full ride scholarship, definitely take it. However, if you’re paying out of pocket or with loans, the cost of delaying those life lessons for 2 years is minimal compared to the huge cost savings in dollars. And the classes are nearly identical.

Hungry to get out on your own? Select a community college near your coveted 4-year university, or pick one from this list of the best in the country, and move there. A part-time job will make the additional expenses doable.

 

Old: The reputation of your school doesn’t matter, just make sure it’s a good fit for you.

New: Choose an institution that has a great reputation in your chosen field.

Name dropping works. Having the name of an institution that is widely respected in your field on your resume is a big flashing sign for potential employers that you can run with the big dogs and keep up. Note, this is not the same as going to a school that is generally well known, like Ivy league institutions, and figuring out your major later. The key is the reputation of your specific major/program, not the school in general. Not sure what your field/major/program is? Stick with the community college classes until you’ve figured it out.

 

Old: Colleges are just as good as universities, and sometimes even better.

New: Universities generally offer more opportunity than colleges.

Small schools like to tout class sizes and student-professor relationships as exceeding the opportunities of large institutions. In fact, those large classes have break-out sessions with teacher aides who are often more helpful than the professor anyway. This is just one small example of how universities do a better job of showing you what you can do with your degree. Being around world-class researchers, published academics, cutting-edge research institutions, international conferences, and graduate students in your field makes a huge difference in your vision of where you’d like to go from here, and the tangible opportunities that open up to you.

 

Old: You’ll probably have to pay out of pocket for a Master degree.

New: Get paid to complete a Masters or PhD program.

Or at least talk to us before you do it.

 

Old: Go straight from undergrad to graduate school, just get it over with.

New: Don’t start grad school until you know precisely what you want from it and why.

Check out our recent articles on this. Believe us, we’ve been there done that.

 

Now what?

You feel stuck where you are, but we’re telling you not to get another degree. So what do you do? Check out our article Should You Get a Grad Degree?

 

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The Declining Benefits of Degrees Part 2

cost vs. benefit

Things have changed

If you’re reading this, you’re probably considering going back to school after Peace Corps. And it’s a good thing you’re doing your research, because a lot has changed in the past few years. Before you dive into this week’s article, make sure you’re caught up on Are You Ready for Graduate School?5 Reasons in Favor of Grad School and 4 Against ItThe True Cost of Graduate School, and The Declining Benefits of Degrees Part 1.

 

 

 

How it used to be

During the Baby Boomer generation, Bachelor degrees earned a reputation for being the best way to launch a successful career. So the Boomers pushed their kids into Bachelor programs. It didn’t matter so much what degree they earned. Almost any degree, from any institution, was a ticket to success.

The scales tip

The message definitely got through. As demand for college admission went up, the cost of education skyrocketed. Yet no matter how much debt students and families incurred, the Bachelor remained worth the promise of a good career later on. The pressure for students to achieve increasingly fell to professors. Rigor began its descent and grade inflation was born. By the time early Millennials were finishing the Bachelors, there were more degree holders on the market than there were jobs for degree holders.

So Millennials and their Boomer parents shot higher. If one degree was good, two or three will really be great, right? Master and Doctorate degrees began to follow in the footsteps of the Bachelors. High demand bloated prices and reduced rigor. For example, a PhD previously represented not simply completed coursework, but also a demonstrated ability to conduct complex research that pushed the bounds of human knowledge. Now, you can obtain a PhD with 2 years of part time online coursework.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The results

Employers have responded to the glut of degrees on the market by taking them for granted. Costly Bachelor’s degrees join the rank of basic prerequisites, along with the likes of high school diplomas and typing. Master degrees are the new Bachelors. The salaries that all degrees fetch have fallen accordingly, and those without degrees are confined to a shrinking ultra-low wage sector of the economy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is degree inflation. The middle man—students—have purchased their degrees at great expense, only to discover that employers are no longer willing to buy at that price. It has brought us record levels of Masters and Doctorate holders and a record-breaking national student debt crisis. A record number of people hold degrees that their employers don’t require—either because they are overqualified for the work, or because they switched fields. And a record number of degree holders are unemployed or have dropped out of the job market completely. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If anyone saw this coming, they didn’t update their career advice to Millennials.

 

 

 

 

Supply and demand theory tells us this extreme situation will eventually equilibrate. As the cost of a degree exceeds the benefit of having it, students will choose alternative career paths. Degrees will become rarer. Employers will become more willing to hire people with less education and pay more for degrees.

 

 

Now what?

 

 

 

In the meantime, how do we navigate this mess? For the answer, watch for our upcoming article on Updating Your College Modus Operandi.

This is stuff you need to know that no one is talking about.

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The Declining Benefits of Degrees Part 1

educator-employer disconnect

In this series, we’re catching you up on the many shifts within the educational world over the past few years and what it means for you. If you’re considering school after Peace Corps, you won’t want to miss out on this.

For the sake of discussion, let’s call students a middle man. They “purchase” degrees from universities, and “sell” them to employers to make a “profit” a.k.a. making a living.

This is a convenient arrangement for universities. Students are, by definition, newbies. Most of them don’t know what they should be looking for in an education, and they rely on the university make this decision for them. By the time students know what they needed from their education, it’s too late to go back. And there’s an endless stream of new customers in line behind them waiting to get a degree.

This disconnect, along with a steady rise in demand for higher degrees, has allowed universities to get pretty lazy about customer satisfaction.

who’s the customer? 

On the surface, a university’s customer appears to be the student. Universities have done a great job satisfying this customer—grade inflation, reduced rigor, gorgeous campus amenities, and a suite of collegiate experiences keep students happily paying rapidly rising prices for degrees of decreasing professional value.

But universities have almost completely ignored the ultimate customer and end-user of their degrees: employers. Most of us unquestioningly accept that the “real world” is totally different from what they teach in school. But why should it be this way? Universities claim to make us competitive job candidates by preparing us for the real world of work. When they consistently fail in this, does their product still have value for us?

The common response: school teaches you how to think.  This is correct and good. But is that all we can reasonably expect from multiple years of full-time study? Various cases of successful education-to-employer pathways around the world would suggest otherwise.

career students

Universities train students to be successful in universities. This has fueled the growing trend of career students, who perpetually study because they are proficient academics and feel unprepared to do anything else.  Career students often end up with PhDs, which allows them to become professors. They train up the next generation of academics without ever having experienced other work environments. The academic world isolates itself further.

The number of careers well-suited to academic training are precious few. For everyone else, the school-work divide means their first employer has to start from square one training them to operate in a professional setting, just like their non-degree holding counterparts. The amount employers are willing to pay for their degree decreases accordingly.

That’s not the whole story. Stay tuned for Part 2, and what you can do about it.

 

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Grad School After Peace Corps

Most Peace Corps Volunteers plan to pursue a graduate degree at some point. But should you do it now, or later?

If you’re thinking about going to grad school after Peace Corps, then you won’t want to miss this series on Grad School After Peace Corps. We’re going to be sharing insight from people who have been there and bringing to light the most frequently overlooked factors that you won’t want to miss when making your decision.

Over the next few weeks we’ll be exploring Reasons to (Not) Go to Grad School After Peace Corps and The True Cost of Graduate School After Peace Corps. But first, let’s find out:

The Two Golden Rules of Grad School After Peace Corps 

Wondering if now is the time for grad school? The answer is easier than you think. The two golden rules of grad school are (almost always) an easy litmus test for whether you should be hitting the books not.

(Watch for our upcoming articles to learn about the ever-important exceptions!)

 

1. You know exactly what you want from grad school

This is you if you…

  • have already worked in a few aspects of your chosen field
  • know what you like and don’t like to do within your field
  • love the field and plan to continue in it
  • have reached a point where you can’t easily advance without more education
  • know exactly what program will best serve your career and what you need to focus on within it 
  • know there is a market for your degree in the area you want to live

This is NOT you if you…

  • feel really drawn to X field and want to learn more about it
  • figure you’d be good at it/enjoy it since you (fill in the blank)
  • just want to get all your education over with ASAP
  • are interested in so many programs, you can’t decide!

 

2. You aren’t paying

 

This is you if…

  • you got a full scholarship
  • the school will pay your fees, health insurance, and living stipend if you work on campus (e.g. teaching assistant, research assistant)
  • your employer is paying
  • the program is at a non-USA school and living and school expenses are extremely affordable (make sure your degree will be valid wherever you want to eventually live)

This is NOT you if you…

  • are eligible for loans
  • have saved enough money to pay for the program (exception: non-USA schools)
  • can keep working to pay for the program

Of course there’s exceptions to every rule. We’ll talk more about those in our upcoming articles. Don’t miss it!

 

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