Education Alternatives: Free & Low Cost

Free & Low Cost Education AlternativesYou may be in a career that you love and want to enhance your skills to advance, or just keep your job (in today’s economy). You may want to change career paths all together (you hear of highly stressed corporate executives that go back to school to become a chef). Or, you may want to venture into a side business by enhancing a skill that is currently a hobby and earn extra cash with something you love (maybe photography or writing is your passion).

Enhancing the skills you already have and gaining new ones can only help you in your future career and you may even enjoy learning something new along the way. While some careers are better developed through formal degrees and/or certifications, there are also free and low cost alternatives for many career paths.


Staying in your current career path:

In your current career path, is there a certification that would make you more valuable to your current employer or marketable in your field? This is valuable in IT jobs and project management field, for example. Often in fields that change rapidly, a new or updated certification will show that you have been able to “keep up with the times”.

Have you thought of perusing a degree or advanced degree in your field? Although this endeavor can prove rather expensive, in many cases it will pay off in the future. If you are already well established in your field, staying current may be less expensive with a conference or course covering a new topic or one you are less familiar with. Showing that you have put an effort into learning something new will appeal to (and if often required by) many employers.


Seeking a new career path:

Are you still passionate about a career path you chose many years ago? Did you ended up in a career that no longer has the future you once expected? Learning a new career that interests you may be a security measure that would be smart in your situation. You may want to consider paths that are similar to your current career, but are more in demand at the present time. On the other hand, you may be interested in a completely different path. There are situations where even with less salary, a career path is appealing for other reasons (less stress, location, etc.). Consider all your options, and then decide if the demand and prospective income in that field is what you are looking for.


Starting a side job:

Are you a baker? Have you thought of making cakes or pies to sell? Maybe a side photography business is more your style. Have you thought about earning a little extra cash by fixing or upgrading your friends and neighbor’s computers? Maybe you enjoy writing and starting a blog is something that would appeal to you. Have you ever thought of tutoring kids after school? There are many options to earn a little cash on the side while doing what you enjoy as a hobby.

We can all improve our skills and learn something new. Some skills require a lot of practice. Often it is additionally helpful (even for the most proficient) to get input or a different point of view from someone else. Highly skilled surgeons still attend conferences to learn new techniques and find out about new scientific findings. Famous TV chefs are able to learn new skills and techniques from their peers. Artists are always perfecting and enhancing their skills. And, IT professionals always have something new to learn, given their quickly changing profession.


Free and lower priced learning options:

We are familiar with higher learning options; consisting of colleges, universities and technical school. In some fields these may be the best or even only alternative for increasing some skills (especially when degrees are required). On the other hand, there are also lower priced and even free options available to further your skills.



creativeLive offers online video courses, with the main categories including: photography, business, software, design, video & film, audio and lifestyle. The courses typically last between 1 to 3 days each, and are held from 9am to 4pm PST. I took one of their 3 day courses on photography and was very impressed with the quality of the instruction, content and the overall class.

Costs: The courses are free to watch if you are able to watch them live, during the filming. They are then available to download for a fee after the course ends. The fee does vary depending on the course and course length. If this is something that you are interested in, there is usually a discount during the live course and I have seen sales on the classes at other times as well.


The Great Courses:

Although most of these courses are more on the personal enhancement category, there are some videos that could help enhance your career or side career. The courses are available in DVD, downloadable video and audio. The categories of courses include: Science & Mathematics, History, Fine Arts & Music, Religion & Theology, Philosophy & Intellectual History, Literature & English Language, Business & Economics, Better Living, Professional and High School. I have viewed a few of these courses and have been happy with the quality of instruction and content of them.

In a recent interview with Bill Gates on 60 Minutes, he showed his extensive library of The Great Courses DVDs. I believe this shows that even someone I think of as highly educated and successful, still desires to continue learning. Maybe this desire is one reason he’s so successful.

Costs: The cost of The Great Courses also varies greatly. DVDs that are mailed to you are the most expensive, downloadable videos are less expensive and the audio versions are even less expensive (if available). There are also frequently sales on the courses, so keep your eyes open if one of the courses interests you. Additionally, I was able to find the audio versions much less expensive if you download them from . The down side to this lower price is that you only have the audio version as an option and no supplemental books are included. In some cases this may be a good option, for other courses you may prefer a video version with supplemental printed materials.



Coursera is another online presence that seeks to provide higher education alternatives for free. The courses are offered through highly respected Universities worldwide. The wide range of course topics include: Arts, Biology & Life Sciences, Business & Management, Chemistry, Computer Science, Economics & Finance, Education, Energy & Earth Sciences, Engineering, Food & Nutrition, Healthy & Society, Humanities, Information (Tech & Design), Law, Mathematics, Medicine, Music/Film/Audio, Physical & Earth Sciences, Physics, Social Sciences, Statistics & Data Analysis and Teacher Professional Development.

Many of these courses offer a certificate of completion from a Universities worldwide. Although these certificates are not a college degree, there have been individuals hired into new career fields showing theses certificates as proof of their desire to continue learning and content completion.

In addition to the free courses, some of the courses are available as “Signature Track”. When you sign up for a course with this option, there is a small fee (compared to a typical college course) and the certificate provides official recognition for the providing university and Coursera, which can be verified electronically. The Signature Track Certificate is meant to be a level of proof above the typical certificate of completion. This certificate includes your grade, syllabus and workload along with a personal URL on Coursera that you can share with a prospective or current employer.

Costs: All courses can be taken for free. Some of the courses give you the option to register as “Signature Track” for a small fee (varies depending on the course).


Khan Academy:

Khan Academy was created by Salman Khan, a graduate of MIT and Harvard Business School, who has a vision of providing an education to everyone worldwide, free of cost. These high quality videos, stored on YouTube, have provided just that. The non-profit organization is also backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Google. The categories of courses include: Math, Science, Economics & Finance, Humanities and Computer Programming. If you are interested in furthering your education in any of these categories, give Khan Academy a look. They are a great option for students, parents and educations.

Costs: Free


5 Criteria to Set SMART Goals for 2013

As we come to the end of 2012, it’s time to reflect on what we accomplished (or didn’t accomplish) and what we could have done differently. In this process, please don’t beat yourself up over the miss-steps made, but just identify and learn from them. Maybe you wanted to save $50 or $100 each month last year and weren’t successful at it. Why not? You will need to analyze those things that didn’t go just right, or you just may end up making those mistakes again.

I had one of these learning experiences recently. While trying to balance work and family responsibilities; along with a week-long business trip with my husband in December, some Christmas activities were put off a bit too much. In the week and a half between our trip and Christmas Day, I completed all Christmas gift shopping, decorating and cooking. Unfortunately, I didn’t pay close enough attention to the dates I needed to ship gifts out of state before the prices were outrageous. My brother and his family recently moved and I just wasn’t used to this shipment as one of my holiday duties. I’m usually a person that plans far ahead and finishes holiday tasks early, to make the most out of the Christmas season with family and friends. This experience really taught me a lesson. It was a mistake I won’t make again!

With this analysis complete, we’re ready to head into 2013 by setting goal to help us prevent past mistakes, creating new and healthy habits. I typically set goals in a few different categories (finance, fitness, household, education, etc.) and concentrate on one primary goal in each category. To be the most productive and successful, make sure you’re not working on too many or complex goals. There is no reason to set a goal or set of goals that you know you won’t be able to accomplish. To help you create goals that will really assist you in accomplishing more, here are five criteria that will help you document your 2013 goals. SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timely) is an acronym that will assist in your goal development.


How to Set SMART Goals:


Each of your goals should be as specific as possible. If you want to work on your home, be specific about what you would like to accomplish. Do you want to paint? What room or rooms? Do you need to purchase new furniture? What specific pieces do you need to replace and for what room? The more detail that you add to documenting your goals the better it will be.


Each goal will also need to be measurable. How will you measure if you have attained your goal? If your goal is to lose weight, how will you measure that? Is 1 pound a success or is it 10 pounds that you really want to lose?


Make sure each of your goals are achievable. There is no reason to “bite off more than you can chew” or set yourself up for failure. If you’ve never exercised, or it’s been a while, start by setting smaller goals that you will be able to attain. If you’re just returning to running, for instance, consider completing a 5K for this year’s goal and save that marathon for a future year’s goal. Successfully completing a smaller goal will give you confidence to keep going, and you’ll be able to set more advanced goals in that category for many years to come.


The goals must also be relevant to you. Is it important to you and what you want to accomplish in your life? If your goal won’t make an important change in your life, maybe it’s not really a goal you should spend your time and energy on. If you’re planning to learn a new language, to dance, to cook a new cuisine or to work on your car; is this goal import to you and will it change your life for the better? If you’re just as happy taking your car to a garage, then maybe learning how to work on your own car isn’t the best goal for you to spend your time on. There are plenty of other goals to consider that will matter to you.


What timeframe do you want to complete your goal in? Do you want to lose those 5 pounds by the end of January or by the end of the year? Without setting a timeframe for each goal, there is no way to know when you’ve successfully completed it!


Some of the goals that I have set for 2013 are:


• Save $X each month (yes I have documented a value for X, but there are a few things I like to keep private).  🙂


• Walk 1000 miles by the end of the year.

• Complete 1 strength training workout per week.


• Paint the family room, kitchen and hallway by the end of the year.


• Complete a personal finance course by the end of January. This one I’m very excited about and will write a post on in the near future.


What are the most important goals that you will set to complete in 2013?


Increase Savings

I have saved the best financial topic for last. Saving money is one of my favorite hobbies. It is so much fun watching the amount of interest increase each month. It doesn’t matter if it is a few cents, $1, $100, or more, this is income that I don’t have to work for, just keep my paws off the principle and it grows. You can’t ask more than that. And seeing that balance increase each month (or whenever I want to peek at it) gives me such a feeling of accomplishment and security.

Levels of Savings:

Emergency Savings: Our first goal is to save enough for emergencies that may come up unexpectedly. This is savings to take care of you and your family for unexpected emergencies, such as: if you are laid off from your job, not able to work for some reason, a victim of a natural disaster, or any other like emergency. The goal for this category is 6 months of expenses minimum (1 year preferred). You will be able to figure out this goal by our earlier analysis. This is often an overwhelming amount to think of for most people, so just remember each little bit adds up and gets you closer to the goal.

Short Term Savings: Next we will define Short Term Savings as setting aside funds for something we will need in less than a year. These are needs we know about and are planning for. This could include saving for a new sofa, vacation, or even Christmas gifts. If you can set aside money over time for these items, you will be saving greatly over high interest rate credit cards. It really pays to plan ahead.

Long Term Savings: This will include large items we are saving for which are more than a year in the future. This would include saving for items such as a down payment on your first home, your children’s college education, and your retirement. The more you are able to set aside for these future expenses now the easier it will be in the future. If your company offers a matching 401K, do your best to max it out (at least to ensure you get the highest amount in the match). This is like getting a raise immediately.

Vehicles of Savings:

Savings Account: Along with your local savings account, online savings accounts are a great option for your savings needs. These rates are higher than the national average for standard saving accounts, but at this time still a very low interest rate. You will need to allow about 3 days to transfer money back and forth from the online savings to your checking or local savings accounts, when or if this money is needed. Ensure this is from an FDIC insured bank to reduce risk (see below).

Certificates of Deposit (CD): CDs often have higher interest rates than your typical savings account, since you are tying up your money for a set amount of time (6 months, 1 year, 5 years, etc). Additionally, if you feel the interest rates as a whole are either going up or down you can use this interest rate for a set amount of time for your benefit. Ensure this is obtained from an FDIC insured bank (see below).

Stocks, Bonds, and Mutual Funds: These are investment vehicles that are more risky than the first two I have listed. These are not FDIC insured and there is a possibility that you could lose the principle you invested. Since past performance is not always a reflection of future performance, I would recommend you obtain professional advise on these options. Additionally, this investment is above your emergency and short term savings, since there is a great possibility of loss if it’s needed in the short term.


Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) was developed in 1933 to insure your savings in a FDIC insured bank if it does fail. Your savings will be protected up to the insured amount in this case.

FDIC basics:

• The FDIC insures all deposits at insured banks, including checking, NOW and savings accounts, money market deposit accounts, and certificates of deposit (CDs), up to the insurance limit.

• The FDIC does not insure the money you invest in stocks, bonds, mutual funds, life insurance policies, annuities, or municipal securities, even if you purchased these products from an insured bank.

• The basic insurance amount is $100,000 per depositor per insured bank. Certain retirement accounts, such as Individual Retirement Accounts, are insured up to $250,000 per depositor per insured bank.

In this time of a difficult economy, banks are actually failing. This is something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. We need to ensure we are aware of the rules and limitations of this insurance, so we are protected. Basically, if you have over $100,000 at any insured bank, consider transferring some of your savings to another insured institution. Also, check to ensure that your bank is FDIC insured. Further details on the FDIC are available at their web site.

Current Rates:

If you are in the market for a new Checking Account, Savings Account, CD, Credit Card, Mortgage, etc. the current interest rates and plan comparisons are available at They also offer many financial calculators and additional financial information. This is a great resource and always a good place to check before you make financial decisions.


Eliminate Debt

To ease your mind and take that heavy weight off your shoulders, striving to eliminate all debts is an impressive goal. Most American’s have huge amounts of credit card debt. Even paying off large debts like paying off the mortgage or paying off the cars early may seem impossible. If you work at it a little at a time, it’s surely possible.

Credit Cards:

Credit card interest rates are among the highest of any debt, and typically the first debt to focus on eliminating. The first thing to do is identify which credit cards have the highest interest rates and highest balances (if there is more than one). Next, contact the credit card companies to negotiate lower interest rates. Check for a lower interest rate credit card if you are not successful with your negotiations or to find a better deal for you.

Once your cards are paid off, strive to use them carefully and to your benefit. Credit cards can be a great way to track your spending, safely shop online, and also offer many beneficial points programs. I pay off my cards at the end of each month. By knowing how much I expect to spend on my cards monthly (by the budget we set earlier) and keep that amount in an interest paying saving’s account. If some financial emergency comes up such as a lay off, I have the money set aside to pay off the card. I’m also able to enjoy the benefit of gift certificates I receive from my card’s points programs.


Depending on the type of loan, varying amounts of your payment will be allocated to interest and loan principle. For instance on a mortgage, in the first years you will be paying only interest and nothing toward your principle. You will need to contact your loan provider for your mortgage, car, or other loan to see if they have special instructions on how to pay additional principle payments above your monthly payment. In some cases you will need to write a separate check to make sure the additional payment goes to principle. By ensuring that your extra payment goes only to the loan principle, you will make your payment go farther.


Increase Income

If your finances are to the point where it is painful to balance your budget, either due to your income not being where you want it to be or your debt is quite large, you may want to find a way to increase your income. Some ideas may take some time and be large changes in your life, like going back to school. Others are small ideas that will bring in a little extra here and there. Just remember the little bits do add up.

Invest in your future:

In your current occupation, is there additional training or a certification you can pursue to increase you income? Is there training you need to change careers?

Get a part time job:

Getting a weekend or part-time job may be the way you need to pick up that extra cash to pay off some debt or increase your savings. Consider something that has to do with a hobby or something you enjoy. Consider retail positions that offer a discount on products you and your family frequently use, or could be great gift ideas. I know of one lady that wanted some expensive furniture from Restoration Hardware. She was able to get a part time job and at the time they offered 50% off from day one of employment. What a great deal!

Secret Shopping:

Being a secret shopper can be fun and rewarding. You’ll be helping out the business by offering a fair and unbiased opinion on what they are interested in. They may want to know if you are greeted with the correct phrase, if the store appears clean, the condition of the restrooms, how the food tastes in a restaurant, or a number of other things. Some questioners are longer than others, but you will be paid more (either cash or reimbursement for a product or service) if more is expected. When you sign up for a job you will be told exactly what is expected of you and what the compensation will be. I have enjoyed free theme park tickets, lunches, and dinners, in addition to payments from $10 to $50 for certain jobs. Some jobs can even be completed over the phone.

Please don’t buy into any of the Secret Shopping scams out there. There are many scams out there. Be very leery if you are asked to pay to work in this field. I have seen many ads that want you to pay even a monthly fee for a list of jobs or companies you can apply to. These lists are available for free at the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA) web site. MSPA regulates, provides certifications and training, and is a great resource for Secret Shopping information. If you are interested they offer two levels of certifications. The first level, Silver Certification, can be completed online in about 2 hours for a cost of $15. I have read that some companies will offer you better jobs if you have one or both of these certifications, but they are certainly not required. I recommend signing up for as many companies that you have the time for.

MSPA Resources:

Sell unwanted items:

There are many options to selling those items that you no longer need or use, but are taking up space in your home.

  • Garage sales are a great way to get rid of many items in a weekend, but you may not be able to get the highest price for your items.
  • and – For items that are easy to describe and ship eBay and Half may be good options for you. These are both good ways to get rid of those unneeded books, DVDs, designer clothes and accessories, etc. If you have a doubt if something is selling, search for the item and see if there are bids on current items of that type.