That Time I Went To Grad School For Free*
*well sorta, keep reading…
So what’s a frugal weirdo to do when you want something that costs money, but you don’t want to pay for it? Get creative.
I wanted to go to grad school. Since graduating from undergrad in ’06, I had this overwhelming desire (delusion?) to get my master’s degree. I like school and I figured it would be a wise move for my budding career. However, I had zero intentions of paying for said grad school. After Mr. Frugalwoods and I maneuvered our way though undergrad without any debt,* I certainly had no interest in assuming any for my post-grad studies. And so, I began to scheme.
*This was accomplished primarily by the fact that we attended an inexpensive public university–the University of Kansas–and both had scholarships, worked throughout college, graduated on time in four years, and had assistance from our parents (thank you, parents–that’s the best gift you could’ve ever given us!)
The Golden Ticket Of Free Tuition
Being neither independently wealthy (at age 26) nor a thief, I knew I’d have to devise an inventive means to get through grad school without paying. I commenced researching my options and realized that most standard routes (grants, scholarships, employer benefits) would only cover a portion of tuition. However, there is one fool-proof trick for getting your higher education paid for: work full-time for the university you’re attending.
Most (if not all) colleges and universities in the US offer a benefit known as “tuition remission” to their full-time employees. What this glorious little perk entails is free tuition for the employee, their spouse/domestic partner, and their dependents. It’s a pretty sweet deal. There are, however, two caveats to just how sweet this deal is:
1) You (the student) must work full-time while going to school.
2) There’s a tax implication for graduate-level tuition, which is as follows: if the market value of the tuition being waived is greater than $5,250/calendar year, any amount above that is counted as taxable income. Undergraduate tuition, however, is always tax-free.
The Mrs. Frugalwoods Tuition Remission Mission Commences
Once I had the tempting phrase “tuition remission” emblazoned in my frugal brain, I knew I had to figure out a way to finagle it for myself and my grad school aspirations. I was, as you probably surmised, not working at a university when first I hatched this plan. And so as all good frugal weridos do, I bided my time…
Delaying costly purchases or decisions is a central element of how Mr. FW and I save money. We map out momentous acquisitions or undertakings for years before executing them. It’s the opposite of the impulse buy, it’s the Frugalwoods patented “contemplated buy.”
Here are but a few examples of our judicious deployment of this strategy:
- Buying a house: oh yeah, we’re the people who visited over 270 open houses before buying a single-family abode in one of the hottest real estate markets in the country.
- Adopting a dog: pets are a huge financial undertaking so we waited five years before bringing Frugal Hound into our family.
- Having kids: same story as pets, but more expensive and we waited longer–and then even longer thanks to a bout with infertility.
- Our homestead early retirement plans: the granddaddy of our research-and-wait methodology.
We don’t make snap decisions around here and we mull even medium-sized purchases for months at a time. To whit, we’re currently researching chest freezers, and we’ll take our sweet time deciding what, when, and where to buy.
I knew grad school would fall into our classic long-play strategy and so I sat tight until an opportune time to strike presented itself. And present itself it did!
A Strategic Strike
In 2010, Mr. FW’s job transferred him from Cambridge, MA to Washington, DC and I knew my moment had arrived. Rather than feel disgruntled about uprooting and leaving a job I enjoyed, I saw this as my shining opportunity to enact Operation Tuition Remission. Step one: I applied for every job I could even remotely be considered qualified for at every reputable university in the Washington, DC metro area (including Maryland and Virginia, just to be safe). Lo and behold, I snared one. If you apply for enough jobs, I’ve discovered, one of them is bound to stick. Took me upwards of 55 applications for my first job, 15 or so for my second, about 8 for my third, and 2 for my fourth. Fortunately I didn’t have to apply to anyone to become Mrs. Frugalwoods. Thank goodness for small victories.
At any rate, I was ecstatic that a university would employ me! And, it was a position in the field I’d been working in! Trust me, I would’ve taken the job of school mascot if need be. I’ll note here that before sending out these applications, I carefully researched each university’s policy regarding tuition remission benefits for employees. There is some variation between schools, but in general, one must be employed for a minimum number of months or years before one is eligible for said tuition remission.
Now I will state for the record that this plot of mine was not without a certain amount of risk since there was no guarantee I’d actually be accepted into the graduate school at the university where I was employed. Plus I’d also need to, ya know, not get fired from my university post in order to keep the remission benefit rolling in. But, these were risks I was willing to assume–although not without some gnashing of my frugal, worrywart teeth.
Given the fact that Mr. FW and I weren’t sure how long we’d be living in the ol’ District of Columbia, I was bound and determined to maximize my tuition scheme to its fullest potential. Hence, I began studying for the GRE (the standardized US test for grad school admissions) and preparing my application materials before I even started my position with the school. The timer on my eligibility to take advantage of tuition remission was four months of full-time employment, so I wanted to be ready to start classes on day one of month five. Fortunately, this aligned almost perfectly with the start of the spring semester, so I was golden–provided, of course, that I was accepted.
A Potential Hitch: Math Sans Calculator
As you may have gleaned, I am a person very comfortable with the written word, grammar, logic puzzles, and cognitive thinking–all of which are on the GRE. However, I am a person who squirms and turns red-hot (+ sweaty) when I need to do mental math. I go to great lengths to avoid doing math in all avenues of my life and I revert to excel spreadsheets and calculators to assist me with even the most basic of mathematical situations (let’s not get into how long it took me to determine the 40 week gestation of Babywoods… suffice it to say, I finally just wrote the weeks out on our shared google calendar).
Little did I know when I initiated this quest that not only does the GRE have a robust math section–you’re not allowed to use a calculator!* I’m not kidding when I say that this tidbit of news nearly derailed the entire Operation Tuition Remission. There were tears, there was strife. I even asked the department I was applying to if they’d accept any other form of evaluation besides the GRE–they would not.
Since we all know I wasn’t about to pay for test prep or books, I netted some hand-me-down GRE study materials and buckled down to the drudgery of teaching myself high school algebra and geometry, which I’ll be honest here, I never mastered in high school.
*I would like to point out that, in a fit of great irony, a year after I took the GRE they allowed calculator usage on the test.
I persevered and did very well on the written portions of the GRE and scraped by at the level of a 5th grader (perhaps a precocious 4th grader?) on the math section. Being that I’m not a masochist, I wasn’t applying for a math-based master’s program, so I figured I’d be OK.
I compiled the sundry other bits of my application during the first few months of my tenure at the university and submitted everything in time for my four-month mark. Despite my frankly abominable math scores, I was accepted into my program of choice: the Master’s of Public Administration with a concentration in Nonprofit Management at American University. And thus began my adventure as simultaneous full-time student and full-time employee.
A Note On Working Full-Time While Going To School Full-Time
In case you’re wondering, it’s a challenging gig. I worked the standard office schedule of 9-5 Monday-Friday and then attended class in the evenings–some nights from 5:30-8pm and others from 5:30-11pm… zzzzzz. I also took weekend daytime courses, so it wasn’t uncommon for me to be on campus every single day of the week.
Grueling to say the least, but anytime my spirits flagged, I reminded myself of the five-figure debt I was not incurring for this degree. For reference, the sticker price of my MA (comprising 42 credit hours) was $64,000, which I decidedly did not pay. Unfortunately, most of my classmates were paying even more since if you’re not working, you’re in need of student loans to cover both tuition and living expenses. Thanks to my job, I was able to manage both on my own.
This schedule isn’t for the faint of heart as it’s admittedly exhausting, but, it was honestly worth it in the end. Rather than stretch out my time, I elected to take a full course load in order to complete the degree in under two years. So, I took two to three classes per semester (including summers) and powered through with my fellow full-time students. There were many upsides to being a full-time student, including connection with my professors, a deep immersion in the subject matter, and, perhaps most importantly, the wonderful friendships I formed with my classmates (shout out to my grad school gang of ladies H, K, and M!).
Since this would be a downer of a story if I hadn’t actually graduated, rest assured, I did it! I managed to swing a 3.95 GPA (not a 4.0 thanks to economics and statistics, both of which nearly drove me to distraction).
I have zero plans to pursue any further formal schoolin’, but I feel a real sense of accomplishment and pride that I earned my MA. Plus, my coursework greatly advanced my abilities as a writer and researcher, which as it turns out, is what I’ve wanted to do all along.
I will say, however, that I grossly underestimated how difficult it would be when I started out. Grad school is no joke and I spent pretty much every spare moment of every day studying. Commuting on the Metro? Studying. Sunday afternoons at home? Studying. Fourth of July BBQ? Oh, I’m studying. Lunch break at work? Definitely studying.
I can’t say I exactly recommend the taxing nature of working and going to school full-time, but if you want to get your MA, and you don’t want to pay, it’s the way to go This is a prime example of the perseverance of the frugal weirdo. We thrifty people will do just about anything to avoid debt and it’s a trait that has served Mr. FW and me well.
Learn From My Mistakes
Lest you think I’m a brilliant maven of snaring free things (why, thank you), rest assured that I made a plethora of mistakes in this process. Chiefly, I could’ve done this even more frugally had I gone to a less expensive school. American University is a pretty darn pricey private university. I snapped up the job I was offered at American because, well, it was the only job I was offered and I didn’t want to wait around and see if one of the cheaper schools would employ me. It was a strategic decision, but it did cost me.
Even though I wasn’t paying the sticker price for tuition, I was on the hook for the taxable income above the $5,250/calendar year cap. Hence, I paid approximately $13,500 in taxes over the two years it took me to earn my degree. These funds were automatically deducted from my paycheck every month, so as a result, my take-home pay was very, very loooooow. Good thing we lived the frugal lifestyle!
Aside from this financial shortcoming, my health suffered as a result of my punishing schedule and I gained 20 pounds over the course of completing my MA. Not so good. And it’s not like I gained the weight merely from sedentarily reading and writing at all hours–nope, I junk fooded it up. I regularly consumed bags of Cheetos, Doritos, and Oreos to fuel my study sessions, which is so very unadvisable for so very many reasons.
I subsequently lost all of that weight (and then some) thanks in large part to Mr. Frugalwoods’ encouragement for us both to do the couch-to-5k running program (we obviously weren’t going to pay for gym memberships), which I highly recommend. Additionally, our love of hiking ramped up as a result of my unhealthiness. We discovered that a day in the mountains was the best cure for my overstressed self.
My ongoing commitment to healthy eating–especially now during my pregnancy–was largely borne out of how gross I felt during this time period. Eating junk and not exercising is the classic short-sighted strategy for coping with stress and I’m glad I learned my lesson. I realized the other day that, even at almost 7 months pregnant, I still don’t weigh as much as I did during my grad school binge. Hooray for healthy food and clean living!
This Applies Beyond Grad School
While higher ed might be a distant memory for you, I think this approach is applicable to many different aspects of life. Mr. FW and I consistently apply ingenuity in figuring out how to accomplish goals that would, under normal circumstances, be expensive. But since we’re far from normal, we’re able to navigate our way into entirely free situations all the time.
One example that springs to mind is the free yoga class arrangment I’ve got going on. I work at the front desk of my yoga studio for a mere 30 minutes per week, and then I cart the studio trash barrel to the curb on Monday nights (which takes me all of 4 minutes), and voila: free yoga classes for Mrs. Frugalwoods! Classes are $18 a pop and I religiously attend at least twice a week, so I estimate I save circa $1,872 per year with this little gig. Plus, my involvement enabled me to become part of the yoga studio community. A frugal win all around!
Maybe you want to become a pilot–I hear those classes are exorbitant, but I’m willing to bet you might be able to work out a trade with an instructor. Perhaps you need to outfit a baby nursery–I know someone (hint: it’s me) who did it entirely for free by using the power of hand-me-downs, the Buy Nothing Project, and great trash finds. Perhaps you’re in need of a haircut–I bet you can find a friend who’ll cut it for you for free.
When we approach the world as collaborative givers, I find that there are very few things we actually need to pay for. I delight in sharing our items and talents with our community (for example: at this exact moment, one friend is borrowing Frugal Hound’s Dremel to file dog’s nails and another friend has borrowed Babywoods’ pack-and-play, which was a hand-me-down in the first place).
Leveraging what we already have–time, talent, abilities–to help each other makes life vastly more interesting to live. I’d much rather swap dog-sitting with our friends than pay a kennel to watch Frugal Hound. And we’d much rather cook dinner for our friends than pay a restaurant to do it for us. These are all rich life experiences and we don’t take the easy route out of forking over cold hard cash to facilitate what we need and want to do. And, don’t forget the power of delaying–by waiting for an auspicious moment, the savvy frugal weirdo is able to engineer cost-effective, well researched schemes.
If you want to do something, but don’t want to pay for it, challenge yourself to navigate your way around the typical consumer economy and find it for free (or cheap). I bet you’ll be able to work out a frugal deal for yourself.