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A Grad Student’s Guide to Going Back to School

Contemplating heading back to university for grad school? This blog breaks down the obvious and hidden costs while providing tips to manage the change.


Here I go again!

Just when I thought I was done with being a student, I’m heading back to university, but this time as a business grad student at the University of Calgary.

Back in June 2020, I made the decision I wanted to go back to school to complete my Master’s Degree in Business Administration. This decision is one I didn’t make lightly as it comes with some big costs, sacrifices, and a lot of life changes. From the moment I made the decision to accept my spot into grad school, I spent many hours thinking about why I wanted to do this, what I wanted to get out of it, researching various schools, studying for the entrance exam, preparing my applications, and doing interviews.

After being out of school for so long you forget about how much time and money it takes to even just apply.

3 things to know before applying to grad school

This new adventure hasn’t come without some big changes. I’m living in a new city, balancing work and my studies, and managing the pressures of increased financial demands. Depending on your situation, you might find yourself in a similar situation. But if it’s the right path for you and something you are determined to do, then in the end, its worth it.

Here are three questions that helped me determine that this was the right path, complete my applications, and prepare for all the changes that were about to come:

  1. What are the financial demands?

To put this simply – graduate programs are expensive! However, every program and school are different and there are many options available to lessen the financial load. It’s important that you understand what to expect for tuition, student fees, books, etc. so that you know what supports you might need and how much you’ll need to save.

  1. What’s my why?

On top of the financial demands of a graduate program, they are also quite intensive and require a lot of time in and out of class. Knowing your “why” will ensure going back to school is the right decision for you, assist in choosing what classes you want to take and help give you that push to study when your motivation is running low.

  1. What program is right for me?

There are endless options when choosing a program. Once you choose a discipline, you’ll also have to map out your specialization or focuses, executive programs, accelerated programs, part-time/full-time course load, etc. Make sure to do your research and tailor this experience to you.

Costs to consider

When I was thinking of going back to school, I immediately considered all the obvious costs like tuition, books, and student fees. What I didn’t expect were all the expenses that would come before I even got in. According to Stats Canada, on average a Master’s in Business Administration costs roughly $27,000 and that only includes tuition. In the table below, I break down my expenses from applications to tuition.

 

Note: My program is accelerated meaning it has fewer classes. If I was applying for a typical MBA at this school, the total costs would be approximately $7,000 more.

On top of the costs that come with school, I also had to consider the costs that would come with this big life change. Including:

  1. Moving to a new city
  2. Lost income

Not being from Calgary meant I would be moving. These costs include rent or the purchase of a new house, moving costs to rent a U-Haul, packing boxes, and all the fees that come with it. For some, it will also mean lost income. For full-time programs, you are typically required to take three classes at a time and they tend to be during the day, making it much more difficult to work.

Tips on managing the costs

While all the expenses outlined above can seem overwhelming, there are lots of resources available to support students:

  1. Look into scholarships and grants – do this early and do your research!
  2. Employer education programs – talk with your employer to see if they offer any supports to employees looking to further their education.
  3. Student financing options – such as student loans or student lines of credit.
  4. Personal savings – if you can, start putting money away each month into a savings account.
  5. Look into part-time programs or executive programs – both are designed to allow students to work while completing the program.
  6. Ask yourself, where can I start cutting costs now to save more? Consider your wants versus needs.

In the long run, depending on your career goals, going back to school is worth it. But it doesn’t come without an adjustment period. Just remember, make sure you understand the financial demands, know your why, and do your research to find the right program for you.

Cracking open the books and not the piggy bank

School is officially back in session – where did summer go?! For some of us ‘older folks’, our university days are a distant memory (some good and some maybe not so good) and like every life moment, they provided us lessons along the way. If you were to ask me “What do you wish you would’ve known back then?”, the answer is simple – pay more attention to your money. So here’s what I wish I would’ve known back in my glory days – four clever ways post-secondary students can save. 


Whether you’re attending post-secondary as a first year, or returning to finish off your education, here are a few tips to consider that will help you manage your money and reduce financial stress.

Budgets do work

Let’s face it, adulting is hard and brings on a whole new set of responsibilities – many of which have a financial component. A budget can help you manage these financial responsibilities by allocating a certain amount of your income to your different expenses such as rent, food, education and entertainment.

As you focus time to spend on your studies, a budget also requires time from you in order to be successful. This includes taking time each month to set your budget and then track your spending to ensure you’re not spending more than you said you would. There are many tools to help you including our Budget Calculator.

Interested, but not sure where to start? Check out our blogs How much should I spend on… and Creating a budget.

Entertainment in moderation

Now I’m not going to be the #NoFunPolice and say don’t go out because that’s not realistic. Going out with friends is fun and can positively impact your well-being. My advice – in your budget, create a category for entertainment/nights out with friends and then do so in moderation as the costs can add up quite quickly. Once you’ve hit your budget for the month, reconsider a night out and see if your friends would prefer to do a night in instead.

When going out for the night with friends, here are a few ways to save and stretch the budget you’ve set:

  • Many restaurants and local bars/pubs have happy hours and different daily specials, helping you to save a few dollars on that fancy drink or food item. Take advantage of these specials because who really doesn’t love a discount such as 1/2 off appies… mmmm nachos (minus the olives – yuck).
  • For each drink you have, drink a glass of water in between and don’t order another drink until your water is done. This will help reduce the number of drinks you purchase, and better yet, help your head from hurting a bit the next morning!
  • Skip the shots! Ordering a round of shots can be quite expensive, especially if ordering multiple rounds. Yes, it may seem like a great idea at the time but once you receive your bill, you may regret that decision. Save your money and just don’t do it – again, your body will thank you the next day.
  • Be the Designated Driver (DD) for the night! If going out is a weekly thing with the same group of friends, create a rotating DD schedule. Not only will this save you money when it’s your turn, but also helps you save money on a ride home each week.

Whatever you choose to do, always remember to plan for a safe ride home – and don’t forget to include this transportation cost into your budget! #MomAdvice #BestAdvice

Take advantage of student discounts

It’s no secret, gas is expensive and parking is even worse. There are a few ways to reduce your transportation expenses including:

  1. Walking or biking, depending on how far you are away from campus;
  2. Public transportation, which several post-secondary institutions include as part of your student fees; or
  3. Carpool with your classmates, allowing you to cost share gas and parking with others. Double-win if they have the same taste in music as you do, as it can make for some great carpool karaoke sessions. ♫Everybody…. Yeah…. Rock your body…. Yeah…. ….Backstreet’s Back Alright

Use credit wisely

It may be exciting if the Saskatchewan Roughriders rack up 35 points in the first half of a game, but maybe not so much if you’re racking up your credit card. Credit cards are a great tool, if used responsibly. They should not be used as a tool to spend money you don’t have, but instead used to make purchases within your budget and help you gain credit.

It may also be tempting to apply for every credit card that comes your way, but this can do a lot of harm to your credit. Check out our Building Blocks of Credit blog to learn more – including good credit behaviours.


These are just a few tips in helping you save and manage your money while attending post-secondary school. Want more? Check out our blog, It doesn’t just need to be ramen noodles, where one of our members shares his experience and advice on managing money will being a full-time post-secondary student.

Are you, or were you, a post-secondary student? I’d love to hear other advice you have or lessons you learned – either the good way or bad way – during this life milestone. Share your experiences and advice in the comments below.

young family in park

What to know when it comes to RESPs

A Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP) is a great investment allowing you to put money aside for your child’s education. Here are a few things to know when it comes to RESPs.


When looking at your child’s future, it may become overwhelming especially when you start thinking about all of the costs related to their post-secondary education. A Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP) is a great investment to help you put money away for your child’s education.

What is a RESP?

A RESP is a tax-deferred, savings account that can be used to save money for your child’s post-secondary education. You can contribute as much as you’d like (up to a lifetime maximum of $50,000) and watch it grow.

To help your money grow faster, the federal government also contributes a percentage of money to the RESP each year based on your contributions.

What types of RESPs are there?

There are two different types of RESPs available – family plans and individual plans.

A family plan is available for families with multiple children, allowing you to add multiple beneficiaries to one plan.

An individual plan can be set up for one beneficiary, and can only have one beneficiary. A common scenario for an individual plan would be in a blended family situation. More details on the two plans can be found here.

When is the best time to start saving for a child’s education?

Starting early, and contributing often, is key. The sooner you start to save, the sooner you’ll start earning interest on your money and receiving federal contributions to your RESP.

If you don’t start early though, it’s never too late to start. There’s no better time to start than today. By just saving as little as $5 each week, it can add up quickly and help your child in their post-secondary dreams.

How much should I save?

Conexus’ education savings calculator can help you figure out the cost of your child’s post-secondary education and map out what type of savings you’ll need to help meet your financial goals.

I’m not sure I can afford a RESP. Is there a minimum amount I must contribute each month or yearly?

Some types of RESPs have no minimum deposit requirements, while other RESPs do. It’s important you talk to a financial advisor to determine what RESP works best for you and what you can afford, whether monthly or yearly.

Where can I go for more information or set up a RESP today?

To learn more on RESPs visit the Government of Canada’s website.

To determine what RESP is best for you and set up an RESP, talk to your financial advisor today.

 

Have a question regarding Registered Education Savings Plans? Ask below in the comments section or contact us today.

Bowl of ramen noodles

It doesn’t just need to be ramen noodles

Money can be stressful when you’re a student but that doesn’t mean you need to live off ramen noodles. We sat down with Braden, a University of Saskatchewan student, to learn more about how he manages money while going to school.


We all know post-secondary education can be quite expensive. In the 2016-17 academic year, a Canadian undergraduate student paid, on average, $6,373 in tuition. And that’s not including the additional costs related to textbooks, school fees and living expenses.

When having the #MONEYTALK with students across the province, we heard over and over the challenge of managing money while going to school. What can a student do to reduce money-related stress caused by tuition and living expenses?

We recently sat down with Braden C., a 3rd-year University of Saskatchewan student and Conexus member, who told us how he manages money while being a student.

Tuition can be expensive. How have you been able to manage the costs of tuition?

My parents have helped me out greatly when it comes to paying for tuition. They’ve been putting money into an Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP) since I was born, knowing I would need it at this point in my life. This has definitely relieved a lot of stress when it comes to paying for school.

That’s great to hear! What else can a student do to help cover the cost of tuition or save money for things such as textbooks?

Scholarships are a great way to reduce your tuition costs. There are many different scholarships available from the schools, local businesses, etc. It can take some time to apply but can be worth it in the end by offsetting some of the costs you need to pay.

When it comes to textbooks, a great way to save money is buying used. For example, the U of S has a program where you can sell your textbooks back to the store. Often you can find a used textbook at a lower price than a new book and from my experience, many of the used books look like new.

What about other expenses such as living costs – how do you make or save money for all of the additional expenses you face?

To allow me to focus on my studies during the school term, I only work during school breaks, such as the summer, and put the money I make into savings. I work as many hours as I can in the summer to provide enough money I’ll need for the eight months I’m in school. I know not everyone can do this, and some may need to work part-time while going to school, but I recommend putting as much as you can into savings during the off months so you can work a bit less during the school term.

Are there any tools you use to help you manage your money?

I use several tools including online banking and Conexus’ Personal Financial Management tool. It allows me to set budgets and track how much I spend relative to those budgets. Each month, I look at what I spent in the previous month and make decisions and changes based on what I think will be coming up in the next month. For example, if I know a band I want to see is coming, I adjust my budget so that I have some money set aside for entertainment. This may mean I don’t eat out a couple of times that month, but I’m also not going over my budget.

What are the biggest challenges you face as a student with your money?

My biggest challenges with money are probably in the area of groceries. When I know the upcoming week is going to be busy for me, I tend to buy foods that require little to no preparation. I have found, over the past three years, these meals are usually less healthy for me and also cost a little bit more than if I were to buy basic ingredients and make the meals from scratch. I also tend to impulse-buy things when I have cravings.

What tips do you have for other students that are needing to manage their money while going to school?

The biggest thing is to set a budget and track your spending. When you are able to see where your money is going, you can get a better understanding of your needs but also find areas where you maybe don’t need to spend so much such as eating out or buying coffee.

 

Thanks Braden! Money can be stressful when being a student but that doesn’t just mean you need to live off of ramen noodles. With a bit of understanding and planning, you can set goals, budget and take control of your finances. Here are a few more ways students can save money:

  • Taking advantage of school discounts. There are many places on campus as well as local businesses that offer students a discount by showing their student card.
  • Walking or taking the bus to school. You can save money on gas and parking!
  • Using loyalty reward program cards for places you shop at frequently. For example, Superstore has a PC Plus program that allows you to earn points you can use to take money off your next grocery bill – and it’s free.
  • When shopping for necessities such as groceries, make your meal plans based on what is on sale. Sometimes you may need to buy in groups, but then that just means you can use for another meal the next week.

What other tips do you have for managing your money while going to school? We’d love to hear them – share in the comments below.