How to Assess the Most Important Investment of All (Hint: That's You)


Chances are, the first investment you ever made in yourself was paying for college. (What a beast.) And while that was probably the biggest to date, it won’t be the last time you’ll make a hefty investment in you. You’ll have many opportunities and desires over the course of your career to learn and do more.

That can be money extremely well-spent, says Gerri Detweiler, author of “Finance Your Own Business: Get on the Financing Fast Track.” “You always want to think like a consultant. Even if you are a full-time employee, you are in business for yourself,” she says. In other words, it’s up to you to develop marketable skills that you can use now and down the line.

But in today’s saturated self-development market, you might wonder how to determine whether a particular investment—such as a class, seminar or event—is really worth your time and money. To find out, ask yourself these three questions, then choose from the following strategies to cover the costs.

Does it help you at your current job? Before enrolling in that four-hour workshop to master a particular skill, consider: Does it have a direct impact on how you’re doing your job right now? If so, will it also help you grow as a professional? There’s no point in being a ninja at something you really don’t want to do, even if your boss will pay for it—such as an Excel course, if you have zero intentions of crunching numbers six months from now.

Do a gut check on whether this skill is something you can, should or want to do—and if it’ll actually help you be more qualified for the next big step in your career.

Could it help you create side income? On the other hand, if you’ve been eyeing a program that teaches an interesting skill unrelated to your full-time job—such as a writing class, even though that’s not one of your current work responsibilities—you don’t necessarily have to rule it out. Detweiler says signing up for self-development programs that help you cultivate skills that create additional side income or even a new career down the road are worth considering.

Are you willing to do the work? There are plenty of “gurus” who promise foolproof formulas for making money or getting ahead in your career. Newsflash: Just because you spend money on their programs doesn’t mean they’ll work.

The real question, says Robyn Crane, author of “Mind Over Money Management,” isn’t if someone’s class is “proven,” but whether you’ll apply what you learn. Before you sign up, be certain you’re willing to do your part.

How You’ll Pay for It

Found something you want to invest in? Next, it’s time to figure out how you’ll pay for it.

Get your company to write the check. Ask your manager or HR department what kind of professional-development benefits they offer. (Some large companies, like Chevron, for example, shell out big money—like up to 75 percent of your educational expenses.) That can be a nice boon, considering an online subscription to a reputable resource like Lynda.com costs a few hundred bucks, and an in-person event might be $1,000 or more.

“One positive thing about the labor market now is that employers know that many employees will change jobs, and they understand that the more they can help support employee growth, the more engaged they’ll be—and the better the chance at keeping them,” Detweiler says.

But before you ask your boss to foot the bill, be prepared to show how your company will benefit, too. If you’re a social media manager who wants to become an expert in Facebook ads, which ultimately supports your company’s growth, that’s worth pitching. “But if you’re a bookkeeper and want to learn about Pinterest—well, your boss may not be on board,” Detweiler says.

Don’t pay at all. While there are tons of programs, webinars and products you can invest a pretty penny in, there are also thousands of hours of online content available for nothing. It’d be a mistake to underestimate the quantity (and quality!) of free content that can help you edit audio, give an amazing TED talk, string a guitar—or whatever else you endeavor to learn.

Check out sites like edx.org, academicearth.org and the Open Education Data Base for access to tons of free lectures, audiobooks and college courses.

Pay (outright) with your own money. If your company won’t pay and you’ve exhausted free options, you may need to invest your own earnings. This makes sense when you know the self-development course is highly likely to result in more income, new opportunities and/or clients in the future.

A big “don’t”? Debt-financing your development, which is the equivalent to taking a pay cut.

“One of the most important investments you can make is in your future, which also means ensuring you have enough money handy for when life throws you curveballs,” Detweiler says.