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What's the Money For?

Although I strongly recommend you not borrow more money than you must, some lenders are willing to advance money to help you cover living expenses and other costs, in addition to books, exams, and courses. It may make sense for you to attend a three-week boot camp to get a certification finished quickly if it gets you into a new, better-paying job and on "the payback trail" 11 months ahead of a self-study program that costs less but keeps you in your old job almost a full year longer.

If you crunch the numbers (or get help from a financially savvy friend or advisor), you should be able to figure the pros and cons of "quick and expensive" vs. "slow and cheap." A quick rule of thumb is that if you'll increase your salary by more than 25 percent and half that money or more can go into the payback, then it's normally OK to take the fast route because you'll be able to pay a bigger balance back faster if you get that raise sooner rather than later.

But the numbers themselves don't lie, so be sure to let your analysis of the alternatives guide your decisions. Think on this, too: Working full-time and pursuing certification off-hours may actually end up being harder than taking three weeks off without pay and going to a boot camp. In the latter case, you'll be able to leave your job behind while you concentrate completely on your studies; otherwise, you'll be juggling work and study for months at a time, if not for a year or more.

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