Real Talk: Unrealistic Expectations Hurt More Than The Truth

Hi Everyone!
It’s Shironda, Founder & CEO of CauseEDU. Can I be honest for a moment?
In business school, I have to admit I didn’t follow most of the advice out there when it came to budgeting for school. Most students going back to school full-time are in their 20s. I was in my mid-30s and used to living a certain lifestyle. And I knew that if I tried to follow the advice on the traditional websites when it came to student budgets, I was going to set myself up for failure. Let me explain:
I love clothes. And shoes. And eating out. And organic food. And travel. And living alone in nice places with gyms and in-unit washers/dryers (fireplace optional). All of these things cost money – money I knew I would no longer have once I quit my job. Did I write out a budget with no shopping, brown bagging it to class every day, eating nothing but ramen noodles, never traveling more than a 5-mile radius, and living with 3 roommates in a 2-bedroom, 1-bathroom apartment on the outskirts of nowhere? No. Because regardless of how much we love to talk about sacrifices needed to pursue dreams, some of us need to be real and just admit that we’re not willing to go as far as we *could* if we don’t have to. So what did my budget look like and how did I make it through? I’m glad you asked.
First, I drafted a budget that made sense for me. I started with the recommendations that I saw on sites geared toward business school students, taking into account rent/utilities, food, tuition and fees, books, conference travel, and other expenses. Then I cross-referenced it with my current budget to see what I would have to give up to make it work. I then took into account what I wasn’t willing to give up unless I absolutely had no choice. And this is where I had to get creative.

Let’s start with credit card points. I started using my Banana Republic Visa Signature card for all of my purchases to maximize my cash back points (double points on regular purchases, more during special times of the year). This gave me enough points that I was able to buy clothes with almost no costs out of pocket (no pun intended). For example, I bought a pair of Hunter boots from Athleta. Full price: $160. My price: $10. Minus the 5% cash back for using my card, and I had free shipping, too. I also made sure to purchase through whenever possible so that I could get Delta Skymiles for my purchases. I also bought blazers and dresses (my favorite staple items) through, which has great options if you like the nicer name brands at steep discounts. And when I was done with/tired of whatever I bought, I sold it on ebay, usually for as much as what I paid for it, sometimes more.
Next is the gift card plan. is a good place to find gift cards being sold below face value. I bought a bunch of Barnes & Noble gift cards so that I could buy my books for school, and I bought Target and TJ Maxx gift cards regularly (they also have gift cards for restaurants and other stores/services). The Limited had really steep discounts for some reason, sometimes as much as 35%, so I could buy a $100 gift card for $65, and then when they had a 40% off sale I would buy $150 worth of stuff for $90, use the $100 gift card I paid $65 for, and then have $10 left over. See how this works? 🙂
When it came to food, I would eat out for lunch instead of dinner (since lunch at restaurants is cheaper), and I did it less often. Sometimes I hosted potlucks instead, which is actually a lot of fun. I didn’t cut back on housing expenses, so hosting was never an issue (speaking of housing, I actually upgraded to a 2-bedroom apartment instead of a 1-bedroom since there was only a $3,000/year difference in rent. I then rented out a room for two months and sublet my apartment during the summer. So I actually saved a little money versus staying in my one-bedroom, and now I have a guestroom whenever someone comes to visit).
And I still traveled. During my first year, I went to Israel for a field seminar on entrepreneurship, and to Chile and Argentina for a field seminar on corporate social responsibility. I received elective credits for the classes, and the price was comparable to what I would have paid if I had gone solo.
My point in this post? I knew that writing all of these experiences (and things) out of my budget wasn’t realistic, so I found a way to financially make it make sense. I spent less than I did before business school, but I didn’t feel like I was depriving myself for two years. I didn’t make an unrealistic budget, just to overspend later and fall short financially. And in the end, I was able to have the grad school experience I imagined.