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Follow a Financial Timeline to Prepare for Graduate School

Susannah Snider

When it comes to attending graduate school, the hard work begins before you step inside a classroom.

Graduate school can be a bank-busting endeavor, with the typical 2012 graduate borrower carrying $57,600 in combined undergraduate and graduate student loan debt, according to a report from the New America Foundation. The only way to make sure that you emerge from a graduate program with your finances intact is to be well-prepared.

Prospective graduate students should take the following financial steps one year, six months and six weeks before going back to school to ensure they make the right financial call and get the most educational bang for their buck.

-- A year or more before going back to school: It may take one year or several, but start your graduate school search by weighing the pros and cons of going back to school, taking cost and return on investment into consideration, says Erin Baehr, president of Baehr Family Financial, a financial planning firm with locations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

"A graduate degree is not a guaranteed automatic boost in income anymore," says Baehr.

[Check out these 10 law schools where graduates have the least debt.]

Some universities, degrees or fields of study are more likely to offer funding, fellowships or assistant teaching jobs than others.

"In fields like science, almost all students are fully funded," says Robert Weinerman, senior director of college finance for College Coach, a provider of educational advising on the college admissions and finance process. "But in many of the humanities, business or professional schools, there may be a limited number of scholarships." Start reaching out to schools to see what's available and how to qualify, he says.

Your boss may be able to help you out financially if your educational aspirations match your company's goals. Check in with your employer, even if your company doesn't advertise a tuition reimbursement plan, says Kristine Bureau, assistant director of compliance in the financial aid office at Regis University in Colorado.

And if your boss can't help fund you, consider attending part time or on weekends and nights to keep earning a paycheck while beefing up your job skills.

-- Six months before going back to school: At this point, you've picked your field of study and written your applications. If you haven't started cutting back your spending and squirreling away money, start now.

When it comes to socking away cash, experts are split on the best type of savings account to use. Some, such as Joseph Hurley from Savingforcollege.com, recommend a 529 plan, a tax-advantaged investment account dedicated to covering higher education expenses.

Others suggest a traditional savings account, so that the cash can be used for tangential graduate school expenses, such as campus visits, finding living accommodations or putting down a security deposit on a new apartment.

But 529 or no 529, experts agree some savings are better than none. "Having savings is always a good thing. It means that you have money in an emergency and don't have to put stuff on a credit card," says Weinerman. "And when the tuition bill comes due you can borrow less."

[Know these terms before repaying student loans.]

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is available in January. You may think that you're a FAFSA expert since you likely submitted it as an undergraduate -- but think again.

There are some big differences when you borrow as a graduate student.

First, graduate students file the FAFSA as independents, says Tom McWhorter, dean of financial aid at the University of Southern California. Second, you'll be eligible for different federal student loans.

It might be tempting to max out your federal loans, but resist the urge. "Really outline your budget and only borrow what you absolutely need for your education," says Bureau.

Your financial aid award may look different as well. You likely won't see the same Pell Grants or institutional and state grants that may have peppered your undergraduate financial aid award letters. Need-based grants are much less common in graduate school, experts say. "They're not as free-flowing," says McWhorter.

-- Six weeks before going back to school:Now's the time to start living like a student and making a plan for covering expenses, says McWhorter.

[Get creative reducing your student loan debt.]

Whether you're living off savings, loans or a graduate student stipend, you're going to have to cut back. Consider roommates, taking public transit or downsizing apartments.

Figure out when your loan checks are disbursed and when your tuition and rent are due. You should be in contact with the financial aid office to make sure that you're on track to go through loan entrance counseling and haven't missed any crucial documents, he says.

After your crash course in graduate school financing, all that's left is to study hard, get that degree and start paying off those loans. No sweat.

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Graduate School center.

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