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These days, it's possible to spend over $2,000 to earn various certifications, and sometimes that number can climb even higher. Consider, for example, that the CCIE lab exam costs $1,500, and often involves travel and lodging expenses (there are only a half-dozen CCIE lab exam sites around the world). Then factor in the cost of the written exam at $350 and plan another $500 for books and practice tests, and you're already over $2K. Most people don't pass the lab exam on their first try, and thus, expenses could easily double before the ordeal is overcome and the CCIE earned.

What's a body to do when it comes to footing the sometimes large bills that some IT certifications -- especially more advanced ones -- can involve? There are lots of options worth considering. Some of them may or may not meet your needs, or fit your situation, but all are worth perusing and considering as you figure out how to pay the piper for the alphabet soup you'd like to hang after your name.

I'll list the options I plan to cover, the follow up with some explanation and exploration for each one under its own heading afterward:

  1. Pay out of pocket
  2. Take out a loan
  3. Get some employer support
  4. Look for grant or aid money
  5. Use the GI bill

Pay Out of Pocket

As Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog put it best "God bless the child that's got his own." If you can afford to pay for a certification out of pocket, or out of savings, that's the best possible way to cover the financial commitment involved. Many people find they can swing this approach if they plan ahead, and start saving in advance of the period of acquisition (books, practice exams, lab time, and so forth) that usually precedes scheduling (and paying for) the actual certification exam itself.

Think of it this way: if covering a $500 to $1,000 outlay is hard for you, start putting $50 to $100 per month back for six months before you start studying for a certification. By the time you start studying, you'll have $300-600 in the bank for upcoming expenses, and you'll be able to keep putting more back to cover the cost of the exam.

This approach works fine for most certifications that can be pursued entirely through self-study. But some certifications -- such as those from VMware, Brocade, certain Oracle credentials, SAP, and so forth -- mandate in-class training that often costs $2,000  or more before you're even allowed to register for the exam. In such cases, other options that follow probably make the most sense. On the other hand, you could start saving $100 a month two years in advance to cover a $2,000-2,500 outlay and still pay that much for yourself.

Take out a loan

Credit is cheap these days, even for unsecured signature loans (though outright student or educational loans will probably be cheaper). If you have decent credit, it's probably worth talking to your banker -- or setting up a bank account, and making six months of steady deposits and bouncing no checks -- to see what kind of financial instruments they can offer to help you pay for planning career development and education.

A word of warning: never commit yourself to a bigger monthly payment than you can afford on your current salary. Sure, if you do earn the certification, you might get a raise (or even a new job) out of the deal, but you don't want to bet your credit rating against that possibility. Manage your finances ruthlessly, and you'll stay out of potential financial trouble.

Get some employer support

If you have a job, talk to your employer's HR department and your boss to see if there's any kind of financial support available to help you pay for training or career development. In some IT departments, you'll find they have training budgets for staff development, and you might be able to participate in such funding. Even if it won't cover the whole bill for your upcoming certification materials and exams, it's always the case that some outside support is better than no outside support. But if you don't ask, you're sure not to get any!

Beyond your boss and your home department, it might be the case that your employer makes a general pool of money available for continuing education and career development. So even if your boss has no departmental budget to contribute to your certification training and testing, ask your HR department about educational support. Even if no such support is directly available, it may be that you can get a better educational loan (see previous item for caveats) through your employer than you can get on your own. Check it out!

Look for grant or aid money

If you're unemployed, or qualify for retraining, and are willing to dig around the Internet to find local, state, or federal programs to support training and education, you may qualify for funds from public sources of one kind or another. Then, too, if you can swing qualifying as a full-time student (even if you're working part- or full-time as well) you may also qualify for outright grants or government-backed student loans. Be sure to use your institution's financial aid professionals to help you run this kind of thing down, because options vary enormously by state and locale, even though things stay the same at the federal level for everybody. If you can make your way through the maze of options and qualification hurdles, you may have a pleasant surprise waiting as a result of your persistence and perseverance.

Use the GI bill

Of course, you must be a veteran of the Armed Forces to qualify for the GI Bill, but if you do qualify, you should visit the GI Bill website and explore your options. These days, spending GI Bill money on IT certification training, exams, and study materials is a completely acceptable way to use those funds, but it's vital to make sure you pursue options that are supported, and programs and credentials that are recognized and offered under headings that include "on-the-job training," "non-college-degree," "apprenticeships," and "correspondence." See the "New Opportunities Now Available" page for more information.

Where There's a Will, There's a Way!

Once you make a plan to pursue any certification, you'll need to figure out how to cover the associated costs involved. With some or all of the preceding suggestions, I hope you can convince yourself that what you dream of, you can also pay for, too. Good luck in your career planning and building exercises, as you progress toward your goals.