Whenever I have found myself in financial trouble, the first thing I thought was “Can I solve this problem with school?” I learned this behavior early, when boys were stealing my lunch money on the way to school; I started going to school extra early to do times tables with the teacher until the boys stopped looking for me. I continued this behavior into adulthood, and used grad school as a way to occupy myself during bad economic times.

I am not alone in this technique. But grad school is pricey. Most programs cost more than $8,000 a year, and MBA programs can run $100,000 a year. Unless you can get your parents to pay for school, you risk being stuck with loans that you can't pay. So you should check out predictions for the jobs markets of the future, and get credentials that will prepare you to pay back loans without totally limiting your work options. (Here's a start: Healthcare worker, good. Violinist, bad.)

You should also be honest with yourself about whether or not you can stomach school. A friend of mine wanted to change careers, so he considered getting a degree in the new field. He took one class to test the waters, and the first day, the professor asked students about their political views. Each student defined her views in relation to those of her parents. Not surprising for a bunch of 20 year olds, but untenable for a seminar if you're 35, like my friend. No degree program for him, but here's the good news — he got a job anyway. And you might be able to do that, too. So don't be so quick to sign up for four more years of schooling.

If you are still gung-ho on more schooling, make a plan for what that degree will get you after school, in terms of lifestyle and job satisfaction. For example, polls show that lawyers are typically not happy in their profession and biochemists are very happy. Don't neglect the dreaded grad school essay. If you are having trouble writing about why you want to go to a particular program, you probably trying to solve a problem that school can't solve. My third grade teacher put it to me this way: It doesn't help to come back to school when your brother ate your after-school snack.

A lot of the going-back-to-school game is luck. During the last recession, I went back to school for English. I thought I would be an English professor, but I got sidetracked by the computer science department and wrote my thesis in HTML. I was lucky that while the idea of teaching English was delusional (jobs are scarce), the Web was the new big thing, and no one knew HTML. I turned my generally useless grad school program into a lucrative job in the high-tech industry.

So think carefully before you go back to school, but realize that all the planning in the world does not make you a predictor of the future. Grad school is not a way to play it safe, but it's a way to play the odds by opening new doors for yourself.