How to Spend $1,000: Find Cheap (or Free) Online Courses to Build Your Professional Skills

Backing up your resume with a new skill is one of the best ways to make a modest financial investment worthwhile. A study found that, depending on the worker’s skill and prior education and employment, some short-term degree holders (generally defined as taking 6 to 18 months) earned 65% more than their otherwise equivalent colleagues.

If you just need to learn a new skill, there are plenty of free options, including online courses available through your public library or on platforms like Coursera, edX, FutureLearn, LinkedIn, and Udemy. And many colleges offer free auditing opportunities to groups such as veterans or people over 60.

But if you want to prove to employers that you’ve truly mastered a new skill, you’ll need a certificate or credentialing program that requires you to pass proctored tests. Almost all of these have a cost.

And like any other investment, it’s not a slam dunk. A recent study revealed that about half short-term credentialing programs accredited to award federal financial aid have failed to raise student earnings enough to recoup their costs in five years. And Credential Engine, a nonprofit that monitors the field, says there are now more than 967,000 different credential programs — a number that can overwhelm prospective students.

Experts suggest winnowing by these three factors:

Field: A recent analysis of thousands of job postings by labor market analysis company Lightcast has seen a growing demand for data visualization, social media marketing, and data analytics skills, even for jobs that didn’t have such technology requirements as recently as 2016, such as in human relations or marketing.

Vendor: Because the goal is to impress employers, you’ll want a program with a good reputation in the field you’re targeting. This varies by industry, so it pays to get advice from the managers of your company or your dream employer. Look beyond name colleges. Lightcast has found that employers also value certifications from trade associations like the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) and companies like Amazon.

Fashion: The biggest waste of money is investing in a program you don’t complete. So you have to be realistic about the time requirements and the boredom factor. Self-paced online courses offer the most convenience and are generally less expensive. But Dhawal Shah, CEO of Class Central, an online course search engine, who took other shorter online courses, ended up dropping a long and difficult statistics course offered by edX. “Six months is a long time to do something difficult on your own,” he explains.

For the disciplined, the University of Washington offers an Essentials of Cybersecurity certificate through edX for $716.40. Alternatively, Coursera offers a Data Visualization Honors Certificate from the University of California, Davis. Coursera, which charges as little as $49 per month, says the program should take about six months to complete, bringing the cost to less than $300.

Getting human support doesn’t have to break the bank. Coastal Carolina Community College offers a blended online and in-person program to help you prepare for an entry-level CompTIA technician test, known as an A+. Tuition and books for locals are only $306, but you’ll also need to budget for transportation. The test costs an additional $246, which still brings your total cost well under $1,000.

In the last Kiplinger Personal Finance Magazine, our editors offer tips on how to spend, save and invest $1,000. Get more smart tips: