You’ve heard the saying that sometimes you need to spend money to make money.

This doesn’t only apply to your finances, however; it applies to your career, as well. If you want to move up professionally, you often have to invest in yourself.

So, I buy up when necessary, because I want to put my best foot forward and signal to others that I am serious about my work. Living life on a budget, however, means that I can’t splurge very frequently. If you're like me and don’t have a bottomless bank account, how do you decide when to spend and when to save? What’s going to produce a return on investment in your career?

I put together a go-to guide to help me—and now you—decide when you need to pay up and when it’s better to take the more budget-conscious route.

You Should Spend When


1. You Think a Certain Brand Name Really Makes a Difference

No, I am not talking about clothing. In some sectors, it can be extremely beneficial to list a certain company or university on your resume. When evaluating you for a particular job, hiring managers will be hoping to see a specific set of companies or schools in your background. If this is the case in your industry, it could be worth “spending” by taking a lower-paying a job at a top firm or sacrificing the funds to attend a particular grad school to give yourself a leg up.

Think of it as making a long-term investment in your own professional development. Though, remember that this type of investment is only relevant in certain industries, so make sure to talk to your mentors and look through the resumes of senior professionals in your field to get a sense of typical career paths.

2. You Need to Make a Good First Impression

It’s important to start off on the right foot with colleagues, whether you’re going to an interview or beginning a new job. First impressions matter, down to what you’re wearing. So, invest in a well-fitting suit (or similar appropriate outfit), so you can always enter an interview or new job environment with confidence.

I also recommend investing in a good professional bag. Even if it’s a mess on the inside, I feel better knowing that I look put together when I walk into an important meeting.

3. You Think You Think Face Time Will Get You Ahead

Traveling can be extremely expensive, but it can certainly be worth it to get some in-person time with people who could be important for your career. For example, if you’re job searching in a different city, you may want to schedule a short trip that will allow you to arrange several face-to-face informational interviews.

During my most recent job search, I was looking at roles in NYC while still living in Boston. I had been doing mostly phone interviews because I was worried about travel costs, but didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere in the process. It wasn’t until I lined up several meetings and traveled to the city in person that I started to get some traction and get a feel for the companies I was talking to. I also make it a priority to attend relevant professional conferences, even though they typically carry a high ticket price.

You Should Save When


1. You’ve Already Made a Great First Impression

It’s always important to look neat and presentable at work, of course. But unless you work in the fashion industry, it’s probably not absolutely necessary to wear top-of-the-line clothes to work every single day in order to move ahead in your career.

My daily wardrobe is one of the places I really try to save money. I invested in a nice interview dress, but other than that, I do my best to only buy clothes when they’re on sale or when I really need them.

2. You’re Getting to Know Your Co-workers

Many offices, including mine, initiate a healthy stream of outings that involve eating or drinking at restaurants. I always like to join because I enjoy spending time with my co-workers and because it’s a good opportunity to build relationships. What I don’t enjoy is the impact this can have on my credit card—eating lunch out every day can easily cost $100 a week!

As a compromise, I started packing a lunch and eating it at my desk at 11:30—that way, when noon rolls around, I can still join my co-workers when they go out, but I’m able to simply keep them company or get a small appetizer. I also try to have a snack before happy hour so that I don’t spend too much at the bar.

3. You Want to Keep Up with All the Latest Inspiration and Professional Development

I have a love-hate relationship with business and productivity books—I enjoy reading them, and I’ve found that certain books (like these!) have really helped me professionally, but I hate buying them because they’re usually such quick reads and the costs add up quickly.

To save money, I’ve gone the old-school route and started checking books out from the library near my apartment. It’s completely free, and I can check out as many as I’d like (and can keep up with). Most libraries also loan out audiobooks and ebooks, so you can read or listen on the go.

By spending in certain areas and saving in others, you can make a significant return on your investment—and come out ahead in your career.

Photo of wallet courtesy of Shutterstock.