Dear Penny: Is It Crazy to Go Back to College and Live in a Bus at 60?

An older woman sits next to her laptop to represent going back to school.
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Dear Penny,

I’m a 60-year-old single woman with no children and, thankfully, no debt. I worked in nonprofit mental health care for my entire career; it paid enough to live on but not enough to save much. 

I stopped working eight years ago when my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease advanced to the point that she could no longer be left alone safely. We lived on her income, which of course stopped the day she died last fall. 

I am fortunate. She left a substantial life insurance policy. I’m using that to buy and renovate a school bus to live in, as I can no longer afford rent, and also to live in while I go back to community college to train for a new career as a sonographer. 

Returning to my old career isn’t realistic; it would take years and far more money than I have to update my coursework and retake the licensing exams. 

Two questions: Am I insane for doing what I am doing? I get a good deal of criticism from people who tell me I am too old to be going back to school, and especially from those who are annoyed with my choice to rent-proof myself by building a skoolie. I say knowing I will have a roof over my head that I own outright is peace of mind.

-C.

Dear C.,

When someone tells you you’re making a terrible mistake, a lot of times what they really mean is, “That’s not what I’d choose for my life.”

Being on the receiving end of this feedback is so not helpful. You’re on the cusp of big life decisions. You need a sounding board, not a judge. 

Plenty of perfectly sane people are happily living out of converted school buses. That doesn’t mean they’re making a terrible mistake, though I’d put that in my “not what I’d choose for my life” file.

And obviously, you’re not insane to invest in your education at 60. But you don’t have as many working years ahead to recoup your investment as you did a couple decades ago. 

It feels to me like you’re looking at life as a test with only two choices.

As in, A, you can get a job by enrolling in sonography courses while living in a school bus. 

Or B, do neither, which means never working again and risking the roof over your head.

But I think you have a lot more options. My big question for you on pursuing both sonography courses and school bus living is: What are you trying to accomplish? 

If you’ve wanted to become a sonographer for a long time, I’m more inclined to tell you to go for it. But if you’re looking just to bring in income and build a small nest egg, I’d suggest considering alternatives.

Returning to your old career in mental health care may not be viable, but that doesn’t mean the skills you acquired in the field are obsolete. Perhaps you could find a job in a supporting role that would use your expertise without requiring you to go back to school.

Also, consider that even though you haven’t been formally employed or earned a paycheck over the last eight years, you’ve most certainly worked. Could you use your experience to become a paid caregiver? Another option may be child care, as millions of families are struggling to deal with school reopenings in the coronavirus era.

As for the skoolie, you cite the cost of rent and your desire for peace of mind in making this purchase. Do you dream about making a school bus your home? Or do you simply want affordable housing?

Think beyond what you’ll pay to buy and renovate one. School buses are also expensive to insure and have a lot of maintenance costs. This isn’t a one-and-done expense. Zoning laws can also make it difficult to find a place to park them long term. Does a roof over your head buy you confidence if you don’t have land to park it on?

Renting or even buying a small condo or mobile home may be more affordable and stable in the long run. Don’t make this decision because you think you can put down a lump sum and “rent-proof” yourself.

Ultimately, only you can make these decisions.

You’ve spent the last eight years as a caregiver. You no doubt put your own needs in the backseat during that time.

Now it’s time to prioritize yourself. The first step in doing so is to figure out what you actually want.

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior editor at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected]