A Beginner’s Guide to Lifelong Learning at a Minimal Cost

This is part of an informal series of posts where I outline how I’ve applied money-saving strategies to many of my hobbies without sacrificing what I enjoy most about them.

I’ve been insatiably curious about almost everything for as long as I can remember. I have vivid memories of reading encyclopedia entries as a fairly young child simply because I wanted a basic understanding of what something was all about (I vividly remember reading about aardvarks, and I also vividly remember reading a bunch of entries pertaining to the Middle East). Unsurprisingly, in many ways, I consider college to have been the best years of my life, as I was utterly surrounded by learning opportunities. (In fact, they were so intense that I often went off on deep side tracks and failed to actually keep up with classes I was enrolled in.)

That passion has persisted into full adulthood. A day isn’t complete unless I’ve delved into some topic that’s new to me in some significant way.

Unsurprisingly, lifelong learning is a passion that can be incredibly expensive. A big part of me would love to buy endless books. A big part of me would love to throw thousands at the local university and take a bunch of different classes. A big part of me wants to constantly go on educational trips.

What follows is a discussion of what I do to actually engage in lifelong learning without breaking the bank, but first, let’s back up and look at the basics.

What Exactly Is “Lifelong Learning”?

I really like Wikipedia’s definition:

“Lifelong learning is the ‘ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated’ pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons.”

And the benefits?

“Therefore, it not only enhances social inclusion, active citizenship, and personal development, but also self-sustainability, as well as competitiveness and employability.”

Basically, the idea is that life isn’t divided into a period where you acquire knowledge (schooling) and a period when you apply that acquired knowledge (the workplace). Instead, that period of acquiring knowledge continues beyond formal schooling, through the period where you’re working, and beyond.

Typically, lifelong learning is a component of one’s free time when they’re not devoting energy directly to one’s career path or to one’s personal life. For most, it’s a hobby for personal fulfillment, but it can also be a practice meant to further one’s career.

Why It’s a Hobby/Passion of Mine

As I mentioned at the start, I am an incredibly curious person. I enjoy learning new things; furthermore, I enjoy delving deep into those topics so that I innately understand them. As I often tell my wife, I love digging into specific topics until it becomes clear to me how much I don’t know, which means that I’ve got a whole new universe of things to explore.

Sometimes that motivation for lifelong learning is directed at things that can directly improve my life or my career, like studying a personal development topic or learning how to program in Python. At other times, it’s for pure curiosity’s sake, such as my almost year-long dive into organic chemistry and a period where I became fascinated with differential equations or the time I read about twenty volumes on the Civil War.

Really, when it comes down to it, I just love the process of learning something new and integrating it into what I already know. There are fewer feelings in life that I enjoy more than finally understanding a topic that wasn’t clear to me beforehand. It feels like a genuine revelation, something that brings me deep joy that lasts for a surprisingly long time.

So, how exactly do I go about this without throwing thousands of dollars into college classes or educational materials? Here’s exactly what I do.

Basic Equipment

In truth, you don’t actually need anything to be able to be a lifelong learner. All you really need is your own self and a willingness to observe, think, and learn.

However, I’ve come to find that taking notes by hand is an incredibly valuable technique when it comes to lifelong learning. The process of taking a new idea that just entered your head, twisting it around into your own words, and then writing down that fresh idea along with how it connects to things you already understand is an incredibly powerful way to actually integrate that idea into your own thinking. There’s a lot of research that backs up the idea that taking notes by hand is one of the most efficient and effective ways to learn – here’s a good starting point.

So, start with a writing utensil and some paper. But which ones? The truth is that any cheap notebook and a pretty cheap pen will do.

Just find an inexpensive college-ruled notebook or composition book that you can get at pretty much any department store, office supply store, or dollar store. Pretty much anything will work; I usually suggest a composition book because I think the binding holds together better over time, but a spiral notebook works, too. Just get whatever’s cheap.

As for a writing utensil, I suggest a pen because it won’t smudge on the page nearly as much as a pencil will. Don’t get the cheapest pen in the world because it’ll leak regularly and it will sometimes fail to write when you want to; instead, spend a little more and get a reliable thin-lined pen. I prefer the Pilot G2 ultra fine or the Uniball 207 ultra micro. Both are very reliable, write smoothly on a page with little resistance from any angle, and basically never leak.

Basically, with a quick trip to a department store, you can pick up a cheap notebook and a decent pen or two for $2 or $3 and be ready to go with this hobby. That’s really all you need as a foundation.

The next step is figuring out what you want to learn about. That’s not always the easiest thing to answer, but I suggest giving it a bit of thought. What subject do you always wish you understood better than you do now?

One key thing is to not go into it with preconceptions. Don’t believe that the subject is too easy for you (almost every subject ends up going so deep that you’ll be in over your head if you want to go there), and don’t believe the subject is too hard, either (almost everything can be learned if you start with the basics). If you find something is too hard, back off to a more foundational level; if you find something is complete common sense, move on to something deeper and more challenging. The right place to be is at the place where you’re consistently learning new things and occasionally have to stop and process things and look up a few words, but you’re not completely lost and overwhelmed.

Another preconception that often stands in the way of learning is coming in with a judgment for or against a topic. This often happens when you’re trying to understand various political stances or philosophies. It is really easy to allow one’s own personal beliefs to prevent us from actually understanding something. Don’t. Try to understand the material first, then decide what you feel about it.

Seven Excellent Free Sources

You have the materials you need – a notebook and a good pen. You have something you want to learn about, and you’re approaching it with an open mindset. Now what?

Here are seven places to start. Every single one of them is completely free. Each one is going to have a few advantages and disadvantages. Choose the one that seems to match what you want to do the best.

#1 – Wikipedia
Let’s start off by discussing what Wikipedia is and what it is not.

Wikipedia is a publicly edited encyclopedia. It provides a basic description of almost anything one might want to learn about, and it’s surprisingly accurate because most entries have a number of editors that strive for accuracy. However, it’s not perfectly accurate in all cases and should never be relied upon as absolute truth.

What Wikipedia is good for is providing a fairly reliable introduction to a topic that you want to know more about. It has become my preferred starting place for learning about a topic and it usually helps me figure out whether I want to go deeper than what Wikipedia provides, into a more trusted and focused source.

My suggestion is that your first step for any journey of lifelong learning is the Wikipedia entry for that topic. Read through it slowly, take notes (where you rephrase any new ideas you pick up and add your additional thoughts), and if you find yourself struggling with things like the meaning of a word or some larger concepts, back up into those more basic concepts.

If you’re reading an entry on calculus, for example, and you hit upon a term that you do not understand, look up that term (usually, all you have to do is just follow the link) and make sure you know what it means before continuing. (Of course, this often means that it takes quite a while to traverse an entry on a topic that’s new to you.) Take notes along the way – write down new ideas in your own words and note your follow-up thoughts as well.

Yes, this is a slow process, but every step you take is incorporated into your thinking, making it easier to understand even more of the world. That’s the beauty of it.

One valuable thing that Wikipedia can provide is pointers to further reading, which takes us to our second tool…

#2 – The library
The library provides an endless array of books and audiobooks, free for the borrowing, on almost any topic you can imagine. If you learn by reading, just simply head down to the local library, look for the section of books related to the topic you want to learn more about, and dig in.

How do you figure out what book to read? My approach, when I am still trying to figure out a general topic, is to simply pick up a book that serves as an “overview” of that topic. I might find that some of the book is simplistic for what I’m looking for, but I can usually figure out from there what I want to dig into in a deeper way.

Let’s say, for example, that you have an interest in philosophy in general, but don’t really know where that will lead. The best thing you can do is pick up a book that’s a survey of philosophy, like The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, and read that one. Some of the material might seem easy, but what you’ll be left with when you finish is a good overview of philosophy (at least in the west) and a good idea of where you want to go next. Maybe you want to dig into a specific area, or maybe you want to look at Eastern philosophy.

If you’re still not sure how to get started at the library, skip down to item #5 on this list.

#3 – Public meetings and lectures
Another valuable asset that your local library offers – and is also offered by any local colleges and universities nearby – is public meetings and lectures on various topics. Many libraries and universities will bring in knowledgable people in specific areas to speak on a specific topic of interest, and those events are almost always open to the public. Just go in, sit down with your notebook and pen, pay attention, and jot down notes highlighting the key points and any questions you have that come up during the presentation. Often, there’s a Q&A session where you can even directly ask one or two of your key questions.

Many libraries and universities also sponsor regular meetings of groups focused on specific topics, where people meet to exchange ideas and, typically, one member gives a presentation on something specific related to the overall topic. These can be similarly valuable avenues for learning, particularly for people who don’t learn particularly well from a book.

#4 – Classroom sit-ins
Many people learn best in a classroom environment, where they can listen to an instructor lay out the ins and outs of a topic. However, actually enrolling in a college or university might be prohibitively expensive. What can an intellectually curious person do?

One option is to simply sit in on a class. This option isn’t always available – it is completely at the discretion of the professor – but many professors are quite happy to allow interested people to sit in on lectures. While you won’t earn credit or actually take the exams and you may not be able to access some supplemental materials, you can sit in on all of the lectures of a class and absorb all of the material taught by the instructor.

If you live near a university, browse through a course catalog and look for some general courses in areas you’re interested in that work for you, then contact the professor and ask whether or not you can sit in on the classes. If the professor agrees, start attending. Bring your notebook, listen, take notes, and ask questions after class (giving priority to the paying students, of course).

It’s worth noting that this avenue isn’t permitted at some universities, and even some professors at permissive universities won’t allow people to sit in. However, if you find this option available to you, it can be a great way to learn about a topic that’s of genuine interest to you.

#5 – Highly focused internet forums
Sometimes, as you’re learning a topic, you come to realize that you’re just not comprehending a topic or some specific aspect of the topic and you simply need some clarity that you’re unable to find elsewhere. In those situations, I turn to very specific internet forums, ones that are dialed in to the exact topic I’m interested in.

There are two reasons I do this. One, such forums almost always have a FAQ document that lists essential books and other materials to read on the topic. I can usually take that list with me when I go to the library and check out those books. Two, I can usually join the forum and ask my question and reliably get a clear answer. The key to this is asking with politeness and humility. Admit that you’re new to the topic and explain what you’ve done to figure it out before asking (which would include searching through the site’s archives for similar questions).

There are a lot of places to find these types of narrow topic forums. One place to look is reddit; another is StackExchange. You can use Google to find even more.

#6 – Online classes
Another option for learning about a topic is through online classes and online course materials. Some online classes provide all of the lectures in video and audio format. Some provide handouts that you can view or print. Still others provide discussion forums for the class. If you find classroom-style learning to be a good fit for you but your schedule makes actually sitting in on classes impossible, this is a great option.

There are many sources for free online course materials. Some of the ones I’ve used happily in the past include MIT OpenCourseWare, Open Yale Courses, Coursera, and EdX, and that just scratches the surface. While it’s not quite a complete “course,” I think this is the best place to mention Duolingo, which is a brilliant app and website for free language learning. (I wrote a full article on language learning with minimal expense not too long ago, if that’s your area of interest).

#7 – Meetups
A final tool worth suggesting, particularly if you find that hands-on learning and interacting with peers is a powerful way to learn, is Meetup. Meetup is a website where you can find specific groups in your community that “meet up” to discuss or participate in different activities. You might find political groups, hobby groups, volunteer groups… it really depends on your area and what groups use the site.

Not all meetups will provide the same thing. Some meet ups are very hands-on, where you actually find yourself doing things related to the focus of the group. Others involve meetings where topics are openly discussed. Still others are more like a classroom, where people give presentations and there are question-and-answer sessions. Read the description of interesting meet ups and figure out which ones are of interest to you. If a particular meetup doesn’t click, then find another avenue for learning about that particular topic!

Some Suggestions for Actual Practice

There are a few general strategies I’ve found incredibly useful when it comes to lifelong learning, and these will help greatly if you’re also a lifelong learner.

First of all, you’ll get far more value out of lifelong learning if you do it while focusing on the topic at hand. I wrote just yesterday about strategies for getting focused, and I use them whenever I’m trying to learn something. I treat a session with a book or a class sit-in or a meetup as though it’s a task on my to-do list that I need to focus on and I prepare accordingly. I kill distractions, make sure I have my materials ready, and go there with the full intent to focus on what I’m trying to learn. Treating it with some degree of seriousness opens your mind to absorbing far more knowledge and making far more connections than you’d make if you’re just goofing around.

Second, take notes by hand. Yes, I know I touched on this earlier, and I know that taking notes by hand isn’t something that’s seen as fun by some people, but for me, it is the absolute key to making this work. Whether I’m reading a book or watching a lecture or even reviewing handouts, I have a notebook and a pen with me and I take notes.

My system is simple. Whenever I encounter a new idea or an idea that perhaps I don’t understand very well, I stop and give it a little thought. I try to rephrase it in my head. I might re-read that section or re-watch that section again. Then, when I feel I’ve got it, I write it down in my own terms, usually just a small variation on what was otherwise said. Then, if I have follow-up questions or thoughts, I add them directly below, with an indent and with a ! or a ? in front of them. That way, when I look at my notes later on, I can follow up on anything that has such a designation in front of it. Was my earlier assumption correct? Did I get that question answered?

Similarly, if I run across a word that I don’t know, I stop, write it down, then look it up, and then I write down the definition of that word. This builds my vocabulary and makes it easier to continue to read or listen to material within that field.

If there are problems given for me to solve, I stop and try to solve them right in the midst of the notes.

You’d be shocked how many notebooks are filled up in this way. I can easily fill up a full composition notebook in a week or two. Usually, what I do with old notebooks is that I take pictures of the pages, store them in Evernote, and then discard them. That way, I have a digital archive of all of my notebooks.

Finally, set learning goals, but don’t let it become boring. For me, my main learning goal is that I set aside one hour for “deep reading” a day, where I sit down with a book and a notebook and go through it slowly, writing down new ideas as they come to me and making notes on new connections and questions I have. Once every few days, I spend one of those sessions going back through my notes and making sure I’ve addressed any questions that have come up along the way.

I tend not to set learning goals that are associated with particular topics. If I find that I’m becoming less interested in a topic, I don’t hesitate to switch to something different, even in the midst of a class or a book. It just means that my curiosity in that one particular direction is sated.

Still, it is valuable to me to have a lifetime learning goal, and that goal for me is 365 hours per year directly devoted to it – one hour per day. That can be a bit of a challenge, but it’s one that I relish and it’s one that keeps learning alive quite strongly in my life.

Those three tips have made a tremendous difference in lifelong learning for me.

Final Thoughts

Lifelong learning has been a core part of my life for as long as I can remember. I do it for pleasure, but it has opened countless doors in my life. My personal curiosity caused me to completely switch directions in college and find shelter under the mentorship of a few amazing people. My lifelong learning practices were the core of how The Simple Dollar got started – the earliest posts were effectively my notes on and internal connections from the tons of personal finance material I was reading. Lifelong learning has helped me to improve myself as a person, has provided foundational material for countless conversations with people from all walks of life, and has helped me form friendships that will last forever.

In the end, though, it’s still just fun for me. I relish the feeling I get from understanding something that I didn’t understand before. I love the sense of understanding a topic a little more deeply. I actually love the rush that I get from realizing that there’s this whole cavern of unexplored understanding and knowledge that I just uncovered. I genuinely feel like I understand substantially less about the world as a whole than I did when I was younger because I understand how much deeper things go.

It’s a wonderful, wonderful hobby that has given me so much in my life, and the amazing part is that it can be so inexpensive. In the end, all you really need is a notebook, a pen, a book, and a bit of free time, and the world can be yours.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.