Justifying the ever-rising cost of a classroom chair is never easy. The calculations abound with intangibles and unknowables, from sliding interest rates to a changing jobs landscape and the ever-loaded question of what the true price tag of an education ought to be.

For those mulling a trade school program, the algebra becomes a bit more manageable. After all, you’ll be walking out with a much more marketable skill than, say, deconstructing 18th-century opera.

But that doesn’t mean trade school is a one-size-fits-all solution to traditional colleges. Here are three tools to help trade school applicants chart a financially sound course to a career.

Online loan calculator

Google up a loan calculator, financial planner Chuck Drawbaugh recommends. A good one will let you fathom what kind of burden a $10,000 loan mutates into when it’s sprawled out across a 10-year repayment period with variable interest. What you really need it to tell you, he stresses, is the monthly havoc your certificate program is going to cause alongside your rent check and smartphone bill.

“The monthly payment is the real issue at hand,” he says. “Ask yourself, am I digging myself a monthly hole I can’t recover from?”

Financial aid planner

A loan calculator can help you figure out how much you can borrow, but a financial planner can tug that number down toward zero.

As arcane as loan lingo can be, the science behind qualifying for maximum financial aid is even fuzzier, financial aid consultant Reecy Aresty says. Plus, a good financial planner can keep your own savings and earnings from decreasing the amount of aid you qualify for.

“Students need to be broke,” Aresty says. That’s because the amount a student is expected to pay for his or her education ticks upwards by 20 cents for every dollar the student earns beyond $4,500 a year. “Virtually nobody is in a position to do all this on their own,” he says. “They need help.”

Industry info

A trade school certificate can be a ticket to ride off into a new career. But before you get in line, you should know what the loops and bends of the roller coaster look like. Start by taking an industry insider out to lunch.

“You need to know, what are the prospects of you getting a job after you graduate?” Drawbaugh cautions. “What are you going to be doing, specifically, and how will your education get you there.”

Not to mention, how much are you likely to earn.

“These are the important things to estimate in advance before you even apply,” Drawbaugh advises. “Don’t go willy-nilly. Applicants and their families should be trying to have a sense of what this is all going to look like at the end of the day.”