I'm often asked what the best investment you can make is. Before thinking about cash investments (e.g., paying down debt, budgeting, saving and investing), I have come to realize that the most important investment you can make is in yourself.

Each month, I’ll dedicate a post to the various ways you can invest in yourself, starting with personal development.

Personal development can mean many things to many people and in this post, I’ll focus on investing in your education, both formal and informal, whether it’s to further your career, help you explore a hobby, or simply to build on the life skills that you already possess.

But first, a story.

Once upon a time, I was in a career rut. While I loved the company and the people I worked with, I realized that I wanted to take my career in a different direction -- but I knew that I didn’t have the competencies to get me there. I was also pretty broke – fresh from paying off my student loans and living on my own in an expensive city. I knew that if I wanted to take my career in a new direction, I’d have to do so in an economically efficient way.

I worked for a company with many divisions, including one in an industry I was eager to break into. My first step was reaching out to colleagues in that division, asking them to coffee or lunch (my treat) and picking their brain to find out how they got there. That led to introductions to more people in the field, free conferences and webinars, book and website recommendations for further learning, and conferences to attend (many which were free or very inexpensive).

For the next year or two, I networked my heart out, did a lot of industry reading and spent my evenings attending conferences and meetings. Eventually, I found a job. I worked very hard to learn as much as I could and to apply that knowledge to achieve results, which helped me obtain the dream career I have today.

I’ve realized how many opportunities suddenly open themselves up to you, once you become open to increasing your knowledge base and skill level. Employers start seeking you out even when you’re not looking, you increase your level of responsibility and you introduce innovative ideas to your bosses and teams. There’s a lot of satisfaction that comes from knowing that no matter what happens in your current role, company or the economic climate, you have made yourself into a highly marketable candidate with the skills and track record that will always keep you in demand.

If you’re just starting out in the working world, or even an industry veteran, there are numerous personal and financial benefits to constantly developing your skills and expanding your knowledge. So whether it be a new degree, a continuing education course, a meet-up group, or simply asking someone you admire out for lunch, the ROIIY (Return On Investment In Yourself) is huge.

Written by Melissa Allen.