Don't neglect your career when you have kids.

When we become parents, we experience a huge energy transference. We shift our energy to whoever or whatever needs it most and let the parts of our lives that are under control simmer in maintenance mode.

For many of us, that means soothing crying babies and making sure junior passes algebra and gets to soccer on time takes precedence over professional development. It's natural, but if you want to keep moving forward in your career—whether that means getting a raise, a promotion, a dream job or even returning to work after a few years taking care of children—you'll need to keep your skills sharp. In short, you need to keep learning.

It will pay off.

London-based consulting firm Willis Towers Watson's annual salary survey of 967 companies found that higher-performing employees received larger raises last year than those who were rated just average. High-achievers got a 4.6 percent raise, vs. 2.6 percent for middling workers and 1 percent for below-average employees. Blanket annual raises—where everyone gets the same amount—aren't automatic like they used to be.

Who is considered high performing? It's the employees who are up-to-date on new technology (even if they don't work for a tech firm), who show initiative and are good learners, meaning they can master new concepts quickly, according to employer surveys by LinkedIn.

AT&T Chairman, CEO and President Randall Stephenson summed it up when he said this to the New York Times in 2016: “There is a need to retool yourself, and you should not expect to stop.” Unless you're spending five to 10 hours a week in online learning, you'll become “obsolete.”

Keeping skills current and learning new ones must be on your to-do list, even if you're (temporarily) a stay-at-home parent. The good news is you don't have to go broke to go back to school. Heck, you don't even have to set foot in a classroom. There are affordable, flexible ways to learn new skills and tune up old ones without breaking the bank.

Check Those Benefits

Your first stop should be your company's human resources office. Many employers reimburse workers for the costs of continuing education and college courses they take and pass.

The requirements for each program vary by employer. For example, some reimburse you after the class, others pay before. Some pay for books, some don't. Some limit the number of classes an employee can take in a year. The only way to be sure what's available is to ask. I know several people who've used employer benefits to earn bachelor's and master's degrees.

Think Beyond Credits

If you aren't employed, your company doesn't offer continuing education benefits or you just want to try something new, there are plenty of free and low-cost resources available.

Coursera.org partners with universities such as Johns Hopkins, Ohio State and Stanford to offer online courses, certificate programs and degrees via video lectures, discussion forums and hands-on assignments. Topics cover everything from abstract painting technique to computer programming. Some courses are free, others cost $29 to $99 and span four to six weeks. Participants who complete a course can opt to receive an e-certificate to prove it.

EdX.org is an online learning site founded by Harvard University and MIT. It offers free and paid courses covering such topics as waste management, Python and Linux programming, foreign languages and more. Prices vary by class and host school. Courses are categorized based on the level of specialization. Students can take one class, a series of classes to obtain a professional certification or courses that count toward a master's degree.

Of course, these aren't the only available options. Sites such as Lynda.com, TeamTreehouse.com and others offer computer and professional development courses. And as hokey as it seems, it's worth noting that you can do more on YouTube than watch cat videos. This site also is home to tutorials on art techniques, foreign languages, building computers and brushing up on software such as Photoshop or Excel—all for free.

Learn Local

Don't forget the more traditional schooling options. Numerous Central Ohio colleges and universities offer degree programs and continuing education for working adults.

For example, Columbus State Community College and Ohio University offer online courses through Ed2Go, in everything from graphic design to grant writing. Columbus State also offers computer and software certification programs in conjunction with Protrain. More colleges are offering web-only for-credit courses as well, although the requirements to take and complete them vary by school.

Denise Trowbridge is a self-professed money geek who writes about personal finance, banking and insurance. Follow her on Twitter at @DeniseTrowbridg.