Putting Two Kids Through Private School on One Salary

Via LearnVest By Amy Hatch ~

People have a lot of opinions about money. In our “Money Mic” series, we hand over the podium to someone with a strong opinion on a financial topic. These are their views, not ours, but we welcome your responses.

Today, one mom explains how she and her husband are managing to put two kids through private school on one salary–and how they made the tough decision to whittle their budget and send them there.

When my husband and I were house hunting in 2006, admittedly the last thing on our minds was the quality of our neighborhood school, because we never intended to be living there when our daughter started kindergarten.

Now, six years later, we’re paying five digits a year for our two kids to go to private schools, even though it’s putting a major strain on our finances. We’re a single-earning family, and that sole earner (me) happens to be self-employed in journalism, a field that took a major hit during the recession.

We’re not alone. In 2009-2010, there were more than 5 million American schoolchildren attending private school, according to the Council for American Private Education, which was equal to about 10% of the total number of children enrolled in school in the U.S. Plus, according to CNN, the average annual tuition bill is $22,000 for private schools, across all grades K-12.

Looking back on our own situation, sometimes I wonder how we managed to get here…

We Started Off With a Plan

Our daughter wasn’t even 2 years old in 2006 when my husband and I both quit our jobs. I left my position as a corporate marketing manager to be a stay-at-home mom, and my husband stopped teaching to enroll full-time in graduate school–where he was going to get his doctorate in music education to become a professor–in Urbana, Illinois, a full 700 miles away from where we were currently living in Rochester, N.Y.

I had major concerns about going into this situation with both of us not working. But my husband was awarded a prestigious academic fellowship that came with a $19,000 stipend, we had the option to get student loans and we had some savings as well.

After a lot of talking, and a lot of compromise, we decided we could make it work on a limited income for the time being, but it was going to be very lean.

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Our first shock was the high cost of real estate in our new city. In a small college town like Urbana, sellers have you over a barrel when the housing stock is limited and you have no option but to settle there, so we ended up buying a half-built tract house in an “affordable housing” development that also offered a hefty tax incentive. After all, the plan was to move wherever my husband got a job at a university after he graduated in three years …

Where It All Went Wrong

My husband surmised that a typical doctoral program in his field took about three years to complete–two years of coursework and one year writing a dissertation. Then he would hit the academic job market, looking for (and hopefully getting) a position as a professor.

At least, those were our plans. We didn’t anticipate how having a family would impact my husband’s studies. Because we are so far from our support system, he often had to step in and take over for me when I needed to leave the kids at home for some reason, or if I was sick (in the last four years I’ve had three major surgeries). All of that took time away from working on his degree and he fell behind.

A multitude of obstacles (including those mentioned above) have prevented my husband from finishing his schooling. On top of that, his academic advisor left the university, stalling his dissertation until he found a new one. He is slated to graduate in 2013, but the bottom line is, we never expected to still be living in Urbana six years after moving here.

A New Plan Takes Shapes … and Is Foiled

In 2008 our 4-year-old daughter was ready for pre-kindergarten. After checking out the stats on the neighborhood school (it’s on the state’s watch list, which means the school’s test scores are poor and it has a high poverty rate, two red flags) and talking to people in town, we realized we had only one choice.

Private school.

Lucky for us, I had slowly begun to ramp up a second career as a freelance writer, so by 2008 we had some wiggle room in our budget. I became the sole breadwinner around this same time, when my husband’s fellowship ended. We looked around and found a great school where our daughter could attend pre-kindergarten–at a cost of about $5,400 a year. Compared to an institution like The Dalton School in New York City ($38,710 a year, thank you very much), that seemed like a bargain.

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Each year as she’s grown, we’ve hoped that the following school year would see us settled in a new city, and that both my husband and I would be working full time.

But we never made a back-up plan.

On top of all that, we had a second child in 2008, and we’ve since ended up sending him to the same private school, doubling our costs. I had a lucrative freelance job as a social media manager, but I lost that job in late 2011. Any additional work has been drying up as the economy puts the squeeze on the media outlets I write for.

Fortunately, we had enough of a cushion saved up from the money I had earned that we could keep our kids in school.

Why We Stick It Out in Private Schools

This year our daughter is in second grade, and she needed to move on to a new school. She’s intellectually gifted, and her abilities outpaced the school’s curriculum. Our total tuition bill for two kids in full-time private school is well over $19,000 a year–more than one-third of our annual income.

Having said that, our highest priority is our children’s schooling. We’re both staunch believers in getting the best education possible, and we both also attended excellent private schools as kids. We’re committed to making sure our kids have every academic advantage, the same ones we had.

To make it work, we took a hard look at our budget, trimmed any fat (like canceling our Netflix account, cutting way back on eating out and eliminating junk-food snacks from our grocery list), and applied for and received a significant discount on our daughter’s annual bill (because her school offers financial aid for qualifying students). We also took on additional student loans (my husband qualifies for financial aid), and leveraged my income and monetary gifts from our parents to make this happen for our kids.

The Most Important Lessons We Learned

It’s not our ideal situation, but we make it work. Looking back, here are the most important things we’ve learned over the past six years:

  • We should have been diligent about researching our school district, regardless of how long we intended to live in our home. The Internet makes it easy, and most states post statistics about every school online. When we shop for our next home, we’ll be buying in a neighborhood that comes with a really great public school. Private school has been great for our kids, but tuition makes saving of any kind nearly impossible. I’m 41 and my husband is 39, and we stopped saving for retirement completely in 2006.
  • We learned the hard way that the quality of schools also seriously impacts the value of your real estate, and we know we’ll struggle to sell our already devalued 4-bedroom house to a family who wants their kids to go to public school.
  • We should have saved differently. Setting aside money for college is a great idea, and one I wholeheartedly endorse (even though we haven’t been able to, yet). But if you think private school might be in your child’s future, allocate a portion of your savings for that contingency, as well.
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Despite the financial hardship we were (and are) in, both of our children, at ages 7 and 4, are thriving in the private school environment. For now, we have no plans to take them out, at least until we move out of our current area, which we hope to in the next 12 to 18 months. We will continue to apply for aid and make sacrifices where we can.

We’re lucky. Lots of families who live in some of the worst school districts in the nation simply can’t make this happen for their kids, and we can, so it’s a burden we embrace.

Editor’s note: Lenders who deal exclusively in private-school tuition loans have popped up all over the place. According to Smart Money, private-school lender Your Tuition Solution expected to dole out more than $20 million in loans for the 2012-2013 school year.

If you find yourself in the market for a private school, there are some resources available when it comes time to research the institutions in your area. The National Center for Education Statistics has a searchable database, you should always ask people in your community. 

Amy L. Hatch is a freelance writer and editor, as well as co-founder of chambanamoms.com. She currently lives in Illinois with her husband and two children.

LearnVest is the leading lifestyle and personal finance website for women.