Money Mic: How We’re Putting Two Kids Through Private School on One Salary

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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.

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.

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.

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.

  • Kay

    Unfortunately, loans have to be paid back.  If I were in this boat, I would sell the house now in preparation for moving (if you have a captive audience as you were, this may work out.)  I would be paying down those student loans before they get out of control and create an emergency fund, if none exists.  Be prepared for Stage Two of your life, it will happen in a minute.

  • bcalnyc

    I love the “we had no choice” but to put our kid in private argument.  Why not put your kid in the public school and spend some energy improving the school.  Do you think some of those kdis living in povery aren’t as gifted as your kid and couldn’t benefit from the things you would fight for?  Perhaps a college/school partnership? Or outreach to corporate sponsors?  My kids (3 now adult, on 6 years old) went almost entirely through the NYC public system (except for a few years in England where they went to state schools).  2 had to skip and we had to jump through all kinds of hoops to get one into the International Baccalaureate program because we were in the “wrong” neighborhood.  But just this morning I found out that one of my son’s schoolmates was allowed to move ahead a grade because I fought to have that option for him. 
    Staying, and working for better schools for all, is the best thing for everyone.  Your kids’ educations can be enriched with the money you save and can spend in other ways on them, and also by seeing that education is not just for the privileged.  And their lives with be enriched by having friends from diverse backgrounds and knowing that they are worth their parents time and effort, not just their money.

    • Trogdorette

      I agree, this article was not helpful or educational at all. It felt like the author thought her family too good for the public schools. If parents would work to improve neighborhood schools instead of pulling their kids out our country would be in better shape. Also, it sounds like they are not really looking at the financial “big picture”. This article is nowhere near the normal level of those I expect from Learnvest.

    • Nikki

      i completely agree with you. i went to a public school in the inner city but I always got good grades and I always passed the required standardized tests. i was in an academic honors program offered at my school and i also took most of the AP classes offered at the high school.

    • Mae

      It’s not her job to take care of everyone else’s kids.

    • Onlymissr

      Personally I think your child is too precious to gamble with the prospect of whether or not you will be able to ‘improve’ a school. yes you can perhaps change a building, but do you know the amount of beauracratic rubbish one has to go through to affect enough change in a school to meet the standards necessary for a child to thrive. Do you know how long it takes to change ‘cultures’. So yes , I think this lady had ‘no choice’. Your response sounds like some hippie high idealistic nonsense. Growing up there were kids from some so call ‘diverse’ backgrounds who I had chosen to hang around with, I would not achieved much and like them be either in jail or doing things which are very bad. Mind you, I went to a state school, I loved it. Then I moved, all state school around my locality are low performing and I wont risk putting my already active child in them, because I know he needs a more structured environment offered by private schools. I refuse to believe that I as a parent am responsible for fixing school problems by putting my child in a school I know they will not thrive. It is unfortunate that some gifted children do live in poverty, however you will find alot fo private school do offer these children scholarships, so all is not lost. Where you send your child to school is a very personal choice.

  • #WhitePeopleProblems

    not such a fan of this article. The writer comes off as entitled despite admitting her failure to plan properly for her family’s future. 

    • anonymous

       I agree with you. Homeschooling is an option or simply being hands on with your kids education and learning experience while they attend public school. I started saving for retirement very young and can’t imagine suspending doing so in my early 40s…

  • Erin

    This article makes it sound like anyone can make sacrifices to put their kids in private school.   But, I’d like to know what portion the grandparents are contributing towards private school and bills.  It sounds significant in order to be able to swing this.

  • sjdemo

    poor choices all around. you could have home schooled or started a home preschool group with other moms instead of shelling out thousands to private. you could have spent more time talking with people who actually work in your district instead of looking at test scores and poverty. you could have talked to parents of kids in those schools and the kids themselves to see what they liked or didn’t about them instead of just “people in town.” 
    eventually how much you spend over the years is going to be greater than if you’d sold the house instead of just eating your losses. of course, if you and the other people in town got together to improve the school housing values might go up.

    • OnlymissR

      You could have , you could have you could have, best those who can do, and clearly that is you, and not some of us. Homes schooling? Really??!!? Gotta love kids but not healthy to spend that much time with them where they should be also learning with peers. Some people are made out for this shmoozy woozy snotty housewife nonesense, some are not. Each to their own. Personally I am a single mum and I will work hard , save like crazy to ensure my son gets the best education, and whilst I am out doing that ( not time to home school) I can rest easy knowing his abilities and talents will be carefully nurtured in a more intimate learning environment. Some people think private schools are only things done by the wealthy as a way of class segregation, some perhaps, but for people like me, its after consideration of many factors and realising no investment better than my sons education. Whilst some choose ( which is their choice and again each to their own) to spend money on high tech gadgets , expensive cars, clothes shoes etc, some choose to spend that on their childrens education. What I realised in truth was if you really want to , you can but working worker and making some financial choices. My mother grew up in excessive poverty, worked on a farm from age 8 years old, she fought hard to build a better life for us and ensure we went to good schools, and I will strive to make her efforts worth it by striving for my child to do and get even better.

      • sjdemo

        wow. “shmoozy, woozy snotty housewife nonesense.” judge much? i don’t home school, but i’ve seen some parents be extremely successful with it, and some manage to do it while working a full-time job. i send my kids to public school because i believe they can be just as good as private schools, and ultimately success is determined by their ambition and what they do with their knowledge more than where they went to school.

        i work full-time with preschools for low-income families. i see them get involved with their schools and their communities and improve their lives collectively. they can’t afford to throw money at it so they put in the effort to make change for the benefit of everyone.

        private school isn’t only for the wealthy, but when you put yourself in debt to educate your child what message are you teaching them? this is what the couple in the article has done, and if they don’t pay it off they burden their children since they have stopped paying into retirement.

        if you can put your kid in a private school without going in debt or stopping your own retirement savings that’s great, and i mean it. a lot of people can’t, though, and they should be considering the larger lesson.

        you should keep in mind your child is not alone in the world, and the better investment is the one that benefits his generation and not just him.

  • tthom

    I live about an hour away from this author.  I also spent the majority of my education (primary, middle and junior high) in private schools where my parents paid about 3,300 each year for tuition.  They chose to enroll me there because they lacked confidence in our public school system.  I went to a small town public school and wished my parents had put me there in the first place.  Moral of the story:  SHE DOES NOT HAVE TO PAY THAT MUCH FOR TUITION.  If she moved an hour or less away, she could save loads of money and have her choice of private or small town schools.

  • phaye

    I understand that we all have the right to choose different options for our kids but this does not sound financially savvy.  My oldest daughter attends Charter school (which is a free option for a challenging education  that was started by parents and officials that wanted more option).  Before that she attended public school and yes, even her teacher felt that she couldn’t really speak to her needs but guess what, thats when my husband and I stepped up as parents.  In all these school debates everyone leaves out that the school system is not where the buck stops, you have to step in as parents.  Volunteer at the school; spend extra time  to make sure you educate your child. there is no need to go into debt BEFORE your child even makes it to college!

  • Jill

    In the U.S. parents are not involved in the education and upbringing of their children. They shift blame on school systems, teachers (REALLY???) and busy work schedule. And these reasons are part of the reason why we are falling behind other countries in terms of innovation. A few decades ago China’s literacy rate was abysmal, but through restructuring of the educational system they have one of the highest literacy rates (if not the highest) AND Chinese (and other Asian) people are coming to the U.S. as international students and returning to improve China. Also we need to overhaul some educational policies. I experienced the terror that was “No Child Left Behind” and I can say that it was not a good program. I went to predominantly African American schools from elementary school to high school. my high school is actually one of the best high schools in the country and many of us took AP courses such as Calculus, Psychology, Chemistry and even organic chemistry. Now I am a senior, at one of the best public universities in the U.S. and I will start my masters next fall! 
    From my personal experience, my parents were very busy, my mother and father have worked at least 2 jobs since I have been in school, they still support my siblings and I and also other family members. From an early age my parents instilled discipline, hard work and academic excellence in us. my parents used to take my sister and I to the library during elementary school and we would borrow 20 books (they were often children series). I am grateful to my parents for all that I have accomplished and for the future that they have paved for me.
    I say all this to urge parents to get involved in their children’s education. Your children are your most valuable investment.

  • Vicki

    Part of the problem was buying a house when they knew they would only be there for 3 years anyway. Doesn’t sound like the best idea and now they’re trapped. I remember LearnVest had a great article on helping you decide if you should rent or buy so maybe one of the staffers can chime in and share the link to help other people who might be about to get in the same situation.

    I also agree with other commenters that private school wasn’t the only option and that they could have helped their kids, community, and property value by becoming more involved in the public schools in their area.

    Their current situation is unfortunate but at least the author is taking the first step by talking about it (cliche, I know, but true). Best of luck in making the right decisions to turn this thing around! It would be great to have a follow-up article down the road so we can see how things turned out.

  • Doug

    You’re in your 40′s and haven’t saved for retirement in 6 years?  Get your priorities straight.  You and your kids are screwed.  

  • Kellyn Westra

    I grew up in a dutch family where we traditionally send our kids to private schools so like this author I don’t know any differently so I understand where she is coming from. That being said I am considering putting my daughter in private school for part of her education but mostly for religious reasons so she can also receive a religious education @ the same time. But I realize to accomplish this I may not be able to buy a house. You can’t really have it all. Sacrifices have to be made somewhere if you want your kids to go to private school. In high school I worked to pay for my own schooling. My parents never bought anything new for the house or any new grand purchases. We never went on grand vacations. Just road trips and visiting family. Never flew. So that is the price…

  • Deb Hng

    I don’t know if the author reads these, but researching a school district is not a guarantee that you will be able to best educate your children without private schools.
    We intentionally moved to an “award winning” highly sought after school district (in the Chicago suburbs) only to be completely disappointed. Our son was bored to tears and we had to move him to a private school that allows him to move at his own pace.
    The extra worksheets that these “sought after” public schools offered were worthless in getting him excited about learning. Now he is over the moon about learning and his school. Our property values are great and the public school has a good reputation – we still have to scrimp and suffer financially for the best schooling for him while paying insane property taxes to a school that offered nearly nothing!

    • Deb Hng

       *I forgot to mention that he tested “gifted” but they only start that in upper grades.

  • Mae

    yeck, all i see on these comments is people telling her she has to help the poor and uneducated, that’s not really her job as a parent her first and most important job as a parent is guess what ….that’s right “her kids” The reason people send their kids to private school is because they want the best for their kids. My mom adopted me from birth, was a single mother and drove me 30 minutes away to private school everyday she didn’t have time to help everyone else’s kids jeez people how judgmental.  
    On another note though I find it a tad bit crazy to not have money saved up ahead of time. My aunt and uncle had a house built and saved up for 10 years before they even had their first child. Granted some of the money was spent on In Vitro fertilization. They have 4 boys and kept them all in private school until they were age 13 and that was mostly savings . My Aunt stayed at home up until the last boy was 18. My Aunt was a sunday school teacher that was how she gave back to the community by helping people that actually wanted to better themselves rather than accept handouts.

  • tigerv

    We are stuck in a magnet school lottery situation in Charlotte NC and are strongly considering private schools. Don’t want to continue to gamble on my child’s future. I commend you for prioritizing your children’s education and for the sacrifices you are willing to make to get what you want. I wish you and your family the best!

  • vs

    Author has the right to raise her kids any way she wants. However, publishing this article obviously opens up the personal life to scrutiny. As others have pointed out, the decisions made are not the wisest as far as finances are concerned. Buying a house for the short term, in a bad school district, quitting both jobs, not finishing degree in time, not saving for retirement, etc. What’s also interesting is that the author states that the parents are the product of a private school system. So what does that tell you about the benefits of a private education? Would you be happy if the kids are in a similar situation 30 years from now? I hear from so many parents who feel that their “gifted” kids need to be in a sheltered environment of a private school. I offer an alternate view, which is that most truly gifted kids would shine in an average public school, and be successful no matter what. I can understand if there are safety concerns, but other than that, decent public schools should be a viable option to consider.