By Dr. Margaret Curtis, WCI Columnist
When we moved to Maine 12 years ago for my work, we put our kids in the sweet little private school across the street. We figured we would only be here for a few years before we moved back to our small town in Vermont and its K-8 public school. The cost of private school seemed reasonable at the time, especially weighed against the convenience of not driving to and from school every day. We debated moving and changing schools many times over the years but—for a variety of reasons—have stayed here. One kid is now in college and two are in high school, and we have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on tuition.
If you read my article on (crowing about) all our goofy thrifty habits, you might be surprised to learn I send my kids to private school. You might think I’m a fool or just bad with money. Well, go right ahead because I have already thought all those things myself. Use the comment section to get it out of your system.
I went to a private high school (you can add privileged to the list above), as did my brothers and my husband, and I know the cultural and educational aspects of private schools as well as anyone. There are plenty of arguments for and against when, in truth, it is impossible to generalize about something as individual as school choice. There is no such thing as a school that is right for every kid. So, I will only address the cold hard financial realities of private school, and I will end with some unsolicited parental advice.
Someone might as well benefit from my experience, even if it isn’t me.
#1 The Timing of Private School Finances Is Inconvenient
For most physicians, having children coincides with residency and early career. This is the time to set yourself up for later success by saving, especially if you plan to help pay for your kids' college. You can use 529 money to pay qualified K-12 expenses, but you will have to save significantly more to pay for both private school and college (obviously), and you will lose out on the long-term growth benefit by withdrawing money sooner. This is not a great time to commit a significant portion of your post-tax income to what is, in truth, a luxury.
Before anyone says “education is an investment!” this is a financial blog, and “investment” is quite narrowly defined. You can reasonably expect your investments to provide you with a monetary return, and private school will not do that—not for you and probably not for your kids. Although the data shows that a college education increases lifetime earnings up to $1.5 million, there is no such confirmatory data for private schools. Private school is a luxury because there is a reasonable, free alternative: public school. No one buys a Mercedes for essential transportation, and no one sends their kid to private school because there is no other option (there are kids whose personal and educational needs just can’t be met at public school, but they are the exception and not the rule).
You will be tied to a high-paying job for as long as you have to pay tuition. When you are just starting out as an attending, you may feel (as many of us did) that you could work full-time forever. When you are 50, you will probably feel differently. My husband would happily retire tomorrow, but he is literally working to pay tuition at this point. We have paid close to $500,000 so far, and we still have 11 years of college, total, ahead of us. We have enough for about two years of private college tuition in each kid’s 529 plan. If that was painful to read, it was even more painful to write.
#2 Private Preschool Is a Gateway Drug
The cost of private preschool is comparable to daycare, with the added appeal of ambient classical music and a live cam of a red-tailed hawks’ nest.
But all the niceties come at a price. The costs will increase over time, as your kid moves up through the grades—not exponentially, but significantly and well above the inflation rate. Over the last 10 years, our kids’ tuition has more than doubled. When you are looking at a private school, it is easy to consider the annual tuition and think, “That’s less than the cost of a new car! No problem!” What you need to do is make a spreadsheet with current tuition rates, add at least 5% per year, and then multiply by the total number of years.
It’s not a new car; it’s a new house.
#3 You Will Be Keeping Up with Some Very Wealthy Joneses
Your kids will (hopefully) have classmates of a variety of means, but there will be a preponderance of wealthy kids and a few for whom money seems to be no object. It is harder to keep your kid grounded and their/your expectations in check when their friends have the best of everything.
I went to private school thanks to my grandparents, and my parents were upper-middle-class but not private-school-wealthy. My mother was one of the few there who worked outside the home.[A non-financial aside: This is one of the things that still irks me about private school. There are an astonishing number of parents who don’t have full-time jobs. When our kids were in public school, there was an assumption that parents would be occupied during working hours. Now, we have to regularly reschedule conferences because my husband and I are both at the office. I don’t even want to talk about the regular “parent coffee hours” at 9am.]
When I was a kid, I once came home from a friend’s house and said (actually, whined), “Why can’t we renovate our house like Katie’s family?” Looking back, I think Mom showed incredible restraint in not reading me the riot act right then and there. She made sure I understood the importance of work and gratitude. I have tried to do the same for my kids, but sending them to private school made that task needlessly harder.
Here is what I tell young parents about private school:
- Give public school a good try. By “good,” I mean more than a year. We didn’t, and I wish we had. Not just for financial reasons—although that’s what I’m addressing here—but for all the cultural and community reasons.
- If the only decent pre-K option is private, commit to switching to the local school for kindergarten and stick to it. Every kid will be starting new then, and I promise your 5-year-old will adapt.
- If you already have a kid in private school and are thinking, “She can’t leave her friends/teachers/activities. We could have done it last year, but this year it’s too late,” I thought the same thing, too. Every year, for years. There are two times when it’s really hard for kids to change schools: during middle school and during high school. (Of course, some kids really NEED to change schools during those times). Any time before middle school or at the natural “breaks”—such as between middle and high school—are good times to take the leap.
If we had kept our kids in public school through high school and used that money to invest or buy rental properties, we could be retired by now. Or I would be writing this from my home in Jackson Hole. I might not even be writing, because I would be too busy with my team of sled dogs. In all seriousness, my husband wouldn’t still be working grueling hours, and we would have breathing room to do more of what we love.
Maybe those aren’t your goals and the outlay for private school fits into your financial plan. But before you commit so much of your money and future savings to building the private school path, you should become as well-educated as possible.
Do you or have you sent your children to private school? Was it worth it? Would it have been better for your financial journey to send them to public school instead? Comment below!