Private School Cost – Is It Worth It?

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By Dr. Margaret Curtis, WCI Columnist

When we moved to Maine 12 years ago for my job, we put our kids in the cute little private school across the street. We thought we’d only be here a few years before returning to our small Vermont town and its K-8 public school. The cost of private school seemed reasonable at the time, especially compared to the convenience of not having to drive to and from school every day. We debated moving and changing schools many times over the years but, for various reasons, we stayed here. One child is now in college and two in high school, and we’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on tuition.

If you read my article on all our bad saving habits, you might be surprised to learn that I send my kids to private school. You might think I’m a jerk or just bad with money. Well, go ahead because I’ve already thought of all these things myself. Use the comments section to kick it out of your system.

I went to a private high school (you can add some privileged ones 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 many arguments for and against when, in truth, it is impossible to generalize about something as individual as school choice. There is no school suitable for every child. So, I’ll only touch on the cold hard financial realities of private school, and end with some unsolicited parenting advice.

Someone might as well benefit from my experience, even if it’s not me.

#1 The Private School Finance Calendar Is Inconvenient

For most physicians, having children coincides with residency and the start of a career. Now is the time to prepare for future success by saving, especially if you plan to help pay for your children’s college education. You can use 529 money to pay for eligible K-12 expenses, but you’ll have to save a lot more to pay for both private school and college (obviously), and you’ll lose the benefit of long-term growth by withdrawing money earlier. Now is not a good time to spend a significant portion of your after-tax income on what is, in truth, a luxury.

Before anyone says “education is an investment!” this is a financial blog, and “investment” is defined quite narrowly. You can reasonably expect your investments to provide you with a monetary return, and private school won’t, not for you and probably not for your children. Although data shows that a college education increases lifetime earnings by up to $1.5 million, there is no such confirming data for private schools. Private school is a luxury because there is a reasonable and free alternative: public school. No one buys a Mercedes for essential transportation, and no one sends their child to private school because there is no other option (there is are children whose personal and educational needs simply cannot be met in public schools, but they are the exception and not the rule).

You will be tied to a high-paying job as long as you have to pay tuition. When you start out as a starter, you might think (like many of us) that you could work full-time forever. When you turn 50, you will probably feel differently. My husband would be happy to retire tomorrow, but he’s literally working to pay tuition at this point. We’ve paid close to $500,000 so far, and we still have a total of 11 years of education ahead of us. We have enough for approximately two years of private college tuition in each child’s 529 plan. If it 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 that of daycare, with the added appeal of ambient classical music and a live camera of a red-tailed hawk nest.

But all subtleties have a price. The costs will increase over time as your child progresses through the grades, not exponentially, but significantly and well above the rate of inflation. Over the past 10 years, our children’s school fees have more than doubled. When you look at a private school, it’s easy to look at the annual tuition and think, “That’s less than the cost of a new car!” No problem!” What you need to do is create a spreadsheet with the current tuition rates, add at least 5% per year, then multiply by the total number of years.

It’s not a new car; it’s a new house.

#3 You’ll keep pace with some very rich Joneses.

Your kids will (hopefully) have classmates of varying means, but there will be a preponderance of wealthy kids and a few for whom money doesn’t seem to be an object. It’s harder to keep your child grounded and in control of their/your expectations when their friends have the best of everything.

I went to private school through my grandparents, and my parents were upper middle class but not private school. My mother was one of the few to work 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 (in fact, I 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 hard work and gratitude. I tried to do the same for my children, but sending them to private school made this task unnecessarily more difficult.

private school cost

Here is what I say to young parents about private school:

  1. Try public school. 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 talking about here—but for all cultural and community reasons.
  2. If the only decent pre-K option is private, commit to going to the local school for kindergarten and stick with it. Every child will then start over, and I promise your 5-year-old will adapt.
  3. If you already have a child in a private school and you think, “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 too. Every year, for years. There are two times when it is really difficult for children to change schools: in middle school and in high school. (Of course, some children really need to change schools during these times). Anytime before college or during natural “breaks,” such as between middle school and high school, are good times to take the leap.

If we had kept our children in public school until high school and used that money to invest or buy rental properties, we could be retired by now. Or I’ll 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 would no longer work grueling hours and we would have the leeway to do more of what we love.

These may not be your goals and private school expenses fit into your financial plan. But before committing so much of your money and future savings to building the private school route, you should become as educated as possible.

Did you or did you send your children to a private school? Was it worth it? Would it have been better for your financial journey to send them to public school instead? Comments below!

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