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  • Writer's pictureVicky Keston

Can I Afford Private School?

This week, the financial cost of private school feels incredibly real as parents hold private school contracts in hand and have mere days before committing to a school costing $20,000 - 40,0000/year for K-8 or $50,000 - $60,000 for high school. Contracts typically require a non-refundable deposit this week and bind parents to a full year’s tuition by some time in May. Whether full pay or financial aid, few parents can pay this level of tuition without feeling an impact on their budget. Whether the parent did not qualify for financial aid, qualified for aid but did not receive financial aid, or received financial aid below their need, it is a difficult decision to spend this volume of money over the number of years the child will be in school.

Budget Check

The first step I recommend, the one that I started with, review your family budget. I categorize expenses into three categories – needs, strongly recommended, and wants.


This category includes the mandatory expenses:

  • Housing – rent or mortgage, property taxes, essential maintenance, property or renters’ insurance.

  • Food and Supplies – groceries and essential supplies, such as paper goods, cleaning supplies, and so forth, things from your typical Target or Costco run.

  • Health insurance, copays, and deductibles – Even without a chronic illness, families typically have out of pocket expenses for optical, dental, orthodontics, and over the counter medications.

  • Utilities -- electricity, gas, water, trash, internet

  • Basic transportation – Depending on your situation, this might be a bus pass, bicycle, or a used car (plus insurance, maintenance, and gas or electricity).

  • Childcare during school breaks, before and/or aftercare.

Strongly Recommended and/or Fiscally Sound

This category includes the expenses that are highly recommended for families:

  • Saving for retirement and college. We cannot ignore these categories for the 13 years of K-12 without serious consequences. Unless your job offers free college (confirm the acceptance rates if you work at a college with this benefit) or a pension (confirm that you can live on the benefit), this category is closer to a necessity than an option. College loans direct to students only cover a small amount (currently $5500 for a college freshman), require a parent to cosign loans over this amount, and require parental financial information for undergrads to receive financial aid (with few exceptions like marriage, age, death, foster kids).

  • Emergency savings account, in case of unforeseen expense or layoff.

  • Basic clothing and footwear. Our kids are growing, and while we can find items free or handed down in many cases, as they get older, they will need some new items.

  • School supplies. Most schools will expect you to provide a backpack, and some will also expect additional supplies. Like clothing, you can find much free online, with time, but also might want to purchase new.

Wants/Optional Expenses

This category includes items that are more clearly optional.

  • Vacations

  • Eating out

  • Nicer transportation, such as a newer car or Uber to work.

  • Nicer clothing

  • Miscellaneous purchases

  • Enrichment classes for our children

  • Additional childcare beyond the required work hours

How to Prioritize

If we have learned anything from the layoffs this past year, it’s that we need to be responsible with saving for a fiscal surprise. For this reason, I do not believe that private school justifies a fiscally bad decision, like not saving for college, retirement, and a small or moderate emergency fund. If the only way you can afford private school is to sell your home, then it’s time to find a school with a smaller price or stronger financial aid.

On the other hand, for my family, sacrificing our “wants” – such as travel and eating out – are a small price to pay for a private education. Other families feel differently, and this is where the real choice lies. Those with kids who are happy in the public schools near their homes might choose to enjoy holidays abroad, but this is up to each family’s personal preferences.

What are alternatives?

In addition to public schools, private schools come at a variety of costs and financial aid budgets. Regarding financial aid, you can find more information about how to qualify and choose a school with a package that meets your budget in my prior articles on high school financial aid and K-8 financial aid. In addition, many schools offer lower tuition – for instance Catholic schools are typically less than half the cost of independent schools, some smaller independent schools rely upon parent volunteer work to keep costs down, and some for-profit-chains also offer lower price points. Lastly, some families choose public school for some portions and private for others. In this situation, I recommend prioritizing middle school for private because the smaller classrooms focus on preparing a student for high school -- teaching executive function skills such as taking notes, studying, and keeping up on homework -- while in early stages of puberty. There is no right and wrong among these choices, just what's right for each family.

Role of a Consultant

Given the huge range of schools and financial budgets, a consultant can help you narrow down your options, saving you many hours of research. A good consultant will listen to parents and assess what type of school will be the best match for the family – both the parents and the child. There is no one perfect school, so the ideal consultant will present options that are as close as possible to the needs of the family, balancing time-saving with choice.

Independent school applications require parent essays, a parent interview, a group event for children, and often videos of children. Your school consultant can review parent essays, prep you for the interview, and review the children’s videos. Understanding how to present your child and how your child can be a fit for each school is critical for essay-writing and editing.

For financial aid applications, your school consultant can discuss the value of the optional essay, what is a realistic “ask” for your aid, and how to choose a school where your financial need will most likely be met.

Lastly, when schools return the decisions, your consultant can help you to weigh the pros, cons, and fit of each choice.

Want more input on schools?

Vicky consults with families to help apply to and select public and private schools in San Francisco in an environment of non-judgment. VIP and Season packages include a discussion to review school options, applications, and key decisions. Vicky offers a limited number of packages each year to assure her availability.

Vicky’s own children have attended both public and private schools; her elder is in high school, and her younger in middle school. New clients can email to learn more about her services, or see her website to learn about her packages.

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