The Hidden Costs of Sending Your Kid to School (and How to Minimize Them)

Save money on school expenses

This guest post was written by Jana Lynch, author of the wonderful personal finance blog Daily Money Shot , where she discusses money, family, relationships, pop culture, and everything in-between. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook .

Back when I was working full-time, my husband and I made the decision to send our daughter to private school. It’s not that we’re snobs or eschew public education; in fact, it’s just the opposite. We are both products of the public education system and wanted our daughter to go to public school. Unfortunately, our school district, and primarily our “home” school, are terrible. That’s where the problem came in. We are serious about our kid’s education and we just could not justify to ourselves sending her to that bad of a school.

We tried other routes before we landed on private school. We entered her into the charter school lottery; she made it to #4 on the waiting list. In my state, we have school choice, so we looked at some of the public schools near my office (which are substantially better), but they were full.  It appeared that the only solution was plan C—private school.

But as we all know, plans can change. I wound up quitting my job, so private school was out. Fortunately, we found a public school not too far from our house that was still accepting school choice applications and it turns out that the reputation of this school is stellar (I’m not really sure how I missed this information in the first place but that’s another discussion). We got our application in and she was set.  We were going to save thousands of dollars on tuition, afterschool care, and uniforms now that I was home and she was in public school.

However, we were totally unprepared for the expenses that keep cropping up, seemingly every week, at her public school. For instance, since she started school 2 months ago, we have paid for:

  • School pictures. Okay, I’m not really too upset with this one but let me tell you, picking an option that we could afford was tough. I can’t figure out why these pictures are so expensive. And we had to pay just to see the pictures. We didn’t get proofs sent home and choose from that. So even though my child’s picture is horrible, I’m out $26.
  • Field trips. Again, I’m not too surprised with this expense. $30 to cover the cost of 3 field trips really isn’t bad. But what I am upset about is the fact that I had to pay to chaperone the fall field trip. And I had to drive myself; chaperones were not allowed to ride the bus to the farm with the kids.
  • Classroom supplies. I knew I had to buy supplies for my kid. That’s fine. But at her school, we’re told that in kindergarten they are “communal learners”. Essentially what this means is that the parents who do buy supplies are providing them for the whole class. So any fun pencils or notebooks that my kid wanted for school? Are now sitting at home.  (Also, buying school supplies should never be a surprise so this whole communal thing is nonsense).
  • Party supplies. Most recently, we received a letter instructing us to buy certain items for their “fall festival”. Not asking. Instructing. And we have to provide our assigned supplies for the entire kindergarten. 135 or so students.
  • Gas. Because she is at her school via school choice, the district does not provide transportation (even though we live in the district). I can drive her to a bus stop and she can ride the bus from there; however, by the time I would get her to the bus stop, we’re about half a mile from school. Might as well just finish the trip myself.

The book fair is next week. You can expect another post on how to handle that mess!

Anyway, with all the costs, not to mention the ones I haven’t encountered yet (instruments, clubs and sports teams, fundraisers, books, etc), I figured there has to be a way to be better prepared. I don’t want to say I was blindsided because I wasn’t; I knew that even “free” public school came with expenses. I just wasn’t ready for the price and the frequency with which they occur. If I were to do it again, here’s what I’d do:

  • Ask questions. I’d ask parents of current and former students, of the principal, of the teacher what expenses to expect. I’d ask roughly the price range. I’d ask approximately how often they occur and in what months. Then I’d write the answers down so I wouldn’t forget.
  • Budget. Provided I could get good answers to my questions, I could work those expenses into my budget. I’d set aside money roughly a month in advance that way, when they send the paper home asking for my check, I’d have it available and wouldn’t have to scramble.
  • Comparison shop. While I can’t necessarily compare the cost of a field trip or gas, I can shop around for supplies and even school pictures. I can look at all available options and find ones that fit my budget, my needs, and my child’s needs. For many of the items I need to buy, particularly the “communal” ones, the Dollar Store has become my best friends.
  • Say no. This one is a bit tricky for me. I want to be involved in my daughter’s classroom activities beyond helping her with her homework, reading, etc. I want to go to school and help in the classroom or volunteer at events like the fall festival. You know, the free stuff. But to pay to chaperone a field trip is, to me, ludicrous. Going forward, I think I can agree to one field trip a year. Not all 3.

I probably shouldn’t complain too much. I mean, the amount we’ve paid out thus far pales in comparison to what we could have paid had she gone to private school. But I think that the school needs to do a better job of preparing parents for the hidden costs. Because some people truly don’t know and are caught off guard. And their kids could miss out.

And honestly? That’s not fair.

Readers, how do you deal with these kinds of expenses?

Image by KB35

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