Deciding whether to send your children to public or private school is a huge financial decision, but it’s also fraught with emotions, biases and deeply ingrained personal histories. There is no one right formula or answer to help people determine what’s right for them, but it’s helpful to understand what’s influencing the decision. Especially with couples, who may have different points of view, the education conversation improves when there’s awareness about emotional triggers, clearly established priorities, the right facts and a framework for decisions.
As an advisor, it’s my job to help people make good choices. Here is my advice for clients in this dilemma.
Everyone has personal or family history, or a set of cultural values, which factor into our thinking about how our children should be educated. For some, public school is an important tradition and reflects commitment to their local community and its diversity. Perhaps both parents are products of a great public-school education, or they moved to a town with high taxes to support excellent schools and it’s an easy decision that saves a lot of money. For others, the topic is less black and white. Perhaps there is a long line of family members who have attended private school, and it feels like an expectation rather than a choice. Other factors can include a struggling student, and a smaller environment is appealing, or the family wants a religious influence in the curriculum.
The first step is to articulate how you feel about the decision, and in couples, make sure you are listening if opinions don’t align perfectly.
When I’m working with clients, I try to help them gain clarity about their real values and priorities first, using an exercise that asks them to make tradeoffs until they have their own list of priorities and then can negotiate a shared list as a couple. As an example, one spouse may prioritize spending time with people they love, while the other may prioritize maintaining a certain lifestyle. Through conversation, couples can discuss their priorities, identifying those they share, and develop a list which becomes their decision framework to guide them as they consider the impact of big decisions.
Get the facts:
The biggest mistake parents make when thinking about paying private school tuitions is failing to forecast the long-term impact of using excess cash flow now instead of saving it for later. Especially when it’s an emotional decision or expectation, clients want to just close their eyes and say yes. It’s critical to quantify all expenses and make a reasonable cash flow forecast for the next several years to see how that does affect finances and other goals and priorities including funding college accounts and retirement plans.
Many couples today have deferred having kids until their mid or late 30s and are in their 40s when children begin school. These can be peak earning years, that are also peak saving years, and that’s sometimes lost if children attend private school. By the time children are in college, parents may face a serious retirement saving gap. An honest discussion on cash flow and savings rates over time are important, and the downstream impact should always be considered when parents ask, “can I afford private schools?”
Establish a framework for decisions:
For most clients, the analyses are eye-opening and they are more aware of the importance of their decision. Identifying the priorities for each person and couple is extremely helpful when it’s time to make up their minds. The goal is to use the family resources for what’s important – as private schools may be – without sacrificing the overarching priorities for quality of life and financial security, among others. One way to balance these goals is to get creative with making tradeoffs so that the decision has more than one black or white variation. As example, to achieve their goals for private education, are they willing to trade:
• K-12 private education for a four-year program?
• The assumption that all kids will be treated the same for a more individual decision?
• Some independence in return for asking grandparents to chip in?
• Staying at home versus returning to work for one spouse?
• Cutting other expenses to free up cash flow?
• Planned retirement at 63 to 67?
Find the right answer for you
Going through the process will often lead to a clear decision on forging ahead with a private school education or not since parents are making an informed decision having weighed all the aspects of it which they can articulate to family and friends.
Ultimately, knowing your priorities and having conversations that deal with emotional and factual truths result in making choices with clarity, confidence and control – living the life that’s right for you.