Saturday, January 23, 2016

How We Afford Catholic School

After our disastrous 6-week run in a public charter school, we homeschooled Sean for a bit, then we eventually got back into school and both of the boys now go to our parish school.  The Catholic school tuition system, like the cost of higher education, is broken.  However, balancing all the elements of our kids' education, its where we find ourselves right now.  I always remain open to homeschooling again at some point, but at this moment in our lives, we all need the community of our school (I hate the word "socialization" as a rationale in and of itself to send your kids to school, even if its a terrible academic or emotional situation), James is thriving in the structure of a classroom, and Sean has wonderful friends and has a lot of ownership in his school community.  On the whole we are happy there, and we truly believe in the mission of Catholic education.

That doesn't mean its cheap though.  And, given our deliberate decision to remain a single-income family, financing this Community requires creative thinking and lots of sacrifices.  As I see it, we are at the bottom of the family finances totem pole: The top being DINKs (Dual Income No Kids); then DIPS (Dual Income Public School); then SIPS (Single Income Public School-- Or Single Income Homeschool): then suckers like us: Single Income, Catholic School.  Right now, we find our tiny Catholic school to be the best place for our kids.  So, we have to make it work on our one (Public Defender) salary.  I hear people say all the time "We can't afford private school," or, we'd love a Catholic education, but its just so expensive, we can't do it."  It is expensive.  But you can do it. It just takes a little more thought and discipline when you're at the bottom of the finance totem pole.  But, if you make a decision for your family and you believe in that decision, own it and make it work.  Here's just a few ways we are doing that:

1. Ask for Help
Did you know that almost every private school has funds set aside specifically to help people who need it?  AND, most pastors WANT people to go to Catholic school and also have (additional) funds set aside to help people who need it?  But, you have to ask.  When Sean started back in school I thought there was no way we would qualify for financial aid.  We're both lawyers.  But, then I started looking around and noticed I was one of (maybe) 2 moms in the class who didn't work.  Plus Cody's "lawyer" salary was earned by representing indigent (read: POOR) clients.  I thought, why not, maybe our single income was low enough to garner some support, or at least pity.  Sure enough, these two lawyers get a little bit of financial aid from the school.  Plus, our super son gets a little bit of scholarship just for being an awesome kid.  Plus, we get a little more financial aid from the Diocese.  This isn't even asking our pastor for help. There are many layers of people who want to help.  In addition to all this help, because Jamesie has an IEP he qualifies for a special scholarship from the state (!) for kids with exceptional learning needs to attend private school (so the public schools aren't stuck with another IEP and the parents aren't stuck with the public schools).

2. Earmark Extras for Tuition
We have a separate savings account just for tuition payments.  Any "extra" money goes directly into this account.  Gifts from family (let them know you need help with tuition!), tax returns, maybe some money you earn on the side (I've known a few moms through the years who maintain part time work solely to cover tuition).  Dump it all in there and don't touch it.  Sell $100 worth of junk from your garage on Craigslist (I promise you will not miss whatever you sell) and put it in there. It adds up, and you won't be stressing about the monthly payment coming out of the monthly budget.

3. Pray
When we made the decision to send Sean to Catholic school, we knew it was right.  We also knew we had about enough money to get him through the half of the semester that was remaining in the school year.  But we prayed about it and we had a lot of peace that this was the right path for us and for him.  Allow the terribly trite statement, but the Lord has provided for us.  Sometimes he requires blind trust to prove that he will fulfill. And he will.

4. Stop Using the Clothes Dryer 
What?  It won't, strictly speaking, pay for your kid's tuition bill, but its one piece in a very deliberate life-style puzzle.  We have always thought of ourselves as frugal, or at least non-frivolous, people.  But about 6 months ago we embarked on a journey of even more extreme frugality to try to bring some discipline to our finances and decisions.  Thanks to this blog we kicked it into overdrive.  We had previously been parading around a $300+ electric bill, but once my natural tendency toward frugality met Mr. Money Mustache's disciplined systematic frugality, it became my mission to stop spending silly amounts of money on silly conveniences (and my stated goal to cut our electric bill in half).

  While MMM is actually an "early retirement" blog, we decided the principles remain the same even if we have a different end goal for the money. We've decided to finance our kids' education instead of retire early, but to do it comfortably.  The first day I read this blog I walked around our house and unplugged at least 15 needless appliances we never use, or use for 1 minute a day, but are powering an additional 23 hours and 59 minutes per day.  I stopped lighting rooms we weren't using (and subsequently changed those lights to LED bulbs (while doing research on our energy usage problem I found our electric company was selling LED bulbs to customers for $1 each, no shipping.  No brainer.)), and decided we can all wear shorts in the summer and sweaters in the winter (shocking, right?).  The ridiculously frivolous temperature of our hot water heater went down to a normal level (which meant my frivolously long showers were cut down to a reasonable length), and I started hanging up our clothes to dry.  The first month our electric bill went down 25%.  The next five months we've been under $140.  TYVM.   An additional $150/month adds up to a good chunk of change to squirrel away for retirement or to put in that tuition savings account. Then I thought, if this works for the electric bill, what else can it work for?  If I make 10 (pretty do-able) decisions a month that save $10 each (water, electric, gas, food), I'm doing alright. But, if I can make 5 (semi-extreme, but still comfortable) decisions a month that save $50-$100 (or $150) each, I'm actually starting to control a good bit of cash. Cody started biking to work (coinciding with his move downtown for work, which we calculated saved $200/month in gas); No more eating out (we were never huge in this area, but convenience and laziness get the best of us sometimes--$50-$100); The already mentioned electric bill ($150); a tightened up grocery budget (which is still pretty high, but discipline in meal planning and cutting out extraneous trips can save us $100/month); we recommitted to cloth diapers (saves maybe $30-$40/mo); Cut our cable and home phone completely ($75/mo--and not a single person of the 6 living here has complained once about not having cable); and completely cut out any thought of ever stepping foot in Target again ($50-$100/mo, because as you know, it is physically impossible to "just run in" to Target for some plastic hangers, or a few bibs, without spending $50.  And $50 would be a good day).

With this change in philosophy and lifestyle come a few other very sensible decisions that Cody and I found are really in our nature, and we feel a huge sense of freedom by outright owning them now.  Our kids will likely never see the inside of Disney World.  That's like a year's worth of tuition, and just inculcates the consumerist attitude that we detest.  We will likely never have more than one TV in our house or host a birthday party at Chuck E Cheese.  As a rule we don't buy our kids clothes, yet they have too many to ever wear all of them.  Family activities are generally not things we pay money to do, rather we go on bike rides, hikes, have a bonfire or visit parks. Once we actually committed to all of these lifestyle choices, we articulated what we have long known, but maybe lost sight of along the way: every single one of these things, we believe, are better for our kids' development as good people than the alternative. Our goal as parents is to have our children know God and seek Him through the good, true, and beautiful.  Where do we find those things in today's culture?  Hiking through a state park with your siblings or going deaf and blind at Chuck E Cheese?  Reading a book with your dad or watching snarky pre-teens on the Disney Channel?  You get the idea. Our kids know us, they know and love our families, they know and love each other. AND, we are saving a boatload of money.

So, with two law degrees and four kids, we have knowingly and willingly put ourselves at the bottom of the totem pole of family finances by choosing one income and private school. But, when done deliberately, this situation can bring immense amounts of freedom.  We pay tuition, we live in a small house-- every one shares a room-- but we don't feel stressed about our financial decisions.  We are not a slave to the consumer culture anymore.  We feel FREE to choose our kids' education and free to do what we want with our money (which is not to give it to the electric company, Disney World, or the cable company).  We feel free to have one of us at home dedicated to being a full time parent. And, most of all, we are happy.  Our kids are awesome people and we love hanging out with them.  We have found that spending less money means more time to hang out, read, talk, cook, and just know each other.  So, kids, if you are reading this, sorry we never went to Disney, but you're welcome for the quality education we chose for you.

* In the interest of full disclosure, we still spend a lot of money in a few optional areas--most notably babysitters and food.  We shop mostly at Costco, so we do make good and deliberate purchases, but like Target, you can't run into Costco for a gallon of milk and come out less than $100 poorer (nor can you get a babysitter to come over to the house for less than $40).  We also buy our veggies from a CSA, which I don't think is saving us any money, but I think we're getting a few more meals out of them.  And hopefully saving on future medical bills.  


Cathy said...

This is awesome, Erin. Actually, the main thing I'm taking away from this is that I should start owning my conscious decision to leave my job, instead of seeing it as a mistake and a burden. We've already made cuts in all areas of our budget, but now you've got me wondering what other cuts we could make. Most of all, it just feels nice to know we're not the only young family trying to figure out how to make finances work!

Erin said...

Thanks Cathy! We became a bit obsessed with Mr Money Muatache for a while. Another thing we've done is recruit our two best family friends to live the MMM lifestyle with us. It's pretty awesome - we are all accountable to eachother about our ridiculous student loan debt and have the same values and attitude about spending. Going to the beach or having a bonfire in our backyard is way more fun and fulfilling than going to a fancy restaurant. The other 2 families also have a ton of kids and go to catholic school with us. We're living the dream.

Unknown said...

This is great!! Thanks for writing it!

Kate said...

Good for you guys. Miss you!

Unknown said...

One way we saved on babystitting is we share with 2 other couples from our church. We all have kids (2 each so a bit smaller group) the same ages and we've been doing this for 7 years. Every 3 months we sit down with our calendars and schedule 3 date nights. So each couple gets two nights out and we host the kids one night. It is wonderful! The kids love it as much as we do, we don't worry about having teens over who might be on their phone or invite boy/girl friends over and we get to go out for free. Sometimes we just make dinner at home and watch something on Netflix or from Redbox (date night at home has its own advantages!) or go play tennis. Might be more challenging with 4 kids but we have friends with 4 each who swap- makes for a good party.

Ms. O'Neill said...

Time to start blogging again! Hey girl, what's your email? Drop me a line or check your Facebook messenger from me.