When it comes to education, what’s the first bit of advice most new parents are likely to hear?

I bet it’s: “Make sure that you put your baby’s name down on the waiting list at several schools”.

It shouldn’t be. The most important education-related question new parents should be asking themselves is “How are we going to finance our child’s school career?” With fees on the perpetual up-and-up, what few of them realise is just how substantial a portion of their earnings will go towards education, especially if they’re planning to go the private school route.

But even allegedly seasoned parents like my wife Sam and I can get caught out in this department. When our boys moved to a new school a couple of years ago, our family finances were wrecked by an unexpected school fee bomb.

We thought that we were simply going to keep paying our fees on a monthly basis, just as we’d been doing for years. You can imagine our panic when January came along and we suddenly realised that a rather large lump sum of money was due right at the beginning of the school year instead.

Of course the disaster was mostly of our own making. While paying fees every month is probably the norm at the majority of schools, we should have realised much earlier that our new school operates on a different schedule and expects payments to be made at the beginning of every term. The consequences of the mix-up were devastating.

How were we going to come up with all of this money in just a few days? What a poor first impression we were going to make at our new school if the first thing we did was plead poverty and beg for more time?

Following some head-scratching we made an appointment with our bank in search of bridge financing and, to our great relief, managed to secure a short-notice extension to our existing home loan. Once we’d explained our dilemma, the school’s bursar was very understanding and didn’t mind the slight delay in payment.

While we managed to dodge that bullet, the story does illustrate the potentially devastating impact school fees can have on family finances these days.

Sam and I decided early on that we’d only send our children to schools that offered more than the standardised, cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all education that seems to be so depressingly widespread these days. Schools that valued each child as a unique individual who has something to contribute to their community, schools that respect kids as much as they do parents and teachers, and that don’t believe in spoon-feeding knowledge into supposedly empty vessels, encouraging a love for self-motivated, lifelong learning and open mental horizons instead.

In practice, that’s meant “alternative” schools, or, as Sam likes to call them (in the most positive sense imaginable, of course), “beardy weirdy” schools.

It’s also meant private schools and substantial fees. To make this possible, we’ve chosen to make financial sacrifices in other areas, resulting in somewhat of a dearth of fancy family holidays and similar luxuries.

If you decide to pursue the same path, it’s worth remembering that once you’ve made the commitment, it’s probably going to be pretty hard to turn back. Once you and your children have gotten used to the freedom this style of schooling offers, reverting to more traditional – and cheaper – options may no longer be viable.

With all of this in mind, we honestly can’t wait for our boys to finish school. Whatever they choose to do afterwards, including university, is just about guaranteed to be less expensive.

Don’t get me wrong. We don’t want them to grow up any faster than absolutely necessary – we enjoy their company too much to see them leave home any time soon – but we are really looking forward to having the school fee burden lifted off our backs.

If you want to avoid the mistakes we made, I’d recommend that you do your research early, choose the kind of school you want for your kids and do put their names down on the relevant waiting lists. But don’t neglect the financial implications of your education decisions from the very beginning. We underestimated the percentage of our income that goes to paying school fees, as well as the real psychological stress this can have on our family.

If you’re able to, it’s a great idea to put aside money on a monthly basis even from before your kids reach a school-going age. You could consider a dedicated endowment policy or similar saving mechanism that matures when they hit grade 1 or high school. And once they are actually in school, you might want to include school fees as a non-negotiable item in your monthly and annual budgets.

 

Photo via pixabay.com.