Susan writes in with the following question regarding kids and money:
We are a family of four on a single (decent) income and strive to be frugal and sensible. How much is OK to spend on the kids while we’re raising them, and when is it not OK to sacrifice financial security?
My oldest son has high-functioning autism. He is nearly five and will enter Kindergarten in the fall. He is brilliant (learned to read at two and can easily multiply in his head) but has poor social skills.The school district we live in has an OK reputation for special-needs kids and it’s overall a good school compared to others in the city. However he will likely have the usual struggles that autistic kids have in a mainstream school setting.
We have the option of enrolling him in a school for kids with HFA. The tuition is $7000/year or $777/month over the nine-month school year. This is ALL the extra money we have per month to put towards debt and savings. But the teachers are well-trained, the curriculum specialized, and the student-teacher ratio is 5:1. The kids all have soaring self-esteems which is rare for kids on the spectrum.
We also have a toddler who is home nearly full-time.
When do you go all out for your child, and when do you say no for the sake of financial security?
Thanks for your question, Susan. This question hit home for me for a couple reasons. In addition to having some experience coaching an autistic child in youth sports, my own son was run through the usual battery of testing and evaluations to determine if he has autism. While no definitive diagnosis was made, we did discover a number of related issues such as sensory processing disorder, and we learned a lot about conditions such as Asperger Syndrome and other autism spectrum disorders.
I tell you this up front because my personal experiences probably taint my otherwise financially objective response. I would do anything for my son, and while his condition is not overly disruptive to our daily lives, we have sacrificed a few activities and altered our routine to accommodate him. Fortunately, few of those alterations involve the kind of financial obligation you are faced with.
Many parents face similar dilemmas when living in a bad school zone, and the costs of private school are prohibitive. What makes your situation unique are the special needs your son’s educators must be able to address to help in both his social and educational development. From the sounds of it, you are not completely confident you can find that in your public school system.
Taking emotion out of the discussion (as if that is possible when talking about our kids), let’s look at the financial implications of sending your son to his special school. $777 a month is a significant obligation to take on. When you break it down further, that amount represents roughly $200 a week in reduced spending, increased earnings, or some combination of the two. While you could put your debt repayment and savings goals on hold, this would be detrimental to your overall financial plan, and could potentially place a financial burden on your kids as they get older and have to help you.
Instead, I would suggest you think of some creative ways to both come up with that extra $200 a week, and ways to cut your spending even further. Could you cancel the cable? Sell a second vehicle? Take a part time job in the evenings? Start a side hustle from home? Adjust your tax withholding to prevent a refund? It may take some drastic measures to drum up the extra money, but it sounds like you are willing to make the sacrifice.
I would also talk to the school about any scholarship opportunities, or employment opportunities for you that could reduce tuition (this might be particularly helpful when your youngest is in school full time). Perhaps you could do some administrative work for the school, or substitute teach after being certified, or your husband, or another family member, could do some technology work for them in exchange for tuition. Solicit help from relatives. Investigate options such as 529 savings accounts where grandparents, aunts and uncles can make contributions to your son’s educational expenses–and funds may be withdrawn tax free. I’m brainstorming here, and I realize some of these options may or may not apply.
The bottom line is to talk things over with your spouse and make sure you are in agreement with the decision. That is half the battle. Then focus on ways to make it happen, without doing irreperable harm to your own financial future.