Spending Money On Kids At Your Own Expense

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.


  1. I would spend the money on the child.

    This is a very important question for all to consider. There obviously are not too many facing these particular circumstances. But this type of question actually comes up sometime in the course of many lives. Some with an intense desire for early retirement debate whether they should have children at all because of the financial downside. Some face a trade-off between what they want from a how-to-live-life perspective vs from a financial perspective when they fall in love with someone who lacks money skills. What if the girl or guy of your dreams has everything except money sense?

    I vote for going with your heart when faced with these sorts of questions. I feel that money must serve life and not the other way around. I don’t at all mean to make light of the financial sacrifice being described here. I don’t deny that it is hard to sort things out when the financial costs of making a decision are so severe. But I come down on the side of saying that the life concern needs to be the priority.

    If it were a question of whether to help a child pay for college when the parents desperately needed the money for their retirement account, I would give a different answer. The reason is that a young person can figure out a way to finance his or her own education if really determined to do so. But the need of the child here seems so great and the potential benefit of taking on the financial sacrifice seems so great that my particular take is that the best thing to do is to make consideration of the financial cost a lower priority.


  2. Good Morning FD~

    Hmmm, a difficult decision. Having 3 step- grandchildren with autism (twin 6 y.o. & 14 y.o., cousins, not siblings), I will only speak to my own experience. There was no intervention for the oldest & he is profoundly behind. The parents of the twins sent them to a public school with an program for autism @ age 3 & they have progressed significantly. Granted the older one had many other issues, but I’m a huge proponent of early intervention. That being said, I would strongly suggest you invest in a book called “Wright’s Law” by 2 parents (both lawyers) who speak to learning how to “work” the system to get your son the needed assistance within the public schools. (The fought for their son & ultimately had laws passed to help in this arena ergo. Wright’s Law).

    It sounds like you have really thought about this & I concur with your ideas i.e. extra income & scholarship options. I have found that once you have a child enrolled in a special program/school that it opens many other doors to special services. Not only for your oldest but also support for you & your wife & help for your younger child (not for any special need but “respite” for your baby as she/he grows up). Another area to think about is home daycare. With having your son in school, perhaps your wife could keep a few children in your home, which would allow her to be with the baby & bring in some money.

    Good luck…keep us posted!

  3. Spend the money on your child. It is worth it for him to get that special attention. My neighbor faced a similar dilemma and sent her child to a special school with a considerable commute and a large price tag. Two years later, she said it was all worth it and he may be ready to be in regular school now. The next few years are critical for your child’s growth and development. I agree with frugal dad, though. Cut out unnecessary expenses or add a part-time job to make this payment more manageable. Good luck!

  4. I am of the thought that my kids’ needs come before any of my own. I had my turn when I was younger and now it is theirs. I am not going to go bananas and hand them the moon, but in a case like this, I would make the sacrifice such as FD suggested (eliminate all the extras) to make sure my child has all they need to succeed. In 1st grade I pulled my kids from public school and sent them to a parochial school that was very expensive. I was offered a position at the school to teach music and art part-time in exchange for tuition assistance. I jumped at the chance to do that and gained in so many more ways than just saving the $$. I was able to establish a relationship with all teachers and administrators at the school because I worked there. I also had a good relationship with the parents and the other kids as a result. I knew who my kids were interacting with every single day because I also taught those same kids. This was a terrific way to help my kids get a good start. We have chosen the homeschooling route for middle school as our parochial school only went to 6th grade. The homeschooling choice has been hands down the best decision I have ever made. I use an online curriculum that covers all the core subjects, is very inexpensive and my kids love it. I have watched their test scores jump this year from flat-line average to commended performance level. I have saved so much money in not having to drive to school twice a day, contribute to this that and the other fund-raiser along the way: all the extra stuff that goes with school– school clothes, lunch boxes, birthday gifts for 24 classroom kids, etc. etc. etc. Because of the savings we have extra money so they can enroll in all sorts of extra-curricular stuff such as pottery, volleyball, & dance and explore the stuff they really have an interest in.

  5. My wife teaches kids w/autism. She works in a district that is known for doing excellent work with these kids. People move here just to be part of that program so here’s what comes up for me.

    The kids really benefit by having a program that helps them integrate with the other kids. Are you sure that your local school’s program isn’t as good as the private school? What do you base your conclusion on? The public school could be even better for your son.

    I know that when it comes to kids, my first inclination would be to spend whatever for my kid but sometimes throwing cash at it isn’t the best decision.

    I don’t know your situation but I do know that in our town, my wife’s public school is fantastic and I’ve seen results.

    Another crazy question – could you consider moving to a district with a good program if your school doesn’t have one?

  6. I too am a parent with a child likely to have Asperger’s. We tried to mainstream our child early on, and it was a disaster. I still feel bitter at the utter incompetence of his kindergarten teacher and principal (and the feeling only gets worse when I think about paying twice for his schooling – once to the incompetent public schools through property taxes, and once again through private school tuition). We finally found his current private school. We pay $765 per month and it is worth every penny and every bit of sacrifice we go through.

    If there was wisdom in our tax structure, parents would not have to make such wrenching decisions. For me this is a stellar example of why parents should have wider choices – including vouchers to enable their children to find the best education they can, or at the very least a tax deduction for private schooling (that $765 per month is really more like $1,000 per month once you take taxes into account!).

  7. Wow, what a tough dilemma. As an elementary (with special education certification) teacher myself, I know and can emphasize how critical early intervention is. To echo the sentiments of an earlier comment, the first thing I would do is go visit and talk to the teachers of each program- both the public and private school. Don’t make your decision based on the neighborhood rumors about each program. See it with your own eyes. That said, you might even want to talk with some of the parents of children who are enrolled in each, if that is possible.

    If, after doing that, you believe the private program would be best for your child and decide to take that route, remember that you’re choosing that route for this next school year, not the next 13 years of your child’s education. Commit to one year. Re-evaluate both the schooling, as well as your finances next year to see if both are still working for your child, as well as your family. Like someone mentioned, sometimes with early intervention, such progress can be made that children can be mainstreamed into the general classroom. If you invest in this early intervention, that may be a possibility in the future and if that happens, the money will have been very well-spent.

    Best wishes for your family. Decisions like this are so challenging.

  8. Have you considered homeschooling? Since you have a younger child “at home”, I’m assuming at least one parent is also at home. One benefit of homeschooling is that the child is able to work at his own pace, and follow his own interests. As for individualized attention, homeschooling would, of course, be one-on-one. Who cares more about your child and his progress than you? Homeschooled children with special needs are still entitled to enrichment programs through the public school system; after all, you pay for those schools with your taxes. There are many websites about homeschooling:
    http://hslda.org has links to information about homeschooling, and laws in your state.
    http://www.nathhan.com/index.htm is just one website for homeschoolers with children that have special needs.

  9. This is, indeed, a rough decision.

    Like Rob said, if it were a college aged child I would probably say no. But being it is a young child with special needs, I would probably pay for the better schooling.

    Keep us updated..

  10. @Katie – great approach to your thought process. I know of too many people (most do not have special needs children) who decide that private schools, camps, etc. are the only way to go. Money is no object when it comes to their kids they say! Meanwhile, they are racking up credit card debt, making no headway on their own student debt, and not saving for retirement. This situation is different because of the needs of the child, however.

    From the original post, it sounds like the family has existing debt to pay off, so it worries me that they might forgo making any progress while the child is in private school. Tough call, but I would follow Katie’s advice and if I determined that the private school was the best option, make the sacrifices necessary to pay the tuition and still make headway on paying debt.

    I have a close friend who’s son shows signs of autism/asperger’s (no definitive diagnosis was found). They were able to get him in a private pre-school at 3 or 4 years old, then transition to a specialized public school program for a year, and now he is in a regular 1st grade class with some additional help at times.

    Good luck with your decision. I think its great that you are thinking through all the issues rather than just taking the leap without seeing where it will lead.

  11. I work with special needs children, as well as have a son with special needs. I live very frugally, but highly recomend you pay for the special school. The younger these kids are workied with the better off they do in life. Perhaps you could work at school in exchange for reduced tution, or search for grants online. I know in NJ there are many.

  12. This is an issue near and dear to me;

    My Son has been diagnosed with Autism and he just finished his first year at a public school here in Tucson, AZ. I must say that I feel the program he was in did a terrific job at helping him accomplish our goals for the year. That being said…

    The Wife and I are buying a home in a district not known for it’s stellar schools and will be moving soon. This was a big decision for us for this reason alone, but we bought the home anyway. We are planning to investigate wether our Son will thrive in the local public school or not. Now being that I am a SAHD, I WILL be investigating his school. I believe in showing up unannounced, asking teachers about both their educational approach and their credentials, and making a determination for myself as to wether or not I will be keeping my Son in their program. I realize financial concerns can prohibit some from sending their child to a private school, but your local public school may be a better choice for your child. Remember, Autism is not a specific condition but rather a set of conditions, making each child very unique and able to thrive in different conditions.

    I guess my long-winded point is this: investigate both schools for yourself (not soley on the advice of friends and well meaning family) and see where your child will thrive. Isn’t that what the search is really all about, after all?

  13. I agree with many posters, and say you really have to personally investigate both schools. Is the big price tag the reason the private school is recommended, for example? Often the “expensive must mean good” mentality permeates these discussions. Interview teachers at other places and parents who are actually in the programs.

    Another consideration is integration; I am a firm believer in integration with assistance as a great treatment for high-functioning autism. My cousin has done exceptionally well with an aid in public school, being around other kids a large portion of the day and having instances to interact. What is the public school program like? How have other autistic children fared in the classroom situation? Are their teachers who help the other children understand your son, and vice versa?

    Another consideration is our other child. How much cutting can you do before he is affected? Would putting your other child in expensive school mean he would not be able to participate in activities? When he goes to school, would you be able to work part or full time to make up for the lost income from tuition? Remember you are raising two children. One has special needs, yes, but the other has needs too. This is often something families have to reconcile.

    Another question: would your son benefit from one on one work? If that is what you are looking for, perhaps an independent helper or professional could spend time working with your son outside of school. If one on one work is what you are looking for, having someone come to your home or work wth your son at their office might be great for him, and possibly less expensive. Maybe even covered by insurance?

  14. look into the scholarships. My son is finishing kindergarten at a school for kids with sensory issues.

    We receive the funding he would receive for public school via a McKay scholarship, in Florida.

    Good luck, it has gotten easier for us as time has gone on.

    Also, don’t forgot about the expense of dietary needs. Our first actual diagnosis for a milk allergy has come back, and now they are testing for wheat/yeast.

  15. Wow. This one really hit home with me. Instead of a disability, I am blessed/cursed to be nurturing 2 geniuses. Both my little Mensa kids have IQs in the over 160 range.

    We are spending every dime we have to rent half a house in a stellar public school district. We were in a “good”school district, but the kids were bored, and so, getting into trouble. Private school does not compete financially- our high rent is a 2-for-1 value.

    The increased rent we pay (buying here is not feasible- the houses average about a mill a piece), makes us probably the lowest monthly payers to have our kids in this district. But I had to work 14 hour freelance days last summer to supplement my teachers salary to afford it. This year I am scrambling- freelance is dead.

    We are servicing our student loans (my MS and hubby’s PHD), but retirement savings is on hold.

    My kids know that college is mostly on them, our larger contribution to their college is the district that will get them into Ivy league with scholarships.

    We all do what we have to do. I know that once the nest is empty, will likely work till we drop. Good thing we like our professions!

  16. I am an economist by profession, so when in doubt, I do the math. When you pro-rate the $7,000 over 365 days a year you are talking about $19 a day. That’s not nearly as gruesome IMO.

    As a parent, I would absolutely send my child to the school that would benefit him the most. My instinct is to say cost be damned, but really I mean cost be managed.

    Try to think creatively to come up with ways to cut the expenses or increase income to accomplish this. It could be as simple as babysitting a couple of evenings a week, while your husband stays home with the kids. Maybe you have a car payment that is overbearing and you could get out of that and drive a beater to finance your son’s education.

    The moral of the story is that you may have to forgo lifestyle or free-time to do what is best for your son, but you don’t have to sacrifice your familie’s financial future.