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How to Afford Private School on a Budget

Private School on a Budget | School Planning | Choosing Private School | Pay for Private School |Afford Private School

Several months ago I shared the news that my husband and I had decided to send our girls back to school rather than homeschool.  It was an incredibly difficult decision to make, for so many reasons, but ultimately we decided that–at least for this year–a small private school just a few blocks from our home was the right fit for our family.

Although we were very nervous at first, we honestly couldn’t be happier with the school.  The classroom sizes are small—there are only ten children in my oldest daughter’s combined 2nd/3rd grade class—and every child is treated like an individual.  With longer school days, fewer kids to compete for the teacher’s attention, and no standardized testing, they have time for both music class and Spanish three times a week, as well as regular PE and even a private violin lesson each week.  Although we were afraid she might again wilt like she did in Kindergarten,our daughter has instead blossomed under the guidance of a firm-but-loving teacher who expects nothing less than excellence.  It is such an answer to prayers!

While private school may seem like an extravagance, it can actually be far more affordable than you might think.  When we began looking into school options we were very surprised at not only the wide range of tuition costs between schools, but the number of scholarships, tax programs, and grants available.

If you are considering a change in your child’s education, these seven practical and field tested options for affording private school on a tight budget are a great place to start.

Private School on a Budget | School Planning | Choosing Private School | Pay for Private School |Afford Private School

1. Choose Carefully

Not all private schools are created equal, and tuition rates can vary between schools as much as $5,000-20,000 a year.  A more expensive school does not necessarily mean a better school, although it might mean a fancier building, more amenities, and (possibly) a snootier student body.

Take the time to shop around in your quest for the right school.  Tour the grounds, talk to the principal, talk to the teachers—particularly the one that will teach your child—and observe them in the classroom, if possible.   Pay close attention to where tuition money is being spent.  Classrooms and hallways should be bright, cheery, and clean, but needn’t be overly fancy.  Cherry paneled walls are not essential for a quality education.  Remember that the funds for every bell and whistle have to come from somewhere, so make sure that what the school offers is really what your child needs.

Here are some good questions to ask during a school visit:

  • How much time is spent on each subject?
  • What type of fine arts & language courses does the school offer?
  • What is the school’s educational philosophy or mission?
  • How does the school handle discipline?
  • What kind of technology does the school offer?
  • What sort of library resources are available?
  • How much homework do children receive?
  • What sort of extracurricular activities does the school offer?
  • What sort of math & science programs does the school offer?
  • Are uniforms required?  If so, how much do they cost?
  • What additional fees and costs should be expected?
  • What are the tuition costs?
  • Are there tuition discounts for multiple children?
  • Are volunteer hours required?
  • What are the schools greatest accomplishments?
  • What are the schools greatest challenges?
  • What is the turnover rate for teachers?
  • What time do classes start and end?
  • Is there transportation or busing available for students?
  • Are payment plans available?
  • Are scholarships available?
  • Do you offer any sort of tuition reimbursement programs

Private School on a Budget | School Planning | Choosing Private School | Pay for Private School |Afford Private School

2. Apply for Private Scholarships

While scholarship options do vary significantly from state to state, there are a number of nationwide scholarship options available, including those from the Commonweal Foundation (offering scholarships to partner Christian schools), A Better Chance (offering scholarships to low-income children of color), the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation (offering scholarships to low-income high school students), and The Children’s Scholarship Fund (offering scholarships to low-income students in grades K-8).

In addition to these programs, most private schools also offer a large variety of in-house scholarships for students that can help greatly reduce tuition costs, and this is one of the most important questions to ask when considering the different schools in your area.  There are even a handful of private schools across the country that offer free tuition!

Additionally, many churches offer tuition assistance to member families who wish to send their children to schools within the same religious affiliation.  If you are a member of a local church, definitely inquire with your pastor or church administrator to find out if this is an option.

Private School on a Budget | School Planning | Choosing Private School | Pay for Private School |Afford Private School

3. Apply for State Voucher Programs

There are currently no federally funded school voucher programs (though you can always write your Congressman to request this!) but a few states, including Florida, Utah, Arizona, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Georgia, and Washington D.C. have established some type of voucher program that provides funds to either low-income or special needs families (or both) for attending the private school of their choice.

The Alliance for School Choice has assembled a comprehensive list with detailed information about the different state voucher currently available.

If your children are younger, many states also offer free preschool programs at the private school of your choice. Our youngest daughter, who is four, currently attends VPK (Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten) at the same school as her sister, but her tuition is paid for by the State of Florida.  While Florida’s program is one of the best in the country, more than 40 states currently offer some sort of free or reduced-cost Pre-K program.  Your local Pre-K school should be able to provide you with more information on your own state’s program.

Private School on a Budget | School Planning | Choosing Private School | Pay for Private School |Afford Private School

4. Take Advantage of State Tax Credit Programs

Several of these same states, including Florida, Utah, Arizona, Oklahoma, Indiana, and Georgia, as well as Iowa, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Virginia, and North Carolina also have set up Tax Credit programs to give parents paying for private school a break on their taxes.

Again, the Alliance for School Choice has also assembled a comprehensive list of all the different state tax programs currently available.  If your state is not currently on this list, contact your local state representative to find out how to get a tax program initiated.

Private School on a Budget | School Planning | Choosing Private School | Pay for Private School |Afford Private School

5. Negotiate Tuition Rates

It is a little known fact that private school tuition rates are rarely set in stone, especially for schools that may be eager to boost their enrollment rate.  During your search for schools, be sure to inquire as to whether there is any wiggle room within the published tuition rates.  Many schools have a “cushion,” with room to adjust rates as necessary, particularly if you are thinking of sending more than one child to the school.  There may also be a credit available in exchange for a certain number of volunteer hours, so be sure to inquire about this possibility as well!

In addition to negotiating tuition rates themselves, consider negotiating your payment schedule.  A lump sum payment of $4,800 is overwhelming for most families, but a 12-month schedule of $400 per month might be more manageable, especially when incorporated into a monthly budget.

Private School on a Budget | School Planning | Choosing Private School | Pay for Private School |Afford Private School

6. Take Advantage of Rewards Programs

One way to help offset the tuition costs that may not be covered by grants or scholarships is to take advantage of rewards programs in your everyday spending.  Many private schools participate in some sort of tuition reimbursement incentive program (also called TRIP or SCRIP) that gives tuition reimbursement when you purchase gift cards through the school.

Here is how it works:  Parents (or even grandparents and other friends and family members) may purchase a gift card or gift cards for participating gas stations, restaurants, retail stores, or even grocery stores.  The cards are usually purchased directly from the school.  The participating retailers then give a certain percentage of the gift card amount back to the school, and the school passes those savings (usually between 5-10%) on to the family in the form of tuition reduction.  Thus, say you normally spend $400 per month on groceries and another $200 in gas.  If you purchase gift cards for your gas station and grocery store you could get up to $60 off your tuition for that month.

TRIP programs vary a lot from school to school, so be sure to ask what sort of reimbursement programs are offered when you do your school visit.

Credit card reward programs that offer cash back on purchases can also be a good way to earn money back on everyday purchases.  But please remember that running a credit card balance and paying interest will negate any rewards earned, so ONLY use this if you are 100% diligent about paying off the balance in full each month!

Private School on a Budget | School Planning | Choosing Private School | Pay for Private School |Afford Private School

7.  Get Family Assistance

You may want to consider having a sit down with your parents, grandparents, or any other close-knit family members to see if they might be willing to assist with private school tuition. Many grandparents or even aunts and uncles are eager to shower their grandchildren or nieces and nephews with toys and clothes, but don’t always think about offering something more long lasting, such as contributing towards a private school education.

Obviously every family’s financial situation is different and this may not be a viable option for everyone, but even if family members are not able to contribute regularly, you can explain that you would be very grateful for tuition assistance in lieu of birthday or Christmas gifts.   If they are not comfortable with paying for school itself, perhaps they would be willing to help with other expenses or needs, such as transportation (if the school doesn’t have a bus system) or uniform costs.

*   *   *

Private school may not be for everyone, and is certainly NOT the only option when it comes to providing a great education for your child!  Depending on your school district, there may be charter schools, virtual schools, and or other great public school options available.  Furthermore, homeschooling can also be a very cost-effective alternative to traditional school, and great sites like Free Homeschool Deals and How to Homeschool for Free help prove just how affordable it can be.   That said, if you are looking to make a change in your child’s schooling, don’t automatically rule out private school because you think it is too expensive.  It may take a little effort to come up with a plan, but it could also be more affordable than you know!

Private School on a Budget | School Planning | Choosing Private School | Pay for Private School |Afford Private School

*   *   *

Is private school something you’ve considered?  Why or why not?  How do you save on school expenses?

45 Comments

  1. Alice
    February 28 at 09:35AM

    Wow, this is an incredible post and so timely for our family as my kids have been so stressed out this week by FCAT testing. My husband and I have talked a lot about making a change but weren’t sure we could afford it. This post gives me so much hope and a great idea of where to start. I can’t wait to share this with my husband and to start looking into schools in our area. Thanks Ruth!!!

  2. February 28 at 10:06AM

    {Kathy} I couldn’t agree more with everything you stated. Our parochial school offers exactly what you have stated — and more. One VERY important question to ask regarding the school is “How do the kids that attend the school perform beyond the institution?” For St. Charles Borremeo, I have had 3 kids graduate and another in 5th grade. Historically, our students are consistently present in the upper 5% of their high school classes. That’s no accident.

  3. February 28 at 11:55AM

    Great information! My kids attend a private Christian school and it was a difficult choice since putting 4 kids in private school is expensive. But there are lots of ways to ease the financial burden as you’ve shown! I have become the Scrip Coordinator for our school and the average family saves hundreds a year. Some families get their entire tuition paid for by using Scrip for their business and personal purchases. Amazing!

    • November 13 at 04:53PM

      Love to hear you are making the sacrifice – it is worth it. Keep up the great work and great post Ruth.

  4. Kelly F.
    February 28 at 03:20PM

    Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!!

  5. February 28 at 05:51PM

    Thanks for sharing this. Having gone through the public school system (and come out alive), I really didn’t know much about private schools. What is the process like for applying for scholarships? How many kids actually receive some sort of help?

  6. February 28 at 07:25PM

    My children attend the same Private Christian School my husband and I both graduated from, and my husband teaches there as well. It is a wonderful environment with people I know love and care for them. Great post.

  7. rebekah
    March 1 at 09:01PM

    I love this post!!! I went to private schools K-12, so I have a lot of knowledge about private schools and very little about public. However, my husband and I specifically moved to a certain neighborhood because of the great public schools knowing we had the option to do private. I think it is smart for any parent to ask these questions of any type school they go to (and thank God for people like you who make it easy to find these questions!!). I also think it is parental duty to figure out what is best for your kid, not just what you grew up with (constant sour point between my mother and me). I recently took my 2yo out of daycare because something was so off, although I had no real complaints about the place. It is amazing that in only a few months he has changed so much for the better. So kudos to you for seeing that in your little ones!!!

    • Anonymous
      October 19 at 07:10PM

      Did you end up choosing private or sticking with the good public school option? I am in the exact same boat and don’t know anything but private and today’s (theoretical) changes in public schools has me frightened….

  8. Kristin A.
    March 2 at 10:45AM

    Great article! We are homeschooling currently, but one day may decide to send the kids to private school again. Louisiana just recently started giving tax relief for private school payments.

  9. Lisa
    March 5 at 02:52PM

    For now, we have opted to stay in an apartment rather than buy a house. That’s how we’re able to afford tuition. Our school offers parents $10 for each lunch period they supervise, and for each sports event they offer to referee/score/sell tickets. That really helps a lot! They also sell gift cards at face value, but credit anywhere from 2% – 8% to your tuition account. Another program has you download a program and when you shop online at certain stores, a reminder pops up that a percentage of your purchase is credited to your tuition account – I have about 100 family/friends across the country signed up to do what they do every day anyway, but they are helping us pay for private school.

    I couldn’t imagine our daughter in any other school. Yes, it is VERY expensive, but they have a zero tolerance policy for bullying that’s actually enforced – very strictly – and a code of conduct that applies to their actions both in and out of school. Their ideals are old-fashioned (think 1950’s nuns in Catholic school) but it is exactly what our daughter needed after a year and a half of relentless bullying at her former school. I would live in a cardboard box if I had to, in order to be able to afford the tuition!

  10. Katie
    March 5 at 07:31PM

    I’m so sad none of these programs are available in SC.

  11. Angela Benevides
    March 20 at 09:45PM

    Great article with wonderful advice 🙂

  12. NR
    May 28 at 08:18PM

    We send our girls to a private school. I just found out that the school has a policy that if you work part-time, there is a 50% discount on the tuition. This may help those who can work the after-school program as a part-time employee or teacher’s aide, etc.

  13. Gabrielle
    July 19 at 01:40AM

    This article is right on time. My son is starting private school this year after a horrible year of public magnet school in which he cried every single day. We were both exhausted so hubby and I decided on private school but we are so worried about how we are going to pay for it. He’s already got accepted to the school but I see I still need to ask more questions. Thanks again for the tips

  14. Ana
    August 7 at 05:01PM

    I’m literally choking back tears at the mere thought of not being able to afford private school for my two youngest. I have an 18 year old that just finished public school…she went to the best public schools within driving distance but the schools are just overwhelmed; they don’t get invested in your kid unless they identify with them on some level. We’re 2 years ago from entering Kindergarten; right now my 3 year old is in a Montessori preschool, my 1 year old is with me all day. It may seem easy to just keep paying tuition; but we’re always behind on bills. I don’t want to imagine 2 tuitions, but worse would be to send them to a school with LAUSD ties. We live in a suburb of Los Angeles. Thanks for letting me vent, it’s hard not having anyone to talk to about this. Half of the people I know call me frivolous when my voice cracks while talking about public school; they think I’m being elitist or classicist. The other half would be shocked to hear that I can’t afford private school and wouldn’t understand. Right now I work, but in 2 years I’ll have to cut back to part time if I haven’t lost my job by then…I work in construction administration.

  15. February 11 at 11:34AM

    My family every time say that I am killing my time here at
    net, but I know I am getting know-how every day by reading thes pleasant
    posts.

  16. Danielle
    February 26 at 07:41AM

    Any advice for the British system at all please?? Thankyou in advance x

  17. Linda
    February 26 at 08:59AM

    Our catholic school offers the script program except that keep the money for the school. They don’t get much funding so we don’t have a music program like your school. Actually our private schools offer much less as far as programs because the public schools are funded. Also, we do get transportation because our tax dollars pay for transportation regardless of the school you choose. The only reason I send my child to a private school here is because it’s more family oriented and she has God in her life everyday. She can pray and not be reprimanded. I don’t think the actual education is better but they learn respect and what is and is not acceptable. There’s no comparison in that area to the public school children. I have had children in both public and catholic schools. I think the high school education is much better in Catholic schools here.

  18. Linda
    February 26 at 09:08AM

    Some of the links for scholarships don’t work. The one that does says you have to be a child “of color”.

    I can never find scholarships anywhere!

    FYI- in NYC most private schools start at $40,000!

  19. Sheryl
    February 26 at 10:15AM

    Fantastic article. I know what im working on this week.

  20. Ren
    February 28 at 04:46AM

    You can also try to have a Personal Tuition for you’re education like at http://preply.com/en if you want to learn a new language.

  21. Courtney Barnes
    March 14 at 04:35PM

    great article!
    tried to check out your links regarding scholarships, but the 2 I was trying to look at did’t work.
    Wanted to let you know…
    thanks!

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  22. April 22 at 06:54AM

    I consider private school frequently because we live far away from work and I’d rather have the girls enrolled at school near work because it makes going to school events easier. We already pay about 20k in daycare expenses a year and I priced private schools in the area – they came in cheaper than that!

  23. Marisol
    May 24 at 05:32PM

    I’ve always considered private school since before i had kids. My daughter will be 3 this year and I would REALLY love to be able to set this as a viable option for her. I haven’t started visiting schools yet so I have no idea what to expect. She doesn’t do too well in large groups because it’s always just been us three and occasionally some family members. I really do think at least starting her off in a private school setting would be great for her. Hopefully her dad thinks the same way!

  24. Caitie M
    June 8 at 03:19PM

    this information is absolutely invaluable! I didn’t know most (if any) of this. My husband and I really want to send our daughter to a local Christian private school, but had no idea how we could fit it into our already-stretched budget. This information is wonderful!

  25. Laurie C
    August 18 at 01:24PM

    The state of Alabama was left out if the list. If you live in Alabama and meet the income guidelines you may be eligible to participate in the Alabama Scholarship Fund Program, which pays full private school tuition at a school of your choice. Just visit the website to apply!

  26. Linda
    August 25 at 09:13PM

    When our sons were young I went to work in the preschool of the school that also ran the elementary school. It made it possible for us to pay for the tuition. I worked while they were in school. It worked out great for us.

  27. Stephanie Barnard
    August 31 at 11:35AM

    There are pros and cons to public VS private, obviously financial being the biggest negative for private schools however I appreciate articles like this that help families brainstorm ideas on how to make it possible. Our children attend Green Hedges in Vienna, VA http://www.greenhedges.org/ We have made sacrifices for our children to attend private school but we couldn’t be happier with our decision. I hope articles like this can help other families send their children to private school as well!

  28. Rosie
    January 17 at 05:00PM

    Hi, thank you for all the wonderful information you have provided on your site. I’ve wanted my kids to attend one of two private schools in my area since they were preschool age. However, each year I see the tuition requirements and know I can not afford it. I’ve looked into the tax credits for my states and my family is not eligible. It’s as if you either have to be dirt poor or make a lot to send your kids to private schools. The schools I’m looking at have an annual tuition set at $16K. I have twins so that would be almost double after a 10% sibling discount. We’ve recently moved from a 3300sqft house to a trailer to be mortgage-free and so that we could enrich our children’s lives with experiences, one of them being a private school education. But now I come to realize that my $1700 monthly mortgage could’ve helped us. Now that we don’t have a monthly mortgage, the expense sheet looks as though we have more disposable income available. We did not make the decision to be mortgage free only to give that money to someone who decides that we aren’t using it so you can afford to use it towards tuition. My husband makes too much for financial assistance but not really enough for us to do absolutely anything else if we use ALL of our money towards the kids’ tuition. We wanted to use a few years to save the extra mortgage money towards another more long-term small house but continue to be mortgage free. It seems being debt-free (i.e., no car payments, no credit card debt, no mortgage, no loans, etc) actually works against us. How is this fair? Should we go get another big mortgage, buy a couple of brand-new cars, get a few credit cards to make our need for financial assistance look better. We are trying to live simply and yet the system is rigged against us. I am so sad right now. We had planned to save our extra $4K/mo but now it looks like it will go to the private school. We will have to continue to pinch and get by and still not go on any vacations while the kids are in school.

    • Anonymous
      April 23 at 03:54PM

      Yes, I understand your situation. Me too. When I learned that the company who looks at all your info, does not take into consideration dollars spent on college, that blew me away. I feel the method for calculating aid is very unfair.

  29. Anonymous
    March 7 at 12:31AM

    Wow I can’t believe how terrible this comment is…

  30. Anonymous
    March 9 at 11:11AM

    Wow. How incredibly ignorant. Receiving financial assistance is about need, household income, not skin color. I am African American and middle class, and we don’t qualify for financial assistance either. And guess what…I’ve NEVER received food stamps, disability, or anything else for free. Please stop with the stereotypes!

  31. April 4 at 08:14AM

    Thank you so much for your post. I learned a lot today. I was searching the Web about a private school for my 2 going to be 3 years old & found your post. Thanks again, this is incredible. That was very helpful.

  32. March 20 at 12:28AM

    Yes, it is VERY expensive, but they have a zero tolerance policy for bullying that’s actually enforced – very strictly – and a code of conduct that applies to their actions both in and out of school. I can not imagine placing my kid to another school.

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