Kids & Costs: Another point of view

Guest Post by Frugal Scholar

Since I took issue with Funny’s** premise—that having children is intrinsically and unavoidably expensive—and since I promised to write something for her, here is a short version of what I would say to prospective parents.  First of all, I’ve read Elizabeth Warren’s books and articles. She is truly a voice for the American middle-class. I love her. In one of her books, The Two-Income Trap,  she avers that American middle class folks are in a bind: they MUST buy houses in neighborhoods with good school districts. These houses are pricy and come with high property taxes. Hence, both parents must work. Hence if one parent loses his or her job: disaster! This book, by the way, was written before the bursting of the housing bubble, or, as Funny (or I) would put it, the Bush Economy. [uh-oh! Evan, hang onto your hat! ;-) )

When I read Warren’s book, a library copy as befits a frugal type like myself, I found myself saying NO. It doesn’t have to be that way. I feel there is always a choice.

Before I moved into the pricey neighborhood, I would check out the schooling in less desirable areas. Often, the schools are better than one would think. Or there are enrichment programs. I am skeptical of school rankings, incidentally, since they seem to correlate with the wealth and education of the parents. So that is what you get in the “better” school districts.

If the schools are really unacceptable, I would consider homeschooling. Why not? The money you save by living in a cheaper house could obviate the need for one parent to work. I would hate to do this myself, but there are many passionate homeschoolers.

If you decide you MUST live in the great neighborhood, why not rent an apartment or buy a too-small house? As anyone with kids in college knows, the years fly by. A little discomfort in the service of a greater good is a fine lesson to be teaching your children.

As a person who is hardwired for frugality, I run through similar processes for almost every decision I make, from the trivial (which tomato sauce?) to the momentous (which college?). As a general rule, I run a value-test on everything: with two choices, test the cheaper one first. That is why my son did soccer locally and didn’t go for the expensive and time-consuming traveling team. Why? He wasn’t that interested or good. That is why my daughter took a very basic ballet class at the local YMCA rather than at the upscale studio. Why? Ditto. Yet when it came to the summer, we opted for an expensive sleep away camp for both. Why? Because as members of a minority religion, we felt it was important for the children to get a sense of their culture.

I hardly need to say that other families will make different decisions, owing to the different talents and interests of the kids. I also happen to believe that most children are over-scheduled these days. That belief fits into my  general laziness.

My happy memories are of trips to the Children’s Museum, Aquarium, and Audubon Zoo—we were members of all and went a lot. Doing art together (I splurged on top-quality materials). Cooking together. Taking walks. Reading. Going to FREE concerts. We spent a lot on trips to faraway grandparents. And, through the years, I kept waiting for my children to get expensive.

**OOPS—just noticed that the post to which I took issue is a GUEST POST. I don’t know what Funny thinks.

(LOL! Funny thinks kids cost even more than pets. And that’s a lot!)

Don’t miss these great posts from Frugal Scholar:

Paula Begoun’s Skincare Recommendations: Anti-aging et al
Kitchen Remodel on a Budget: Beginnings
The Parental Safety Net

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Simple in France April 11, 2010 at 7:54 am

Having taught in a couple of top ranking high schools (and a few that were definitely not top ranked as well), I’m not sure I’d bother making sure my kids got in to such a school–I’m actually thinking it can be not so beneficial for their self-esteem, perspective, sanity and even the growth of a little good common sense.

What I will say though, is that disparities do exist. If you’re looking at a school district that has real trouble or where your kids could face violence on a daily basis. . .well, that’s a serious decision to make, isn’t it?

Luckily, there are many school districts in the middle of the two extremes.

funny April 11, 2010 at 8:23 am

@ Simple: Yes, I think that’s probably true. Having sent our son to an elite private school, I can testify that the education he got there was no better than what my best friend’s kids got in an upper-middle-class school in Scottsdale. We lived in a central Phoenix neighborhood with decent public schools; sending the kid to private school was an ego thing for my ex-, who decided he should remain in the prestigious school after we moved out of the dangerous inner-city school district where we’d been living.

Because we were not soc’ and because we were constantly so deep in debt that we couldn’t afford to dress our son like Prince Feisal or send him on junkets like the annual ski trip (!) to Aspen, he did tend to feel out of the loop. I thought then and still do think that given our lifestyle, he would have been better off in the public school, where by comparison he would have excelled academically (contrary to popular belief, it’s easy for a finch to fly like an eagle when surrounded by turkeys) and he wouldn’t have felt out of place among his peers.

Well…not that the kids in the Madison schools were any more turkey-like than the rest of us; only that the academic standards were lower, and so a child with above-average skills living in a home full of books with parents who read constantly and took him on world-wide travels would appear to be functioning at a far higher level than he would in an environment where everyone else is exactly like him.

Jersey Mom April 11, 2010 at 9:33 am

We moved into a town where the school district is one of the best in Jersey. I don’t always agree with school rankings but do look at specifics like SAT score, AP classes offered, etc. It definitely makes a difference.

When I was younger, I went to a middle-of-the road school (it’s not bad but not great either). The majority of the kids did not strive to do well in school, were not competitive in getting the best grades, and in fact competed who received the worst grades on a test! After we moved to a better school district (comparable to the one my kids are in now), I noticed a whole world of difference. The kids competed to see who’d make the “nerd list” in physics class (it was great fun), courses offered included college algebra and calculus, which almost everyone took, etc. Based on personal experience, I believe there is a difference.

funny April 11, 2010 at 10:01 am

@ Jersey Mom: LOL! I had the inverse experience moving from San Francisco (about in 1960) to Long Beach, California. This took me from an inner-city school that served middle- and working-class whites, a black ghetto (and in those days, that was the word!), and a barrio to a middle-class school that was SO lily-white the parents raised hell and put a block under it when one single ebony young man was brought in as an exchange student from Nigeria. Interestingly, the old-fashioned schools in San Francisco were so much better than those in Southern California, which had fallen prey to all sorts of “progressive education” theories, that I arrived in Long Beach two or three years ahead of my classmates even in my weakest subjects.

The saving graces in high school were three challenging teachers (English, chemistry, and biology) and a bright classmate who loved to compete with me in biology. Otherwise, I was bored stupid there. But my grades were so high that a university drafted me at the end of my junior year. The high school wouldn’t give me an equivalent diploma, despite the fact that I had completed all the requirements for graduation. So I’m a high-school dropout with a Ph.D. :-D

frugalscholar April 11, 2010 at 6:50 pm

Thanks for all comments! I’m still unsure about the relevance of test scores, etc. That’s because–like me–my kids did extremely well on standardized tests. This, in spite of the fact that they attended schools where more than 50% received free lunches and a small percentage attend college. 9The rich kids in our town go to private school, which I can assure you aren’t any better than the public schools). The fancier burb in the next town–with the highest scores–wouldn’t have made any difference for them. Of course, my own two kids’ experiences are not exactly a scientific study.

As for Simple’s comment–of course, violence in the schools is over the edge of acceptability!

Fuji April 20, 2010 at 11:23 pm

Choosing schools for your children is very personal and a decision defined by a whole host of factors. I think most parents, given the choice (which usually means money), try to make as much opportunity for success (defined in the traditional method of grades) for their children as possible. So often, if that means moving to an expensive school district because test scores are higher, they will do so even if the outcome is uncertain. It is just the idea that the higher ranked school offers slightly better opportunity that makes the gamble (investment in either real estate in the good school district, or private schools) worth it to many.

Fuji April 20, 2010 at 11:30 pm

Also, as a parent who has given this much (too much) thought, I’ve noted that there are some children who thrive in any environment, but they are few are far between. For many children, the environment in which they learn influences their success at school. I guess the key is knowing which kind of child you have when making school choices.
Also, I guess some of this comes down to values. The emphasis on education/school standards varies from person to person. What one calls fine, the other calls inadequate.
There are so many factors to take into account from both the child’s and parents perspective.

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