Ask the Readers: How Do You Figure the Calculus of Kids?

I keep intending to retain “ask the readers” as a regular Friday feature — and I keep failing. You folks send me tons of great questions, and I'd love to share more of them. This week, for example, Lisa wrote with the following.

“Having kids has made spending choices much more emotional and complex,” she says. “You can't always calculate a return on investment.” Here's her predicament:

My husband and I are looking to purchase a home in our new city, but we're having trouble deciding where our values, finances, and priorities intersect.

We have young children, one who will start public school this year. We're considering buying a home in a modest neighborhood so we could have a house/car replacement fund available, rather than taking all of the down payment money and putting it in a “better” house. The schools in the neighborhood are solid, but not the best in the district. If we buy in this smaller, less fancy area, we can choose a 15-year mortgage, minimize our overall house expenses, and have more money for all of life's priorities. But, it feels like we're “cheaping out” on the kids.

To compound our “analysis paralysis”, we lost a fair amount of equity when we had to sell our house to transfer out of state, so we're feeling less than enamored with the idea of putting money that is currently liquid into a building that isn't guaranteed to hold its value, much less appreciate. (We have no car/consumer debt, and we have a comfortable emergency fund.)

I think our family might feel more comfortable in a more modest neighborhood with more coupon-clipping parents and kids who don't have the latest and greatest, but I also want my children to have a great education. Have other parents faced this battle, doing what's best for the overall budget vs. doing what's expected for our kids? We'd love to hear how it worked out for you.

I love questions like this. They're a clear demonstration that personal finance isn't only about the numbers; it involves a complex calculus of math, emotions, and dreams.

Most of the time, I can offer suggestions when people ask these sorts of questions. But when it comes to kids, I'm at a loss. Kris and I have chosen to remain childfree, and as a result, I've never had to wrestle with these sorts of sticky issues.

From a non-parent perspective, I admit that the obsession over which school a kid will attend seems…well, I don't know how to put it in words that won't make people angry. But I've watched friends and family go through mental and financial gyrations to get their kids into the right pre-schools, which boggles my mind. I'm a firm believer that education is more about the child than it is about the school. If a kid has been taught to love and value learning, she can thrive almost anywhere.

In other words, I'd urge Lisa to make her decision based on finances and not the school district. This may mean she needs to take a more active role in fostering her children's intellectual curiosity, but that's a good thing all the way around. But what do I know? As I say, I don't have kids, and I don't know what it's like to actually face this decision. It's one thing to say it and another to live it.

So, what do you parents say? How do you judge the trade-off between expenses and education? Is it worth paying more to live in a good school district? How does one make this sort of decision?

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Sam
Sam

This is a tough one. We picked a home and a neighborhood that we loved as a couple. If we have kids, something we ae working on, most likely we will have to send our kids to private school or try to get them into a public magnet school since our local schools are not good (mostly an ESOL issue). My best friend, who lives in another state, moved her children out of one private school, in a fancy area, to another private school, in a not so fancy area, because she was disturbed that her oldest child, who was… Read more »

Jenn
Jenn

I am a huge proponent of education and gung-ho for quality education – and VERY annoyed that public education varies so much across districts. I can’t advise you on the right decision, but here’s some things to think about: 1. Can you do some research to identify where the biggest quality differences lie between districts? In particular, are you likely to notice this in elementary school or is it more of a high school issue (AP classes, college placement, etc.)? If your kids are young, you may well move by the time they are in high school, when the budget… Read more »

ElZarcho
ElZarcho

Well, I can tell you a little about our decisions, though we’re no more settled. We left a house in another state and we’re currently trying to rent it. In the meantime, we’re renting a home in our new state. The school district here doesn’t score very well; our oldest son is going to kindergarten there. So I agree with JD on this; I don’t rely on the school to teach my son to learn. I believe that having a child who loves learning will be the key rather than how good a school he goes to. I won’t be… Read more »

Marc
Marc

Private school, cheaper house. Your kids will even be better off.

Kristen@TheFrugalGirl

Though I have kids (4 to be exact!), I don’t really have to wrestle with this because we chose to homeschool. The only thing we need to be concerned with regarding school districts and home purchasing is the impact that a school district has on the resale price of the home. To answer the reader’s question, though, I’d just offer that I’ve read and heard that parental involvement is a much higher predictor of educational success than a specific school is. So, no matter which house you choose, you can, in large part, control how well your children are educated.… Read more »

Nancy L.
Nancy L.

When my husband and I bought our home, we considered school systems as part of the equation, but it honestly wasn’t the biggest factor for us. As luck would have it, we ended up in a relatively tiny home in an upscale town with one of the best school districts in our state. Now, 8 years later, I am thanking my lucky stars that we went with that decision, rather than buying perhaps a larger home in a lesser district. As it turns out, our son is in the process of being diagnosed with special needs. The difference between our… Read more »

Dr. Confused
Dr. Confused

I grew up lower-middle-class (my husband and many friends would say poor, but they are wrong) at an economically-mixed school. We didn’t have the latest clothes and sometimes didn’t pay the phone bill, but I never felt poor. My husband and many of my friends grew up upper-middle-class to rich (the latter in my opinion) and attended schools in fancy areas. They grew up feeling poor because they didn’t have as much as those around them. One of my friends was a scholarship student at a private school. She constantly talked about how poor she was growing up and I… Read more »

SF_UK
SF_UK

I’m not coming from a US perspective, and I’m aware that the school system in the UK is different in some ways, so you may wish to bear that in mind when reading the following… Choosing a school is a big decision, and where you live will have an impact on your choices. However, I am a firm believer that how well your kids actually do in life depends on them, how you bring them up, as well as how they are taught at school. That’s not to say that a bright kid will do as well in a failing… Read more »

Lupalz
Lupalz

We are just about to move from a very expensive area with great schools to a good area with good schools.
I am of the opinion that what makes a school better is the children and what make the children better pupils is parents that actually care about their children’s education. If the neighborhood is made up of families that value education you can’t go wrong. We are in the UK but I don’t think things are much different in the US.

CB
CB

As a disclaimer, I don’t have kids. In fact, I’m fairly recently married and young. I’m probably not qualified to tell you what to do, however, this is how I feel and how I hope I will act when my family gets to this crossroad. When I was young (3 or 4) my parents moved from Indiana to Maryland. I didn’t know it at the time but they moved to a school district they felt was a good fit for us. They chose it because even though it wasn’t the ‘best’ (ie the district with the most money), it was… Read more »

Sean
Sean

My wife and I were faced with a somewhat similar dilemma this fall after a rough start (chronically ill teacher, lots of subs, no continuity) to 1st grade for our daughter. We can afford private school, but it would have put a real strain on our budget. We opted not to pursue the private school route because it would hamstring us financially–we wouldn’t be able to set aside enough for retirement or emergency fund or our daughter’s 529 fund (etc etc) and we thought that could have serious negative ramifications for our entire family–what if the car breaks down, what… Read more »

Jan
Jan

As a public school teacher (who has also taught in private and Catholic). 1) look at the high school more than the elementary. Graduation acceptance rate to a four year university is the key. 2) decide if YOU are willing to put in the time and effort it takes to overcompensate for a low preforming school. 3) If you are not- or think your children will not be compliant- go for the BEST school district you can find and buy a small house there. I cannot tell you the difference in education between a medium and great school district in… Read more »

Jon
Jon

If both neighborhoods are in the same district, talk to the school district and ask which school they’d go to. A few years ago, our kids were attending a great elementary school in the district they were in. The district was split up over 3 or 4 small towns, each with several neighborhoods. The way it was explained to me, the taxes for schools get split up in PA and the school closest to where the tax was collected gets most of that money, that meant some schools in the district had money for teacher salaries and supplies and some… Read more »

Rebecca
Rebecca

I have to agree with poster # 2 that the first thing to do is identify what the differences are between the two school districts. The top rated one could have top of the line computer labs and sports facilities, which may not be important to you, or it could be top rated due to parental involvement, special services, or other factors which are important to you. My husband and I went with the small house, great district route, mainly because this is where I grew up. I do sometimes wish we had more money available to travel and send… Read more »

Pirate Jo
Pirate Jo

I’m with J.D. on this. I’m not sure that moving to a richer neighborhood translates into “better” schools, anyway. It could just mean that the school has a more state-of-the-art football stadium. Parents have to take an active role in keeping their kids challenged and fostering a love of learning in them, regardless of which school they go to. Too many people shovel this responsibility onto the schools, and it is no substitute for parents who care and stay on top of things. At the school I went to, the only thing anyone seemed to care about was sports. The… Read more »

Brandon
Brandon

I don’t have kids yet (first on the way!), but I would like to point out that I am aware that in many areas you can send your child to a school that is not the one they are ‘supposed’ to go to in the district. Usually there are surcharges associated with this and limits on the number of kids allowed to do this, but I would look into it before making a decision. Oh also, the reader said the schools were good but just not the best. In that case, I would not even care. The only way I… Read more »

Meredith
Meredith

I agree with JD. Do what makes the most financial sense for you. Imagine how stressed out you might be if you max out financially, particularly if you realized that it didn’t have to be that way.

Schools were a big factor when we moved into our neighborhood, but then again – any school was an improvement from the school district that we were leaving. Quality of life was our main priority – it’s part of the glue that keeps families together!

LoriJo
LoriJo

Until this year, our county had a program called “controlled choice”. You could request that your child go to any elementary school in the county (giving up to 3 choices), and they were placed according to a lottery and some rules meant to foster racial diversity. I spent hours upon hours choosing which elementary school was “the best” for our daughter (who was entering pre-K), with our neighborhood school as my fallback choice, even though I didn’t like their test scores and some aspects of the demographics. Well, she had to go on the waiting list for my #1 choice… Read more »

Kristin
Kristin

Having been in exactly the same situation I can share how our choice worked out. We went with the modest house and have never looked back. The biggest ingredient in your child’s education is YOU! The more you are involved the more your individual child will see the value you place on education. If being a “better” neighborhood means you and your spouse stress about finances you’ll have less energy for your child. We lost one job shortly after moving, and even though it set us back, it gave me the opportunity to volunteer at my children’s school. Being there… Read more »

Kate
Kate

If you are planning to stay in the area and your kids are this young, it might be worthwhile to rent for a year in the area while you do your research. If you decide to move after a year out of that district, it is just your child’s first year of school. He/she will adapt relatively easily to starting somewhere new if needed. That could give you additional time to research and discuss the issues with other parents and teachers. Also, renting could ease your anxiety about sinking money into a unstable real estate market for the moment.

Jonny | thelifething.com
Jonny | thelifething.com

Sell the kids, it’s the only way.

Kevin
Kevin

I totally agree with JD. I would ask Lisa whether or not her and her husband both attended the best possible schools, or if they themselves are living examples of how it’s possible to succeed, having attended “mediocre” schools. I think as long as the parents are committed to engaging their children and being part of the educational process, then the school’s “reputation” is virtually irrelevant. As an objective, child-free observer, I would advise Lisa to make the choice that puts her family in the most secure position financially. Focus on saving the extra cash to pay for a good… Read more »

TheMadTurtle
TheMadTurtle

That’s a tough question. I like J.D.’s answer, honestly. When we bought our home about 3 years ago we did factor in the school district. It just happened that the home we loved was in the best district and was about the same price as the homes in other districts we looked at, so I guess we just got lucky. We’re right on the border of two districts. Maybe look around the border of your districts. Is there something in the better district, but on the “border” so that it’s not in the ritzy neighborhood? There is other sound advice… Read more »

Molly On Money
Molly On Money

The ‘best school’ is based on so many things (some that may not be of any value to you). I have two kids that go to two different schools. The one school that was
perceived as the best school is not the best in my opinion.
I think the more important question is in which option that you write about allows you more time to volunteer and be present at your child’s school?

Patrick
Patrick

You are right. Kids and dreams are what make personal finance so personal. I have two kids yet to enter school, but if you talk to enough people you will find some that like one district and some that like the other district. Growing up in an under-privileged school district wasn’t bad for me. In fact it afforded me very different opportunities than the richer school district. More money might mean less fund raising for your band trip, but more money will not make your child smarter. It might facilitate in the learning, but it is the effort of the… Read more »

Alissa
Alissa

As a former public school teacher in a poor urban area, I truly believe students get out of school what their parents help them get. Most of my best students had parents who were involved in their lives and made an effort to at least connect with their teachers. Which isn’t to say those parents are active in the school, but active *with their children*. It really riles me that some people think the school should teach their child everything. Great students can come from poor schools, and the best schools can turn out students who feel entitled with no… Read more »

Raghu Bilhana
Raghu Bilhana

Lisa I would suggest this. 1) First rent a home in the modest neighborhood and see how it goes, as in how your child copes with the school etc. 2) If you feel it is working for you, then go ahead and buy a house in the modest neighborhood. (Important note: Buy a house only if you plan to stay in it for a minimum of 7-8 years, if you are not going to, then it is simple, rent it). Living in a modest neighborhood, by no means implies that your child will be spoiled. A child actually learns a… Read more »

Anthony
Anthony

I went to the worst schools in the worst school systems in the lowest educated state. (This is somewhat of an exaggeration, but pretty close to true. I went to Rain High School in Mobile, AL. If you look it up, you will see that I am not lying here!) My parents were poor. Putting everything into perspective, my daughter will take the education that’s given to her. I feel that I am very successful, despite my “lower level” of education. This is because I have always wanted to learn and to be successful. I want for my daughter to… Read more »

Karen
Karen

I’ve undergone a 180 on this question, since having my kids and watching them atte4nd school and get older (2 kids, now in middle school). I grew up lower-middle class & I’m a univ professor in my late 40’s –very liberal, feminist, divorced, not rich. I live in a city with what are considered “very good” public schools, and I’m committed to sending my kids to the public schools. I’m also definitely not a “hovercraft” mom–I’m hand’s off in many ways because that was the way I was raised myself. I think teachers have enough problems without parents carping on… Read more »

Holly
Holly

Education is not just about school. By living in a less expensive home, you will have more money to do the extras that educate children in a different way — think music lessons, trips to aquariums, zoos and museums, foreign travel, books, theatre tickets, etc. Not only will the quality time your family spends together doing all these things be invaluable, but the education the children will receive will be as well.

Tim
Tim

I agree with those who believe education experiences are different between schools. I moved just before entering high school and went to a good public high school. However, I had to lower my educational goals as the new high school did not have some of the language classes I wanted to take (just French, German, Spanish, and something called Latin :). I also had to fight to be educated. They normally don’t let someone take geometry and algebra in the same year but to take calculus I had to do it. I was almost never challenged in high school. This… Read more »

Abby
Abby

We made the choice to live in a less expensive house in an area often considered under-performing. Both our public schools and local parish school (we’re Catholic) had mediocre reputations from the outside. Our son was 3 when we moved here – we figured we would figure it out. Now he’s 5 and enrolled at the preK at our parish school. And you know what? Our perspective is COMPLETELY different. Both the public and parish schools are great options, with caring, committed parents from many walks of life in leadership roles. Test scores tend to be lower because we have… Read more »

med student wife
med student wife

I also do not have kids. However, as a kid who went to 10 different schools growing up, and am graduating with a Dr. in front of my name, I think I can speak from some personal experience of different school systems. Since your youngest is starting kindergarten it won’t hurt to rent for a year. I suggest going in gorilla style. Volunteer at a the school districts you are thinking of moving into. Get a 1st hand feel of what is going on there. Numbers only tell you so much. Maybe you will meet other parents of kids who… Read more »

Anonymous
Anonymous

Jan (#10, teacher) has it right. Heed her advice and go w/the best school district you can afford (or do private education). My husband is a police officer and he refused to have our children sitting next to the kid whose father was arrested for menacing the night before. It’s not always just a matter of whether or not your kids want to learn. Peers play a big part in the success or failure of your child’s school experience. We have so many misguided children today here in the U.S. My three have always gone to private schools and perform… Read more »

Leon
Leon

“If you want to do it right, do it yourself”, as they say. I think that as long as the majority of children going to your local school are not criminals or in the process of becoming criminals, then that school is fine. For education, the most important factor is the level of involvement by the parents. My parents spent a lot of time teaching math and science to my brother and me when I was in elementary school, because they felt that the US public education system had standards that were too low in these subjects. They spent time… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine

Do I ever have an opinion on this one! I met my husband when he owned a house in a now-nationally recognized terrible school district (Kansas City, MO). We wanted to move because the house wasn’t in a great neighborhood for kids (reasonably safe, but probably half the houses in the neighborhood were or had been meth houses). We followed the school district while we lived there, and even now kind of keep up. It’s despicable the things that idiot administrators (the insult is actually added as a qualifier. There are many great principals and superintendents who have the children’s… Read more »

Cole Brodine
Cole Brodine

It’s an easy choice for me. I live in a small enough town that there are only two high schools to choose from, one public and one private. I don’t want to pay for private school (mostly because I don’t feel like the private school here is any better acedemically then the public school).

I went to a small school in a small town (30 people in my graduating class). I’m now an electrical engineer, so I’d say things worked out okay despite the quality of my school.

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth

Wow wow wow. You folks are awesome! Excellent thoughtful responses so far this morning. I always worry when I post something that’s so far outside my own experience, but you guys always come through.

Bonnie
Bonnie

I would advise looking deeply at the schools you are choosing. I live in Texas, where schools are rated based primarily on test scores. I teach at our neighborhood school (one my children also attended) which is rated merely “acceptable” because of a complicated set of sub-scores. However, we also made a statewide list of outstanding schools because of the performance of some students on the same tests! Visit the schools. Look for children’s work on display. Listen to how children are talked to — and how they are talked about. Attend a PTA meeting; try to determine how well… Read more »

NLB
NLB

“Education is not just about school. By living in a less expensive home, you will have more money to do the extras that educate children in a different way – think music lessons, trips to aquariums, zoos and museums, foreign travel, books, theatre tickets, etc. Not only will the quality time your family spends together doing all these things be invaluable, but the education the children will receive will be as well.” Totally agree with this statement. I found that you can always find ways to work the system with schools to get your child the education they need. My… Read more »

KC
KC

I don’t have children, but I am an educator and I’ve lived in a variety of cities (large & small, good schools and bad). The main factor in a child’s education is…their parents. Parents are responsible for getting their kids ready for school – learning abc’s, colors, shapes, early skills. Parents are also the ones who push the kid “Do your homework” “Is your homework done?, Let me check it over before you turn it in.” That sort of thing. I’ve seen black & Hispanic children from lower income families in abysmal school districts excel cause someone was riding them… Read more »

Leah
Leah

I agree with commenter #8. A huge part of schooling (at least in elementary years) happens at home, whether directly (by parents teaching kids) or indirectly (by parents’ attitudes toward learning). Creating an environment at home that fosters curiosity and openness to education is the most important thing a parent can do. I attended a fairly weak elementary school (and a pretty weak high school for that matter) in a very rural area. We had a two room school with two teachers for eight grades and the amount of teacher-student time was very limited. But we were encouraged to read… Read more »

Sheila
Sheila

We bought a house in a decent school district and found that because of the number of children whose first language and language at home was not English, all the attention, focus and effort was placed on those kids and our kids who didn’t ‘need’ the extra effort missed out. We now pay just over $10,000 a year for private education for our two kids. The difference in their education and happiness makes it money well-spent, in our opinion. We were very happy with the public school our kids were in before we moved to this area, but frankly, we… Read more »

RMoM
RMoM

Based on my own personal experience, I would choose the better school and neighborhood every time. Yes, it is the more expensive choice because there are other factors at play. I’ve always found the quality of the educational plan and especially the teachers themselves to be far superior on the whole. Word gets out among the parents and the school justifiably becomes coveted. In turn, the surrounding neighborhood draws in people with stable income and the area retains its value far better than that with the substandard school district. This has been my experience. I say this because I have… Read more »

Meg
Meg

We bought a modest home in a pretty good district. We could have stretched our house-buying budget to the max and bought a house in an even “better” district just 5 miles north, but it would have meant not having any money at all for any extras. And this was before we had kids! One thing that I don’t think was really mentioned above was that *districts can change*. A district with a so-so tax base might be struggling to make ends meet as a result of the recession – so extra programs get cut and never return. OTOH, I… Read more »

partgypsy
partgypsy

When I was growing up my family went from working/lower middle class to upper middle class. We moved from the city (which during those times was not considered a desirable location) to a suburb specifically picked because it had good public schools. We started out in a duplex on the edge of the district, and then moved to another house as times got better. I remember my mom telling me, buy the smallest house in the best neighborhood, and alot of what she was referring to was school district. So I am a supporter of trying to get in the… Read more »

Caitlin
Caitlin

@Sean (#11)
So what we’ve chosen to do is to pursue the “gifted” options available through our school district
How does one “choose” to put your kid in the gifted programs? Aren’t the pupils for those programs selected based on testing and merit?

Sanchez
Sanchez

My wife and I are in the same sort of process now as well. The one thing that is pushing us towards the better school district is my own childhood. My parents did just as many suggest here. They took me to the library, fueled my intellectual curiosity, gave me experiences, all of that. My mom is a teacher who has one numerous teacher of the year awards at the state level, so the quality of at-home education was probably much higher than average too. Because my parent’s were just solid middle class, I went to ok schools. The problem… Read more »

partgypsy
partgypsy

What RMoM says is also true, it can be a good financial decision as well. Though this is only from personal experience, houses in good school districts hold and increase their value more than houses in districts with not-so good schools. It’s all about demand. This is going on in our current neighborhood, with bidding wars and tear downs because it is a relatively small area.

Edd
Edd

The school your child goes to is very important. I would not have necessarily believed that if I hadn’t seen it for myself. Our first grader, who is a little genius, was blessed enough to have a private daycare provider who spent a good portion of time teaching the children. She then went to kindergarten and had a great teacher. She blossomed. This year, she’s stagnating and in some areas moving backwards. Homework has gone from being something she loved to do to pulling teeth. It is now hard for her because she isn’t getting the tools she needs to… Read more »

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