- My family lives in Charleston, South Carolina, where our son attended a Montessori school.
- The monthly tuition was the same as our mortgage.
- We had to ask our parents for help to be able to send him to pre-k despite having full time jobs.
I cried the day my son was accepted into a public school pre-k program. After four years of dreading his monthly Montessori school tuition, it felt like we had finally summited Mt. Debt and could begin our ascent to financial solvency.
If only I'd known how long that journey would take.
It's no secret that Charleston, South Carolina's cost of living is expensive. But only when I gave birth to our son in 2015 did I understand the scale of raising a family in the Lowcountry.
Within eight weeks of his delivery, our son was attending an adorable, safe Montessori preschool. A school we'd managed to get him in by joining a waitlist months before his birth. The price tag was equivalent to our monthly mortgage of $1,233.33.
I gasp, thinking back at our naivete. There I was, an alternative weekly editor, and my husband, a young high school teacher. The fact that we thought we could afford a newborn in Charleston now seems laughable. Sure, we both had company insurance, and I even had a generous paid maternity leave (which I'm forever thankful for), but the sheer cost of childcare was stunningly beyond our means.
We had to ask our parents for financial help
It was such a high bar for us to leap over that we had to make an incredibly humbling decision: ask our parents for help — something I know is an enormous privilege many don't have.
To keep our darling lad in school, the only infant care program available to us at the time, we split our monthly payments three ways between my parents and my mother-in-law. Nothing hurt my 32-year-old ego more than accepting those checks each month. But what was our choice? Have one of us quit our jobs to watch our son at home and then be unable to pay for our actual mortgage?
Like many new parents stretched financially thin, we exhausted all the loopholes we could manage. Since my husband had summers off, a time when he'd usually pick up a second job, he stayed home with our boy, allowing us a brief three-month reprieve from the dreaded Montessori bill. There was also a benefit for our boy growing up. By the time our son had graduated to the toddler room, he could be considered a day student — reducing our fee further. But the price tag continued to pinch. And so we humbled ourselves again and filled out the scholarship form allowing us to volunteer with interior painting projects, handyperson jobs, and yard clean-up efforts to receive $1,500 off a year. It wasn't much, but it helped.
We carried the financial burden for years after he was in public school
The irony was to the outside observer; we surely looked like we had it made. There we were, a young, healthy family living in a home on the peninsula (all 900 square feet of it), with steady incomes and one career, mine, that allowed us press access to a host of tony events like Charleston Wine + Food Festival, plays at the Dock Street Theatre, dinners at award-winning restaurants.
We'd wine and dine next to the city's wealthiest people, then go home and worry over our grocery bill.
Thus, the waterworks the day we learned our 4-year-old had been accepted to a public school via the Montessori lottery. I can't describe the relief I felt reading that email.
But as all too many parents know, the high price of private day care tuition doesn't go away with the final statement of charges. To cover the fees, we'd shifted other costs to our credit card and found ourselves happily walking our son to a new free school but still carrying a boatload of debt — $8,000, to be precise. So we got a loan to pay it off and avoid the crushing interest rate. Then, we had to pay that loan off.
When our finances were finally under control, our boy was old enough to do his addition and subtraction. Given the dismal state of American childcare, I can only imagine how families with fewer resources make the childcare numbers work.