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The Light at the End of the Tuition Tunnel

Part I

December 3, 2020 is a date that will be celebrated in our family, perhaps more than any birthday or anniversary. That is the day we made the final tuition payment for the second of our three children. Momentous, because for the first time in almost 22 years, since our oldest started 3-year old nursery, our tuition will be lower than our mortgage. The term “life changing” is an understatement.

For years our older friends and family told us to keep the faith—that we would someday reach this point. Well, we made it and we have the scars we earned along the way to prove it. The scars come from sleepless nights, stomach aches, headaches and other physical manifestations of stress and anxiety. For my wife, having to use almost all her paid time off for Jewish holidays only compounded the stress, as there was never any relief. Yamim Tovim are not vacations. (In fact, work is often less tiring and less stressful!) The scars also show up in our family balance sheet where we have taken on student loans and consumer debt, refinanced our home to lower the monthly payments and put away less than we should in our retirement accounts.

Through it all my wife and I laughed at financial gurus who blogged about having six months living expenses in an emergency fund. We counted ourselves lucky if on the 29th of any month we had the next month’s mortgage payment in a bank account. Most months we didn’t—until the next paycheck cleared the bank. Unexpected home repair bills were almost physically painful.

Yeshiva tuition has played a unique role in creating this stress. Not only has it been by far the largest expense in our family budget, it is the one we control the least. While we cannot bring them to zero, we all exert considerable control over how much we spend on our mortgage, on our cars and our daily living expenses. We control our vacation budget where zero is an option (although explaining to the kids we are staying home again, when their friends are going skiing or to Florida, is tough). Ironically, we have more control over our tax bill than our tuition bill!

To be clear, our journey is not a tale of poverty and woe. We have been blessed with careers that by any objective measure are successful, satisfying and remunerative. Rather our tale is about acknowledging the reality that the toll taken by living a life on the financial edge, despite our success, is real and shared by many in our community. There is a peculiar frustration that wears you down when hitting career milestones is matched by personal expenses that rise even faster as more children enter the day school system and the cost per child rises as they move on to middle school and then high school.

So we made it. Tuition hasn’t gone away, but it is now comfortably behind taxes and mortgage as our third highest expense. We can start paying down some of the debts accrued along the way. We no longer view every plumbing fixture and appliance in the house with fear that they will fail at the worst moment. There will always be stressors in life to keep us up at night, but for now being overdrawn won’t be one of them.

Readers, if you are blessed with sufficient financial resources, you probably have no idea what I am writing about. On the other hand, if you are nodding along because your tuition burden transforms your otherwise successful career into a life lived on the financial edge, please accept this message from your future: “Yes, it is hard; yes, you can do this; yes, it is worth it.”

It is hard: A family with three kids in yeshiva high school has a tuition burden that is as much as triple the U.S. median income. Having that much discretionary income, even with a modest lifestyle, requires both hard work and good mazel.

You can do this: With a combination of smart financial planning, prudent spending and perhaps a little bit of outside help you can close the gap.

It is worth it: Your children are getting an incomparable head start in life. Overall, the Modern Orthodox day schools and high schools are providing an exceptional religious and secular education. Thanks to strong fundraising our schools offer this education at a price below that of many private prep schools. Along with our communal commitment to financial aid the net result is that school is accessible to almost everyone in our community.

Know you are not alone: As many as 50% of families receive some form of tuition assistance at some point. Many more are exceptionally vulnerable to any income disruption or extra expense. Don’t compare your lifestyle to your professional colleagues who send their children to public school or to Jewish friends and neighbors who seem to have limitless funds.

Focus on where your dollars are going, not what you don’t have extra money for: Take pride in knowing that your spending and your values are in alignment: You are eating kosher food, living walking distance to a shul and giving your kids a Jewish education. You made a conscious choice to spend your discretionary income on those items. It would be nice to do all that and have some left over to spend on other luxuries. For most of us, that is just not achievable—and that is OK.

Stay tuned for Light at the End of the Tuition Tunnel Part II: Financial Lessons Learned Along the Way.

Richard Langer lives in Teaneck. His first career was as a small business owner and he has been Executive Director of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale – the Bayit for almost 10 years. His varied list of volunteer positions includes his current service as an Executive Board Member of The Idea School.

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