As if on cue, a cavalcade of offers to share the last few weeks of summer fun came rushing in during the past week. Realizing the end was near, I managed to pack in three trips to the pool with the kids, a girls' night in, a trip to the city with an old friend and as many walks and bike rides as the weather would permit.
Most of these things cost money. Even if the event, per se, wasn’t pricey, I managed to put a spin on the day that added to the cost: a few dollars here on a patio drink, a few there on a quick bite between meals or a trip for ice cream. All this summertime fun caused our bank account to go into dry heaves.
But none of it can compare to the gut-wrenching feeling of opening the fat, sealed envelope from York High School, the contents of which demand more money than we paid on our first mortgage.
Sending our kids to school is not what it was for our parents. I am not sure what your high school was like, but I am fairly certain my parents never spent $700 dollars on used textbooks. I know this because anything that cost 10 percent of that amount would have brought the house down. (I am not saying my daughter's high school isn't justified in charging this amount. I am no expert in school finances, and I simply toe the line when it comes to these charges. I love the school and fall under the category of “parent who complains, but ultimately trusts the system.”)
Let us move to ulcer-causing form No. 2 of fatly packed envelope: the dreaded sports forms. I am quite sure if my own parents were charged half of the fees stated, they would have laughed the whole experience straight into the garbage can. I am beginning to value their generation’s parenting style more each day. But knowing how much my daughter adores her sport, I toed the line again and surrendered to the cramp forming in my fingers as I wrote out another check.
After filling out the school photo order form, the promise that my daughter would not use steroids and other various pledges, I came to a small, green slip of green paper I had not seen before. It was for making a donation to help offset budget cuts in various programs. The amounts you could choose ranged from $5,000 to $50 to “other.”
Now, I wouldn’t dream of telling you if I donated or not. But let's just say that I may be ordering one or two less ice cream cones this summer. I am not sure who is ticking the $5,000 option, but god bless you if you are able.
As I stuffed my forms and checks into an envelope, I knew the drain train had just started its journey. We hadn’t even gone to buy school supplies or clothes. We hadn't made a single run to Target. I had yet to endure the drive-by shooting to my wallet caused by a required $100 calculator, a viral-free laptop and the gym shoes to be kept at school.
And here is the saddest part: Every crippling cost of the coming weeks will pale in comparison to the future cost that haunts me daily—their college education.
When faced with a parental crisis of this magnitude, I turn again to my own parents to scrutinize how they adapted to their environment. Again, there is no viable comparison. Not only is college dramatically more expensive, the economy feels acutely less fruitful.
The hardest part about budgeting for college are the unknown variables in every part of the equation. Since costs range from $3,100 a year for tuition at College of DuPage to $58,429 for Northwestern University (according to each institution’s website) it becomes nearly impossible to comprehend creating a budget. Though the word on the suburban street is that colleges find a way to help students regardless of their financial need, that does not help with sleepless nights a few years before applying.
Call me a control freak, but I really wish we had a little more preparation for the soul-destroying costs of parenthood. But that's probably unrealistic. After all, who would create such a list? How would we adapt this list to different cities, regions and needs of so many different families?
I wish we had more help in creating a long-term budget for our children’s financial needs. If we had a guide, I may not have had the sucker punch to the gut the day I bought my daughter’s books and hoped our credit card would not be maxed out.
We have financial planning for retirement and saving plans for buying our first home. But with a four-year degree ranging wildly from about $12,000 to $240,000 per child, how on earth are we to plan for three children? If we went to a Realtor and said that in two years we are planning on buying a house and our budget was somewhere between $36,000 and $720,000, they would think we had lost our minds.
Like so many worries related to our children, the most experienced, wise parents will simply give the sage advice that came to me one day this summer from a friend who put four kids through college.
“Through tough choices, savings and help, somehow it all works out,” he told me calmly over a cold beer one afternoon. I took a deep breath and a swig of courage and prayed he was right.
As I stuffed my fat envelope filled with checks and forms into the mailbox, I sighed and stared into the setting summer sun. The cost of parenthood just can’t be calculated; there are too many unknown variables.
Like so many things out of our control, in the end, all we’re left with is a prayer. And, the hope that maybe our kids’ generation will come a little closer to figuring it all out.