Pricey schools demand you come in for a tour, during the work week, without your child — and even then, they won’t say their prices out loud.
I want to talk about money.
I want to talk about it when I’m spending it, when I’m making it and when I’m saving it. I want to talk about it when I lose it and when I get more of it. It drives me insane when people don’t want to talk about money out loud, as if it’s the dirtiest thing we could possibly discuss — more subversive than politics or religion or why we don’t particularly like the second season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” as much as the first.
And I definitely wanted to talk about money on a tour of a day care for my 1-year-old son.
In the midst of the tour, the leader, a girl in her 20s wearing artfully distressed jeans and a peasant top, asked if there were any questions.
I raised my hand. “How much does this cost a month?”
Everyone went silent. The tour leader grimaced as though I’d asked whether she murdered puppies. She fiddled with the strings of her peasant top and looked away as if to say, How dare you ask that kind of question? How dare you ask it out loud?
“I don’t know,” she mumbled into her shoulder.
“You don’t know?” I repeated.
“You’ll get a handout at the end of the tour.”
After that, she didn’t ask for any more questions.
At the end of the tour, as promised, the perturbed leader quietly took out pieces of paper revealing the school’s prices and handed them to prospective parents, face down. By the time we all flipped them over, she was nowhere to be found. I felt like I’d just been involved in a drug deal for a massive amount of narcotics rather than the possibility of someone teaching my child to color and poop on the potty.
This particular day-care program cost $3,375 a month, or just over $40,000 for the whole year … for a 1-year-old. Before you berate me for selecting such a costly institution, let me tell you that we chose it because it was the closest to our house and one of the very few licensed day cares for children under 18 months in San Francisco. My 1-year-old likes being with other kids. We want him to have that opportunity, and both my husband and I need to work.
But even with full-time jobs, we can’t afford $40,000 a year for day care. I’m not saying that the education this particular school provides isn’t worthwhile. I want teachers to be well compensated and I am willing to pay for my child’s education.
The problem is that we had no idea this school was $40,000. They don’t post prices on their website. They demand you come in for a tour, during the work week, without your child — and even then, they won’t say their prices out loud. They act like they’re ashamed to be charging so much. And if they’re ashamed, how should we feel about paying it?
I know that San Francisco is an anomaly when it comes to cost of living. But I’ve heard stories like this from all over the country, stories of child-care facilities and schools that hide the prices on their websites or don’t display them at all in order to bring families in for time-consuming tours.
One mom told me she had emailed her children’s current preschool to ask about prices for her third child. She was told she’d have to come into the school. They refused to email the prices for the following year.
A dad who has been researching child-care options for his 18-month-old told me one school informed him it could only disclose the prices after he submitted an application and a $200 application fee.
I’ve sent queries to a dozen schools asking why the tuition prices aren’t more prominently displayed on their websites. Only two responded, and both said they didn’t want to talk on the record. One told me on background that they prefer to discuss the tuition costs in person so that they can answer any questions parents have face to face. This seems reasonable, except for the fact that taking a tour is an investment of time, one that is incredibly difficult for working parents to make. Knowing the costs up front would let parents decide whether to make that investment. If I know I can’t afford a school, I don’t want to take a morning off work to tour its facility. I also don’t want to pay a babysitter $20 an hour to take that tour.
There is no public pre-K in San Francisco. We don’t live near my family or my husband’s family. That leaves about four more years of paying for child care before we can put our child into the city’s public school system. That could cost about $160,000 in post-tax dollars. (In the U.S., according to a Brookings Institution analysis, parents of a kid under five who attends day care at least eight hours a week, doesn’t have a disability, and isn’t receiving outside financial aid pay a median $8,320 a year for center-based care.) That kind of expense needs to be planned for — and in order to plan for it, we need to talk about it.
I often wonder if it’s a cultural thing. My husband is looking for a new job, but none of the job listings post their salaries these days. How can he know if he should even apply for a job if he doesn’t know what it will pay? My new hairdresser wouldn’t tell me the price of a haircut until the haircut was over. And the other mothers in my mom group will never tell me what they pay for their nanny or their babysitter. Likewise, many of the babysitters I’ve interviewed won’t tell me what they charge until after we’ve met.
We need to start talking about money. I’ll talk about it: We pay our babysitter $20 an hour, and she comes over once or twice a week for four hours. I paid $27 the other day to take my kid to a 30-minute swim class, where he screamed the entire time we were in the pool. I’m hoping to find a day-care situation that’s less than $3,300 a month, because otherwise it isn’t cost-effective for either me or my husband to work.
Let’s keep talking.
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