Virtual Learning (and This Whole School Year) Might Be More Expensive Than You Expected—Here’s How to Manage Some of the Costs
Save where you can without sacrificing education.
School starts again in August and September every year, but in most places in the U.S., the school year for students of all ages looks a lot different in 2020 than it did last year. Some families are transitioning to all-remote or virtual learning, some are creating learning pods with trusted friends, some are sending their kids back to school in person, and others are trying to figure out some hybrid of all these options. In short: It’s going to be a tough school year.
Beyond the social and logistical issues of this school year, there’s another concern students and their families should be aware of: the financial costs of virtual learning. Private school attendees are already familiar with the costs of tuition and education, but public school families could also face added expenses associated with virtual learning and the loss of on-site school resources this year.
This could strain already tight budgets—we’re now in an economic recession, remember—and make it harder than ever for all students to get a good education and the learning support they need. Fortunately, families can take steps to lower the cost of virtual learning and the 2020 school year, whether the semester has already started or they’re preparing for the first day of school. Read on for ways to lower the costs of this school year.
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According to the School Nutrition Association, the National School Lunch Program serves 20.1 million free lunches and 1.7 million reduced-price lunches to students across the country every school day. When schools closed suddenly, millions of students (and their families) faced increased food insecurity, and that insecurity will continue in the current school year if local schools remain closed with virtual learning only. Fortunately, families in need of food for their children are still able to access some of the benefits they qualify for.
“Just because your kids are learning from home doesn’t mean they’re excluded from the benefits of going to school, such as free or subsidized meals, if they usually receive them,” says Claire Grant, a financial writer at Stash, a personal finance app.
If your child qualified for a free or subsidized meal at school, you can use the USDA Meals for Kids tool to find a meal distribution site near you.
With kids learning at home and parents possibly working from home, too, the WiFi may be lagging—a lot. All utility costs may be higher than usual with everyone at home, but water, gas, and electric bills are almost always fixed and nonnegotiable. To save money where you can, try negotiating your WiFi bill, either for a better deal or to save money on faster internet service.
“If you live in an area with more than one internet provider, see if you can get a better deal and better service from a different provider,” Grant says. “Or call your provider and see if you can get a higher speed plan or negotiate the cost of your plan.”
Whether your current internet speeds are fine or you need something better, saving as much as you can on those expenses can help your overall budget.
“There’s this level of loss: There are experiences and traditions that go along with back-to-school,” such as back-to-school clothes or supplies shopping, says Lindsay Sacknoff, head of consumer deposits, products, and payments at TD Bank.
Whether your budget won’t allow for new clothes or supplies this year or you can’t justify the expense while the kids are at home all day, you can still give little ones some of the excitement of back-to-school shopping without spending a lot of money.
Sacknoff suggests hosting a (socially distanced) clothing swap with family, neighbors, or classmates. Kids can pick up new clothes and shoes, and no one has to spend a penny.
This year, everyone might need a computer or tablet to keep up with school or work. Unfortunately, not all families can afford a device for everyone. Sacknoff suggests repurposing tech whenever possible: If you have an old iPad or computer, try updating it to see if it’s up to the task of virtual learning. (You can also have a professional refurbish old hardware for less than the cost of buying a brand-new tablet or computer.)
If you don’t have old equipment lying around, consider researching subsidies or services from your school system. Some districts are supplying every student with a tablet or computer for virtual learning, while others may offer discounts or subsidies for families in need. Talk to your student’s teacher or a school system representative to see what your options are. You might also be able to get student discounts on essential equipment, Grant says.
“The most significant area of additional cost and potential planning lies in the education of special needs students,” says Dawn Doebler, senior wealth advisor and principal at The Colony Group and co-founder of Her Wealth. “In both public and private institutions, parents enjoy the benefits of special help supplied to students in need. When schools were forced to close, many parents realized their special needs students required additional support and/or resources to adjust to and thrive in new online learning venues.”
Unfortunately, the expense of providing a special needs student with the support they need to learn at home isn’t cheap. Before you start pricing out equipment or interviewing teaching aides, talk to your school to see what resources they can provide. Some may offer equipment; others may prioritize bringing special needs students to school in-person. If you need more support, you can turn to tax-advantaged savings accounts, which can help you save for future expenses tax-free.
A 529 plan—a tax-advantaged account many families use to save for college expenses—holds funds that can be used for K-12 students—but only for tuition. Other educational expenses for non-college students are not qualified expenses, Doebler says. If you expect more expenses related to education for your special needs child, consider establishing an ABLE account. This tax-advantaged savings account can be used to pay for disability expenses, and according to Doebler, funds in an ABLE account can be used for a much broader range of education-related expenses for students who qualify. Contributing to one of these accounts won’t reduce any costs, but it can make the expenses feel more manageable, especially as the account balance grows tax-free.
Whether kids are attending school virtually or in person, there are bound to be more shifts in your routine. You’re likely spending more money than ever on cleaning supplies and replacing face masks every few weeks. You may even be packing lunches for the first time or skipping the carpool for safety, Grant says. Keep track of how these shifts affect your budget for the first month of school: If your grocery and gas spending has increased, figure out how to budget for these new shifts in spending and cut spending elsewhere for the rest of the school year to accommodate. This way, you’ll be able to purchase what you need without running over budget month after month.
Everyone is doing their best to offer kids everything they need, but it’s hard to replace the socializing, activity, and engagement students get from their extracurriculars, whether that’s art class at school or soccer practice on weeknights.
Sacknoff suggests that parents leave time for recess and blowing off steam in the school day schedule, but also that parents remember that they and other parents have diverse skills and hobbies. If your kids are desperately missing music class at school but your neighbor is a music teacher, talk to them about doing small-group activities or lessons.
To give kids the same well-rounded education they got at school—and may be missing with virtual or distanced learning—talk to your neighbors, friends, and family about setting up socially distanced, outdoor activities for all your kids. One parent can talk to kids about astrology, say, while another can help them practice basketball for an hour after school. If everyone pools their skills, you might be able to offer kids opportunities for non-academic learning to rival what they got at school—and all for free.