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Ask Dave

Finding Alternatives to Boarding School

Elisa and her husband were recently told their son may need to go to a boarding school as a last resort. The cost can be $2,400–8,000 a month. Elisa doesn't think they can afford it. What do they do now?

QUESTION: Elisa in Atlanta and her husband were recently told their son may need to go to a boarding school as a last resort. They’ve applied for scholarships for him, but the cost can be anywhere from $2,400–8,000 a month. They make $110,000 a year and have $75,000 in debt. Elisa doesn’t think they can afford it. What do they do now?

ANSWER: I’ve certainly faced this question in financial counseling several times in the last 20 years. What I tell people to do is a couple of things. I’m not a family therapist by any stretch of the imagination. I’m a dad who’s raised three kids. Certainly raising good teenagers is a challenge.

Your motivation as a mom to make sure that we do whatever it takes that is within reason for the care of your child—what mom wouldn’t do that? What dad wouldn’t do that who loves their kid? You’ve got to have that as the core. Then we have to temper that, which you already are, and I commend you for that because you’re in a very high stress, very emotional situation, and yet you’re being pretty level headed on how you’re approaching this. I commend you for that—unusually so. I mainly talk to people in your situation who are completely irrational. They’re willing to go $300,000 in debt or, “My child is going to die!” This is the crap I have to start with.

The first thing I will tell you is that having faced this with other families for many years—nothing more than that, no expertise on my part, I don’t want to pretend I’m something I’m not—I have had a lot of success having them challenge the diagnosis, meaning are there other ways to deal with this behavior issue? I’m not saying you haven’t tried other ways. I am saying I’m not sure 100%—and I’m not qualified to judge either—if I’m in your shoes that I’m going to accept this as the method to straighten this kid’s life out.

Number one is I’m going to try other methods of counseling and other things. Number two, the therapeutic boarding school I might substitute for youth-ministry-driven, faith-based things that are more akin to boot camps. And much more reasonable and honestly, the stuff I’ve read on places like Teen Challenge is their success rate is a lot higher. I had a friend who sent a 17-year-old out of the house, and it changed the kid’s life. He put him in one of those things, but I’m telling you it was a wilderness boot camp. It was tough, but that kid was at that point. He came back a lover of Mom and Dad and Jesus. That changed his life. What did he pay for that? About a tenth of what you’re talking about. Those things aren’t usually staffed with psychiatrists—unless they’re volunteers. These are ministry boot camp-type situations. Teen Challenge is one of the more famous ones. That isn’t $8,000 a month.

I think you continue to look at other options until you find something that fits within your family’s budget, because if you called me up and you weren’t making $110,000 but instead you were making $40,000, what would we do? The same thing. You’ve still got a mom who loves her kid, and you have to take care of your kid. Yet you still can’t go $300,000 in debt. We have to find other options that fit within the family because you have two other children you have to love well, and that includes having money to feed them. You know all of that, and you’re doing a good job of staying rational. With all the pull on you, I again commend you on that. If I were you, that would be my prayer that I could keep my wits about me in the middle of this. A lot of people don’t. They make decisions here that set their family back for decades off of one singular piece of drama in their life. That’s really where you are.

Yes, we have to do something to make sure this kid survives this period of time in his life. I understand that. I don’t know what that is. I’ve not faced a teenager out of the three we had that was that extreme. I know good people who have. I’m not saying we did everything perfect. We didn’t. We just didn’t have that thing that happened. That wasn’t the Ramsey thing. We had plenty of other crap we faced, but that wasn’t on the list.

Try to find the less expensive options and/or other options. See where that takes us.