Families trim dinner and travel budgets but school fees last to go

Families trim dinner and travel budgets but school fees last to go

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Families are refusing to compromise on education spending despite being forced to cut back in other areas to balance their budgets, but debt management experts are worried more families could soon be pushed to the limit to afford school fees.

CommBank’s latest Household Spending Insights data, which tracks 7 million consumers, shows education continues to be one of the strongest categories of spending growth, with the sector up 1.3 per cent in October and ahead by 8.9 per cent year-on-year.

Andrea Stevens has paid for tutoring for both her children.Credit: Eddie Jim

Over the same period, families have cut back on spending in areas like hospitality and household goods in a bid to absorb the impact of rising mortgage and living costs.

CBA chief economist Stephen Halmarick said spending on private schools was the biggest driver of the growth, followed by tutoring services and universities.

“The increase in private school fees and tutoring is being driven largely by inflation, with increases in public teachers’ wages driving similar moves in the private sector, while higher spending on universities is being driven by the surge in foreign students coming into Australia,” Halmarick said.

Consumer sentiment data from NAB for the September quarter shows that while cutting back on private school fees and tutoring would deliver households significant savings, these areas are often the last to end up on the chopping block. Consumers are more likely to pull back on eating out or driving their cars than cutting education expenses.

NAB’s head of behavioural and industry economics Dean Pearson said families had developed more “robust coping mechanisms” as living costs rose, but noted households tended to value education spending over many other discretionary categories.

“Kids, pets and education are usually the last to get cut – and we know that school waiting lists are still quite strong,” he said.

Parent Andrea Stevens said education had always been a key focus in her household and spending on it would always rank ahead of other discretionary expenses in the family budget.

“It would always come first – you only get one shot at it [education],” she said.

Stevens’ children, Georgia and Connor, have attended one-on-one tutoring sessions at Avivo Australia, based in Ivanhoe, throughout high school.

She said it had been well worth the expense because of the ability of tutors to structure classes around each individual student need.

“It really offered that safety net,” Stevens said.

Victoria’s incoming private school payroll tax policy is expected to prompt further rises in some non-government school fees over the coming years, with a number of schools already making increases to their fee structures in response. 

Melbourne-based debt management charity Way Forward says the group is seeing two distinct trends in relation to education costs.

“The first is that we’re seeing households making big sacrifices to continue paying independent school fees for their children,” Way Forward chief executive David Berry said.

“Secondly, we’re seeing people who’ve reached their financial limits who need to cut costs and, understandably, prioritise a roof over their heads and food on the table over everything else.”

Berry said that if interest rate pressures continued to increase, there was a concern that a growing number of people would move into the category in which they have hit their financial limits.

He said those struggling to meet education cost commitments should evaluate how much longer they would need to support a child through school, what the monthly, yearly and total costs were and what was best for the social, emotional and academic welfare of the student.

“We recommend that people avoid taking out loans or using credit cards to fund schooling as these debts then need to be repaid somehow and end up costing significantly more once interest is taken into account,” he said

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