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private school

Debby Carreau with children Jenna and Joshua.

Earlier this summer, while visiting a friend's cottage in Muskoka, Anne-Marie Kee's son and daughter asked why they couldn't buy a cottage, too.

"If you want to give up Ridley, we can start talking about it," she told them.

Although she was just joking about pulling them out of the private school in St. Catherines, Ont., to fund a cottage dream, Ms. Kee wasn't kidding about the financial sacrifice the family makes each year to pay for their education.

In fact, Ms. Kee, who is the executive director of Canadian Accredited Independent Schools, has heard numerous stories about what parents will do to finance private school. Take on an extra job. Drive an old car. Live in a smaller house. And yes, be perpetual guests in other people's vacation homes.

The truth is, times have changed since the days when private school was seen as a bastion of learning for the county's privileged class. Today the picture is shot with a wider lens with more middle-class families entering the fray. Despite this fact, private school still doesn't come cheap, generally ranging anywhere from $5,000 for tuition at a smaller day school to $55,000 for a top boarding school.

So, how to pay for it?

There are numerous options, but no magic bullets, admits Michael Roy, director of admission, marketing and business development at St. Andrew's College, an all-boy school in Aurora, Ont. Still, it's important that parents are aware of a surprising truth: independent schools want your kids. As long as parents pay what they're capable of, many schools are willing to work with the families.

Affording school is often easier with scholarships, which are merit-based, and bursaries, which are based on need. Many schools offer them. For instance, in the 2011-2012 school year at St. Andrew's, 21 per cent of the school's students were the beneficiaries of either a scholarship or bursary totaling $1.9-million. Even outside organizations and companies offer private school scholarships.

Brenda Hiscock, a financial planner in Toronto who works with families putting their children in private school, says she firmly believes all parents should ask about assistance.

"Parents really should apply even if they think they won't qualify. It's always a good idea to throw in an application and see. Some people are pleasantly surprised by the outcome," she says.

Even parents who are both pulling in six figures can sometimes make the case they need the money due to special circumstances. They have older children in university, say, or a younger child is ill and needs care.

Don't forget tax credits. Although Canada doesn't have many of them, if a family has children in religious schools that are listed as charitable organizations, tuition can become a tax writeoff. The same goes for children with medical issues. If a doctor writes a letter saying that a private school environment would be better for the child for medical reasons, tuition could lead to a tax slash too.

Debby Carreau, a mother in Calgary with two young children at Webber Academy, says some parents at her school donate their entry bond – the money parents get back when the child leaves the school – in order to get the tax deduction today.

"They say, 'my six-grand today will only be worth three-grand in 14 years, but if I donate it today, I'm going to have a $6,000 deduction,' " she says. "It helps the school, too."

Then there are the creative ways to finance tuition. Ms. Kee pays for school using monthly installments rather than giving lump sum payments before the year starts. Ms. Carreau says some schools even allow parents to put the fees on credit card. It's not for everyone, but the option is there.

Ms. Hiscock says an even better solution would be to save up early before paying up. If parents know they will eventually put their children in private school, they can each load up their tax free savings accounts (TFSAs) with $5,000 a year and have $60,000 by the time the child is six.

"Saving early is always the best bet," she says.

Ultimately, independent school is expensive, so sometimes it takes the sting away to remember what it provides – big bonuses. Think less running around taking your kids to dance lessons and hockey practice. They're offered at school. Even uniforms, which look like an expense at first, can actually be cheaper and easier than shelling out for pricey street clothes.

But it's the food factor that makes all the difference for Ms. Kee.

"If you want to talk about value? I don't have to pack lunches. They feed them there. That alone is worth the tuition," she says.