Big Bucks For Kids, Statistical Confusion?

I’ve commented previously on the cost of raising a child. At the time I did, the figures I used referenced newly released 2010 data, estimating $222,360 per child, on average (for middle income families), up to age 18.

But this morning I took a look at another reference to the same originating document which is produced annually, and has been since 1960. It is issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. That reference, from Life Inc. on, says:

Last year, the average cost of raising a child from birth to age 17 was $226,920.

Okay. Somewhere there’s a disconnect or a simple reporting error by the media. For one thing, there’s an approximately $4500 discrepancy. For another, there is – or isn’t – a discrepancy in the number of years reported. And if in fact we’re looking at figures on kids through age 18 (more typical if through high school), then we’re talking about $13,000 or more which is missing from the currently reported total.

Either way, we’re at between $227,000 and $240,000 per child. Pretty damn close to a quarter of a million.

But there’s more worth considering when we dig into the original findings. There are assumptions and figures pertaining to two-parent households, single-parent households, and of course, income.

Yes, I’m a stickler for this sort of detail, because I think we learn from it, we situate ourselves with more certainty in appropriate context, and I loathe the way data can be interpreted however we see fit to prove a point. That said, I’m fully aware that it’s necessary to establish reasonable assumptions (based on data and statistical rigor), and to extrapolate accordingly.

Incidentally, Life Inc. (on offers its own summary of the report, along with a link to a calculation calendar that you can use to estimate the cost of raising your child. Their report points out that child-rearing increases are largely due to:

… increase in health care costs, as well as child care and education expenses

Moreover, we are told

The cost of food is still a major part of the cost of raising a child — as any parent well knows — but it has actually decreased in real terms since 1960.

Now that point I found particularly interesting, especially as I am very aware of the significant portion of my budget that is spent on food for two boys, now older teens. And in light of our discussion of American eating habits, American spending habits when it comes to eating (and fast food), and our growing obesity epidemic, I admit – I’m confused.

So what’s up with this seemingly conflicting information?

What am I not seeing?

Is it tied to the (assumed) lower cost of junk food?

Data Data Everywhere

A few interesting points from the original report:

  • The sample consisted of 11,800 husband-wife households and 3,350 single-parent households and was weighted to reflect the U.S. population of interest by using BLS weighting methods.
  • For the overall United States, annual child-rearing expense estimates ranged between $11,880 and $13,830 for a child in a two-child, married-couple family in the middle-income group.
  • As a proportion of total child-rearing expenses, housing accounted for the largest share across income groups, comprising 31 to 33 percent of total expenses on a child in a two child, husband-wife family.
  • For families in the middle-income group, child care/education (for those with the expense) and food were the next largest average expenditures on a child, accounting for 17 and 16 percent of child-rearing expenses, respectively.
  • Annual expenditures on children generally increased with age of the child. This fact was the same for both husband-wife and single-parent families.
  • Overall annual child-rearing expenses were highest for husband-wife families in the urban Northeast, followed by families in the urban West and urban Midwest; families in the urban South and rural areas had the lowest child-rearing expenses.
  • Compared with expenditures on each child in a two-child, husband-wife family, expenditures by husband-wife households with one child average 25 percent more on the single child and expenditures by households with three or more children average 22 percent less on each child.

Hello? The fact that two parents with one child are able to spend more? A given, but I appreciate knowing it’s apparently 25% more, on average.

And any link to unemployment levels? To poverty levels? And the fact that the report summarizes income levels at $57,600/year and under, $57,600-$99,730, and greater than $99,730???

The fact that only 15% of single parent households come in at over $57,600 – or another way to state that might be 85% are below the $57,600 mark? (Reality Check in Aisle 4?)

And then there is the mention that 85% of single parent families are headed by a woman (p. 3 of the report).

Anyone else concerned with these facts?

Parenting Investment

Not to be too sanguine about our kids, but isn’t the exorbitant cost of raising a child enough to raise our hackles? A good reason to be interested in what we’ve “invested” in them? Might that play into our perceived (and real) overly “enthusiastic” levels of parenting attention?

I’m not implying that we’re interested in our children because of money, nor unwilling to embrace significant compromises for their well-being. Yet our culture has shifted in complex and interdependent ways we’re still trying to dissect and address; we pour our emotions into our children (and competitive measures of success?) – we want them to do well, be well, however we attack our parenting roles.

Whether we use a $227,000 figure or $240,000 – and whether or not we factor in our incomes and solo mothering or fathering – I confess that I never considered the long term expense of raising a child, when many years ago I did ponder a solo pregnancy.

At 32 and unattached, I was beginning to feel the bittersweet bite of the baby bug. I knew other women in their thirties who were considering – or undergoing – the Haven’t-Met-Anyone-Sperm-Donor method of conception. Choice Moms. My hat is off to them.

Were they considering finances as well as emotional desire for a child?

For myself, I didn’t want single motherhood, and in weighing my capacity to love a child along with lack of familial support, I decided it wasn’t for me. Eventually I married and had two children one after the other, and found myself solo parenting all the same. And here I sit, blankly staring at the USDA figures on single parent households of a particular income segment.

The amounts indicate a lower expenditure on children. Hmm. I can’t imagine why…

Dependent Dependencies?

We know that raising children is expensive. We know we “figure it out as we go.” We know there are trade-offs to all our major decisions in life, not to mention the times when things “happen” and we make the best of them.

But I’m curious.

If someone asked you what it cost so far to raise your child, would you know? Personally, if I hadn’t had to sit for months in attorneys’ offices (and track line items for years afterward), I would never have known what I know now.

And I know quite a lot about dollars spent on my school-aged and teenage children for food, clothing, school supplies, books, (uncovered) medical care, dentists, orthodontia, transportation, child care, extracurricular activities, (uncovered) testing expenses (in public school), basic summer camp (so I could work), driver’s education (not provided in school), car insurance (for teenage boys), and so on.

Then there is the bare minimum when it comes to computers or related electronics, and a percentage of housing and utilities.

  • What if you’re a single parent, or considering single parenting, and you look at the increased detail on these reports? Would it deter you from pursuing solo motherhood?
  • Whatever your family structure, can these reports assist in facilitating planning?
  • Do you look at these figures when they’re published? Or do you look away in helplessness?
  • What do you make of the reported conclusion that “real” food costs have dropped since 1960?

In fact, the Department of Agriculture report is intended to facilitate the determination of State child support and foster care guidelines, which got me to thinking. Does that mean the child support that was set, and then “excepted” (reduced) 10 years ago, was based on these guidelines? Because frankly, they don’t even come close – especially if you, as the parent, are without “social” benefits provided by an employer.

Honestly, I don’t know. It’s a question. All I do know is that the amount determined to be “due” by the non-custodial parent was a drop in the bucket compared to what I was expected to contribute.

Pressure Rising or Pressure Cooking?

I highly recommend wading through the original USDA report. I admit I don’t understand the methodology they describe (I’m no statistician), I have no doubt this is a challenging task to undertake, and much of the report is readable and many bullet points are interesting – for what they suggest about our conclusions and their validity.

All that aside, it’s undeniable that kids cost big bucks. Sufficiently big bucks that if any of us really thought about it, we might stop at one child. Or spend all our pin money on daily lottery tickets, along with paying closer attention to my recently discovered Pressure Cooker Culinary Methodology, also known as a 99 cent cabbage to prepare a healthy, delicious soup that serves four.

Any other ideas? Comments on the oddities of presenting data to a weary American public?

© D A Wolf



  1. says

    I tend to believe that statistics are only as good as the pool of those involved in the study. It would be right near impossible to figure an average ‘cost’ of child rearing. Income levels, schooling, eating habits, cost of living, housing prices, renting vs owning, day care with relatives, every life is different in too many ways to count. Not to mention the extracurricular’s- regular trips to the zoo? home bodies? every toy imaginable? way too many variables. I could go on forever!

  2. says

    Phew… those numbers made me dizzy (lol). As you know I’m a single parent to child with Autism living in the Bay Area, my expenses are HUGE. I have to pay for speech thearpy, social therapy, medication (and now a lot of medication is being declined by insurance), my monthly expenses are through the roof.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      @bleu – These numbers are indeed dizzying and they don’t, as you point out, reflect situations of special requirements as in your situation. And I come back to the situation of health care in this country, and our lack of social safety net for adults and children.
      @NAS – I know what you mean about all the variables. Certainly, these studies do little more but provide a ballpark and don’t take into consideration the individual circumstances that can make such a difference. But even the ballpark is informative, especially when we read some of the lower level detail, which is why I suggest hitting the link and at least skimming. It is confirmation of some things we sense – glaring social issues – and yet we don’t seem to put the pieces together in order to try and address them. Instead, we offer reports and no action.

      Hello? Is anyone listening out there?

  3. says

    First, I love the new header. Second, obviously my tax dollars are hard at work with this study. But to what end? In the end, it simply doesn’t matter… because that money is already spent! Will it deter people from having more kids? Does anyone really think it’s going to impact child support or foster care compensation? Probably not. So, what real purpose did collecting and reporting all this data accomplish? Yet another governmental waste of time and money.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      All good points, Lisa. (And glad you like the more “restrained” header. Something lighter for the dog days of summertime.)

  4. says

    We love our kids. Kids cost. My costs for three children were a squeeze on one income and were well below the posted rates (otherwise, after taxes, less than $10,000 would have remained to support two parents). However, what about children when they reach “adulthood” at age 18? They cost more as they get older. I am greatly relieved to report that my stepson left yesterday at Fran’s insistence, after half a year here while we paid all his expenses. But that’s another story, not yet over. In any case, Fran and I spent the morning in bed “celebrating.”

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Ah, the “adult child returning home (for a free ride?)” syndrome. Not such a simple thing, because jobs can be scarce if you’re underqualified, and scarce if you’re overqualified. Still, for you and Fran, I’m delighted you got some celebrating in! (Nice way to start the week… ;))

  5. says

    Sobering thoughts. The numbers do not surprise me. Much. We spent more on one when we had just one. It was there to spend. And two share. The statistics about income level and single parent (single mother) households is saddening.

    I tend to think statistics are only as good as the methodology, but this report sounds intriguing. It tells us about the gaps in medical coverage (and care for under/uninsured). I wonder if it hints at our obsession with bigger housing? We’ve always lived small, and I hope to continue. More house, more utilities, more stuff to fill the space? But that is a side issue.

    I don’t believe the real cost of food is decreasing. I know my food bills have increased dramatically. Then again, I am much more cautious of what I put in my mouth or theirs, so I buy more organic, less processed. I know I could buy cheaper foods, and some, like local produce are simply good economics, but others are just cheap. My grandma, raising four boys, did a comparison of making her own bread versus buying. If she bought the cheapest bread, it always won out financially. But nutritionally? I am not sure.

    I think the true costs of my children are nearly impossible to track since I provide the childcare for years. The loss of income is not a ‘cost’ per se, is it? And then there is this, because my husband never has to take off work to care for a sick child (and very rarely to help me get to the dentist or some such), his income benefits from our arrangement too.

    And did we consider cost when planning our family? No. We knew we wanted two, because siblings are a terrific thing to have. And then adding one more felt right. Though we do know the cost of boomerang kids, my sister in law spent half a year living with us. Like I said, siblings are good.

  6. says

    All I know is that $12K will be orthodontics alone for two kids. My younger child is epileptic…tests, medicine, deficiencies that creep up from long-term med usage, broken limbs from sports, etc. He’s 14…still a long way to go! My daughter, to be able to pursue what she wishes to do upon high school graduation requires technological equipment…just to get experience and to put together a portfolio for her talent-based major college application. She needs these to even venture a chance at entering that threshhold.

    All on a single-parent budget…a low one at that because I’m one of those with the under $57K/yr. Even with child support factored in. Housing…I don’t even want to go there…have to have 3 bedrooms because my children are opposite sex.

    Loads of sacrifice on my part and I know others who are single-parents in much worse circumstances than my own.

    And, I have to agree with an earlier post talking about the purpose in the study other than to justify some governmental position. It isn’t going to change things as far as assistance nor custodial agreements for support.

    All I know is that my kids are the best parts of me, and I will continue to do what is in their best interests, regardless of US Gov’t. statistics and regardless of sacrifices.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      I understand where you’re coming from, Tina.

      And I can’t speak for the single fathers, but in 10 years of being a single mother, I’ve yet to encounter one (including myself) who hits that $57k mark. Or even close. Just saying…

  7. says

    A study is an interpretation of data, just as reporting the content of ancient papers is an interpretation. When I report my experiences with certain products, or my costs in raising children, dogs or cats, it’s my interpretation of my data. You could have the same data but a much different interpretation. My point? I do not completely trust in what is reported. I do, however, know it is incredibly expensive to live anymore, much less to raise children. There are some things that should not be put in to the category of what it costs – unless, of course, we’re talking about assistance in the support (as in child support, etc.).

    • BigLittleWolf says

      You make good points, Carol. About the subjective nature – even of the categories of data and methodologies for working with it.

      For example, housing. Does it belong in a reckoning of child-rearing costs in some fashion? I imagine we would all agree it does. But how do you calculate the proportion? By comparison of a one bedroom apartment to two or three? A two bedroom house to three or four? Just the rent or mortgage, or the property tax component (generally included in a mortgage payment)? Many parents choose their housing location based on schools. I live in a tiny house in an “expensive” area so I could send my children to the local public schools which are, of course, funded through my tax dollars that are nearly the cost of my mortgage payment itself.

      Would I need to live in this area if not for my children?

      So I’m back to wondering, as I look at my housing expense overall – how much to “apportion” to the cost of raising children?

      Another interesting point buried in the detail of the report (but clearly mentioned) – child care expenditures are included where able to be documented, recognizing that there are reasons why there are not childcare costs in certain segments – leading me (and others?) to understand that whether or not there are young children, there are no funds to pay for child care (hello, Latch Key?), and no child care options available.

      So from this, does government “presume” that child care is a nice-to-have for higher income parents?

      I have no idea. All the more reason that like you – I take these reports with a grain of salt and see them as offering more intriguing (and concerning?) data in the detail, rather than anything more than an alarming ballpark when looking at the big picture.

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