Once More Into the Brink… What Kids Cost (2012 Edition)

It’s that time of year again! Articles offering up the good news and the bad news when it comes to the costs of raising children.

Shall we go with the good news first? We adore our kids – even when they drive us crazy.

And now, are you ready for the bad news?

Our little (and big) darlings cost us a fortune, and the latest annual reflection on the expense of child-rearing is no less impressive than earlier discussions on the matter.

The New York Times offers one opinion of the annual report from the Department of Agriculture, as Nadia Taha, the article’s author, takes the stance that she did the math and simply can’t afford children.

She writes:

I figure it would run close to $2 million by the time it was all over…

The United States Department of Agriculture Department publishes an annual report on what families spend on their children, so I used that as a basis… In 2007, The Wall Street Journal tried to improve upon the government figures…

And what exactly is the current total being offered for our consideration? The average figure which was used a year ago was approximately $227,000 per child, from birth to age 18, with my own estimate at the time closer to $400,000 each.

This year’s official dollar amount? With many variables, it’s roughly $300,000 to $490,000.* And yes, that’s a wide range, nonetheless adding credence to my own $400,000 estimate.

Baby-Making Bites the Bullet?

Ms. Taha, apparently in her late 20s, refers to another Times essay on the subject of opting out of parenthood. She might be expected (wrongly?) to turn sentimental, toss her hands up into the air, or surrender eventually to her biological clock, some vague baby lust, or even peer pressure. She may conclude that whatever it takes, she and her husband will figure it out and alter their lifestyle accordingly if needed.

That’s the line of reasoning most of us follow, isn’t it?

But she persists, sticking to her calculating guns:

Without excessive expenditures, surely people like us could raise a child for more than the $435,030 the government estimates but less than the $776,000, $1 million or $1.6 million guessed at on the pages of the Wall Street Journal…

I had hoped so, but my estimation… ended up being more…

It will be interesting to see how she and her husband eventually “solve” this equation, especially when they’re in their 30s. I do not think she rules that out, along with the unavoidable compromises.

Regional Factors

One of the elements of the Times article which makes excellent sense is factoring in regional differences. Not only is this a matter of cost of living, it’s also a matter of career options, income levels, and available “services.” Ms. Taha and her husband reside in New York City. Housing, childcare, and education for example are not the same as in Nashua, New Hampshire or Nashville, Tennessee.

Ms. Taha also considers the increase in health care costs and writes:

My health insurance plan would charge us nearly $4,000 more each year for an additional dependent. Co-pays, prescriptions and other therapies could easily cost another $750 each year. At some point, our hypothetical child would probably have braces as we both did, which costs $4,000 out of pocket.

It’s difficult to dispute the dollars and cents.

More Money, More Money, More Money

Ms. Taha goes on to cover the financial side of the parenting terrain as it truly exists for many of us, including (ideally) putting some money into a fund to save for college. There is also an assumption of continuing financial support between ages 18 and 25. For some parents (and kids) that’s valid, and for others – going nowhere as adult children is not an option – certainly not for midlife or older parents struggling themselves, who simply cannot afford it.

And let’s not forget that the writer’s calculations are based on two income-earning parents to share the responsibilities and the costs.

Yet as a woman, Ms. Taha rightly points out the inevitable flattening (or even reduced) earnings picture, with wages lost on maternity leave, potential mommy-tracking for a time, and a cited set of figures on the “motherhood wage gap” referring to data showing women who are mothers

earning 73 percent of what men earn instead of 90 percent like nonmothers…  for the remainder of my career, according to a Columbia University study on the motherhood wage gap.

Doubt those percentages? I took on the Matriarchy Myth recently, complete with details on continuing gender disparities in earnings. Take a look for the less than stellar picture.

Children: Only for the Very Rich?

Naturally, the commentary that follows from Times readers is, well… a mixed bag.

The figures I once used, following a Motherlode article from an earlier year and by the same source, hovered at $227,000 per child, from birth until age 18. I knew at the time this estimate was considerably below my actual expenditures, aware that childcare alone can require a hefty annual sum.

Don’t we need childcare in order to work and hopefully bring additional income into the household? Don’t we need childcare to keep some skin in the professional game for sanity, for self, and for self-protection should the marriage end or a spouse lose his or her job? What if we’re talking the only income in the household in the case of a single parent with little to no assist from the other adult once involved in the baby-making equation?

Are we to conclude that children – especially in certain regions of this country – are simply not an option unless you’re very rich?

Naturally, there’s the opposite end of the spectrum, the very poor – with fewer alternatives all around, including access to family planning services.

Why We Have Children

The reasons we bear children, nurture them, love them, fuss at them, fight for them, worry about them, support them, and ultimately guide them (we hope) to independence have little to do with reason or reality.

Some of us become parents because it is expected, and we find an extraordinarily rich bond after the fact.

Some of us ache to have children because we love our partners, we love kids, and we want to build a family together.

Some of us bear children we did not plan or did not want. If the children are lucky, we will be caring and responsible. If not, I believe we’ve been irresponsible in raising those children ourselves. Then again, for many, there aren’t other “viable” alternatives.

I imagine there are many more reasons for becoming a parent, and none are so simple as those I’ve just outlined. What happens to many women – and men – when they first see or hold their child, biological or adopted, is a transformation that is inexplicable. Some of us, when finally sending our own out into the world, even toy with the idea of doing it again in some fashion.

Fixing the Financials in Parenting

Once more into the breach?

This subject feels like once more up to and into the brink, and possibly tumbling over!

As a long-time single / solo parent, I would like to highlight one paragraph from the Department of Agriculture report:

Child-rearing expense patterns of single-parent households with a before-tax income less than $59,410 were 7 percent lower than those of husband-wife households in the same income group. Most single-parent households were in this income group (compared with about one-third of husband-wife families).

Note these words: “Most single-parent households were in this income group” (less than $59,410). That’s before tax… and what about after taxes are taken out? What’s left? Are these “employed” parents or independents with no employer-subsidized medical benefits for themselves or their children? Are we talking about one child, two children, or maybe four? Doesn’t that change our view of these figures?

Of course the child-rearing expense patterns are different!

Big Picture, Interrelated Systems

Financial common sense may seem irrelevant with a cooing baby in our arms or a sweet-faced toddler clinging to our legs. But we do have to live in the real world, and society as a whole pays the price when we don’t. That means facing the considerable costs and consequences of parenthood.

Shouldn’t we be focusing on the systems – human and organizational – that comprise our American approach to family?

  • How about the positive impacts of community that foster sharing of resources and services. How do we encourage more of that?
  • What about the sometimes terrifying facts that surround placing your child in another’s care? How do we extend and improve the available quality early care and learning environments for our children?
  • And our inflexible employment environments that talk a good game but are less than family-friendly?

What else could we look at?

How about the state-specific divorce industry as it exists today, with courts and attorneys too often incapable of doing right by single mothers – collecting delinquent child support, and other monies that are not labeled “support” but are entirely child-related?

How about the structure of medical insurance premiums and co-pays and other health care costs, as mentioned by Ms. Taha, and experienced by millions of us with or without children?

How about education – public education – so private schools wouldn’t feel like the only safe bet to many? And while we’re speaking of education, what about the sky-high expense of college?

None of this is easy. All of these systems are interrelated. And a “quality” life will always cost, and always require reasoned compromises.

Price Tag Per Child

I understand too well where this writer is coming from. Like most, I was of the “we’ll figure it out” school of thought. I was also older when I married, and older when I had my children. Midlife mothers face their own (financial and emotional) challenges.

I didn’t look at this picture on the front end; I’ve surely lived it these past 20 years. Yet it saddens me to think that any adult woman or man who wishes to have a child and raise him responsibly and lovingly would have to “do the math” first, and conclude that it’s not possible.

And here are the questions rattling around in my brain:

  • Are all non-wealthy parents doomed to struggle financially, or just make far more compromise than they initially expect?
  • Will the women always carry the lion’s share of both burdens?
  • What if we knew before having a child that the price tag would be a cool half million? Or $400,000 at the typical middle income level? Or the “former” $227,000? Would we still do it?

I imagine each of us needs to balance a close examination of values and lifestyle, willingness to compromise and sacrifice, and accepting that these figures are not an exaggeration. There’s no question in my mind that we must confront these very real costs and their complicated origins and issues.

But we also must remember that parenting is both responsibility and privilege. We can put a price tag on parenting responsibilities; the privilege that offsets them is priceless.

Note: The Department of Agriculture Report of Expenditures on Children by Families provides considerable data including graphs, comparisons, and qualifications. Search toward the end of the report for specifics summarizing the figures cited here. $490,000 figure – Table 10 of the report.


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  1. says

    What’s this “from birth to age 18”? We have a wrecked car sitting in our driveway and a different engine on the grass. My stepson single-handedly did an engine swap (impressive, I must say) a few days ago, but our driveway and sidewalk look like an automotive garage and now there are permanent dark engine oil patches on sidewalk and driveway, while extra tires and spare parts fill the garage and affect what was already stored there. And some of you will have boomerang children (better the wrecked car by comparison).

    And then, there are the Burmese refugees that Fran works with. These figures are ridiculously laughable compared to what they are able to be spend. We are fortunate by comparison. Main resultant differences are Poor Education, Poor Healthcare, Unsafe Neighborhoods. That’s what takes money and what money buys in this country. They should be a basic right for everyone. Why I had to stand at the polls and also do a write-in vote once again for the Presidential elections — this topic was never seriously considered.

  2. says

    I started off feeling a bit defensive, when I was reading all those figures about how much rearing a child would cost, because aren’t the rewards (the privilege, as you say) beyond quantification? And many of us pay way more on a house. But I realized that my husband and I, too, had to consider cost before deciding not to have a second child. It wasn’t so much sitting down with excel sheets and projections as it was calculating the emotional costs of the heightened stress of a bigger family. We’d just started a business that very much needed our 4 hands on deck, and just the idea of trying to do that well and do a decent job as parents with two children seemed more than we could handle. But I have struggled with that decision.

    My parents as immigrants raised 2 children on less than half of what we have now. It’s doable, I know, but it also meant living for years in an impoverished part of town and under a constant blanket of stress. I went through it already and as part of the second generation my expectations have gotten way too high. I wanted to do things differently – to enjoy life rather than simply get through it, which is what my parents have done. Kids are resilient and difficulties will strengthen them. I guess I just knew where my tolerance level was and how much I could live with.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Ah, Cecilia. They say ignorance is bliss. I’m not sure I would go that far when it comes to having a child, yet I do think our sensibilities are more finely tuned when it comes to having a second or third, based on truly understanding what is involved with the first.

      Ironically, I myself desperately wanted a third child. And there almost was a third child.

      Knowing what I know now, and having lived these past 10+ years single / solo parenting, I can’t imagine how we would have managed, though we would have managed. More than anything I realize how little we can genuinely control. I’m not sure if that makes me more cautious or less, but it certainly makes me more appreciative – of everything.

  3. says

    This is interesting – especially as I am about to start paying more for health care and am now raising a teen-aged girl in the DC area as a single parent with a very low child support payment for this area. We always have what we need it seems; though I dare not consider how this might change as ballet tuition approaches 15K a year and I know her dad won’t help (he doesn’t believe in the arts) and I realize that right now, it is beyond my ability to pay. Fortunately for me, I have just one and my job is farily good, and she isn’t into gadgets or the newest high tech this and that as her friends are. She believes that we are rich because of who we are and our experiences etc. (Like the Table Where Rich People Sit). I am not sure how long that will last either, but hopefully for a while more.

    A friend of mine is 32 and planning to have a child on her own, totally depending on the support of her family for daycare etc. My daughter was a surprise gift; the cost is one that I don’t care to calculate, but the reward… priceless. I couldn’t do more than one though, not out of lack of ability to give, but out of inability to provide financially for two. But then again, like the comment above, we make due. We tend to get caught up in the material side of raising children (and that is an extra expense) around here…

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Lovely to hear from you, TE. Glad to know you are well. It sounds like you are raising a very grounded young woman. No small feat under any circumstances. We do get caught up in the material, yet I will tell you my sons had virtually none of the gadgets or computers or video games that their friends did. Forget about the fancy shoes or clothes or anything else. I won’t say they suffered terribly; we made do, they earned what they could, they did get computers but much later than their peers and we shared and managed. But it does make things harder, especially as they progress in school. What was once optional, even in public high schools, increasingly becomes mandatory or our children are at a significant disadvantage.

  4. says

    I read that article with interest, D, and – as so often happens – I am glad to read your reaction.

    As you know, my husband grew up in Manhattan and I lived there for awhile as an adult. What I’ve seen among my friends who lived there with us in our 20s is the slow, but seemingly inevitable, migration to the outer boroughs and the suburbs once kids came into the picture. Unless one is very wealthy or has a very lucrative career, it’s hard to imagine living in Manhattan and giving your kids a “comfortable” lifestyle. I have no doubt that the author of the Times piece has seen a similar pattern among her friends. Then again, I’m speaking from a very narrow perspective. After all, there are 1000s in Manhattan who have little and still make it work. Comfort is relative, I suppose.

    All I know is that I live in the rural Midwest with three kids and my expenses would be 3, maybe 4, maybe 10 times what they are if I lived in a different place. So, yes, it’s possible. But I admire the author for considering the type of life she wants to lead and recognizing that having kids would make that impracticable. Then again, I also hope that she will consider the fact that she could change some of the trappings of her life and make it work as so many of us do – if, in fact, that’s what she and her partner want.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      You’re a wonderful source of comparisons, Kristen – from NY to the rural Midwest.

      If you link to another essay Ms. Taha has on the Times, it’s yet another excellent read which comes across less harshly (IMO). She makes a point of saying that she and her husband are in their late 20s, which says to me that she’s aware their perspective may change. It will be interesting to see what trade-offs they make as a couple 4 or 5 years from now. But like you, I admire her for putting it out there – the very real cost.

      Still, she didn’t go into any of the social / economic structures that are part of the logistical and financial challenges. That wasn’t within the scope of her article I realize; all the more reason I wanted to mention it.

  5. says

    “What else could we look at?”

    There’s a wonderful book called The Material World where families from all over the world are photographed with all their possessions. It’s just my impression of the pictures, but it seems to me that the more the possessions, the fewer the children.

  6. says

    Just last week on NPR, I heard a story about a 23-year-old homeless woman with 4 children. Three of the children are able to spend the night with their respective fathers. But the 2 month old baby walks the streets or rides buses with her mother every night.

    It seems like people who have some money and financial education are the only ones calculating the cost of a child. This woman got pregnant at age 16 and had 3 more babies since. I don’t think financial calculations were ever a concern.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      All good points, Ms. HalfEmpty. Doesn’t it come back to foundational issues – like education, among others?

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