Children Are Big Ticket Items

How many kids can you afford?

Posted Sep 14, 2008

Children have become big ticket items (eventually wanting big ticket items). We all agree that you can't put a price tag on children, yet the expense of raising them gives many couples reason to reconsider if, when, and how many. From the nursery to college graduation, high income parents are looking at close to half a million dollars. To some of you, even bringing up this discussion may sound harsh and unfeeling, but for more and more people having babies is a financial and quality of life concern, and the rocketing costs are fueling the trend toward one-child families.

In an earlier post, Dollars for Babies, I talked about several industrialized countries' efforts to pay women to have more children. Payment policies put into effect thus far have not worked in any significant way; the long term costs are too high to convince couples to expand their families.

In real dollars

According to the Department of Agriculture, families with an income between roughly $46,000 and $77,000 will spend a little over $200,000 to rear their offspring from birth through high school. The more you earn, the more you spend: Families with incomes over $77,000 can figure spending closer to $300,000 BEFORE factoring in the costs of a college education, public or private. The Department of Agriculture costs are modest given their absence of the endless stream of extras.

Note: Since posting this originally, the Department of Agriculture has changed its estimates to $286,050 if your average family income is between $56,670 and $98,120.

The National Association of Child Care Resources reports that, on average, families spend between roughly $4,000 and $13,500 on infant childcare alone. When the routine costs of housing, food, and clothing are mingled with today's commercialism and parents' competitiveness, the pressure to buy makes the numbers soar. In her book, Parenting, Inc.: How the Billion-Dollar Baby Business Has Changed the Way We Raise Our Children, Pamela Paul outlines the where and why of so much spending for babies. In her introduction she writes, "Baby signing-for babies who can hear perfectly well-had become so popular that we also felt prodded by a competitive impetus: Everyone else seemed to signing their children up." 

As I read through Parenting, Inc., I realized that there is virtually no end to the baby equipment parents can buy in what has become a six billion dollar niche industry. Frankly, what's available at what prices and how parents are targeted in ads and guilt trips is just the beginning of the feelings (and fears) and spending parents experience to raise a baby. The intense marketing for all varieties of tutoring and trainers that children supposedly need to succeed up the budget way beyond anything the Department of Agriculture includes. And, expenses are higher depending on where you live.

When you bring baby home from the hospital, team sports, signup fees, uniforms, protective gear, plus travel expenses are far from your mind. With school budget cuts, you will probably be adding music and art lessons, special trainers and coaches for your little league pitcher, gymnast, or swimmer. Don't forget birthday party costs and, later, must-have items in the form of technology gadgets and clothing your preteens and teens will dub "essential," all putting more drain on the coffers. A cell-phone, for example, has become a everyday accessory for children even in elementary school.

The Wall Street Journal made a far more realistic estimate than my half-million dollars for households in the top one-third income bracket/earning above $118,000 a year: "At the lowest end, our estimates came in at about $800,000 (in 2007 dollars) through age 17. Add in luxuries like private school, a nanny and a flat screen TV set in a kid's bedroom, and the figure climbs to $1.6 million."

Couples are asking...

...Can we afford a child? Two? Three? Five?

Parents want the best for their sons and daughters, but at what point is it unrealistic to think you can manage a brood without having to make significant sacrifices? Where you live, what jobs you have, what hours you work, what vacations you take (or don't), what childcare and then schools your child will attend, what extras you can or cannot give your child...go into the tabulation.

As insensitive as it sounds, for growing numbers of people without limitless funds, the skyrocketing cost of raising children is a conscious and prohibiting factor in childbearing today. Even if you don't succumb to the advertising claims that your child will be brighter or happier given the benefits of whatever the product or service or to your child's gadget requests, the cost of raising children frightens and keeps more and more couples out of the delivery room. Yet, as Vivianna Zelizer, author of Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children, noted: when children were no longer needed for farm work, they became economically useless and emotionally priceless.

Copyright 2008, 2011 by Susan Newman