I am raising 3 kids without 3/4 million dollars of disposable income. We might actually be breaking even on costs! Here are our strategies.
Does It Really Cost a Quarter Million Dollars Per Child?
People say raising a child costs $200,000 to $300,000. The sum is commonly rounded to “a quarter of a million dollars.”
I have three kids, but I didn't have 3/4 million dollars or anything like it. In fact, when you calculate all the tax cuts and gift cards and sacks of clothes and toys we’ve been given, I think we may have made money by having children, and that’s not because we’ve sent them to work! (We have made friends by sending them to do volunteer work, though.)
Not everyone has the same resources we have, but we’re probably not too far off normal. How many people have huge reserves of disposable income to raise kids, anyway?
I have not completely monetized our assets (what’s the value of jeans with holes in the knees that are good play clothes for us but which nobody else will want?), but since I usually do our taxes, I have a good idea where our money goes. So, especially for those who haven’t had children yet, let me explain the economics of all the things you DON’T need to buy.
Costs of Conceiving a Child
We are older parents. Younger parents can save costs compared to us by not having to buy books on fertility and thermometers and vitamins and pregnancy tests and stuff like that. The main cost-saving strategy here is to protect your fertility. Don’t wait till you’re 30 or over to start having children.
Pre-Natal and Birth Costs
At the time I got married, I called a hospital to find out what the cost of an uncomplicated vaginal birth is, without insurance. It was then about $2000 (not counting the cost of the doctor, which about doubled the figure). Later when I actually had a (very slightly complicated) hospital birth, it was about $3000. It will have gone up since then, but it's amazing what you can find if you actually ask. Though it’s not a fun check to write, it's less than many plumbing emergencies, and you get ¾ of a year to save up for it. YOU CAN HANDLE THIS. Even without insurance.
But, twice we had a home birth, and for that we got the cost of the actual birth PLUS the cost of prenatal care (from the SAME person or team every week, who ACTUALLY GOT TO KNOW ME, and LISTENED to how I was feeling) for about the same as the cost of just the birth at the hospital. (Can you tell I think home births are great?) I can say from personal experience, though, it is a good idea to have the additional money available for a hospital birth just in case. (If you don’t end up using it, you can put it aside for a college fund, because you may not need it during the next 18 years – keep reading!)
How Much a New Baby Costs
Disposable diapers add up over time. (We did mostly disposable diapers with one child because of diaper rashes.) Cloth diapers sound like they cost a lot, but it’s only once (and with some cloth diapers one purchase will last for multiple children.) Cloth diapers do leak more than disposable diapers, if you don’t change them often enough. Consider it your reminder to keep the baby from having to sit in disgusting stuff!
We found you don’t have to wash all cloth diapers as many times as some guides say, to get them hygienic again. We have an outdoor clothesline, and sunlight is a good disinfectant. (Remember, you have a lot of ancestors who survived before clothes washers with disinfecting cycles!)
I mention diapers in such detail only because I can’t think of any other expenses we had during babyhood. We are older parents, so we have a lot of friends whose children are a few years on from ours, who handed down a whole lot of clothes. Also, on both sides of the family, for a lot of years there was doubt whether there would be any descendants at all, so we have grandparents, aunts, uncles, great-aunts, great-uncles, and some single or childless friends who were all waiting for babies to give gifts to. So we were given more clothes, toys, baby furniture, baby carriers, strollers, breast pumps, etc., than we could store in our house, much less use. Sure, not all of it was in perfect condition, but most of it you couldn’t tell from new, and considering that babies cause lots of stains, it’s not like it was going to look new after first use anyway.
Food—well, breastfeeding is really convenient and really cheap. Probably there was a little more cost for my own food while I was breastfeeding, but I didn’t notice it, and I did notice the pregnancy fat disappearing quicker that way.
The Transportation Costs of a Family
Unless you both have motorcycles, the only additional cost for a first child will be a car seat. (Unless you have one of those two-seater sports cars, in which case you probably aren't all that strapped for money.) For a first child, someone will likely give you a car seat, or a gift card that will cover it. Most likely, your first child will be out of that car seat by the time your second is born, so you might have to keep buying new booster seats for a while (if you believe the manufacturers that you should never use anyone's hand-me-down because it might have been in a crash and they didn't tell you).
Read More From Toughnickel
The annoying thing is, the average car that can hold 5 (somewhat squashed) adults will probably not hold 2 adults and 3 children who are in child seats. I am waiting for someone to invent interlocking baby and booster seats for really small cars, but meanwhile, we did figure out, weeks before #3 was born, that there is a really small baby seat (by Cocorro) that fit with booster seats well enough to keep us from having to buy a new car.
After some number of children, child seat laws will pretty much force you to buy another car. But it doesn't necessarily have to be a new car, and you don't necessarily all have to travel in the same car when you go. There are ways to work it out, and in my experience, the people who worry most about whether they can afford a baby have no problem affording a new car.
Paying for Childhood
I read something urging parents to be financially prepared for parenthood that said, “I am sure you would not want to see your child be the only one with beat up shoes or hand me down clothes on the first day of school.” Huh. I would be highly surprised if my first-grader knew hand-me-down clothes from new clothes. (In fact, I’m not sure adults know the difference. I get more compliments on my thrift store clothes than any others.) I would also be highly surprised if new shoes survived the walk to school before looking “beat up”. Really, all I can say is, if my children’s self-worth is seriously dependent on their first-day-of-school clothes, then I have failed as a parent.
Due to the same factors as in babyhood, up through about age 12 about the only clothes we bought for our children was underwear and a few socks (though we’ve actually gotten hand-me-down socks!) During the teenage years, our kids have been happy with jeans and t-shirt most days, and for more important occasions we found a lot of parental clothes in the basement to hand down (we had to admit we don't fit those clothes so well anymore). Some formal clothes go out of style, but many don't, or they come back in style.
One note on jeans: I am fine with shorts during the winter – not very different from pants with holes! Besides, if knees directly meet concrete enough times, the problem will tend to correct itself. There is an age range when there is no point in buying jeans, because the new ones have holes too after a couple weeks. But the kids do get past that, about the same time it is reasonable to say, "I bought you enough pants at the beginning of the year. If you need more now, you pay for them."
We do pay more for food than we used to, but the changes are so incremental I don’t notice them except by comparing this year to five years ago, and inflation has had much more effect than children. I don’t think the food costs have outweighed the tax benefits under the Bush tax cuts (though probably that will change in 2013) Update: So far we're still seeing tax benefits in 2020, though with teenagers, the extra food costs somewhat more than the tax benefits. (But then you can factor in the free labor: "Hey, raking the leaves is YOUR job now, buddy!")
We have a small house, and we had no room to put a baby in it until we had a baby. Then we discovered room. The next child, we also had no room for until the event actually happened. Same with the third. Now in teenagerhood they are a lot longer but somehow they still fit! I assume at some point, there is a limit to what you can squeeze in, but also, if you have enough children, some are going to start moving out before the last ones arrive. I personally had quite a bit of space growing up, but a family next door had twice our size of family in about the same house size we have now. It appeared to me to work fine.
Costs of Teenagers
We haven't gone all the way through teenagerhood yet, so feel free to discount my thoughts here the way I discount single people’s opinions about children. But still, we're coming up quickly on their legal independence, and if you ask them, they're convinced they're old enough to make their own decisions. So, we encourage certain decisions. We have found boys especially eat a lot, and, about the same age they eat the most, they get old enough to have a job. It's a great motivator to say, "Beans and rice have good protein. If you want something that tastes better, here are some ways to earn some money."
Most parents I know seem to want to keep supporting their children until they are legally adults. Fine, if you have the money, but you have to admit it is not a reasonable picture of the real world, and at some point before they enter it, children should learn how the real world works. For instance, they need to know parents are helpful, but they won't be there forever. Learning to support yourself is less terrifying when your parents are still there to fall back on if you fail in a job. We don't see why children need to be 18 to learn that lesson, but at the same time we do have a responsibility to support our children while they legally are children. Our compromise is to come up with an amount our teenagers should pay us for "rent" every month, but then to save or invest that money for their future. That teaches them to think in terms of rent but also potentially could allow them to make a down payment (or more, if it's somewhere less expensive) on a house at the age of 18. We have been somewhat flexible on starting this requirement since children are different and talents/job possibilities are different at different times. Also, some activities (volunteer work, for instance) that don't bring in money do bring in experience and contacts that can be more valuable than money.
Oh, and teenagers DO NOT NEED cars, computers, cell phones, etc., and if they think they do, there is no time like the present to define the difference between “need” and “want”. One of our sons is part of a rescue organization where all the other teenagers have smartphones. He has the stupidest phone we could find for him. It turns out to have some advantages besides being cheaper (less breakable and it actually gets a signal places our own cell phone doesn't). Still, he told us he desperately needs a smartphone to be able to communicate with the other members. We checked with the leader of the organization, and, being our generation, he laughed and told us they were rescuing for decades before the Internet. The teenagers, he said, need to learn there are ways to do without technology—you never know when you'll be without it in an emergency!
Costs of College
Unless it is your clearly-understood family tradition, written or unwritten, you do not owe your children a college education. It is a nice start in a career, but since children don’t tend to realize how nice a start it is, it is easy for them to waste the gift out of ignorance.
If we support our children’s college education, it’s only going to be if they see the use of the gift, and have the understanding of how to make the best use of it. Actually, we’re not likely to have the money to do so anyway, which does not worry us because (despite having some pretty good college education between us) we’re not convinced colleges today are worth the price. Online education, work experience, and the library seem like something an enterprising young person could do a lot with for very little money. As for the “social experience” of college – uh – you mean the things that happen Friday nights? Anyone who is concerned about their kid missing out on that experience should certainly send their kids to college; nothing in the real world can match the irresponsibility of that experience.
Meanwhile, we have found there are ways to get a college education partly by CLEP test and partly online and almost no in-person time at all. It's much cheaper than "normal" college and many if not most teenagers are capable of doing it before the age of 18. It's not an impressive degree, but it'll check the box on a job application in order to get a real person to actually read the resume and see how much they've actually accomplished. We have not finished the process yet, but it is not hard to find others who have. Search for "dual credit at home" and you'll come up with one of our favorite organizations that recommends the option, along with other websites with thoughts about the subject.
Another thought, from some friends of ours who also do not have money or inclination to send their children to college but definitely want them educated: instead of college, they are paying for a tiny home on wheels for each child. Along with the experience of designing and building the tiny home, this gives each child years of free(ish - you still have to park it somewhere) rent instead of paying tens of thousands for years for a place to live during young adulthood.
Costs of Raising a Parent
When considering costs, you also have to count in benefits! I have read that the eventual economic value of children to society is somewhere around the quarter-million dollars they—supposedly—cost. Whether any of these calculations are to be believed is up to you, but it's something to make sure you include in your own calculations.
This article is about economics, so I am not discussing whether children are fun (though we think so.) But for those seriously concerned about the cost of parenthood, let me add one more thing to the equation. If you have a child, in a few decades, that child will probably be the one calculating costs – about your nursing home. That should be a sobering thought, possibly one which would tend to raise the amount which you would be willing to spend on a child.
Perhaps an even more sobering thought is, if you don’t have a child, whose child will someday calculate the costs of supporting you?
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2012 aethelthryth
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on April 15, 2015:
Jeannie, "carried away" would definitely be the way to express it. There is no shortage of advertisers helping to separate parents from their money, but you haven't seen anything till you see what grandparents are told. As in, "You think you know children just because you raised some, but you have no IDEA how TODAY'S children will SUFFER without MY OVERPRICED WHATSIT!"
I think I have known only one person who paid their own way through college, and he was one of maybe 5 I've known for whom I see college as having been a solid benefit.
Jeannie Marie from Baltimore, MD on April 15, 2015:
I've often wondered if it is really that expensive to have kids or if people are just getting carried away when I read those articles. After all, my friend insists her son needs to go to private school and needs lessons for the guitar, hockey, and martial arts. I don't think so. He is quite young, too. Plus, it is nice if parents pay for their kids to go to college, but it is not required. I paid my own way through college and appreciated it ever so much more than my other classmates. :-) Great hub and voted up.
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on May 12, 2014:
Debby Bruck - yeah, well, we would actually like to send all our kids to astronaut camp. But we probably won't send any of them. And they'll probably be fine; Werner von Braun didn't go to astronaut camp.
I think not having much money actually makes raising kids easier. Kids, and advertisers, can talk you (well, me, anyway) into lots of things if the best argument against it is "well, I think we shouldn't be going in so many different directions right now." But when you say "we don't have enough money for that - did you want to finance it?" everybody shuts up!
Debby Bruck on May 10, 2014:
I suppose if your children don't attend summer camp, go to lessons (instrument, dance - those costumes cost a fortune, arts), attend clubs and after-school events, even the school teachers ask for funds to support their basic needs, going to the movies and special outings, your kids are super healthy and don't see the physician or have special needs, don't want anything new, and they don't eat much you can keep them under budget. What if your kids wants to go to astronaut camp or belong to band or orchestra? And, we don't just buy a crayon box anymore, but give all the kids computers, etc. I think you are awesomely frugal and make it work. It probably did cost us a few million dollars to raise our children with all the opportunities and sending them all to college. Blessings, Debby
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on May 10, 2014:
phdast7, thank you! I wrote this because of being frustrated by people (mostly younger) around me not knowing they don't actually have to do everything parenting magazines tell them to.
Audrey Howitt, I'm sure there are many people who are extremely critical of this Hub. What you are is the one up-front enough to actually say something! I am not against college, just against paying for college without doing the critical thinking necessary to decide if college is a good deal in one's particular situation. Also, if college is the first place where critical thinking and analysis are taught, then the educational system has wasted a lot of years. I agree that college can be a great benefit to children, but in my experience the ones who got the biggest benefit are actually the ones whose parents did not pay for some or all of it. Those friends of mine worked hard for the education they got and appreciated it, while other friends who knew their education was being paid for, spent (or, in my opinion, wasted) four of their adult years being indecisive about what direction they should take in life. Meanwhile, some of the people I most respect in my life, including a space and aviation engineer, never got a college degree.
Audrey Howitt from California on May 10, 2014:
Well, I may be the only person here who has mixed feelings about your hub--and only because I really feel that college is important. Critical thinking and analysis is so very important. It leads to independent thought and problem solving skills. And critical thinking skills are taught in college. While a parent may choose to not support this endeavor for his or her child, a child really can benefit from the experience. And it is extremely difficult to do on your own.
While a parent may not owe a child a college education, it sure helps a child to get a college education.
Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on May 10, 2014:
As you know, I loved this the first time I read it, and I decided to read it again today. As someone else commented this hub is rock solid and full of wit and wisdom. How did our society ever get so silly about what things are necessary and what they should cost? Wonderful, wonderful hub. It should be required reading for all engaged and soon to be married couples. Blessings! Theresa
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on February 12, 2014:
Case1Worker, thanks for the comment! Don't we all wish we all had as much money as we were "supposed" to have to afford a child!
CASE1WORKER from UNITED KINGDOM on February 08, 2014:
You are so right, we read all these surveys stating how much it is to raise a child- one said £250,000- well I have had 3 children over 24 years which means £750,000 - we have nowhere near earned that much money!
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on February 07, 2014:
Lego hockey - hmm - should I mention it to our kids? If I do, I'm sure there will be a tournament in our living room within 15 minutes!
Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on February 06, 2014:
our sons (in their 40s) played road hockey for most of their childhoods & youth although we lived in the 'organized hockey' centre of the world. It suited them fine. They also played hockey with lego, etc. I don't think there was a lack of hockey because we didn't shell out tons of cash for equipment and tournaments (in far-flung places). I like your take on your own music lessons! I was all gung-ho to pay for piano lessons for my granddaughters when their inner city school offered free lessons... it gives them an opportunity to see if they actually enjoy piano lessons, in which case I am happy (as the Grandmother-- more stepping in to reduce that cost to parents, eh?) to pay for lessons. Keep up the good work!
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on February 05, 2014:
Thank you so much, prairieprincess and techygran! And good point about the sports and music. We have a lot of music in our family history, so I would like our children to have lessons, but then, I have realized I did not appreciate music lessons as a child. After I was an adult, though, and got a Christmas present of singing lessons, I continued the singing lessons (with my own money) for years.
As far as sports, I keep reading memoirs of older people lamenting the lack of "pick-up" games in neighborhoods anymore. And my father became a basketball star in high school though all he had to practice with was "balls" of worn-out clothes. We'll see - there may be pick-up games in our neighborhood in the next few years, as we seem to live on a street of energetic boys!
Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on February 05, 2014:
I enjoyed this hub very much! I agree with Prairie Princess that you did a masterful job of disproving the shocking figures usually attached to "the cost of raising a child to adulthood". Another way to save a little is by not getting your children in high-cost sports and music programs... there are so many much less expensive alternatives these days! All the best-- I think you have your heads screwed on right as parents!