How to Afford a Large Family if You're Not the Duggars

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18 Kids
Beth Hall/APMichelle Duggar is surrounded by her children and husband Jim Bob after the birth of her 17th child in Rogers, Ark., in 2007.
Americans are fascinated by large families like the Duggars, of the TLC/Discovery reality show "19 Kids and Counting," so why don't more of us have big broods?

Sixty-five percent of Americans cite cost as the major deterrent to having larger families, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. The cost to raise a child to age 18 now stands at $246,340, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

How do average large families without reality show salaries afford it? And without massive debt? Some real families talk on the record about whether there really is "economy of size" without a reputed $3.5 million Jim Bob Duggar net worth.

Food Is the Big Challenge

The Roberts family -- Ty, Amy and eight kids aged 4 months to 17 years -- live in an outlying Tulsa, Oklahoma, suburb and make do on husband Ty's $90,000 annual salary as a non-profit executive and some additional income from her large-family living blog.

Their food budget is $1,000 a month. Although Ty hunts a little and Amy buys a side of beef once or twice a year, she says keeping the food bill down is the biggest struggle with growing kids expecting three squares a day plus snacks. Back of the envelope figuring makes that 21 meals times 10 people a week, or 210 servings, give or take. She doesn't cut coupons or go to membership stores like Costco, finding those not worth the time or fees.

In rural Duncannon, Pennsylvania, the Robinsons, Gerald, Mary and their 11 children from age 15 months to 15 years live on husband Gerald's $95,000 sometimes variable sales income. Mary also finds food ("the largest part of our monthly budget") a challenge at $700. She relies on a buying club she and 14 other parents have organized to buy directly from a local food distributor. For a minimum $1,000 order for the group, their order delivered to a central pick up spot.

The Raineys, Elaine, Scott and nine children, ages 13 to 25 years, are struggling less with two of their kids now on their own and two in college. But Elaine also saves considerably on their $800 monthly food budget thanks to the privilege of shopping at the military commissary. Husband Scott is a retired army lieutenant colonel but still works bringing in -- along with his army pension -- just above six figures. Like the Robinsons and the Roberts, the Raineys rarely eat out at restaurants.

Hand Me Downs, of Course

All three families shop garage sales and thrift shops for clothes, although Amy Roberts does have to buy business attire at department store sales for her husband. All three families buy some shoes and underwear at big box stores like Walmart or discount stores like Famous Footwear. Roberts also highly recommends thredUp as an alternative for large families.

For years, the Raineys benefited from the kindness of the military base communities with other moms donating their kids' clothes and Elaine paying it back as her own children got older.

Mary Robinson also sews and one of her favorite money saving tips is to make winter hats and mittens out of fleece jackets she finds at garage sales. She also scours thrift shops with months in advance shopping lists for out of season boots, shoes and other clothes for the family, significantly marked down.

Health and Housing

One benefit of most health insurance plans is that insuring mom, dad and one child costs the same as insuring parents with plenty more kids. The Roberts family, in fact, doesn't use Ty's employer health benefits, instead finding a Christian-based health insurance plan was "about half the cost of the company sponsored plan" and which she adds, hasn't raised its rates in eight years and is in compliance with the Affordable Care Act, also known familiarly as "Obamacare."

The Raineys qualify for military heath insurance but regularly have to budget for the unexpected, as do the Robinsons. The Robinsons qualify for what Mary calls a basic no-frills plan through her husband's employer and admits the deductions and co-pays made it tight when they had their last child.

Housing, generally the largest part of the American family budget, looms less large for the Robinsons whose mortgage on their 5,000-square-foot "farmette" now roughly equals the food budget.

The Raineys bought their house outright during the housing crash at a six figure discount and because it was a fixer-upper. They did all the renovations themselves and enjoy a 5,600 square foot home.

While the Roberts' have always rented, (now $1,400 a month for a 2,200-square-foot home) they always try to find a lower cost of living area. Without a mortgage, the Roberts also have no debt.

Entertainment, What's That?

Rarely do any of these families go to movies or restaurants, take vacations or send the kids to camp. Instead all three prefer to spend that money on inexpensive family friendly inexpensive activities like camping and hiking or extracurriculars for the kids.

The Robinsons always believed in teaching the oldest kids how to play piano or ride horses who then the teach their younger siblings. Robinson also suggested it never hurts to ask if there is a sibling discount for classes.

Elaine Rainey admitted a big splurge for her family has been musical instruments but two children now play semi-professionally. Amy Roberts, too, believes this investment in her kids' unique interests is worthwhile and pays for music lessons and photography equipment.

By the way, none of the families pays for regular chores or give allowances.

College and Beyond

That USDA figure doesn't include the cost of college. All three families home-school and Rainey with two on their own and two in college is relieved those four earned scholarships. The three mothers say their children already expect to pay for college themselves or earn scholarships. The Roberts' have saved some money for college to which they add a little every year.

While all three families have little to no debt and manage to save a little for a rainy day expenses like car repairs or medical bills they do agree things are getting more challenging, especially food. But expecting the unexpected, paring extraneous frills and planning as a family are part and parcel of making the "economy of size" work.
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