10 smart ways to save on raising your kids

10 smart ways to save on raising your kidsThere's a new price tag on parenthood and it ain't cheap -- but of course, that comes as no surprise to America's moms and dads. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the cost of raising a child has skyrocketed 22% since 1960, and now rings up at a whopping $11,650 to $13,530 per year for middle income parents (earning $56,670 to $98,120) and between $19,380 and $23,180 for families taking home more than $98,120 annually.

But wait, there's more: New parents have something else to keep them up at night. Children born in 2009 carry an even higher price tag and are estimated to cost a middle class family $286,050 by the time the tot is old enough to vote. Families in a higher tax bracket will pay closer to $475,680.

Now, for the bad news. The USDA did not include the cost of a college education, life insurance for hard working parents, and other child-related expenses like snacks for an entire soccer team, Nintendo DS, American Girl dolls and replacing appliances because someone thought it would be cool to see what would happen if you stuck an action figure in there...

The thing is, kids come with a no returns, no exchanges, all sales final sort of policy that doesn't include loopholes for the rising cost of child rearing. You can't give 'em back -- not that you'd really want to. They are worth every penny and more; it would just be nice to have a few left over. Following are a few tips for raising kids on budget that will help do just that.

Library cards are free
According to the U.S. Department of Education, reading to young children promotes language development and reading skills and is linked to a student's overall success in school. It's a lifetime advantage for a child that is absolutely free with a library card. As kids get older, the variety of books, magazines and newspapers available at libraries is equally important. Many libraries also offer free computer time, and rent DVDs and movies at bargain rates. Go to Publiclibraries.com to find a local library.

Baby sitting co-op
Not everyone lives next door to Grandma. For those of us who don't have relatives to allow a reprieve from the kids, consider swapping hours with a parent in the same position. You have their kids over for a few hours, and they return the favor. Make sure everyone knows the rules of the agreement so there are no hard feelings -- and whatever you do, don't be late for pick up. "The best thing about the co-op, besides not having to pay, is that our kids know each other and play together," said mother of two Marie desJardins on BabyCenter.com. "So in some ways, it's actually better than having a babysitter come over because it's a treat for the kids to get to visit a friend's house. Plus, we know that these are experienced parents, and over time, the parents have become close friends, too." For ideas on how to get started, go to BabyCenter.com or check out Smart Mom's Baby Sitting Co op Handbook and start-up kit at Babysittingcoop.com.

"Kids Eat Free" meal deals
Feeding the family Top Ramen at home every night might save money, but it won't do much for your sanity -- or sodium intake. When it's time to take a breather, check out MyKidsEatFree.com for a listing of 5,545 restaurants nationwide that offer one or two nights a week where kids can order and eat for free! Coupondivas.com also offers kids-eat-free listings as well as coupons for discounts on pizza. Other savings strategies might include encouraging small eaters to share an order and sticking with water instead of soda. Sometimes when you can't take the heat, you really should get out of the kitchen.

Style swap
Savvy parents are catching on to the fact that swapping gently-used clothing makes sense. How often was that holiday blazer, ski pant or darling toddler sweater worn? Has Skippy outgrown the wet suit? Some things should be permanently retired (think: stained, ripped, threadbare), but many things are perfectly suited for swapping. WalletPop journalist, Diane Wedner said, "When my daughters were teens, they organized clothing swaps in which their friends brought over clothing items they were tired of. All the girls laid their contribution out on the floor, each girl chose from the skirts, tops, pants, belts, tanks, shorts, you name it -- and each felt she'd gotten something new. The leftover clothes were donated to charity. Win-win!" If you don't have a local group to trade with, check out online clothes swapping site, Thredup.com.

Birthday parties on a budget
Keep the happy in birthday and the budget on track with planning and creativity. Skip the super-sized bash at the over priced pizza fun zone and opt for a manageable guest list (experts suggest one guest for every year of the child's age, i.e. turning five equal five friends), an inexpensive location (think park), pitching a tent in the backyard, and choosing activities that spend time, not money: three-legged races, scavenger hunt, freeze tag, Simon says, or making play dough. Parents.com and FamilyFun.com have great, inexpensive ideas online. For older kids, find an interesting free tour in your community: Organize a visit to a fire station, bakery, farm or radio station. A cake can be as simple as letting the kids frost their own cupcakes or creating a Hostess treat "pyramid" -- or maybe one made out of donuts. There are also great online resources for darling do-it-yourself cake resources that require more dash than cash. Cake and ice cream parties planned after lunchtime also keep costs down. Momlogic.com reported that Suri Cruise's 2nd birthday extravaganza cost $100,000 -- you don't have to make the same mistake.

Dive in to a car pool
Dividing the drive time can cut fuel costs and lower auto emissions (another green step forward). Finding trusted friends and neighbors who will be going to the same places is a great way to get to know your community and stretch that tank of gas. Just make sure everyone knows the schedule, the contact numbers, and drop off and pick up times, and obeys the rules of the road.

Pay less at the movies
If you don't need to see the film on opening day, a little patience can pay off. Starplex Discount Theaters operates 24 theaters and 222 screens nationwide with movie tickets priced at $3, and babies ages 1 and under are free. For the price of one ticket to an IMAX 3-D film, the entire family can see the show without sneaking in through the exit door. Costco also sells discounted movie tickets to premium theaters, and AAA offers discounts as well. One of the coolest deals in town: Regal theaters' Free Family Film Festival where select G and PG films are screened for free on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings in the summer. Go to Regmovies.com for details. Popcorn sold separately.

Travel smart
Traveling with kids might not be cheap, but the experiences and change of pace make it worth it -- as long as the budget is kept under control. Look for kids-eat-free deals like the one offered by Holiday Inn (all meals free!), and remember to pack some microwave popcorn if there will be an in-room microwave. For accommodations, check out Hostelling International USA to look for family rooms with private bathrooms -- it's not like the college backpacking trip you might remember -- and the price is right. If you're dreaming of a cruise, your ship may have come in. Many cruise lines are offering free or greatly reduced rates for kids. Check out Norwegian Cruise Line and other top lines for the best fares -- even Disney offers free cruising for kids in the off season. Bon voyage!

Start a gift stash
It's amazing how many birthday parties a child can get invited to over the course of a year, and although no one expects lavish gifts, the cost of a budding social butterfly adds up quickly. Avoid over-paying for costly gifts at the last minute by stocking up on great age-appropriate toys on the clearance racks and shopping after-holiday sales. Make sure the kids don't have access to the stash, and once in a while you might put an early birthday or holiday find on the shelf for them, too. Score! Buyer beware, however, of over-doing it! Don't stock up on more than you will realistically need -- hold out for the best gifts at the cheapest prices.

Doing Diapers
The Real Diaper Association calculates that buying 6,000 disposable diapers (averaging .25 cents per diaper) for one child over a two-year period comes to a whopping $1,500. Some experts put the figure closer to $3,000 per child over a three-year period. In a previous WalletPop post Smartipants: Earth-friendly diapers for baby's booty on a budget,the case for switching to cloth, or using the new Smartipant adjustable style diaper is a strong one. In fact, one consumer put the new "pocket style" microfiber diapers to the test and came up smiling, "I was really impressed with the design," said initially skeptical consumer Audrey Smith. "If I had known about them earlier, I would have bought 20 of them." Priced at $39.95 for a pack of three, the durable, reusable Smartipant alternative could end up saving parents thousands of dollars. Just the thing for new parents with sticker shock.

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