Cost to raise a child can be much less than USDA estimate

Annually-released statistics such as the Agricultural Department's "cost of raising a child" report are the sort of thing that make a frugal woman shake her head. The cost of raising a child from birth to age 17, says the USDA, is $222,360 for those born in 2009; this takes into account the expenses for housing, transportation, food, clothing, health care, child care and education, and "other" (toothbrushes, iPods, and kidlit, evidently). It's a hard number to believe, especially given my possession of three hale-and-hearty boys, ages two to seven. But there was an interesting tidbit in this year's survey: as you have more than two children, your incremental costs decrease.

For me, then, I've got two expensive kiddos and one cheap one. I went to the USDA website and ran the calculator on my family. Based on my children's ages, my region (West, urban or suburban), my family's income (the least) and size (two parents), I learned that it should cost $21,782 to raise my boys this year. This number, as it turns out, is within a-number-less-than-ten thousand dollars of my family's total income in 2009 -- in other words, I can't afford to raise my children. What gives?

Well, a lot of this has to do with three of the government's assumptions, and I believe that any parent or parent-to-be would be wise to examine his expectations around these assumptions before launching into either the accumulation of children, or the obsessive worrying over how he will afford them. Let's see the world through my eyes, in which (yes) children do have a cost; it may just be far less than the government's averages, and in practice, the incrementalism can be even more of a bargain. I would, in fact, submit that both the second and the third child came at a substantial discount to the first (and his price tag wouldn't raise any eyebrows, either). The figures in the following examination reflect the cost of one child using the USDA calculator, compared to three children of my boys' ages, keeping all other variables constant.

One: Housing. $8,264 vs. $4,425. My incremental frugal estimate for all three children: $750 a year. It is said that each child's housing costs $2,761 per year -- compared to $4,765 if we had stopped at one. How can I quantify the cost of housing for my children? I do not buy a larger home, nor do I remodel to add more room, every time I have a new child. We have the smallish home, we make it work. This leads to creative solutions such as having little boys share a room, and giving up an office for each adult in order to have more room for children and parents to sleep. The only significant differences in housing cost that I can see between my family and a childless one are utilities -- more for the extra laundry and baths and having the heat on a touch higher than we would were we stoic adults only -- and a little furniture, probably $250-500 a year or so (much less in years like last year, where we made less than usual). Altogether this is about $750 above our childless state; and the difference between one, two and three is negligible. I believe it is only true for the upper-middle classes and those who would spend like them, that each child must have his own room, and families trade up for a bigger apartment or house every time a new child is born.

Two: Transportation. $2,909 vs. $1,675.
My incremental frugal estimate for all three children: $1,000 a year. The USDA calculator estimates I will spend $2,909 on transportation each year for my three children; a little over $1,000 for my oldest, and a little less for the two younger. Again, I'm confused by this number; I can see that most Americans typically find a need for a second/bigger car when they first have children, but instead of needing a still bigger one after the second child, I more often see friends buying a bigger car once a third is born. The assumption seems to be that each child requires a car upgrade, and a significantly greater amount of driving.

I feel I'm cheating a little in this category, as my family doesn't drive. Instead, I transport my three boys on a bike. (For the record, we also get groceries, go to birthday parties, and buy chicken food via bicycle.) This includes a school commute for my oldest -- and, next year, my five-year-old -- that's 3.3 miles each way. We spend a lot of money on really lovely bike equipment for the kids and parents: about $1,000 a year. My seven-year-old put nearly 50 miles on his own bike last week, so sturdy equipment is a must. But even for a frugal family who does drive, more children need not mean more cost; especially if you can make plans for your children that include activities and schools close to home (hurray for neighborhood schools!) and refrain from putting your children in special, out-of-the-way programs. There's lots of evidence that kids these days are too busy and don't have enough time for imaginative free play: lots of that is spent, instead, shuttling to and fro (and that's expensive!).

Three: Childcare and Education. $3,160 vs. $875. My incremental frugal estimate for all three children: $300. This category makes a key assumption that's not true in my family: both parents work outside the home. We've made some significant changes in our lives in the past three years to keep me home (I'm now a freelance writer, sometimes late into the night) so that we can avoid expenses at the attendant strain on our family's relationships that outsourcing childcare means. We also have agreed that private school is never a "need"; it's a classist nice-to-have that reinforces social stratification and places the accumulation of material wealth ahead of the sort of passionate learning we'd like to encourage in our kids.

Another perspective: lots of studies show that things like how many books are in your home, and how many words your children hear every day, are more important predictors of success than school quality. So, we don't have to pay those spendier costs for our younger children; we pay a very little for a community preschool, and get a teenage babysitter once in a while. We also buy a lot of books; as many as possible, from the thrift store.

Of course, this category is a bit skewed, as most families I know with two working parents pay the annual amount the USDA has estimated I pay for my younger children's care ($1,264 and $1,381) bi-monthly, not annually. And, for infants, the price would be 10 times $1,381 for quality child care. Additionally, families who choose to send their older kids to private schools would find costs going up, not down, with age.

Total: $8,284 vs. $4,425.
My incremental frugal estimate for all three children: $3,000compared to $2,500 with just one child. As with so many surveys of average spending, one's approach to a problem starts at the very center of your life. What is important to you? Is living in comparison to others important to you? Or is living in a way that resonates within yourself the goal? It's easy to fall into the "I have to" trap; I have to ... get a really modern, brand-new double jogging stroller; dress my children in trendy, high-quality, retail-priced clothing; commute to a job to afford to send my kids to the best schools; get that Costco membership so we can buy our snack food in bulk. Another path is always possible, and could very well be more relaxing, more joyful, and worth more to your children's brains.

It's also true that, unless you're very disciplined, you spend what you have. That's why my frugal estimates for the cost of my own children compared to the imaginary life where we stopped at one; if we just had the eldest, we'd spend more on him. More new clothes, more furniture just for him, more dinners out. If we doubled or tripled our income, I'm sure we'd find ourselves spending a little more on food, more on clothes, more on Legos.

In my analysis, children are only incrementally cheaper if you want them to be; the reverse is also true. You can have a houseful, and then some, of little boys and girls, and spend less than the government thinks one should cost you. Or, you can have one, and spend ten times that. The same goes for carbon footprints (I'd bet my three are a lot "lighter" than most only-kids; they help me dig worms for the chickens to eat, after all).

Base your decision on how many children to have on your own capacity for love and attention and books and words and joyful busy-ness; not on the government's survey results. But do sit down with your partner, before you stock up on the ovulation
kits, and decide if you want to raise them for wealth accumulation, or for purely selfish reasons: because you want more sparkly-eyed, loving people in your life. And please, please, buy your baby things at the thrift store.
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