So you’ve just brought a new baby home from the hospital, and in addition to a serious case of sleep deprivation, you’re also suffering from some high-grade sticker shock. You’ve bought a crib, a changing table, a swing, blankets, diapers, a car seat, childproofing equipment, and you’re maybe even staring at a nice little bill from the hospital to boot.
And just as you’re starting to think about how much money you’re spending on water and laundry detergent to clean all of baby’s dirty clothes, you come across an article talking about the soaring costs of college tuition, and you start worrying that you’ve already fallen behind on saving, dooming your brand-new infant to a life of debt slavery. Welcome to the brave new financial world of raising children.
It’s no secret that kids cost a lot of money to raise, and that increasingly, the choice to have children (and when to have them) is becoming as much a question of financial wherewithal as anything else. More and more millennials are delaying their decisions to start families, and many of them cite debt and financial strains as reasons for their delay (of course, advances in medical technology have also made it more biologically feasible to delay than in the past, but that’s a conversation for another day).
Estimates of exactly how much it costs to raise a child vary wildly, but one oft-cited statistic (and one that we’ve in fact cited here on our website) comes from the USDA and pegs the price tag for raising one child from birth to age 18 at a robust $245,340 (in current dollars).
Of course, I’ve long argued that the USDA’s figure is artificially high, and that it unnecessarily scares a majority of parents who simply don’t believe the numbers that they’re hearing. Indeed, a full 30% of the USDA’s figure is comprised of a “housing” cost, which isn’t necessarily an incremental out-of-pocket expense for every family—not every family needs to automatically move into a bigger house just in order to accommodate each new child, and even if they did, there’s a bit of fuzzy math involved in determining just how much of that new housing cost to attribute to “child-related expense”.
Nevertheless, while we can certainly quibble about the details and take up semantic arguments about what should and shouldn’t qualify as a “cost”, the fact remains that kids do cost money to raise. From food to clothing to medical care to school supplies and the entire line of Frozen merchandise, even the most minimal of estimates concede that few parents can realistically escape with any less than $8,000 to $10,000 of basic living expenses for each year of raising a child. And remember, that’s a per child annual expense, and we haven’t even begun to talk about college tuition dynamics yet.
Furthermore, these estimates (whether the USDA’s or somebody else’s) don’t take into account the intangible, hard-to-measure costs of raising a family. Just because a dollar doesn’t directly leave our pocket doesn’t mean that we haven’t incurred a cost—indeed, as parents, we’re confronted daily with the sorts of difficult trade-offs that impact our future earnings potential and lifestyle choices. We put untold time and effort into raising our children, and we often turn down potentially lucrative career paths in order to be more present for our children (or to live in more “family-friendly” towns and cities, perhaps).
How do we (or should we) measure the opportunity cost of career paths not explored, of potential retirement savings not captured, of investments not made? Once we’ve started down the path of considering “life with children” versus “life without children”, where does that path ever stop?
And, oh yeah, what happens when our kids start to show promise in a particular field, like my colleague Jason in soccer? Do we choose to make the investment of time and money, or not? And how should we account for that type of decision in our family-finance equation? For my parents, they certainly made a conscious decision to steer me away from hockey, and toward more parent-friendly (and wallet-friendly) sports like baseball. Of course, the joke was ultimately on them, since I ended up taking up golf in my teenage years.
To some, particularly in older generations (or in other cultures), it might seem crass to even begin speaking of children in these sorts of financial terms. There’s something presumed sacred about the parent-child bond, and we’re often simply not expected to complain about, worry about, or even really consider the financial burden of raising a family. Nevertheless, whether we like to talk about it or not, these financial decisions are necessary, central, and pretty much constant in the life of a parent.
A recent Freakonomics podcast, entitled “Should Kids Pay Back Their Parents for Raising Them?” did an excellent job of investigating some of the frequently unexplored (and possibly taboo) topics of child-rearing finance. After leading with an anecdote about former NFL player Philip Buchanon—whose mother demanded that he pay her $1 million from his rookie NFL contract as payback for her work in raising him—host Stephen Dubner launched into a broader conversation about the way that family economics have changed as our economy has shifted from a primarily agrarian one toward our current service-based economy.
Once upon a time (and still today in certain societies), children were a net positive for family finances, and even considered an integral part of running and managing a family business. For families in need of an extra set of hands—around the farm, for example—the costs of raising a kid for the first few years of life are easily and quickly repaid via low-cost (or free) labor during the children’s later years.
In that case, then, it should hardly be surprising to learn that birth rates remain highest in those societies which are least developed, and therefore most agrarian. The more developed the economy, the lower the birth rate, all else equal. Of course, here in America, with fewer and fewer families running their own small businesses (or their own subsistence farms), the dynamic of a child directly contributing to the family’s bottom line is becoming rarer by the day.
And yet, in some ways, that dynamic still persists, even if it’s less overt (or comes at a later point in life). For anyone who has ever had to care for an ailing parent, or even cohabitated with them as they’ve aged and lost the ability to live on their own, you’ll know that there are many ways and circumstances in which the parent-child dependency formula can shift over time. Even if we’re not literally performing labor in a family business, there’s certainly an age and time at which there’s an expectation that we’ll chip back in to serve the greater good of the extended family.
Therefore, when considering the financial impact of having children, it’s important not to focus only on the expense side—after all, kids aren’t a consumer good, to be purchased and then disposed of. In many ways, it’s more appropriate to think of them as a major investment. Yes, there is a fairly major cash outlay required in the early years, but there are numerous returns that we enjoy as parents as a result of our generosity. Whether those returns are purely financial or measurable in any sort of economic terms is largely a matter of personal choice, specific family dynamics, and who our kids turn out to be.
As the costs of long-term care continue to rise, the importance of having a close-knit multigenerational family may continue to increase in importance. For aging individuals who never chose to have children, moving back in with their kids simply won’t be an option, and they may have no choice but to pay up for expensive professional care. If and when that day comes, they may wish they’d made that “investment” in having a large family who could take care of them in their elder years.
So, crass as it may be, as a financial planner, I like to frame the decision of whether or not to have children as a specific type of risky investment. The investment in having children certainly requires a large cash outlay of one sort or another, and the investment comes with absolutely no guarantee of any future returns. Therefore, from a financial standpoint, you should only choose to have a child if you feel 100% comfortable that you can afford to make that cash outlay with no future return whatsoever. If some day in the future your investment turns out to be a home run, then that’s all the better. But please, don’t think of children as a pure expense—it just couldn’t be any further from the truth.