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On Parenting
Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 06/14/2011

In the cost of raising a child, what becomes essential?

Get out your checkbook. If you had a child in 2010, it will cost you and your average family close to a quarter of a million dollars to raise him or her to age 18, according to a new report released last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Annually that works out to about $12,000 to $14,000 per child that the average, middle-income two-child, two-parent household spends to shelter, cloth, feed and care for a child.
(Bigstock)

I usually count myself among the bury-head-in-sand club on calculations like this, preferring to juggle our monthly expenses and avert my eyes from the longer-term consequences of breeding.

Government officials crunch these numbers for their own reasons. In this case, The Expenditures on Childcare by Families informs child support guidelines and foster-care payments. But to a layman parent to quantify the cost of child rearing in this matter is like calculating the long-term cost of reading.

To know that reading x number of books, magazines, newspapers, blogs or milk cartons will cost me x in a lifetime (calculating the bookstore bills, library commuting costs, optometry fees, etc.) will not prevent me from reading. It also does not capture in the least the infinite value of reading.

Even for the less romantic, this report does not calculate the true cost of child-rearing because it can’t. How to evaluate the loss of salary or missed career opportunities for both parents? Surely those are some of the most expensive line items.

That said, some of the details of this report are illuminating. For instance, it makes clear that it costs more to raise kids when you make more.

The lifetime child-rearing expenditure rises to $377,040 if the family makes about $100,000 a year or more.

“The amount spent on a child by families in the highest income group, on average, was more than twice the amount spent by families in the lowest income group,” the report concludes.

“Depending on age of the child, annual expenses ranged from $8,480 to $9,630 for families with a before-tax income less than $57,600, from $11,880 to $13,830 for families with a before-tax income between $57,600 and $99,730, and from $19,770 to $23,690 for families with a before-tax income more than $99,730.”

The variation wasn’t so much in the basics, like food and clothing, but in the miscellaneous, everything from haircuts to toothbrushes to DVD players and computers. And, in the costs of childcare and education.

Only about a third of lower-income families spent money on this line item. More than half in the higher income level did.

Much of that differential is due to the infrastructure of higher-earning families. Two-incomes or a highly demanding job require more professional childcare. I was just talking with a local father who owns several restaurants and whose wife has an equally demanding career. ”There’s a joke in our house that we have three professional parents and two amateur ones,” he said, referring to their au pair, nanny and weekend babysitter.

Some of the difference is also private school tuition, a consideration only when it’s a viable option.

What are the other dynamics at play here? Is it American Girl Dolls, Ugg boots and I-phones? Soccer and math camp? Is it memorable family vacations?

Or is it more necessary expenses that have to be ignored or compromised in lower-income families? Healthcare costs, tutors for a struggling student? Something else altogether?

Every family will have a different answer for each child, each year. What the USDA doesn’t tell us is which discretionary items are worth it.

Are there certain expenses you’re glad you sacrificed to buy because it enriched your child’s life? Are there certain expenses you wish you could afford for the same reason?

By  |  07:00 AM ET, 06/14/2011

 
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