I was talking to a friend recently and she was more than a little annoyed at the gifts that had been suggested for a baby shower she was going to attend.
"Look at this," she said, handing me the gift registry list. "Most of this stuff costs more than $100. Please! They need to register for diapers, baby wipes or onesies [you know, the little T-shirts with snaps]. That's what new babies really need."
I nodded in agreement during her entire tirade. I've been invited to many baby showers and, as has become the custom, I am often directed to a particular store at which I am asked to buy something from a list of gifts selected by the mother-to-be.
But rarely have I ever bought anything from the list, which far too often includes expensive baby monitors, diaper bags, strollers and other overpriced or unnecessary baby items people probably wouldn't (or shouldn't) buy with their own money.
Take it from me -- after three children, babies don't need half the stuff you think they need.
You don't need a special hooded towel to dry your baby after his or her bath -- just use the towels you've got. Forget about some fancy bottle warmer. Just run hot water over the bottle.
I feel for new parents, many of whom don't always consider the costs of having a baby. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a family earning less than $40,700 a year spent an estimated $6,820 per year, in 2003 dollars, caring for a child from birth up to age 2, including food, clothing, child care and miscellaneous expenses. Families with incomes from $40,700 to $68,400 spent $9,510 per year, and those earning more than $68,400 spent $14,000 for the same period.
The fact is, parents need to spend less time in the baby store and more time attending to some important financial decisions when baby makes three or four or five.
"It's so easy when you are dealing with the day-to-day issues of raising a baby, such as losing sleep, that parents often lose sight of some critical financial issues," said Joseph Montanaro Jr., a certified financial planner with USAA who is based in San Antonio.
If you're expecting a baby, you need to create a financial foundation for your new addition. For example, Montanaro says new parents should:
* Get life insurance. There is now an extra person relying on your income. It's vital that you obtain enough life insurance to help support little Sally or Jamal if something happens to you. If you're not sure how much you need, try the life-insurance-needs calculator created by the Life and Health Insurance Foundation for Education at www.life-line.org. Ideally, you want enough coverage so your beneficiaries could invest the death benefit and live off any interest earned.
* Update important documents. Make sure you add the baby to any existing insurance policies and review and update other important papers, such as beneficiary information.
* If you can afford it, purchase disability insurance. "The numbers indicate that people are much more likely to become disabled than to die," Montanaro said. If your employer offers disability insurance coverage, get enough to replace 60 percent to 70 percent of your income, he recommends. You also need to be mindful that if your disability insurance premiums are paid entirely by your employer or with your pretax dollars, the payout, should you need it, would be taxable income. That means you could end up with a lot less money for paying monthly bills than you expected. Therefore, you may need to buy a supplemental disability insurance policy to make up the difference. When you pay for the coverage yourself with after-tax dollars, the benefit is not taxed.
* Do some estate planning. Make a will or update the one you have after the baby is born. Determine who will serve as your child's guardian if the need should arise. Depending on your situation, you may want to consider setting up a trust to ensure that your property is given to your child according to your wishes.
* Start saving for college while your child is in diapers. On average, parents think they should start saving for college before their child is 2, yet they don't actually start putting any money away until their child is almost 6, according to a national study by Fidelity Investments. Think "compound interest." Let's assume you start saving when your child is an infant. Given the cost of a public university education, an inflation rate of about 5 percent (for tuition, room and board) and a growth rate of 8 percent for any money you invest, you could fully fund your child's education for $250 a month, Montanaro estimates.
I'll just add this: The best gift for your baby is for you to plan for his or her financial future.
Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" and online at www.npr.org. Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments and questions are welcome, but please note that they may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.