We’ve all heard the nightmarish inflated statistics. A recycled version of the same old clickbait that comes out each year: “It costs $500,000 to raise a child from birth to eighteen years of age, not including college expenses!” They’ll put you in the poorhouse before they’re even walking, they all say… It’s enough to send us single mamas running for the hills!
Well, it’s not quite that terrifying, but according to the most recent report by the United States Department of Agriculture (latest released January 2017), it costs a middle class family in the United States an average of $233,610 to raise a child who was born in 2015 to the age of seventeen. Not including college expenses. And for us single mama hustlers who earn less than $59,200 per year, which is true for 83% of single-parent households, we can expect to pay $172,200 on average. This comes out to an average yearly expense of $10,129 per child, comparable to families headed by married couples in the same lower income bracket.
The Purpose of the Report
Did you know that the USDA has been tracking the cost of raising a child since 1960? The Expenditures on Children by Families report is based on data collected each year by the Census Bureau and is used in a number of ways to assist and educate American families. State governments and courts also use the report to determine child support guidelines and foster care compensation, and financial planners use it to provide advice to their clients. You can even use the Cost of Raising a Child Calculator on the USDA website, which is based on estimates and results pulled from the report.
But before you do that, I’ve broken down the seven cost categories outlined in the report and listed them in descending order based on expense percentages. What follows are are the numbers, along with my thoughts, personal experiences, and final conclusion. You may also skip ahead to the conclusion to find the main discrepancies I’ve found between this report and real life.
Numbers based on statistical average for lower income bracket, single-parent households. Annual child-related expense total: $10,129:
1) Housing – 33% at $3,342.57 annually
Housing expenses in this report consist of shelter (mortgage expenses or rent, property taxes, insurance), utilities, house furnishings and equipment. The figure is based on the cost of one additional bedroom per child, rather than the total cost of housing, since it’s presumed that the presence of a child doesn’t effect the number of kitchens or livingrooms but does affect the number of bedrooms. It is assumed that families increase their housing expenditures as they move into larger homes to accomodate the children.
This figure assumes that I am paying an additional $278.55 per month for a home with a separate bedroom for my daughter. In actuality and as mentioned in a previous article, I am paying $250 per month less than before I had my child, after moving from a studio apartment to a one-bedroom in a much more affordable city. So housing for me would be 0% of my annual child-related expenses. A lot of us live in big cities, like Los Angeles or San Francisco, and then move to much more affordable areas once we have our first child. So housing is often considerably less expensive even though we are moving from a studio to a one-bedroom, a one-bedroom to a two-bedroom, or buying a home rather than renting.
The report also makes the conclusion that parents, even in low income families, add a separate bedroom for each child that they have. Do children not share bedrooms with each other anymore? I have very fond memories of sharing a room with my sister when we were growing up (even though she just remembers me emptying my diaper in the corner of the room!) Fast forward thirty-five years and I’m currently sharing a bedroom with my daughter. It’s cozy, but it works for us. I have the room divided so we each have our own space and as she gets older, I may just move into the living room and make it work with a little ingenuity and creative design.
2) Food – 20% at $2,025.80
According to this figure, I am spending $169 per month to feed my child. With a teenager, I could see myself spending even more than this (and I will get into report variations, such as child’s age, further down in this article). With a toddler, I estimate my monthly food costs for her to hover around $80. The cheapest way to eat is to avoid processed foods in the supermarket and keep it simple. Potatoes, eggs, beans, oatmeal, frozen veggies and chicken… There are so many inexpensive yet extremely healthy foods to form the base of our children’s diets. There is also a host of information on the internet to help cut food costs for families. Here are some fantastic tips and tricks from NoExcuseMom.com.
3) Transportation – 14% at $1418.06
Transportation is a strange category to me, since I fail to see how I’m spending an additional $118.17 on car costs each month since I’ve had my daughter. I would be driving close to the same amount if I didn’t have her. I go to most of the same types of places that pre-child Chrissy regularly frequented, except for the bars. I drive to work each day just as I would if I were child-free. I make a slight detour to drop her off at daycare, but I suspect the cost of gas for daycare is offset by the road trips I’m no longer able to partake in. Being a mother has made me more of a homebody to a certain degree and on the weekends, I go about my errands with her in tow.
But again, she’s a toddler and I suspect this is another area where costs will rise quite a bit as she ages. When she’s in elementary school, I’m sure I will have to drive her to and from the activities that she participates in. And when she’s in high school, there will come a point where mama will contribute towards her first car purchase, a proud yet very expensive moment. I better start saving for that. But for now, I will enjoy the fact that transportation is approximately 0% of my annual child-related expenses.
4) Childcare/Education – 12% ($5,166 annual daycare cost from 1-4)
Interestingly, only 30% of single-parent, lower income families had this expense in the report. This could account for the fact that a lot of grandparents and extended family members provide childcare for free to working moms, along with early childhood education programs such as Head Start.
For those of us who use daycare, childcare costs can be the largest expense by quite a bit. I am paying almost as much for my daughter’s daycare as I am for housing and I was very lucky to find an inexpensive facility compared to most in my area. According to the USDA report, I should only be paying about $430 per month for childcare. I only wish! …The silver lining here is that daycare expenses decrease as a child ages. They charge more for infants than for toddlers due to ratio limitations. And childcare costs further decrease once a child has moved on to kindergarten and public school.
On a side note: If you currently find yourself in need of childcare, be sure to research fully licensed in-home daycares. It might seem cheaper to go with an unlicensed caretaker, but daycare is fully tax deductible at the end of the year, provided the facility is licensed.
5) Healthcare – 8-9% at $810.32-911.61
Healthcare expenses in the report include medical and dental services not covered by insurance, and health insurance premiums not paid by an employer or other program.
I have a feeling that this category is an average of figures that are all over the chart. The amount a family pays for their kids’ healthcare varies wildly and depends on a number of factors, such as whether the family qualifies for Medi-Cal or state-sponsored subsidies (ie Covered California), job benefits available, the overall health of the child, medications needed, emergency services rendered, and so on. Healthcare expenses can fluctuate so much for a family from year to year.
6) Clothing – 5-7% at $506.45-709.03
I estimate that I spend about $20 a month on clothes for my child, as part of a monthly Goodwill run. For now, this is a very inexpensive category.
As we all know, when you have a baby, you will most likely be bombarded with hand-me-downs. Other parents are far too eager to unload their dusty boxes of mostly unworn baby clothes that have been sitting in the garage with tags still on. You’ll inherit this clothing, and your own child will only only wear about 30% of it before they’re too big, and you’ll look for the next sucker to unload it all onto. Thus the cycle continues for all of time!
And as they get bigger, they continue to grow so fast that it doesn’t make much sense to buy their clothes new. Luckily there are many options for getting children’s clothes on the cheap such as garage sales, thrift stores, and clothing swaps. Plus, we have such an over abundance of clothing nowadays that it’s much more ethical and kind on the environment to shop secondhand and avoid the wasteful fast-fashion industry of poor quality crap that ends up in landfills. Here’s a good article from Unwrinkling.com that sheds light on the issue.
7) Misc Goods & Services – 6-9% at $607.74-911.61
This category consists of “personal care items (haircuts, toothbrushes, etc.), entertainment (portable media players, sports equipment, dance lessons, computer games, etc.), and reading materials (nonschool books, magazines, etc.)”
$50-$75 a month actually seems low given everything that this category encompasses, and a child’s extracurricular activities can be quite expensive. But there’s also a ton of free activities that creative moms can take advantage of. Check out this awesome list of 100 ways to have fun with your kids for free or cheap from Zenhabits.net. Youth sports in particular can be prohibitively expensive, but there are ways to cuts costs so that your child can still participate. This article in US News & World Report goes over what you can do when you can’t afford your kid’s sport.
It is worth noting that there are many variations and cost determining factors that this report accounts for. For example, estimates were made for six different age categories of children (0-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-11, 12-14, and 15-17) because as mentioned, spending differs according to the age of the child, with teenagers being significantly more expensive than younger children.
Size of household is another big factor that determines annual costs per child. With the “Cheaper by the Dozen” affect, the cost per child tends to decrease as the number of children in a family increases. There are also regional variations, with certain parts of the country being more expensive than others and rural areas costing less than cities.
And most important to note, child-rearing expenses and household income are positively correlated. In other words, the more we make, the more we spend! The report found that the amount spent on a child by families in the highest income group was more than twice the amount spent by families in the lowest income group. And in general, expenses on a child for goods and services considered to be necessities (ie food and clothing) did not vary as much as those considered to be discretionary (ie miscellaneous expenses).
Expenditures on Children by Families is a thorough report, but in my opinion feels more alarmist than necessary because it fails to point out a few very key factors in household economics.
The first is that we spend less on ourselves when we have children. The total cost of raising a child may seem daunting, but much of the expense is offset by the money we would have otherwise spent on ourselves in an “alternate universe” wherein we remained childfree. We are foregoing a lot of little luxuries that really add up in the long run, and it’s only fair that we put these items in the “costs saved” column. Especially as single moms, it’s incredible the amount of niceties we forego without even consciously realizing it.
Life is a trade-off and we have to take into account, for example, the haircut we passed on in order to get shoes for our kid. This report doesn’t effectively address the fact that other household expenses are adjusted in order to accommodate child-related needs. So we’re not necessarily spending more money by having a kid, we are just spending our money in a different way.
The second factor is that having kids can make us more ambitious. The report assumes that our income bracket would have been the same, had we not had kids. A lot of the times, our children end up motivating us and serving as our main source of inspiration to do better and strive for more. We may end up earning more income in the long run despite early monetary struggles and child related expenses. In this way, we can actually earn more money by having kids as they push us to go back to school, focus more intensely on our career, or just find a better path.