how kids (can) make you poor

Raising a child can cost up to $250,000 – and that’s from a study done almost 20 years ago. That’s only the cost through high school – college is another problem entirely, unless you don’t plan on paying for your child’s education (and I don’t). Having a kid is expensive. Having a second is less expensive – hand-me-downs and shared costs can reduce the individual costs – but a larger family is going to cost a fortune. The simple fact is that you won’t become AS rich with kids.

I’ve seen the question of children play out a dozen different ways with friends and in my own life. My parents had kids (my brother and me) when they were barely out of their teenage years. I have friends who waited until they were almost 40 to have kids. One couple fervently and frequently insisted they would never have kids – and show no signs of changing their minds. In each case, the decision to have a child (or children) was deeply personal, and made for a number of reasons – but seldom considering the cost. The simple fact is that you’ll be better off financially without kids. Kids are expensive.

It’s a potentially sensitive topic … and most people don’t want to have that conversation. “Kids bring so much joy into your life!” “Kids are their own reward!” I’m biased – the cliches are all true. My son’s a supernova of energy, creative and amazingly verbal. My daughter’s charming and almost impossibly cheerful. They are joys. But to be realistic, I have to admit that because of them I will not be as wealthy as I could have been. I regret nothing, but I also understand that I’m going to have to work harder accumulating wealth than I would have without children.

So how do we plan to compensate? If you have kids, how can you avoid spending more than you need to? It’s not the nature of my blog to talk about ways to save money on Cheerios by buying the store brand – although you should. But I do have a few “big ideas”:

  1. I’m not paying for my kid’s PRIVATE college education. If Little Buddy or Pumpkin want to attend a private school, they’d better develop tennis skills or become world-class scholars. I’m not paying for Pumpkin to attend an Ivy. I’ll help, but if they can’t pay for a private college, they can go to a public university, just like Mama and Papa did. We did just fine.
  2. We will readjust our lives around their education early on, though. We moved to Florida to escape crappy public schools in Jersey, and made sure we landed in a school district considered one of the best in the state.
  3. I will strive to teach independence. This sounds stupid, but I have seen so many of my colleagues in corporate America talking about their mid-20 (or even mid-30) year old children living at home. I know I can talk big now, but I left home at 18 and my children will too. If  they can’t afford a home, I’ll tell them to move to a cheaper locale. An unmarried 35-year-old living with their parents needs to experience life.
  4. We will resist consumerism. A couple of years ago, one of my neighbors bought one of those big car-battery powered cars – with a working FM radio – for their daughters. Little Buddy loved it. I was tempted to get him one. He didn’t, and doesn’t, need it. I have fallen victim again and again to the urge to buy toys. Sometimes it makes sense: I bought him a farm set that he plays with daily.  Sometimes I fail: I have bought a half dozen balls (football, baseball, soccer) and he is utterly indifferent to all of them that don’t have Spiderman on them. But I see a sickness in most parents around me: the need to buy distractions. I struggle to remind myself that learning to pretend my wooden blocks were race cars taught me to IMAGINE things. My parents would have done me a disservice by buying me Leapfrog, or whatever the 70s equivalent was.  Learning how to live with less – at least as far as toys – is a gift, not a burden.

But none of these cost-saving ideas can compensate for the fact that a childless couple (or a single person) will simply be much better off than a couple with kids. I won’t recommend one choice or the other, because it’s such a personal choice. But don’t let anyone tell you otherwise: in the short term, having kids is no big deal. You can afford formula, diapers, baby clothes. But in the long run, having kids will change your career choices, affect your ability to save and limit your choices about almost everything. Make sure you’re comfortable with the long-term cost before you take the leap.