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Lisa Miller

June 19, 2010

Best things about having kids come with no price tags

A new government report estimates the cost of raising a kid at $222,360 — and that doesn't even include college.

So, theoretically, that means that, had my husband and I chosen not to have kids, we'd be looking forward to collecting a cool half-million rather than wondering if we'll have to remortgage our house as soon as it's paid to send our two girls to college.

Only, does it ever work that way? I can't begin to imagine how much free time we'd have on our hands with no kids in the picture, and I'm sure we'd find lots of expensive ways to fill it.

I have to wonder about the value of these reports, which have been provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion since 1960. Does anybody actually analyze the full cost of having kids before taking the plunge? Or is it, like the rest of the job, something you just have to take on faith that you'll be prepared to handle?

As with other aspects of parenting, it's easiest to plan for the immediate needs: diapers and formula; strollers and cribs; a ridiculously large wardrobe of adorable outfits that your little darling will either a.) promptly spit up on or b.) outgrow without ever wearing.

You might also budget for the obvious big-ticket items, such as child care, orthodontics and college. But there are also many incidental expenses that you don't think about until you get there: birthday party gifts and lunch money; haircuts and trips to the dentist; musical instrument rental fees and piano lessons; YMCA memberships, swimming lessons, soccer league fees and summer camps.

And then there are the shoes. Shoes, shoes and more shoes, for every season and occasion. Is it just me, or do children's feet grow at a disproportionate rate from the rest of their bodies?

Food is another tricky item.

It's easy to assume that the cost of

feeding an extra little mouth will be magically absorbed into your grocery budget — until one day, when you realize that your 13-year-old is singlehandedly downing a loaf of bread and two gallons of milk every week.

Apparently, it all adds up. For husband-wife families with one child, the USDA estimates 27 percent of the family budget is spent on the child; for two children, 41 percent; and for three children, 48 percent. According to the USDA's calculations, which take inflation into account, this means that a middle-income household will spend $286,050 (or $222,360 in 2009 dollars) over the next 17 years for a child born in 2009.

It would stand to reason that child-rearing costs have gone up faster than inflation because our changing lifestyle over the past 50 years — and they have, but not in all the ways you might think.

I figured the biggest increase would be in discretionary expenses, because, other than attending public school, kids don't do much for free anymore.

Most spend a good portion of their after-school and evening hours being shuttled to and from activities that cost money.

In their spare time, they're watching cable TV in their rooms, or buying songs

for their MP3 players, or using cell phones or the Internet to socialize with their friends.

According to the USDA, in 1960, the typical middle-income family spent $25,229 (or $182,857 in 2009 dollars) to raise a child from birth to age 17.

Housing was the biggest expense in both 1960 and 2009, but the percentage of the family budget spent on both food, clothing and miscellaneous items has actually decreased, probably because of globalization and our increased dependence on processed food and goods produced overseas.

I was also surprised to learn that transportation expenses declined slightly, even with our high gas prices and on-the-go lifestyle.

The biggest increases were for child care/education (not surprising, since most kids were cared for primarily by stay-at-home moms in 1960) and health care expenses, which doubled as a percentage of total child-rearing costs from 1960 to 2009.

This Father's Day, will any dads be thinking about how much their kids cost? I doubt it.

The irony of all this is that the biggest rewards of parenting don't cost a dime.

The dads I know are in it for hugs and kisses, laughter, pride and the fun of

spending quality time with someone they love.

They may never be millionaires, but I think most will agree they're getting a pretty good return on their investment.

Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at

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