Erin Lowry

Do You Know How Much a Kid Will Cost You?

Kids are expensive. Full stop. No matter your level of frugality, it’s certainly costlier to have kids than to opt to be child-free. And yet, there’s a particular kind of societal pushback in the US when you attempt to speak bluntly about the financial concerns of having children. The prevailing retort: “Oh, you’ll figure it out.” While not entirely untrue, there’s a difference between feeling a new pinch in your monthly budget and finding yourself unable to afford what was previously considered comfortable.

It’s neither selfish nor self-indulgent to be pragmatic about the potential cost of conceiving, birthing and raising a child. It’s expensive under ideal conditions, not to mention the tens of thousands it can cost couples who are experiencing fertility struggles. It’s certainly not selfish to opt out of parenthood in part because it’s likely your overall quality of life would decline based on what would be affordable for you.

Prospective parents should absolutely be considering the financial ramifications of having children in the same way that current parents should measure the cost of having more.

To be clear, this isn’t a manifesto about eschewing children simply because of the cost. Instead, it’s an effort to normalize conversations about the full ramifications of electing to have children instead of just saying, “You’ll figure it out.” It’s hardly a reassuring refrain when the current estimate for a middle-class family to raise a child to 18 has topped $300,000, according to the Brookings Institution.

The “we’ll figure it out” style of preparation is especially worrisome amid soaring inflation and tight finances. Almost three-quarters of Americans said they would struggle to meet their financial obligations if their paychecks were delayed a week, according to the 2022 Getting Paid in America survey conducted by the American Payroll Association. Notably, hospitalizations for childbirth are likely one of the most frequent sources of surprise medical bills in the US, suggest findings published recently in JAMA Health Forum.

Besides, what does “figure it out” mean exactly? Does that mean you’ll work longer hours to compensate for the new costs? It seems odd to add a child to your life only to work long hours that prevent you from creating necessary bonds. Does “figure it out” mean quitting a career to save money on child care? Trying to find the perfect alchemy of what is practical and mentally healthy for both parents and in the best interest of a child is a tricky combination.

Shamefully, there are no safety rails when it comes to parental leave in the US. The modest level of protection that exists is through the Family Medical Leave Act, which protects a job for up to 12 weeks after delivery or adoption. It is unpaid and simply requires that your job be available for you upon your return. Without even getting into how horrifyingly paltry those terms are, the other issue is that FMLA is only required by the private sector if you’ve worked for your company for a year and your employer has more than 50 employees within a 75-mile radius.

Of course, your employer may be benevolent and provide paid maternity leave — and requirements do vary by state — but this only accounts for 23% of civilian workers, according to 2021 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A majority of the US’s expectant-parent population need to fund their own leave. A short-term disability plan, especially one provided by an employer, is another possibility for subsidizing the cost of maternity leave. But that’s assuming you’re even eligible. Certain segments of the self-employed population, like freelance writers, can find it a struggle to get disability insurance.

As a self-employed woman who is the primary breadwinner, it’s a real smack in the face to realize it’s entirely on me to fund a maternity leave. My husband’s job does offer a paid paternity leave. But assuming I gave birth, it would be physically difficult to resume business as usual shortly after the trauma of delivery. It’s also tricky to discuss how to handle child care and whether one person’s career should temporarily, or long-term, take a back seat.

In our situation, my income is higher, albeit unpredictable, but my husband’s job provides access to high-quality health care and a pension. Neither of us really has the luxury of stepping back without significant long-term consequences to our family’s financial future. It’s a situation that’s not remotely unique.

On top of this, about 44% of Americans say they don’t have family close by, according to Pew Research. Those without family members who can help with caregiving struggle with the financial cost of outsourcing such care — a fair concern considering that 51% of parents say they spend more than 20% of their household income on child care, according to a 2022 survey.

All these factors are the makings of stress dreams and frantic Google searches. As a 30-something woman who understands the choice to have biological children is now officially in “ticking time bomb” status, I’ve spent many nights crunching numbers to decide just how financially ready my husband and I are to have children.

Ultimately, the potential outlays of $300,000 to raise a kid to 18 and then another, say, $250,000 for college are mind-bending. It can also make prospective parents (at least this one) worry that no amount of money saved will feel like enough to take the leap.

It wasn’t until I came across a blog post by Eric Roberge, a certified financial planner and founder of Beyond Your Hammock, that I found some solace. Boldly titled “What You Need to Save Before Having a Baby Might Be the Wrong Question,” Roberge’s post argues that it’s slightly misguided to focus on saving, and that you should instead focus on cash flow. There are of course upfront costs associated with having a child, whether biologically or through adoption, but the larger consideration is how this new line item in your budget will fit with the amount you earn.

Cash flow is also king when you consider that the estimated $300,000 to raise a child fluctuates over time. Daycare costs will eventually get subsidized by school, particularly if you send your child to a public school. But different phases of a child’s life can come with expensive activities or medical expenses (hello, braces).

The point, though, still stands. Whether you’re fixating on how much to save or your future cash flow, it’s prudent to calculate the predicted costs of kids. Sure, it’s near-impossible to account and plan for every potential variable, but a basic financial safety net is practical and critical.