It Costs HOW MUCH to Raise a Child?

Warning. I’m irate. Borderline enraged. Granted, it’s a librarian-fueled sort of irate, but my hackles are officially in the upright and raised position. Why, you ask? Because of this article on CNN this morning. In a nutshell, it’s claiming that it costs $245,000 to raise a child from birth to age 18–college not included.

And I am seeing red.

For a variety of reasons. First off, the outlandish claim of the article. According to its math, it will cost me $735,000 to raise my three children, and since my kids were born between 2004 and 2013, (9 years apart, all told), I’ll have to pay that $735,000 off over the course of 27 years. What a relief! That means I only have to come up with $27,222 per year to somehow avoid bankruptcy before my last child is out of the house.

At which point I can start shelling out money for college–with all that savings I haven’t managed to scrounge together, because I was too busy trying to keep my children fed, housed, clothed, and alive.

The big problem I have is that a claim like this is so obviously inflammatory. It’s designed to shock you, and I’d argue it’s designed to convince you that you can’t afford children. After all, if you’re struggling to make ends meet, why would you be so stupid as to add $13,611/year (per child) on top of whatever other expenses you have.

If it were true, that would be one thing. But here’s the rub: I’ve got three children, all of them at home. If you want to look at the math one way, then that means my expenses on my kids alone right now should be $40,833/year. And yet somehow I still find time to make money to pay for food for me and Denisa, pay for my house. It doesn’t add up. Something’s fishy with the study, methinks.

Which brings me to my next complaint: shoddy CNN reporting. Provide a link to the study, CNN. Don’t make me have to go off hunting for it. Learn how to use the internet, chuckleheads.

(The study is here, in case you’re wondering. Done by the US Department of Agriculture. I wonder how much it cost taxpayers to fund it.)

And looking at the study, I quickly go cross-eyed in a sea of numbers and figures. Spending some time on the thing, however, and some clarity begins to come to light. Basically, it’s broken down the cost of raising a child into several categories: housing, food, transportation, clothing, health care, child care/education, and miscellaneous. Let me go through these one by one.

Housing–Accounts for 30% of their listed costs–so $4,083 per child per year, broken down into a more manageable number. How did they reach this number? By comparing costs of single room housing with cost of multi-room housing, in essence. Adjusting some for parents who try to live in houses that have access to better school systems or bigger yards. Right away, I’m seeing some big holes in this study. For one thing, if you have two kids and have them share one room, then the cost to raise both kids goes down dramatically. For another, a lot of this expense depends on the decisions of the parent. Size and condition of a house, house vs. apartment, rent vs. own, size of a lot–30% of that big $245,000 has a whole lot of room for budgeting and common sense. Will that trend continue?

Food–Accounts for 16% of their listed costs. $2,178/year. This is a number I don’t have too many qualms with. It’s clearly an average and varies depending on the family and the location, but $180/month per child? Seems higher than what I would pay, but I haven’t had teenagers yet, so I don’t think I’m in a spot where I can really start to opine.

Transportation–Accounts for 14% of their listed costs. $1,906/year. This seems like a really squishy number. Apparently it was calculated based on a per-capita approach, which (as I understand it) means they compared transportation costs of single person households with those of 2, 3, 4, etc person households to see how much extra people add on to the transportation expenses. Whatever. the study was quick to claim that it’s likely underestimating these costs, since families with children would need bigger cars than people without. Again, seems like a whole ton of room for personal taste, budget, and decision making. If you choose to take your kids on trips or take them to after school activities, that’s a personal call. I don’t think it should be rolled into the base budget of raising a child.

Clothing–Accounts for 6% of their listed costs. $816/year. Seems high to me, but again, I’m teen-free at the moment. (I also don’t spend that much money on clothes.) I’ll let this one slide.

Health Care–Accounts for 8% of their listed costs. $1,089/year. I don’t begin to understand our health care system. I have no idea how accurate this number is, so I’ll just walk on by it.

Child Care/Education–Accounts for 18% of their listed costs. $3,675/year. The study comes right out and says that half of the respondents reported no expenditure in this category. Got that? 50% of people surveyed spend $0 on this. And yet it accounts for 18% of the total. How does this work? Easy. They just assumed that everyone would go for childcare, and added a note that if people decided to not have childcare, they should just adjust the total accordingly. Is that mentioned anywhere in the news articles? Of course not. Easier to just wave that huge number around. $245,000 sounds so much better than $201,0000–right?

Miscellaneous–Accounts for 8% of their listed costs, so another $1,089/year. Another very squishy number that they arrived at using the per capita approach. In this case, they’re just sort of waving in the general direction of “other stuff costs money, too” and arriving at a sort of kind of estimate for that.

All that squishiness adds up. The study is an estimate, and it’s got a whole lot of room for error. I don’t begrudge it this room. It’s trying to come to a conclusion the best way it can, and for a study trying to answer this question, I think they tried their darnedest. What gets my goat is that all of that error will be ignored by everyone in the aftermath of the study. All that’s remembered is that $245,000 figure.

And that figure is just flat out misleading. It’s the same thing that makes me irritated at that “What is a Stay-at-Home Mom Worth” infographic that comes out every year. (Paying the mom $38/hour for 8.3 hours/week as a psychologist? $54/hour for 3.2 hours/week as a CEO? Come on, people. Women work hard. I get it, and I completely agree. But if you’re going to start doing this sort of thing, then try not to use too many gimmicks. Especially when your Stay-at-Home-Dad infographic apparently paints dads as nothing more than lazy slugs when compared to moms. (Stay-at-home-dads work 59.7 hours/week and stay-at-home-moms work 96.5? Where do they come up with these numbers?! A topic for a different post.))

If you’re going to do a study, do the study. But make sure it gets you some sort of data that’s both important, accurate, and real. These squishy studies make for interesting reading and factoids for CNN to catch your eye with, but they don’t amount to a whole lot when you look at them too closely.

Here’s a suggestion for a better study. Instead of trying to look at aggregate data and squeeze what little information you can from it, then churn it through a convoluted process to reach something resembling a conclusion, how about you sit down with actual parents, take time to go over their budget, and come to some conclusions that way? I could easily sit down and take a look at how much I’m spending on my kids each year. I budget. I could separate out the things I spent that were necessities, and what were just wants. I could even estimate how my house preference changed based on the size of family I planned to have, and then we could look at house prices in the area and compare. Do enough of those case studies, and you might actually start getting somewhere with a real conclusion that has meaning.

Just a thought.

But enough of what I thought about it. What did you think?

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