Flaws in applying “Cost of a Child”

Ok whenever I see these headlines that state along the lines of “Raising Children Costs Between $286,050 and $476,000” I have to wonder what goes into their calculations. So after a little digging I found out that they are just using the USDA’s calculator which takes averages from across the nation on expenses to determine this number. You can try it for yourself with the USDA child cost calculator. The problem when deciding whether to have children or not based a dollar value is that every family has a different situation which could increase or greatly decrease the cost to raise a child to the age of 17.

Let us look at each category that goes into their calculation to see what could be adjusted.


These expenses lump together furnishings, mortgage, taxes, home maintenance, utilities and any other costs that go into housing. If you think long enough about this you realize that these are mostly expenses you are already paying. It is true that having children may influence the purchase of a larger home and thus potentially a larger mortgage but the only difference caused by children is from a home (or apartment) that you would normally be living in without children. Here is an example of what I am trying to say. All the families live in Seattle, WA with one spouse staying home. Family 1 is a childless couple living in an apartment (800 sq. ft.), Family 2 has one child in a 3/2 home (1410 sq. ft.)  and Family 3 has 3 children in a 4/2 (2170 sq. ft.) home.

Note: In housing the first number is the number of bedrooms and the second is the number of bathrooms).

Note: I used Zillow to get the mortgage/rent numbers and tried to pick prices that seemed average. I used Microsoft Hohm to get the average utility cost. For furnishings I used a bed (one per bedroom), dresser (one per bedroom), fridge, TV, Xbox 360 S with a Kinect, dining table, and a computer and took the total and averaged it over 6 years (wasteful but I believe it is the average replacement rate). Used Bing Shopping to get the prices of these items.

Monthly Expense Family 1 Family 2 Family 3
Mortgage/Rent $1200 $1600 $1750
Utilities $190 $210 $240
Furnishings $75 $82 $100


As you can see the difference between no children and one child is about $5124 per year, a little less than the $5,838 that the USDA was putting in their calculation. But the really important part to note is that having 3 children changes the cost to $7500 difference which is $2500 per child, half the cost per child. So the more children makes housing cheaper per child. Of course if you were going to get a house anyway then the cost difference in housing between one child and no children is about $84 a year for the extra furnishings.


Food is most likely what people think of when they think what would cost more from being childless to having that bundle of joy. The thing is that for the first year your food budget most likely will not change. Having a three year old and having tracked my expenses for the past 6 years I see that hasn’t been much of a change in my yearly food expenses. Similar to the situation when you get married where the amount does increase but not by a factor of two. Now as they grow older this of course will change, but in my case just enlarge the garden to help keep these costs down and keep them healthier too.


If the average couple did not have a car I could understand why they include car payments, but since most people already have a car why does this include the payment for a single child? If they had more than two kids they might have the car payment for the van as an additional expense, but since you most likely already had a car along with insurance, maintenance, etc. I think that this number is way too high. Of course extra amounts for the extra fuel you need to move the child around could be counted, but I hope you aren’t spending an extra $1925 a year to get to those appointments.


Ok I don’t spend $988 a year for clothing on myself, much less for my children. Especially when they are very young there are very few reasons to actually buy new clothes as they will be outgrown in short order. Thrift stores, Freecycle, friends and family all are great ways to get great clothes for a very low cost. Even as they grow older and want to express themselves in their clothing tastes if they earn/save the cash to buy it for themselves then hopefully they will appreciate it more and as a benefit it won’t cost you. They do include the diapers though so for the first few years you might spend around $400 a year if you use disposables.

Health Care

Now this one is extremely variable, my health insurance covers all preventative care for free but I am sure there are others that do spend more than $925 annually on each of their children. What I found interesting was that this number also happens to be the smallest number of all the factors that they are taking in account..

Child Care

In a two-income home I can see having such a large expense for child care, most likely even larger. So this would increase the cost of a child for a two-income home more than a single income home since in the single income home we have a stay at home parent taking care of the children and most  child care expenses are for the babysitter on date night. In either case this expense will diminish over time allowing more for the second part: Education.


Along with that first day of school comes fees, supplies, activities, and more; or does it really come with so much? A backpack you say? I remember one girl back in elementary school that used a rolling carry-on luggage to carry around supplies. Not only was it stronger and more durable then the standard backpack but it kept heavy loads from off her back. Pens, pencils and paper? Normally people have these lying around the house anyway along with a 3 ring binder. Overall a lot of the supplies they require we already have around the house. Unfortunately school fees are hard to get around though some have suggested that the child cover part of the fee. That might actually help those junior high and high school age children appreciate the class more and improve their performance. Personally I think if it was implemented correctly it will motivate them to save for and pay for their college education.


A nice catch all category for everything else, though most of the suggested items are items that differ a lot between families so make sure you put in the number for your family as no one is average.

There now you can create a number that is specific for your family and see exactly how much that bundle of joy really will cost, and it might surprise you how affordable parenthood really is.

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