Average cost to raise a child: $241,000 sounds low

The USDA calculates it costs $241,000 to raise a child in the US, but their charts and graphs and numbers crunchers don't capture the essence of real parenting.

Laura Smith
Everyone knows that raising children is expensive. However, expecting parents may be surprised to learn that delivery can cost upwards of $20,000.

As happens from time to time, a US Department of Agriculture report came out earlier this month citing the high cost of raising a child. In this case, the figure was $241,000, not including college. That seems like a lot, and it omits more than college. 

Surely the greatest child-raising cost is paid at the 4 a.m. hour. It begins with nighttime feedings – a cliché, and arguably the sweetest of nighttime tasks. It continues with the middle of the night flu mop-up. It moves unrelentingly into the noisy nocturnal weirdness of teenagers. And if that's not insomnia enough, it seems to continue forever as worries about even thoroughly grown children bubble up in the darkest hour: take my $241,000. Take $500,000. Just fix this.

No, raising a child doesn't take $241,000. It takes everything, with money maybe the least of it. “Making do” in order to raise a family is, after all, as old as time. A couple of generations back, the pre-Pampers, Maytag-less mom washed her children's diapers in the bathtub. Today, ambitious parents surprised by a newborn-induced desire to stay home will sell a car, postpone a house, and base their kitchen every week around ShopRite specials. They'll ditch Showtime. Pass on the S4. Quit yoga.

Making do pays off. One friend of mine, the wife of a flat-broke medical resident sneaked the couple's infant son and picnic supper into his on-call room every night during their newlywed years, carving out a family dinner hour that endures decades later. A lawyer in our family, who ceded the breadwinning to his higher-earning wife when their third child got critically ill, became the hero on the mom circuit. Today, his son is taller than he is. These days, societal change and an unyielding recession place men in the game big time, whether they like it or not. Unimaginable, really, are the days when a toddler in a shopping cart howled with laughter at the sight of “a daddy in the grocery store!”

 Financial fortunes may rise as a family matures, but the true child rearing costs continue. And again, not necessarily by sacrifices of money. Maybe it's a forgoing of the annual trip to the Caribbean or the Jersey Shore or the Red Lobster. But often, nothing is forgone. It just might not find its way onto the wish list in the first place. At its best, raising a child is an exercise in creativity – creativity at the service life itself.  It's hard – excruciating sometimes. It costs in funny ways.

One of the most elegant moms I ever met lived with her husband and three young sons in a little row house in a working class town near me. There were a lot of things the family didn't have, $241K per kid, for starters. A dishwasher was the only thing she really missed, but not for the reasons you'd think. Not because of dishpan hands or endless repetition of the mundane. “I hate it," she said,  "because when they come up to me for a hug, I'm always telling them 'wait, my hands are wet.' ” Clearly the boys had everything they needed.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.