Cost of Raising a Kid: What the Feds Got Wrong

Last Updated Jun 2, 2010 10:09 AM EDT

The annual report on how much it costs to raise a child is out from the U.S. government. Entitled "Expenditures on Children by Families, 2009," it ought to be subtitled: "How to Scare the Bejeezus Out of Any Parent-To-Be."

The bottom line, according to the 39-page tome, is that raising a kid born in 2009 will cost in the neighborhood of $286,000 for a middle-class family, which is defined as having before-tax income of between $56,670 and $98,120. And that's only through age 17. College isn't included.

My co-blogger Stacey summarizes the report very nicely here. I called the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which puts out the report, to try to talk to the study's author, Mark Lino, Ph.D. The public affairs officer said Dr. Lino has no children. Shocker. Maybe after years of crunching the numbers on how much kiddos cost, he decided he'd prefer to be able to afford dinner out and a new shirt once in awhile.

Anyway, if a parent were writing the report, the line items would break down much differently. As it is, Dr. Lino looks at expenditures in seven categories: housing, food, transportation, health care, clothing, childcare and education, and miscellaneous goods and services. Had a baby ever drooled into his keyboard or spit up in his loafers, he would know he should add a category on "child-necessitated repairs" in his pie charts.

Here's how the Butler family's "Expenditures on Children" chart would look:

Food: 8% (Picky eaters.)

Childcare: 37% (Don't get me started on the cost of daycare.)

Clothing: 0% (Awesome hand-me-downs from the cousins. Grandmas fill in any gaps.)

Wine: 10% (For mother's sanity. Really, it's for the good of the children.)

Tennis: 10% (For father's sanity. Really, it's for the good of the children.)

Transportation: 0% (Are you kidding? We never go anywhere.)

Stanley Steemer: 5% (Child-necessitated repairs.)

Bribes: 22% (If you don't cry at school today, we'll go get ice cream.)

Silly Bandz: 8% (Still looking for the Rock Band variety, will pay big-time to get them.)

Now that I think of it, my methodology may be flawed. Silly Bandz should be lumped in with the bribes.

In all seriousness, while Uncle Sam's figures are startling, there are many places where they just might not apply to you. On average, the cost of buying a bigger house with an additional bedroom in a child-friendly community accounts for 31% of that child-expenditure figure. So if you don't have to move to accommodate your new bambino, whack 31% off that sum. "It was assumed that children in a two-child family do not share a bedroom," Dr. Lino writes, but that's a big assumption to make. And even if you do get the second child his own room, will he thank you for it? No! Instead the kids will be asking why they can't have bunk beds.

On the other hand, the study does not include lost-productivity expenses. As Dr. Lino writes, "Indirect costs involved in child rearing by parents (time costs and foregone earnings and career opportunities) are also not included in the estimates." Which, in my opinion, is a whopper of an omission. Clearly he hasn't seen the waiting room of a pediatrician's office, or he doesn't know about the 32 minutes per day when I should be working, but instead I'm hunting for my son's left sneaker, which usually turns up behind the toilet.

Slice and dice the numbers any way you want. Kids are gonna cost you. In some areas, you'll spend a lot more than the average, in other places, a lot less. Either way, you'll probably agree with my assessment: We're richer for having them.

More on MoneyWatch.com:

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  • Sarah Butler

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