It’s time to wrap up my epic journey through everyone’s favorite USDA report, Expenditures on Children by Families (the one where the government estimates that the average American family spends $226,920 to raise a child from birth to age eighteen, which then gets reported on by scads of journalists as meaning that “it costs” $226,920 to raise a child, thus frightening would-be parents straight into the “Family Planning” aisles in their local pharmacies in despair). That means that it’s time to cram all the last four piddly little categories together into one glorious crescendo and also that it’s time to talk about my yellow hippo jogging suit. This is a sensitive topic for me. I’m hoping this post will bring healing.
But first, the numbers, set out in a new, easy-to-read format, so those of you who care can get a quick picture of what the numbers come out to, and those who are just waiting to hear about my yellow hippo jogging suit can scroll past with precision.
14% of the total cost
$31,768.80 total for this category
$1764.93 per year
$147.08 per month
8% of the total cost
$18,153.60 total for this category
$1008.53 per year
$84.00 per month
6% of the total cost
$13,615.20 total for this category
$756.40 per year
$63.03 per month
$378.20 for shopping twice a year
8% of the total cost
$18,153.60 total for this category
$1008.53 per year
$84.00 per month
And now, some sad news. I’m not going to talk about Health Care. There are probably some ways to save on it, like eating well and remembering to floss, but that sort of thing is not a guarantee that no one will get sick and require spending in quite the same way that, oh say, buying an 87 cent loaf of bread at the Aunt Millie’s outlet guarantees that you won’t have to spend $2.50 for that same loaf of bread at the supermarket. And also Health Care is not really an area where we tend to overspend just because we can. Most parents don’t say, “Happy Birthday, honey, I upgraded our HMO to a PPO just because I knew it would make you so happy!” or “Well, darling, are you sure you don’t want to spend the afternoon in the ER just for kicks? There’s a handy tree over there you could fall out of.” So, we’re going to leave it as it is and let the USDA and the journalists have their way on this one. If any of you are horrified, you are free to correct my egregious oversight in the comments.
This leaves us with three remaining categories: Transportation, Clothing, and Miscellaneous. Let’s break them down.
This one is so awesome because it doesn’t really address the issue that most people think of immediately: buying the minivan. If we have a child, they reason, we will need a bigger car. What is that going to cost? What about insurance? What about putting gas into a less efficient vehicle? As usual, the government was off in a totally different direction. The USDA’s Transportation category is solely the cost of driving the car you already have to your child’s activities. Now, that’s actually not really SO unreasonable since, unless you have a sports car, you probably do have room to put one, two, and possibly even three children in the back seat. And since the USDA is talking about the average American family, which only has two children, there’s no need for them to even think about the necessity of the minivan.
What is kind of unreasonable is the idea that a child would be involved in so many activities that it would cost $147.08 a month for chauffeur service. I drive a (fabulously sporty!) twelve-passenger van, and $147.08 is very nearly HALF our monthly gas cost. I’m figuring that the two-child households in the survey are driving cars much smaller and more fuel efficient than mine, and I shudder to imagine how much they must be on the road to account for this much cost. Now, granted, my oldest is only eight, and kids tend to get into more activities as they get older. But, on the other hand, if you were to have a child, he or she would also not be older for several years, and unless you’re planning to do Kindermusik, creative movement, T-ball, and Suzuki violin lessons all at the same time, you could potentially reduce the total transportation cost by quite a bit just by factoring in a delay before the start of full-on Mom’s Taxi status. And, on a third hand (I’ll need an audience volunteer for this one), while it is VITALLY important for parents to help their children explore who God made them to be, to develop talents, gifts, and interests, once again, it all comes back to the question of what things we consider so important that we would rather not be alive if we couldn’t have them. At what point does life lose its meaning? Youth orchestra without soccer? Orchestra and soccer, but not community theater? I’m asking these questions so that they sound sort of mockingly rhetorical, but really these ARE the questions. And they fall to each individual couple of prospective parents to answer for themselves. It’s just important that we know what the questions actually are. This $147.08 a month is not what you will need to be sure you can get a sick baby to a doctor’s office or take your family along with you to church on Sunday. It’s the cost of driving to an “average” (hefty quotation marks) number of activities and play dates, beneficial, but not really “necessary” in the truest sense of the word, and definitely things that can be subjected to a cost/benefit analysis.
This is everything from toothbrushes to iPads. You ought to be able to buy your child a toothbrush or at least have the intelligence to locate a dentist who hands them out. (Roll that toothbrush into your health care category. Way to beat the system.) Your child will probably be able to make it to productive adulthood without an iPad. If your kids doubt you on this one, my advice is the same it’s been all along: Get them some friends without iPads. And also, check Little House in the Big Woods out of the library and be sure to read the part where Laura gets nothing but a pair of mittens, a stick of candy, and a homemade rag doll for Christmas. And is totally thrilled. You could also leave the World Vision, Compassion International, or Samaritan’s Purse gift catalog lying around. Instant perspective.
Clothing (and the yellow hippo jogging suit)
Smart readers will notice, I changed the order of the categories. That’s because I was saving my catharsis for last. And because nothing symbolizes for me the emotional issues behind this whole series better than the story of my yellow hippo jogging suit.
It was fall, back-to-school shopping time, and my grad student father and stay-at-home/writer mother pulled together every penny they could for my new school clothes. (As I recall, it was about as much as they spent on themselves combined.) It was enough for about four brand-new, off-the-rack outfits. (My mom didn’t want me to have to wear thrift store clothes to public school.) Back-to-school shopping was a terrifying experience. Even with my parents’ extravagant sacrifice, I still didn’t have enough funds for the “best” brands that so many of the other girls wore, like Guess and Esprit. It was always a huge gamble trying to pick clothes I wouldn’t get laughed at for wearing. That year, I got it wrong.
It was soft and cozy, a delicate, buttery yellow, covered all over with playful hippos. I still think back bitterly that I should have known it would be dorky. But it was snugly, and I thought it would be OK. I loved it even. Until I got to school, and everyone told me my jogging suit looked like pajamas. All day long. Even people who were supposedly my friends. “I’m sorry, Andrea, but that really does look like pajamas.” I got tired of saying, “It’s a jogging suit,” and wishing I could just sneak right out the school door and flee. I only had the gumption to wear it one other time after that day.
And that was that. My jogging suit stayed in my drawer. I was down to three new school outfits. And there was no more money for anything else that school year.
So I get it. I get all of it. I understand why parents are afraid to have children when they aren’t sure they can give them everything the other kids will have. I understand what it’s like to have less and suffer for it, to get teased for not having the “right” whatever-it-is. And, honestly, getting it wrong that year, not being able to fit in, feeling like everyone in the whole school was punishing me for not measuring up is still one of my most vivid, sad memories. I’ll never forget the gray sky out the gym door window that I wanted to fly right into to get away from the humiliation.
I have nothing but compassion for the parents who are spending $756 a year per child on clothes. But I also want to stand up and say that this is not destiny. I’ve been on the other side. My parents took me out of the monolith of judgment. I did get to fly away. Starting in sixth grade, they homeschooled me. And one of my happiest memories was the freedom to pick out clothes I liked (at Goodwill, often), just because I liked them without the slightest fear of getting teased.
Now I spend on clothing five children about a quarter of what “average” parents spend on clothing one. We shop at the thrift store and occasionally online. My homeschooled kids don’t even know what the cool brands are. Oh well. There will be plenty of time for that later. Their homeschooled, thrift-clad friends don’t know either.
And the yellow hippo jogging suit is behind me. Today there is sunshine, and tulips in my front yard, and love for the parents who sacrificed, both for dorky school clothes and to take me out and homeschool me.
If you’re looking at that $226,920 and sadly relinquishing your dream of having children for fear that you won’t be able to afford to make them happy, I want to whisper it one last time: I’ve been without and lived with less, and I’m still really glad to be alive.