How Expensive is it to Have a Baby?

I had my first child almost 30 years ago. I was a student and my husband was a brand-new Marine, so money was scarce. Despite that, it never occurred to me to question whether we could afford to have children. We were married, and eager to start a family- and with some not-too-subtle pressure from my father (“where are my grandchildren?”, and “are you pregnant yet?”), it seemed to be the natural flow of life.

My first inkling that I had entered a new world of expenses was when I was 7 months pregnant. We were driving from El Paso, TX — all of our household goods save for a few suitcases (and two dogs) were on their way to Okinawa, Japan where we expected to live for the next 3 years- and where we thought our baby would be born. Life is funny and full of twists and turns- and instead I found myself giving birth in Tucson, AZ, to a beautiful -but very tiny- baby, in a city where we knew no one and had nothing but a rental car.

Thanks to a Ronald McDonald House (one of the most amazing charities I have encountered) we were not homeless for the month that we waited for our baby to get big enough to make the journey across the desert to what would be our new home in California. The Marine Corps, having a heart, changed the duty station to ensure the health of our still fragile new charge, so plans to live in Japan never materialized. The hospital bill, which was paid- care of the US Marines- was in excess of our annual income. And so, I learned that with children can come extraordinary expenses- and that health insurance is the difference between survival and financial ruin in the blink of an eye.

Necessity being the mother of invention, my new baby had all the entertainment my creativity could muster- as long as it was free. So, he had a mobile hanging over his crib that I lovingly made from construction paper and thread. He loved the “rattle” toy I made out of a soda bottle, filled with macaroni and covered in colorful stickers that I received in the mail for some advertising promotion. He was always nattily dressed in clothes I purchased from yard sales- shirts and shorts for $.15 per item (although a dear friend did inquire why I dressed my child “like a homeless person” — I am sure she meant it in the nicest possible way!). His crib was a plastic tub for months — being premature meant he didn’t need a lot of room. And so, it went that we were able to save a lot of money, recognizing that little babies don’t actually need much except a lot of hugs and crooning.

When my second baby was born 2 ½ years later, it was even easier to keep him entertained for free. Not only did he inherit the soda bottle rattle and other home-made toys, but he had the built-in entertainment system of a big brother. Their favorite game was to put the baby (once he got past the floppy stage but still too little to walk) onto a blanket, and drag him through the house on the slippery linoleum floors. Despite the occasional bumps and bruises, they both found this to be an uproariously funny way to spend an afternoon.

Fast forward 14 years and I was pregnant with baby number 3. Life for all of us had changed enormously by that point -in many ways- but in particular the days of penny pinching were a distant memory. I was fortunate to have good friends throw me a baby shower (I was not aware of baby showers for babies 1 and 2!)- and my eyes were opened to a whole new world of what people can spend on infants. Clothing that cost what it would cost to dress an adult man. Gadgets and gizmos that certainly increase efficiency and even hygiene (the new diaper pails for disposable diapers really impressed me compared with a pail with a lid that I filled with water and bleach for the cloth diapers that the older boys wore- a gas mask would have been helpful when lifting the lid on that one!). But what I learned very quickly is that little babies can be very expensive, if you make them very expensive. Also, I no longer had the time to do things like make toys by hand.

So, when thinking about having a baby and the costs involved, my advice is to focus on three things:

1) Medical insurance- health is the one variable in your child’s life that is beyond your control and can be really, really expensive. With three sons, I have had more than my share of emergency room visits and other medical costs- and insurance is a life saver. This is where you should focus your efforts.

2) Having enough money to provide for the basics- a roof over your head, healthy food, weather appropriate clothing- is a must. The incremental cost of having a child is not a lot if you are willing to compromise — sharing space (in many countries people don’t have separate bedrooms), wearing second-hand clothing, doing more cooking from scratch are all things that can dramatically reduce the cost of having children. But the stress on not being able to provide these basics is more than anyone wants in their lives.

3) Time- almost anything that money could buy for your children- education, adequate clothing, entertainment- you can provide if you have the time to do it. There are many free resources — libraries, online, etc.- that can help fill in the gaps and provide great ideas. Second hand clothing, and bargain stores are now also online, providing more options than ever before. And there is nothing like a board game or a walk together to bring families together and create entertainment at the same time. Old fashioned fun is still the best. But all of this takes time which is what most of us seem to struggle to find these days.

So, for all of the questioning that you may be doing about whether you have the money to have a child, I would argue that a better question is whether you can make the changes necessary to have the time to spend. This is by far the more valuable asset that you can give to a child and can more than make up for not quite as much money to spend.