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A crying baby surrounded by falling cash. Zac Freeland/Vox

How to have a baby, even if you’re worried you can’t afford it

Here’s what new parents and financial planners have to say.

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Erin Walsh and Andrew Croan didn’t plan to have a baby.

In 2015, Walsh, now 32, was working her dream job doing maintenance on a boat. She loved the flexibility — she and Croan, 33, who works in the cannabis industry, would travel west from Portsmouth, Rhode Island, each winter, living off the income they’d earned in the preceding months. They went out to eat. She drove a pickup truck with no back seat.

The pregnancy may have been a surprise, but Walsh and Croan dove into planning mode as soon as they found out. Walsh quit her job on the boat and found a safer, more stable job as a nanny, though it meant a pay cut. They bought a more affordable Dodge Caravan, ideal for their daughter’s car seat. “We ran with it,” says Walsh, “and we’re making it work.” They spend less. They save less, adds Walsh with a laugh, “because she’s expensive.”

It’s no secret that a new baby necessitates a fundamental lifestyle change for parents. What’s also no secret, but is decidedly more opaque, is how much that new baby — a growing child — will end up costing. There are estimations: The personal finance site NerdWallet tallied up what it termed “a ‘no frills’ upbringing” from zero to 18 at more than $260,000, a figure similar to a US Department of Agriculture estimate that includes only food, housing, clothing, transportation, health care, and health insurance. NerdWallet’s “deluxe perks” childrearing package bundles in “nonessential” expenses such as in-home child care, college savings, vacations, tutoring, private school, and the like, kicking the theoretical total up to $745,000.

These numbers are, no bones about it, terrifying. The speculative cost is nowhere near the typical millennial income — roughly $69,000 — and it’s enough to make plenty of 30-somethings question whether having kids is financially feasible. (The US birthrate is the lowest it has been in three decades.)

Yes, kids are expensive. But if you’re wondering how parents manage to afford it, the answer is, they just do. As Walsh puts it, “People have babies all over the world, and [under] all different circumstances. And they, for the most part, survive. They figure it out [...] and they [often] have a lot less than we do.”

“I hate to think of people missing out on the joyhood of being a parent, if they want to be a parent, because of money,” says Sheryl Garrett, a veteran financial adviser and founder of the Garrett Planning Network. “We always find a way to make ends meet.”

When faced with that staggering grand total, though, it’s overwhelming to know where to begin. What does it take your bank account to have a kid?

Start a baby budget way before the little one arrives

There are a couple of things to know right off the bat: The cost of getting to the point of your baby’s arrival is incredibly variable, and dependent on a whole host of circumstances. IVF, donor insemination, egg freezing, surrogacy, and adoption all beget their own scenario-specific costs. IVF, Self reports, can cost about $12,000 per cycle, without factoring in fertility coaching, drugs, and specialized testing.

Adoption, according to American Adoptions, an advocacy nonprofit, can ring up at upward of $40,000 for some international adoptions. There’s also the painful possibility that a pregnancy can end in miscarriage or stillbirth — 10 to 20 percent of known pregnancies do — which run you anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars in medical costs, depending on your health insurance and recovery time.

And you might as well slot doctor’s visits in here, too. You’ll be seeing a lot more of your OB-GYN (or midwife, or whoever will be delivering your baby) for ultrasounds, lab work, etc. If you do not have insurance, the cost will be much higher — NerdWallet puts the cost at “tens of thousands of dollars” over the course of pregnancy. If you do have insurance, you can still expect out-of-pocket costs. (For the nitty-gritty, NerdWallet has a Medical Bills 101 digest with a breakdown of some average estimates, plus a rundown of questions to ask your insurance company and hospital when you call them.)

Nine months of doctor visits later and your baby is ready to be born. Barring a Super Sweet Sixteen-level bash, this will probably be the most expensive birthday of your child’s life. Costs vary dramatically nationwide. The Atlantic reported earlier this year, however, that the average delivery for insured moms costs over $4,500.

But you can get ahead of some unexpected costs: When you call your health insurance about prenatal coverage, be sure to ask about the à la carte fees associated with delivery, like epidurals and anesthesiologists, who could be out-of-network even if your OB-GYN is in-network.

Let’s be real: This is all a lot of money, especially considering it’s all being spent pre-kid. And there will likely be unforeseen expenses along the way. But doing your homework on insurance and your chosen hospital can minimize the total cost, and at the very least will help you budget proactively to account for whatever comes up.

Baby’s here! Time to start thinking about secondhand and DIY options.

If you’re in the throes of baby prep, you’d probably like a list of what you’ll need. (If you’re in the throes of massaging your throbbing temples as you read this, you’d probably like a list of what you’ll be buying.)

Here are some Day 1 basics: diapers, breast pump and accessories, nursing accessories (bras, tops, shields, balm), possibly formula and bottles, bassinet, and infant car seat. Most of these will probably need to be bought new. But don’t panic: Truly, most everything else — clothes, swaddles, crib, stroller, changing table, toys, books — can be bought or passed down secondhand. There are also shortcuts on the other essentials, like renting your bassinet and breast pump; the latter is at least partially covered by insurance because of the Affordable Care Act, though you’ll definitely want to buy your own brand new breast pump parts.

Diapers and baby food will be two of the biggest costs. Researching per-diaper costs (and per-wipe costs) across brands isn’t as silly as it might sound; those cents add up when you’re diapering over the span of a few years. On the flip side, there are lower-cost options, like cloth diapers and making your own baby food.

Walsh and Croan initially diapered their daughter in a combo of cloth and disposable before switching entirely to cloth, and pureed simpler versions of what they ate instead of buying commercially made baby pouches and jars. These are cheaper alternatives to be sure, but DIY’s practicality depends on how much time you have, and how you can afford to allocate that time. You can also save on many of these costs by throwing a baby shower: Walsh and Croan registered almost entirely for diapers, and the couple says they didn’t pay for a single diaper for their daughter’s entire first year.

The single biggest kid-specific expense for many families is child care. The number varies across the country, but on average child care costs hover somewhere around $10,000 per year. (Washington, DC, takes the gold for the most expensive child care in the country, at just over $24,000 per year.) It’s not unusual to spend 10 percent of your paycheck on child care; in fact, it’s currently the US norm.

Day care’s sticker shock can be enough to ramp up anyone’s anxiety. But, there are cheaper alternatives in that department too. If you’re hiring an in-home caregiver, could you team up with other families as part of a nanny share? Do you live close to a family member willing and able to provide child care so that you don’t have to pay for it? Can you bring your kid to work or work from home?

As your kid gets older, there is any number of enrichment classes and activities to throw into the mix, though these are by no means essential. Music classes, dance classes, toddler yoga, baby gyms, kids museum memberships, aquarium memberships, sports leagues, swim lessons, astronaut camp, plein air painting workshops, mime school — you name it, it exists, and it costs money. But there are also lots of activities and kid-oriented events that are 100 percent free. Look to your libraries, museums, parks, and wildlife centers in particular.

We’re definitely missing some key stuff here: doctor visits, shoes, school supplies, hand-sanitizing wipes (that’s a biggie). Most parents will agree that the shopping list seems endless. But with a little inventiveness, it’s possible to find cost-saving shortcuts for most of this list.

Okay, but … how do parents do it? First, get philosophical about your lifestyle.

Figuring out how to pay for a baby starts with the big questions — financial adviser Garrett recommends engaging in what she terms “philosophical conversations” around childrearing and lifestyle, as well as practical questions about day-to-day life, as far out as possible. How much time can each parent take off from work once the baby arrives? Do you live near family? Hashing out the answers will clarify your child care needs, and in turn begin to articulate a budget there.

Clare Rok, 33, a behavior analyst specializing in autism, and her husband Jason Jaacks, 33, a visual journalist turned college professor, moved from the pricey Bay Area to comparatively more affordable Portsmouth, where Rok grew up, a year before getting pregnant with their now 2-year-old son. They’re now pregnant with their second, due in May.

“We knew we were on that path to wanting to start a family and buy a home and settle somewhere,” Rok says of the decision to move ahead of having kids. “And that wasn’t going to be realistic for us in the Bay Area.” Yes, their salaries took a hit in moving. But in doing so, they not only lowered their cost of living but also bought a home and secured free child care several days a week with Rok’s parents.

Put money away. Then don’t touch it.

Do you need an emergency fund? In a word: “Definitely,” Garrett says. Despite our best planning, cars break down. Homes need repairs. Hospital visits happen.

“I would start out with just getting something” into an emergency fund, Garrett says, “and something that would be decent would be $1,000.” She says ideally she’d like to see people get closer to between $5,000 and $10,000, though, she acknowledges, it’s tough to stay out of that reserve when there are bills to pay: Only 40 percent of Americans would be able to pay for a $1,000 emergency with their savings, and 28 percent of Americans have no emergency fund at all, Bankrate found in two surveys published last year.

Then, of course, there’s what many parents consider the checkered flag at the end of the childrearing finish line: college. Setting up a tax-free 529 college savings plan when your baby is born, as Rok and Jaacks did for their son and will do for their second, is a solid idea to take off some of the eventual pressure. Financial advisers do prioritize paying off debt, building up an emergency fund, and investing in retirement first, and Garrett adds that you might want to consider an educational trust instead to allow for more control over how that money is ultimately used.

Babies change their parents’ lives — and that’s great for their bank accounts

Scrolling through the dollar signs jumbled here can be, for even the worry-freest among us, stress-inducing. The magic not-so-secret secret is this: If you have kids, some of your expenses will automatically go down because your lifestyle will fundamentally change. Plus, new parents can claim a child tax credit. Yeah, you’ll need to buy diapers, but you’ll be going out to bars and restaurants less and probably won’t be taking that occasional spontaneous weekend trip. Is that depressing? It isn’t meant to be! Money spent in some areas will be untethered to make way for new needs in other areas. It’s the Newtonian law of baby.

“There’s a little bit of a give-and-take for sure,” Rok says. “Time’s taken up and occupied, and a lot of it’s in a good way. We’re in our early mid-30s. We don’t want to be doing the same things we were doing in our 20s.” Rok and Jaacks still go on dates; they still spend time with other adults. “But we also are enjoying being with our kid and doing those fun activities with him that don’t require the same amount” of money.

Four years after their daughter’s birth, Walsh and Croan say they don’t worry about money on a day-to-day basis. They can count on two hands the number of toys they’ve bought their daughter; otherwise, they shop exclusively secondhand. They’ve made it work. Walsh puts it succinctly: “I would love for people to know that you can do it differently. And that they don’t have to buy all the shit.”


Stephie Grob Plante is a writer whose work has appeared in Smithsonian Magazine, Playboy, the Atlantic, The Verge, The Goods and elsewhere. She last wrote about the rise of homeopathy for The Highlight.

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