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If you want to keep a conversation light, everyone knows to avoid three hot-button topics: politics, religion, and sex. You might also want to add “having kids” to that list.
The public can’t seem to get enough of debate between those who choose to have children and those who choose not to: the childless or, as some prefer, the “child-free.”
Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton law professor and former State Department official, spurred a fresh debate — and heap of backlash — when she explained in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” at least “not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.”
With the average cost of raising a child now $234,000 (not including college), according to the Department of Agriculture, it’s certainly true that parenthood is one of the most significant financial decisions most Americans ever make.
Slaughter chose to leave her high-profile government job so she could spend more time with her two teenage sons. But her choice — having kids and stepping off the career treadmill for a while — represents only one side of the divide.
What about people — both men and women — who have chosen to skip parenthood and concentrate on career and, to the extent possible, financial security?
You Can Have a Rewarding Life Without Children
“Could we afford kids? Yes,” says Lindsey Carnett, 29, a PR firm president who lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Doug, 30, a public servant. “However, with all of the traveling I do, the nanny bills alone would be astronomical.”
“So I’d rather continue traveling the world,” she says, “running my business, getting massages, getting pedicures and manicures, working out with my trainer, enjoying great dining experiences and enjoying life to the fullest.”
For Todd Greene, a 45-year-old entrepreneur who lives in Santa Monica, Calif., the choice not to have children is as much a matter of worldview as it is of personal finance. “After college, having dated the same woman for three years, we discussed the ‘next step’ which would mean engagement, marriage, kids,” he says. “I remember how many of my friends had the ‘married by 25, kids by 30 plan.’ I realized shortly after college that it wasn’t my plan. We broke up about a year after that.
“Then I read a bunch of books that really made me think about what I really wanted. Books like Razor’s Edge, The Fountainhead, The Alchemist,” he says. “Obviously none of them were about kids, but it really made me want to see the world… The greatest advantage is mobility and flexibility in life.”
The Price of Waiting vs. the Cost of Young Motherhood
For DeAara Lewis, 33, a TV producer in Memphis, Tenn., the decision not to have children (at least thus far) has, ironically, come at a high cost all its own.
“Choosing not to have children because I want to be more financially stable and my career more secure has cost me some romantic relationships,” she says. “Being from the South, it is often just assumed I want children right away, regardless of my own personal goals.”
Still, friends’ examples have helped stay committed to her choice. “Many of my peers had their children as teenagers … before their own lives were established or clearly defined,” Lewis says. “The lack of maturity and readiness resulted in some of the fathers leaving, my peers’ own dreams being put on hold or halted altogether, and regret.”
Who’s Going to Help You Program the DVR?
It’s natural that both childless people and parents are concerned with the possibility that they’ll later regret their choices. But the choice of parenthood — at least in practical terms — is best made before you reach your golden years. And those golden years are exactly the time when those who decided not to have children will feel the impact of those early life decisions the most.
“People may complain about having too many kids,” Bryan Caplan says, “but no one ever complains about having too many grandkids.”
Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University, is the father of four young children and the author of Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. When it comes to deciding on having kids, Caplan says, “don’t just think about how you’re feeling right now, think about what the effect will be over your whole life.”
It’s common sense to go out of your comfort zone now to have a better retirement, he says. “Most people don’t sit around saying, what do I do to make my life better when I’m 60 or 70? But it’s too late to have kids when you’re 60 or 70.”
What’s more, Caplan argues that the hefty price tag affixed to American children today is more a matter of choice than it is a matter of fixed costs. “Children cost far less than parents pay,” he has written, “because parents overcharge themselves.”
That $234,000 price tag does vary according to the parents’ income, as Caplan points out. Families that make more tend to spend more on their children.
The USDA reports that households with before-tax income below $60,000 spend on average between $8,000 and $10,000 each year per child, while households with before-tax income above $100,000 spend between $20,000 to $25,000 each year per child — with extra costs including luxuries from private schools to iPads.
Endless Expenses Even for Low-Maintenance Parents
Still, even those who choose what might be termed lower-maintenance parenthood contend that it is incredibly expensive.
Julie, a 40-year-old mother of three in Richmond, Va., (she asked that her last name not be used), readily admits that she and her husband have struggled with the expenses of raising children.
“They always need something. Clothes, diapers, preschool, activity fees, school clothes, braces, shoes, makeup, doctor visits, bikes, etc.,” she says. “It’s something new every day. There are times as parents that we need or want something, and you sometimes don’t get what you need or want because the money goes to what your kids need or want. And it only gets worse when they get older. There have been times that we didn’t go out to eat, that we didn’t take vacations, that we didn’t do anything other than what was necessary.”
That sounds a lot like not having it all — but Julie isn’t aggrieved. Her approach to life comes across as easygoing and improvisational.
“I had my first child at 26,” she says. “We didn’t plan it, but we were immediately excited and welcomed her. I can’t remember ever thinking that I would not have kids. It’s been something that I’ve always wanted.”
What’s your take, DailyFinance reader? Does it cost too much to have a kid? Did the cost affect your decision to become, or not become, a parent? Sound off in the “comments” section below.