Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Catching a Free Ride on the Cost of Raising Children

Every so often the government reports on the increasing cost of raising children. This latest one tells us that the average cost of raising a child to the age of 17 is now $245,340. With six children in that age range, that math gets pretty staggering. Divide that number by 17 and you get an average of $14,431 per year. Multiply by six and you get $86,591. That is less than I make, so if you work on the theory that raising a family is most of what I do, I suppose that's theoretically possible, but it's certainly not an amount which one must spend.

One of the things that always makes these reports sound so large is that they aggregate spending over a long period of time. Just dividing the number by 17 does a lot of the work. The median US household income is $51k. If you say that a median family size is two adults and two kids, and you just divide that $51k by four, you get a per-person spend of $12.7k, which is not much shy of the $14.4k number suggested by the "cost of raising a child" study. If you think of raising a child as a hobby, it's an expensive hobby. If it's simply a portion of the amount you spend on your household which is related to spending on kids, it's really not.

However, at these times, people always stop to ponder questions of "how much more will it cost me if we have kids". Or one more kid. Megan McArdle had some thoughts on the report which got me thinking, as the parent of a large family:
The last 50 years have seen a massive shift away from the basic expenses of keeping your kid alive and toward competitive expenses. Now, those education expenses are a bit misleading -- as the report points out, many families basically have no expenditures in that category. Still, it’s remarkable how the averages have shifted. And that reflects a great difference in how we view the basic task of launching a child into the world. It’s no longer enough to make sure they’re fed and clothed; you also have to make sure they can beat the other kids in the education race.

If you’ve ever watched "19 Kids and Counting" and wondered how the Duggars (and families like them) do it, the answer is: They don’t do much beyond the basics. They spend a huge amount, more than $2,000 a month, on food. But before they became television personalities, the Duggars were living in a three-bedroom house with 14 kids. They buy all their clothes at thrift shops. They vacation in an RV. They home-school, and no one’s on a sports travel team or in dance classes. If they buy toys, it’s at a secondhand store. If average-size families did this, no one would be complaining about how expensive it is to have kids.
This strikes me every time I have to go clothes shopping for the children. I remember a Easter Vigil a while back when I was standing in the back of church with our two youngest at the time, and then-four-year-old Jack was talking with a little girl from a family we knew.

"That's a very nice blazer you're wearing," she said. "Where did you get it?"

"It's from Once Upon A Child," said Jack.

"Oh. Those are very nice shoes you're wearing."

"They're from Once Upon A Child," said Jack.

"I don't think I know that clothing store," the girl said, with the mature solemnity of a six year old. "But it must be very nice."

Well, it is very nice. It's the second hand kids clothing store we frequent, and it allows me to get used to spending $2-4 per item on kids clothes. I'll walk away with a bag full of barely used clothes from nice brands for far less than I would pay for much more cheaply made new stuff at Target or Walmart. We also get free hand-me-downs from all the two child families on the street. So between all these the kids are constantly awash in clothes, and nice clothes at that. It's MrsDarwin and I that have small wardrobes and get frustrated by how much everything costs. (Those with massive patience seem to find nice used adult clothing, but it always seems to me that the pickings are incredibly slim on anything other that the kind of clothes I might wear while doing yard work. With that latter exception, I buy all my clothes new.)

One of the advantages of the upper middle class culture of spending a lot on a small number of children is that it creates more cast offs than the second hand industry can well handle. I remember this article going around a while back with comments like "no one wants your used clothes".

The Quincy Street Salvation Army may be on a quiet out-of-the-way street, but it is the main distribution center serving eight Salva­tion Army locations in Brooklyn and Queens. It processes an average of five tons of outcast clothing every single day of the year, and much more during the holiday season when donations spike. From that astonishing mass, the sorters choose exactly 11,200 garments a day to be divided up equally between the eight thrift stores they serve. I asked Maui if they’ve ever hit a dry spell, where the donations dipped too low to fully restock each stores with their share of the 11,200 items. He laughed, “We never run out of clothes. There are always enough clothes.”
Most Americans are thoroughly convinced there is another person in their direct vicinity who truly needs and wants our unwanted clothes. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Charities long ago passed the point of being able to sell all of our wearable unwanted clothes. According to John Paben, co-owner of used-clothing processer Mid- West Textile, “They never could.”

There are thousands of secondhand textile processors in the United States today, mostly small family businesses, many of them several generations old. I visited Trans- Americas Trading Co., a third- generation textile recycler in Clifton, N.J., which employs 85 people and processes close to 17 million pounds of used clothing a year. Inside Trans-Americas, there is a wall of cubed-up clothing five bales tall and more than 20 bales long. “This is liter­ally several hundred thousand pounds of textile waste, and we bring in two trailer loads of this much every day,” Trans-Americas president Eric Stubin told me. The volume they process has gone up over the years alongside our consumption of clothing.

Without textile recyclers, charities would be totally beleaguered and forced to throw away everything that couldn’t be sold. Charities might even have to turn us away. The only benefit to this doomsday scenario is that our clothes would pile up in our house or in landfills, finally forcing us to face down just how much clothing waste we create.
Most of our donated clothing does not end up in vintage shops, as car-seat stuffing, or as an industrial wiping rag. It is sold over­seas. After the prized vintage is plucked out and the outcasts are sent to the fiber and wiping rag companies, the remaining clothing is sorted, shrink-wrapped, tied up, baled, and sold to used-clothing ven­dors around the world. The secondhand clothing industry has been export-oriented almost since the introduction of mass-produced gar­ments. And by one estimate, used clothing is now the United States’ number one export by volume, with the overwhelming majority sent to ports in sub-Saharan Africa. Tanzanians and Kenyans call used clothing mitumba, which means “bales,” as it comes off the cargo ships in the shrink-wrapped cubes like the ones I saw at Trans-Americas and Salvation Army. The bales are cut open in front of an eager clientele and buyers, who pick through it for higher-value finds.
It would appeal to people's sense of neatness for there to be only exactly the right amount of used clothing. People buy no more than they need, wear things, pass them on, and there's only just as much as people want to buy used. But the massive excess is hugely beneficial for those of us trying to get by on less than the average when raising children. The excess is what allows us to find so much good among the leavings.


Jenny said...

I am partly amused and partly annoyed by the perennial "what children cost" reports since people seem to believe them.

Taking the yearly figure of $14.4K and multiplying it by four gives $57.7K which is more than my gross salary. If you only go by net income, from which you would expect child expenses to be paid, it is significantly more than I make. Even when you add in our annual welfare, oh I'm sorry, earned income tax credit, it still doesn't get close to the 58K. So obviously we don't spend that much raising four children.

How is that possible? We do try to save money where we can. Most of my children's clothes come from consignment. There are great clothes, lightly used, everywhere. Arguably our biggest clothing expense for them is on tennis shoes since they are practically destroyed before they are outgrown. But I don't think secondhand clothing, however helpful, is the real story.

The real reason is because the marginal cost of children rapidly declines. That first child costs a lot, but the second not nearly as much and a third, especially of the same gender, lesser still. Besides the cost of childbirth and diapers, I'm not sure we have spent anything significant on child #4. I'll bet a lot of larger families have similar stories.

Foxfier said...

My husband jokes that I "earn" more than he does, if you figure in what we save on child care. (our area is really, really expensive)

Anonymous said...

Not long after my son was born in 2005 there was a sum like this that came out, only the people calculating it itemized it to explain the expenses. The only one I remember was $750/mo on diaper wipes. I tried and tried to figure out how that would come out. Even using the most expensive wipes, and using them even for #1, I couldn't even get to $100/month. Since I was using wipes from Costco, I was paying much less than $750 per year, let alone per month.

Anonymous said...

The real cost is education. My brother came up with a spreadsheet showing half a million cost for his three kids. $12,000 annually for high school per kid and $25,000 for each year of college per kid. Catholic high school and public college.

Enbrethiliel said...


We have a big second-hand clothing industry here as well, so I shouldn't have been so surprised by the information in this post. But the idea of all that waste is staggering.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Do you suppose that they are including the cost of child care in their estimates? That would really skew the figures from what a family with one stay at home parent would spend.

Foxfier said...

Looooong quote:
Categories of Household Expenditures
Housing expenses consist of shelter (mortgage payments, property taxes, or rent; maintenance
and repairs; and insurance), utilities (gas, electricity, fuel, cell/telephone, and water), and house
furnishings and equipment (furniture, floor coverings, major appliances, and small appliances).
Mortgage payments included principal and interest payments. Overall, principal payments
constituted 15 percent of overall housing expenses.
Food expenses consist of food and nonalcoholic beverages purchased at grocery, convenience,
and specialty stores, including purchases with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
(formerly called the Food Stamp Program) benefits; dining at restaurants; and household
expenditures on school meals.
Transportation expenses consist of the monthly payments on vehicle loans, downpayments,
gasoline and motor oil, maintenance and repairs, insurance, and public transportation
(including airline fares).
Clothing expenses consist of children’s apparel such as diapers, shirts, pants, dresses, and suits;
footwear; and clothing services such as dry cleaning, alterations, and repair.
Health care expenses consist of medical and dental services not covered by insurance,
prescription drugs and medical supplies not covered by insurance, and health insurance
premiums not paid by an employer or other organization. Medical services include those
related to physical and mental health.
Child care and education expenses consist of day care tuition and supplies; baby-sitting; and
elementary and high school tuition, books, fees, and supplies. Books, fees, and supplies may be
for private or public schools.
Miscellaneous expenses consist of personal care items (haircuts, toothbrushes, etc.),
entertainment (portable media players, sports equipment, televisions, computers, etc.), and
reading materials (nonschool books, magazines, etc.).

You can find the press release and iinfo graphics at:
by selecting 2014, it's in August.

Foxfier said...

They rolled "child care" into "education."

Supposedly, because older kids don't need care, and younger kids don't need education. (Rough paraphrasing.)

My husband just snarked that it's because school is daycare for most people.

Julia said...

I see no category for "Breakage", which seems to me to be the category that incurs the largest costs in a family of many children.