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The Ever-Rising Price of Parenting

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album

 Reviewed by Michael Gutter, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

My daughter is starting middle school this fall, and she’s decided to take up an instrument and join the band. After our first trip to the music store, we came home with a shiny (rental) saxophone, a music book, a box of reeds, and, not coincidentally, a bill. 

Raising children is just plain expensive, as every parent knows. Even if you skip optional costs like rented instruments, the necessities like food, clothing, and costs associated with education and childcare can really add up. According to the US Department of Agriculture, a “middle-income” couple (with an income between $61,530 and $106,540) will spend about $245,000 to raise a child born in 2013 from birth to age 18. (This figure does not include the cost of college.) Families earning less will likely spend less, while those earning more may spend much more.

How has American parents’ spending on their children changed over recent decades? And do these shifting patterns have any larger implications? A recent study examines these questions, looking at data from thousands of parents from the early 1970s through the mid-2000s. After adjusting for inflation, the researchers found that parents’ spending on children has increased substantially.

Changing Choices

While this might not come a surprise, you may be interested to learn that what we spend money on has shifted through the decades. Back in the ‘80s, parents upped their spending on material goods, like toys, games, and clothes. However, by the ’90s, it was day care and higher education that were driving rising costs. And today, parents are giving an increasing amount of money to children who are over 18.

Inequities A Concern

But while all parents are spending more to raise their children, higher-income families now devote significantly larger relative proportions of their incomes to their offspring. This raises some questions and concerns.

In recent decades, income inequality has increased throughout the nation. At the same time, the academic achievement gap between children from lower and higher-income families has also widened. Though this study couldn’t prove that wealthy parents’ higher spending on their kids is increasing the size of this gap, there could be a connection. Investing in goods like lessons, sports, after-school enrichment, private schools, and other activities can help give children an academic edge.

It’s human nature to want to help our sons and daughters succeed, and mothers and fathers will surely continue to spend money on their children. However, it’s also important to provide programs that help to level the playing field.  Ensuring that high quality preschool is available to all children and that all students have access to higher education at a reasonable cost can give opportunity to more children and teens.

References:

Kornrich, S., & Furstenberg, F. (2012). Investing in children: Changes in parental spending on children, 1972–2007. Demography, 50, 1-23. doi:10.1007/s13524-012-0146-4

USDA. (2014). Parents Projected to Spend $245,340 to Raise a Child Born in 2013, According to USDA Report. Retrieved from http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentidonly=true&contentid=2014/08/0179.xml

(Originally published in a slightly different form as: Church, C. (2013). Parental spending on children and income inequality. [Radio broadcast episode]. Family Album Radio. Gainesville, FL:  University of Florida.)