One common theme I see in reader mailbag questions is potential parents worrying about the appropriate timing for having children.
If a couple has a child when they’re younger, the medical risks are lower, the parents are much more likely to be in good health throughout their childhood, and they can focus on their career during their 40s and 50s.
If a couple has a child when they’re older, they can focus on their career and savings during their 20s and early 30s, which will put them in much better financial shape over the long run.
There’s also the argument of not having children at all, which some studies indicate may result in a happier marriage for some.
What’s the best time to have children? Here’s my take.
First of all, don’t have children unless you’re absolutely sure about it. You both need to be completely on board with having a child before you should even consider that decision. If you don’t have that mutual agreement, the stresses of parenthood will put a huge burden on your marriage. This needs to be something that you’re both fully and deeply committed to.
Having said that, I would use your debt situation as a primary factor in figuring out when to have children. The larger your debt load is, the harder it’s going to be to manage the expenses of having a child, because that child is likely going to introduce a new large monthly bill (child care) and add to your other expenses as well (diapers, clothing, etc.).
How much debt is too much debt for this? You’re likely to hear all kinds of arguments, but I would be wary about having a child if my monthly housing bill is more than 30% of my income and if my other debts take up more than 10% of my monthly income.
If you’re dropping more than 40% of your income into housing (whether renting or a mortgage payment) and other debts, you’re walking a financial tightrope, one that is going to be made far more treacherous with a child involved.
If you want to figure this out, take the net amount you earned on your last income tax form and divide it by twelve. That’s how much you earn net per month. Then, take how much you’re spending on housing and debt per month and divide it by how much you earn net per month. If that result is 0.4 or higher, I’d be very wary about having children, as the financial burden will be extremely challenging.
Perhaps even more important than the debt load is your own ability to spend less than you earn.
The debt load is a major concern because it might put you in a difficult position if your job situation changes. On the other hand, if you’re currently struggling to spend less than you earn without a child, it will be far more of a struggle with a child because you’re adding a lot of expenses and stress.
Sarah and I chose to have a child when we were struggling to spend less than we earned (honestly, we weren’t really trying). Financially, it was disastrous. Our financial path was heading in a very bad direction and it would have stayed that way if we had not made a strong decision to start turning our financial state around.
As much as I love our children, it was not a wise decision to have our children when we did. Our debt load and our inability to control it were sure signs that we were not financially or personally mature enough to have a child at that point.
Instead, our best route would have been to realize that we wanted to have children pretty quickly after marriage and then spend those first few years getting our financial house in order. If we had behaved financially during 2002 through 2005 as we did from 2006 to 2009, we would have been in great shape for our first child.
The message here is simple. If you’re thinking of having children in the next few years, you should start spending significantly less than you earn right now. You should be building up your emergency fund, socking money away into retirement, and knocking down debts left and right. If this doesn’t sound like your financial path, be very wary about having children in the near future.