The Financial Decision of a Lifetime: Should I Have Children?

As I write this, I’m sitting in the overstuffed chair in our living room waiting for my three children to get off the bus, as they will at some point in the next hour or so (their bus driver seems to stop along the route and shout at the kids to be quiet sometimes, so their exact drop-off time varies). When they get home, I have a snack waiting for them (an apple and a small glass of milk), and then we’ll spend the next hour doing sustained silent reading and homework, after which I’ll start preparing a dinner for the five of us so that it’s at least partially prepared when Sarah arrives home.

This is our completely normal after-school routine, repeated about 150 times a year (with another 30 school days or so filled with an abnormal routine of some kind). Let’s start unpacking just that one little routine.

First of all, it means that I’m stopping work at around 3:30 each day. If I didn’t have children arriving home, I would definitely work later than that and probably get more things done. I’m making a conscious career choice related to my children which is costing me in terms of salary.

Second, they eat an after-school snack each day. Three apples and three cups of milk is a pretty typical snack, so let’s say that costs $1.50 all told.

Third, I prepare a much larger dinner than I would for just Sarah and myself. The cost of a typical meal in our household right now is doubled. Let’s say an average meal at home would cost $5 without kids; now it costs $10.

Now, repeat all of that 180 days a year for several years and you can see the costs wrapped up in just that little after-school routine. We’re not talking about the costs of keeping the children clothed, the cost of their medical care, the cost of some of their toys and books. We’re not talking about the cost of their other meals, the cost of their extracurricular activities, the cost of a larger house to provide them with adequate places to sleep.

Those costs add up surprisingly fast.

CNN Money estimates that the average cost of raising a child in America is $245,000, a number I would have thought was ludicrous before I had children but a cost that I now completely believe. (It’s worth noting that a second and a third child in close succession are less expensive comparatively because of economies of scale, so we’re not quite spending $750,000 by having three kids.) There are many,

many things you can do to reduce that number, but no matter how much you try, there’s only so much reduction you can do. Children require food and clothing and shelter and attention and enrichment and those things cost money, no matter how carefully you slice it.

Kids are expensive. Really expensive.

Clearly, if you’re looking at nothing but your financial bottom line, children are a huge expense that will drain your dollars. And, at the same time, considering that having children is a choice, not a requirement, choosing to not have children is the one that will put you in better financial shape 20 years down the road. Those claims are largely beyond dispute.

Then why on earth did we choose to have children? It’s worth noting that we chose to have our second and third children after starting our financial turnaround and yet we chose this financially challenging path. Why did we do this?

Let’s walk through that thought process a little bit so that perhaps you can decide for yourself if children are right for you (and if you’ve already made that decision, perhaps you can share this article with others who are in the process of making that decision).

The Reason for Work

Why work? Why exactly do you (most likely) get out of bed several days a week and face a job of some kind? Sure, you need at least a little bit of income to keep a roof over your shoulders and minimum food on the table, but the majority of working Americans earn significantly more than that and hope to earn a lot more than that, so they work.

But why? Why do that? Why earn more than the bare minimum you need to survive?

Almost always, people do it because they have personal dreams and goals that they want to achieve in their lives and they need money – often, quite a bit of money – to be able to achieve those dreams.

Two of my closest friends are on vacation in southeast Asia right now because their dream is to travel the world. They make good money, so once a year or so they plan a trip to another part of the world and go there.

Another of my closest friends currently owns a tract of land in southern Iowa that he essentially uses for outdoor play. He’s cultivating it into a little patch of forest, exactly the way he’s always wanted since he was a child.

Many other people I know simply want a day to day life with some small perks scattered throughout.

One of the first things that Sarah and I really discovered about each other was that one of our absolute biggest shared dreams was to have multiple children and raise them into adulthood, giving them opportunities and life experiences that neither one of us had. We would have the opportunity to enjoy childhood from the “parent” side of the coin as well and then we would perhaps have the opportunity to become grandparents when we grew older.

This whole process was something that we were drawn to do. It was something that we both internally felt from a rather young age, that parenthood was something we deeply wanted in our lives and that we were quite willing to sacrifice a great deal of time and some of the money we were going to make in our lives to make it happen.

In short, part of our motivation for every single day of work that either one of us have put in over the years is our respective desire to have children and be good parents. That’s why we work, among other goals.

The Goal Needs to Come From Within

Here’s the thing, though: Many people are pressured by relatives to have children. They hear constant questions from their parents about whether a grandchild is coming or from other family members who are keen to see you go through that adventure of parenting.

I’m going to give you one very straightforward piece of advice here: If parenting is not something you want in your heart, don’t have children. No matter how many hints or how much pressure the people in your life are putting on you, don’t have children.

You should absolutely follow the dreams that you have for yourself, not the dreams others have for you.

Quite often, the pressure to have children comes from external sources – parents, pop culture, television shows, and so on. You’ll often see parenthood presented as the norm and the idea that a person might not want that in their life is seen as abnormal. You might feel various responses to that – guilt is often one. Many people try to talk themselves into wanting to be a parent.

Don’t do that. You don’t deserve it. You don’t deserve to be foisted into a twenty-plus year commitment to complete care of another person just because your mother or popular culture seems to imply that you should. Your hypothetical child especially doesn’t deserve a parent that isn’t fully committed.

If the desire to become a parent comes from within, you’ll know that it comes from within. You won’t feel as though you have to “talk yourself into” parenthood. Instead, it’ll feel like an inevitability, as though it’s something you’ve always wanted to do and you’re simply waiting until the right time or the right biological conditions.

The truth is that most of the benefits of parenting are internal ones. They’re almost impossible to describe in terms of dollars and cents and in terms of free hours on your calendar. You can’t point to tangible things that explain why parenting is worthwhile. It’s something that’s internal, and it’s okay whether you have that internal feeling or not.

Real Talk About the Costs

Sarah and I have three children under our roof. The oldest is a pre-teen; the youngest is a first grader. We went through a seven year stretch where at least one member of our household was in diapers or training pants at all times.

Here are some hard truths about parenting.

Your day to day life will radically change, particularly in terms of time use. If you’re not a wealthy person and won’t be hiring someone to do all of the work of raising children, your time use is going to radically change. Children need time, lots of it. I’m not even talking about “quality time” where you’re doing something enjoyable together or actively involved in “parenting.”

I’m talking about things like preparing more meals at home (because eating out with kids isn’t happening) and doing more laundry because there are many more clothes and sheets and other items to be washed. I’m talking about more housekeeping than you can ever imagine. I’m talking about trips to the doctor to make sure your child’s ailment is handled or that they remain healthy. I’m talking about not being able to go out whenever you feel like it because you have a young one at home that can’t take care of himself or herself.

You’ll find yourself making choices you never expected. You might be a workout fanatic and then discover that there just isn’t room for that any more in your life. You might be a neat freak and then find yourself not vacuuming for weeks. Things change. Priorities change.

Your days will be very different. For some, that’s not a bad thing. On the whole, I enjoy my daily life now more than I have during most of my life. For others, those who enjoy their free time as it is right now, it can be miserable.

Your social circle will change. When your time use changes that much and the things that are on your mind change that much, it stands to reason that there will be some real changes to your social circle. You’re going to find that some of the people you are friends with are not interested in being friends with a parent. That’s just the truth of the matter.

What I found is that the friends who stuck around through this shift in my life are now tighter with me than ever. They stuck around, so I know how true they are as friends, and I would do anything for them.

There were some people that I thought would continue to be a part of my life, but they fell off the radar. It hurt greatly when this happened, but looking back, I understand that I inherently changed as a person when I became a parent and those changes took away some of the key elements that our friendship was built on.

This will happen… and it’s okay. You’ll find that you have less time for a social life and that the people that continue to be your friends will fill it up nicely. Just don’t be surprised when a friendship or two gradually fades away.

Your career will take some odd turns. Regardless of your parental role, your career is going to face some unusual challenges because of this radical shift in time use. Even if nothing seems to change in terms of your day-to-day career, the long-term choices you make for your career will change.

Taking a big career risk suddenly seems like a questionable idea because you have a dependent that needs steady food on the table and stability in his or her life. Moving across the country can seem like a really bad move if you’re yanking your socially awkward third grader away from the only friend she’s ever had. Staying late to meet a big client suddenly seems like a questionable decision if you’re supposed to be at your son’s first concert.

You might decide to become a stay-at-home parent. You might force your career to take a 90 degree turn so that you can have the flexibility you need to be there when the kids go to school and when they get off the bus (this is exactly what I did).

The result of all of those shifts is that you probably close the door on a few opportunities in your career and you find yourself needing to double down much harder in the areas that you can still control. Parenting made me much more interested in things like focusing and time management in terms of my professional life because I realized that my career was now taking up a smaller portion of my life but I still needed to get the same value from it, so I needed to become more efficient at it (and more efficient in all areas of my life).

Your hobbies and interests will shift. Here’s the truth: your total leisure time is going to shrink and some of that leisure time is going to be spent with your children. Again, unless you’re hiring a full time child care person, that’s the reality of things.

Because of those shifts, your hobbies are going to shift, too. You’re going to be cutting back or dropping some of the things that you spend your free time on and altering some of the other things.

My honest suggestion is to choose one or perhaps two hobbies, intentionally schedule time for those things, and let the rest of them go. I have basically three hobbies at this point – playing tabletop games (I have penciled off two regularly-scheduled game nights), hiking (I usually go on one daytime hike a week, which usually doubles as a brainstorming session), and reading, which flexes around everything. I basically gave up watching television and movies, only doing those things if it’s a pure family event. Most of my reading time is during a sustained silent reading block with the kids. In other words, my hobby time is largely bolted into my calendar.

This leads right into another point: “empty” time will basically disappear. You’ll find that you’re either doing something meaningful with every hour of your life or you’re feeling some sort of guilt that you’re not doing something meaningful. It’s just a truism in the life of almost every parent that I know.

I don’t have a “free afternoon” or a “free evening” unless I basically plan for them and wall them off in advance, and they usually come with something I’m planning on doing during those hours. Time to just sit around and do things as they come to me doesn’t exist. The time I used to spend doing things like that is now taken up by the added responsibilities of parenting. I no longer understand the concept of “bored.” There isn’t time for being “bored.”

“Getting ahead” financially becomes much harder. You have to become as regimented with your money as you are with your time if you want to financially succeed while being a parent. Children are money vacuums, which means you have to be much more careful with all of your spending choices in order to have money left over to save for your own future, let alone their future. Techniques like knowing how to maximize the value of shopping for groceries become vital, for example.

‘Are You Trying to Talk People Out of Becoming Parents?’

This was a question that a friend of mine asked me when I made an offhand reference to this article as I was working through it in my mind. Most of my argument here seemed to be against parenting.

The truth is that I can name many, many reasons why I am extremely glad to be a parent, but those reasons are almost entirely internal. They revolve around how fulfilled I feel in my life as a whole and how I am often buoyed by things like seeing intellectual and moral growth in my children. When I look at external measures, like time use and money use, those things appear to be costs rather than benefits, most of the time. Parenthood is the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done in my life, but it’s almost impossible to describe in an external way.

In other words, my friend is right when it comes to making a case against parenthood. My belief is that unless you are deeply committed without doubt in your own heart to having a child and being a parent, you shouldn’t do it. It’s not that people who are uncertain might not become good parents – many of them would become great parents. It’s that a person should never jump into a 20-year long commitment of time and a six-figure commitment of money unless they’re certain of it in their heart.

If you’re certain of it, have children! You’ll find it to be so rewarding for you that the time and financial costs end up being absolutely worth it.

If you’re on the fence, though, spend some time thinking about what you truly want out of life. What are your life goals? What seems like the best life you could possibly have ten years from now? Does it include children? What about the best life for you 20 years from now? Does that include children? Don’t force something you think should be in the picture into this vision of the future. Think about what you want.

If that picture includes children, then having is probably a solid choice for you. If not, then you shouldn’t take on that expense.

Good luck, in wherever your path may take you.

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Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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