The joys of parenting are priceless. But raising a child can have a very big price tag.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the estimated cost of raising a child from birth through age 17 is $233,610, or as much as $14,000 a year. Soaring costs for childcare and extracurricular activities can add to that average, as well as the stress parents feel.
Despite the mounting expenses, there are ways to keep kids from breaking the bank. It takes patience, research and cutting a few coupons. However, making sensible choices, and knowing a few shortcuts, can be the trick to staying within your budget.
1. Make the first year count
Most new parents would agree — new babies are pricey. If you survey those same parents a few years later, they’ll likely share the same sentiment: you don’t need half the things you buy. The problem with baby clothes, toys and gear is that it has a short shelf life. To combat overpaying and underusing, browse swaps, online listings or consignment shops. Better yet, ask a friend. Chances are they have a few lightly used baby items they’re willing to send your way.
2. Be an expert planner
As your kids grow, their financial needs change — and so will yours. But having an overarching financial plan will help serve as a guide for your everyday spending. Set up direct deposits for the big things like mortgages, savings or college funds, and give yourself a monthly allowance for everything else. Can’t get your kids on board? Bring them in at the ground level. Showing them how and why you’re budgeting, and giving them smaller frameworks of their own, can make the process easier for the whole family.
3. Don’t tip the scale on meals
Food expenses tend to creep up on you. Avoid busting your budget on meals by making every grocery store visit count. To start, meal plan. Choose meals that have similar ingredients. Make a list for a meal plan and stick to it. Buy in bulk or buy store-brand, and use coupons where you can. Research rewards programs for earning money back or discounts on things like gas.
Eating out can be expensive, but there are a few tricks to keep costs down. Eating early and getting in on specials are great ways to take advantage of restaurant promotions. Sign up for deals at your favorite restaurants, or look for mailers on reduced prices. Skip appetizers and consider splitting larger dishes to avoid extra costs and leftovers.
4. Be smart about travel
It’s always a good idea to set some savings aside for travel, as trip expenses can be overwhelming. Here in San Diego, there are plenty of wow-worthy road trips to save on flight costs, and discount travel sites often offer family-friendly packages. Look for locations that provide natural beauty, as opposed to expensive activities. For longer trips, or trips with many people, consider a hotel with a small kitchen — then eat home-cooked meals after a day of adventure.
5. Keep clothing costs down
Kids grow out of their clothes — and fast. To avoid constant shopping trips, look for local swaps. Many communities offer events where parents can offload clothing items, and pick up lightly used items in a bigger size. Wary of strangers’ clothes? Organize one on your own. Getting a group of friends or family together is not only fun, but also it’s a great way to trade items with people you know.
If your kids are older and swap-averse, or if you’re looking for something fun and new, dive deep into the outlets or discount stores. And if the shelves seem overwhelming, try bringing clippings from your favorite catalog, so you know what to zero in on.
6. Gear up without breaking down
No matter what the age, kids need gear. For smaller kids, find steals on strollers, swings, cribs and more at specialized secondhand stores. Leverage social media by finding sites that focus on baby-based deals, such as Thrifty Littles. Sign up for alerts at big-brand kids’ stores to stay in the know on discount products.
For older kids needing school supplies or athletic gear, consider buying off-season — especially right after the season ends. Major retailers and sports stores offer heavy discounts right after school starts, or after sports seasons are close to finishing.
7. Rethink childcare
Need a night out but can’t afford a babysitter? Team up with your closest parent friends. Set up an alternating schedule where you trade babysitting nights. It’s a free and easy way to get a kid break, and when it’s time for you to return the favor, your kids will appreciate the playdate. Also, many kids’ activity centers offer “parents nights,” where you can drop off your kids for a small fee.
8. Allow for indulgences
While being budget-minded can help alleviate financial stress — and set you up for success later — make room for an indulgence here and there. Maybe it’s a theme park ticket, an “it” back-to-school outfit, or family photo session. Just remember: the best family memories don’t revolve around expense. It’s the small things kids remember, like funny dinner table conversations, an activity you did together or a piece of priceless advice they’ll carry with them forever.