The Most Surprising Childhood Expense at Every Age

Christine Ryan Jyoti

cost of kid activitiesI’m torn over whether I should sign my 6-year-old up for dance. 

I know she would love it, but frankly, I find the $150 monthly price tag a tad overwhelming. Do I have an extra couple grand a year to commit, or can I just have her play at the park, for free?

It’s no surprise that the overall cost of raising kids is skyrocketing. The cost of raising a child from birth to 17 rose 25% from 2000 to 2010. According to a report by the United States Department of Agriculture, the average two-parent, middle-income family with a child born in 2011 could anticipate spending $234,900 to raise a child to 17 (not including the costs of pregnancy, childbirth or college).

Although LearnVest can’t personally help you stem the tide, we can help you prepare yourself for what’s ahead.

What can you expect as Junior grows? We spoke with parents around the country to find out which costs have surprised them most.

Infancy (0-12 months): Diapers

The USDA confirms what many of us already know: The urban Northeast is the most expensive place in the country to raise a kid. Amy in Manhattan would agree. She spends almost $33,000 a year to pay for full-time daycare for her 1-year-old daughter McKenna.

Of course, the knowledge that childcare in Manhattan is expensive is hardly a revelation. Which expense took her most by surprise? “I had no idea they use as many diapers as they do!” she says. The average baby will use upward of 2,700 diapers in the first year of life. 

Toddler (12-36 months): Daycare

More surprising than the costs of big-city daycare is the fact that it’s still expensive in less urban areas. “Daycare costs are ridiculous,” says Bridget, in Laramie, Wyoming. Most of what she spends on her 2-year-old son goes to daycare ($8,400 per year), with extracurricular activities such as Spanish and swimming lessons coming in second.

“The amount of money we spend on daycare in one year is almost enough to cover two years of tuition at the state university,” she says.

Preschool (Ages 3-5): Education and Health Care

Most of the parents we spoke to agreed that the cost of preschool itself was the most shocking. Michael, in Washington, D.C., father of 5-year-old Skylar, says: “We did not expect to have to pay $15,000 per year to send our child to preschool. That was a shocker!” He warns parents that “the cost for after-school and extracurricular activities sneaks up on you very quickly.”

“Preschool costs surprised me,” agrees Simone, in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s the mom of Imogen, 6, and Tom, 3. She calculates that when all is said and done, her family will have spent $70,000 sending both kids to three years of preschool.

Patrick, father of 5-year-old John in Philadelphia, notes that health care can also get expensive. While it will cost about $18,000 to keep the average child healthy until age 17, many families are faced with unexpected costs not covered by insurance. “The cost of health care was surprising,” says Patrick. He estimates his family is looking at $10,000 in out-of-pocket expenses for an occupational therapist and a speech therapist for his son.

  • Ainslie

    Helpful stuff in here.  I have almost teenage kids and I agree with the items in each stage!

  • mary

    I would add to the last part and say that your pre-teen/teen should be encouraged to find work to pay for their activities and electronics. My parents expected me to pay for anything not school related by the time I was 14-15, including most of my clothing. I did odd jobs and babysitting and developed a strong work ethic. I still babysit and now see kids with their own computers and cell phones; they do irresponsible things like use them in the bathroom or lose them, and the parents just buy them replacements. I can’t fathom ever doing this for my kids, I think it fails to teach them responsibility and the value of what they have.

  • Theresa Beauchamp

    I agree with Mary that it shouldn’t be completely on the parents’ shoulders by the time the kids are in their teens. If they want extra gadgets or REALLY want something extra that the family can’t afford the teen can work for it. By pulling together as a family and discussing finances and what gets spent where I think it will help the teen realize that each family member has financial needs and wants and if they really want something they will need to work for it or at least chip in. 

    • JenInBoston

      Absolutely! Even at age 8, my kid can use some of her own birthday money etc. if she really wants a new game etc. She has more stuff than can fit in our place, and I bought very little of it. It’s holiday and birthday gifts from other people. At this point, when very close friends/family ask what she needs for her birthday/Christmas, I say she doesn’t “need” anything and has no room left for “stuff,” but a gift of tuition at her various extracurriculars or to her college fund would be appreciated, helpful, and used, rather than neglected in a closet.

  • Mostlywentzel

    Well, one crazy idea is to not have your 6-year-old in ballet, swimming, gymnastics, music, chess and horseback riding lessons. That seems to me a crazy amount of activity for such a young child. It really is ok to just let your kids play. And some of these things really should not need to cost money, or at least not much. Check out local chess clubs instead of lessons. Does a 6-year old need both ballet and gymnastics? I would actually worry that that is too much stress on a little body. I may sound judgy, but I do think that we have a tendency to over-schedule our kids and forget that especially at such young ages, what they really want most is play time with Mom and Dad and friends.

    • Annie

      I think kids miss out on unstructured playtime, and a chance to be spontaneously creative. This doesn’t mean sitting in front of a tv inside all day but having time to interact with their peers and build friendships.

    • JenInBoston

      I don’t disagree with you–certainly not about your larger point. However, without scheduled extracurriculars, it can be hard to manage a physically and socially healthy upbringing in some common circumstances.

      I’m a single parent of an only child in a city setting. There’s no yard. There’s no outdoor place my kid can safely play alone yet. We’re in a comfortable, city apartment, but compared to a house it’s very small. There are no siblings. Her public school offers gym class once a week for 30 minutes. At recess, her age group is not allowed on the playground due to overcrowding. They sit and chat on the pavement, which is fine, socially, but isn’t active. Most of the kids at her school are growing up to be overweight and underexposed to arts, music, sports, and various things my own parent were able to take for granted I’d pick up just by being at school during the day.

      So my kid does ballet, tumbling, tennis, piano, soccer, “kids’ club,” skiing, and theater outside of school. And I pay out the ear for most of it! She doesn’t do all of these year-round, but she always has a lot going on. It’s just me taking care of us. Yes, I could teach her some of these myself, and I could try to be a substitute for interaction with peers her age. But I’ve got to do homework with her and all the housework, and F/T work…so the little bit of unscheduled time remaining is allocated in a way you probably approve of–just me and her, hanging out, doing whatever. It’s a giant juggling act, and it’s imperfect, but it’s the way I’m able to raise her up with opportunities and experiences and lots of loving people around her. =)

  • robin

    Throw in another 1 or 200K or more if you have a child with a reading disorder/learning disability/autism or adhd for private tutoring or therapy and/or possibly a specialized school.  The chances of having a child with a learning disorder is 1 in 5.   The chances of having a child with autism 1 in 88.

  • Mario

    Sounds like a lot of FOMO on behalf of the kids or downside risk aversion. I’m not surprised at all that retailers play off of this.

  • ddcarter

    For the past 3 years I’d ask my son and daughter-in-law what they needed as a family for gifts instead of buying the kids more toys and clothing they didn’t need. Knowing this my grandkids ages 7,6 and 4, have asked that grandparents/great-grandparents make a one-time contribute towards their after-school or summer activities. The parents had them prioritize their lists and hopefully the kids get a money education too.