Your Cash on Kids: Comparing the Costs of Having a Baby at 26 Versus 36

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baby socks on clothesline with cash inside“There’s never a good time to have kids—you just have to go for it.”

If you’re contemplating starting a family, chances are you’ve heard this well-intentioned advice by now.

While it’s true that little is predictable when it comes to having children, there’s no denying it’s as much a financial decision as an emotional one.

After all, the average lifetime cost of raising a child exceeds $245,000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That’s a price tag that might leave you wondering: Does it make sense to have a baby in your twenties, so you can tackle child-related costs early—or when you’re in your thirties and, hopefully, more financially stable?

Of course, there’s no blanket answer.

But to help make some educated guesses, we took two hypothetical sets of wannabe parents a decade apart in age and tried to compare how their respective finances would be impacted in four major money areas—taxes, retirement, college costs and child care—by bringing home baby.

Meet the Parents-to-Be …

The younger couple, Emma and Tyler, are both 26—the average age at which women have their first baby, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Emma is an executive assistant. Tyler is a junior accountant. Combined, they make $73,000, and are still chipping away at student loans and credit card balances they accrued in college.

Although they spend nearly every penny of their paychecks, they feel emotionally ready to have a child. They’d rather be young parents—and are confident they can make their budget work with a child.

Holly and Brendan, meanwhile, are both 36 and doing well financially. Their income has grown steadily over the past few years—which isn’t surprising since women’s pay peaks at 39 and men’s at 48, based on data from Payscale.

Between Holly’s job as a project manager and Brendan’s as a human-resources manager, they make $120,000 combined. They’re only a few months shy of paying off their student loans, carry little credit card debt and contribute a portion of each paycheck toward retirement.

They purposely put off having children until they reached six figures—and now feel financially ready for parenthood.

Although Holly considers herself healthy, she knows they may have to contend with in vitro fertilization costs—22% of women aged 35 to 39 deal with infertility. In case this happens, the couple has saved up $15,000—enough to cover a round of IVF, which averages $12,400.

So which couple would fare better, financially speaking, if they had a child? We asked financial pros to weigh in.

RELATED: Money Mic: How $30K in IVF Treatments Nearly Tanked—and Then Saved—My Finances

  • Sheryl

    Please factor in the emotional costs of having a baby later. In vitro increases the risks of having a premature baby and wreaks havoc on women’s bodies. Imagine spending months in a nicu or in a hospital, taking off work and running up insurance bills in the hundreds of thousands. I am 37 and wish I’d had my baby in my twenties to avoid the stress that comes with waiting too late. There are other complications that internet sites and Dr. Spock don’t tell you about, that could pull mom off the job for 1-2 years.

    I think it is better to have a baby young and recoup the costs later on. There is more to life than a big savings account.

    • MarcoMars

      I never realized that in-vitro was so dangerous. As for me I am 25 and a baby at 26 is just out of the question for me. I am just about to finish my B.A. and I am planning on going to graduate school for 3 years to obtain my masters and credential. Perhaps even doing an additional 2 years for my doctorate so the earliest I’m looking at for children would be in my late 30′s possibly early 40′s.

      • Sheryl

        Having a baby is not nearly as expensive as it seems. The first years are just pampers, wipes and formula if you don’t breastfeed. Childcare is the biggest expense for me. I hire a nanny 2x/week. The big costs come around 4-5 years old. Your job may help out with some childcare expenses and you can get a tax break.

        Start exploring good insurance plans and a supportive network.

        I am in a PhD program as well and I took one year off and did some online courses. I still wish I had a baby in my early 30′s.

        For the sake of your baby, think about having a smooth relaxed pregnancy as opposed to an ordered scientific pregnancy.

        Good luck!

      • Patricia Winters

        Have a baby in college! It seems financially impossible, but kids really don’t need all that stuff! The flexible schedule is priceless, and I took advantage of the campus housing, meal plans, and excellent childcare. It’s even harder to get ahead at your first job if you have to take the ‘mommy track’ and be gone for maternity leave and when baby is sick.

    • Lena73

      I’m 41, had a baby at 40 and I’m glad I did. I can’t imagine having a baby in my 20′s. Wasn’t ready for it, was too busy living it up. Didn’t need in vitro either, I guess I was lucky pregnancy came easy and childbirth was natural. All this to say, everyone is different. Personally, I wouldn’t have a baby that early in my life as having children is a big responsibility and I would not have been able to travel and do the things I wanted to do if I had one that early.

      • Sheryl

        I traveled early on and looking back, I would much rather travel with my children and my spouse. There are many ways to live, but we shouldn’t sell women the idea that having kids earlier means you can’t enjoy life. If a woman wants to start a family in her twenties, go for it!

  • flyergal82

    Don’t let money rule your life. I’m 33 and still single, but I wish I could have had kids earlier. Fertility is never guaranteed, but if you’re in your 20′s you up your chances.

    I also think it’s better for your career to have them earlier. Think about it-when you’re in your 40′s and 50′s your kids will be out of the house. If you have your kid at 40, you’re still dealing with missed time at work to see the dance recitals, etc.

  • Katie Joy

    In my mid-30′s and just had my first. Basically the first thing I thought was, I wish I had started this sooner! I have a healthy wonderful baby boy, and financially we are in a MUCH better place than we would have been 10 years ago but – having a baby changes your life for the better SO MUCH and I just wish I hadn’t waited quite as long. And the first year really isn’t that expensive, if you make the decision for it not to be!

  • starrylise

    Those are both fairly extreme cases and not everyone falls into either category – it also doesn’t factor in cost of living where you are, which is a big factor (very high in our case…). My husband and I wanted to start a family when we were 25 and 26, and it took 2 miscarriages before we had our healthy baby when I was almost 28. I am very glad that we started “early”! We use cloth diapers and I exclusively breastfed (which not everyone can or wants to do I know), which further reduced our costs greatly for the first year.

  • Cybelle

    Being young doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have any easier time getting pregnant. Younger women are having issues with fertility as well. And a premature or ill baby can happen at any age. The right time to have a baby is an individual choice and is different for everyone.

    • Sheryl

      None of my friends under 35 who’ve had babies had to undergo all the genetic testing, high risk visits and additional prenatal screenings that I went through. Your doctors will tell you not to wait too long to have a baby so that you can avoid complications. Your husband doesn’t have to put his body through all sorts of changes. But women do and we must still sacrifice our career by taking up to 8 weeks off to heal after giving birth. How do you quantify that in a retirement portfolio? You can’t and if you want to be a mother, you must be realistic about age of conception.

    • RicoSuaveGuapo

      Guarantee, no. But statistically speaking you will have a much better chance of conceiving and carrying a healthy baby to term the younger you are.

  • Mtorr

    I’m a 39-year-old mom who had one child at 36 (after shelling out $5,000 for fertility drugs), and another naturally at 37. I’m also a writer for LearnVest, who covered this issue a while ago on why it could cost MORE MONEY to wait to try for a baby.

    While some of the financial challenges of having a baby earlier in life, this article falls a bit short when it comes to other considerations: 1.) Let’s say you want two kids. If you wait until you’re 36, but want to work, you’ll have to have them closer together or you might not be able to have a second child. That doubles your daycare costs right there. However, if you space it out, you might not get hit so hard. 2.) IT is MUCH easier to make a career “comeback” in your early 30s than it is in late 30s to mid 40s, when you feel, noticeably, more exhausted balancing everything. 3.) It takes longer to get pregnant, on the average, at 36, than 26. And if there are problems (like there were for me, when I started trying at 35), you’re leaving yourself very little time to accommodate them before your fertility goes Kaput. 4.) Having a special-needs child — down syndrome, for example, is more likely for women 35+, and autism is linked with fathers over age 40 — is much more expensive than having a child without special needs.

    So, the CFPs quoted here seem to only be looking at “best case” scenarios.

    I really hope that prospective fathers don’t look at this article and try to convince their partners to “wait” (or that women falsely think that waiting until 36 is going to have the best possible outcome). It doesn’t account for so many scenarios that are not ideal.

  • Sabrina B.

    I think there are plenty of pros to having a baby early. Either way your going to have hard times with a child whether your 17-45. I had my son when I was 18 years old, and lucky for me I had graduated high-school early, and earned a vocational job that paid more than minimum wage obviously. My boyfriend earns a commission which makes good money, and together we are able to support our family just fine. Taking advantage of programs in your area as a young parent is a great way to make it by while your furthering your education. Lucky for us, we qualify for financial-aid and can use that to help us pay for our tuition and textbooks. My son is going to be two-years-old soon, and I feel like him seeing both his father and I work as hard as we do, will help him in the future as he becomes an adult to realize that success comes by working hard. Most children who are raised with “financially successful” homes, have a hard time understanding that they have to work for their wants and needs, as opposed to those who grow up seeing their parents strive to better themselves. It’s almost inspiring in a way. I think it’s wonderful if you’re older, financially stable, and choose to have a child. But I don’t think that it’s the end of the line if you’re young and choose to have your children too. Im only 3 years away from becoming a pharmacist and making 6 figures, while my boyfriend is completing his degree in criminal justice to become a police officer. It’s more than possible to have your children young and still offer them the world. We will have our careers before our son reaches kindergarten and can get parenting out of the way quicker too! (Parenting Still Rocks Though!)

    • Charlotte

      I agree that modeling the hard work that comes with being early in a career is a benefit to kids. The Millenials I know who were born after their parents had achieved career success and thus never knew anything other than a comfortable, high-income lifestyle found it very difficult to start from scratch when they left home and got on the bottom rung of the career ladder.

  • Charlotte

    My parents had my brother and me when my mom was in her mid-40s, and it was a terrible idea. They felt great in their 40s, but a few years later realized raising young children in your 50s while most of your peers are grandparents and prepping for retirement is physically, emotionally, and socially very difficult. Being at the height of their careers meant they could afford a huge house in the suburbs, private schools, and nice vacations, but they did not realize kids care more about having parents who are not too tired to keep up with them than having material stuff. They didn’t think ahead to realize they’d still be raising children while also facing age-related health problems in their 60s and the impact that would have on everyone involved. It was also difficult not having relationships with my cousins and grandparents growing up, because my parents put off childbearing so long my grandparents were dying by the time I came along and most of my cousins were adults who were starting to have kids of their own. It’s also heartbreaking knowing my own children will grow up not knowing their grandparents, because even though I chose to have my kids in my 20s specifically to avoid making the same mistake they did, they are now much to old to participate in their lives and will likely not live to see the youngest grandchild even leave elementary school.

    I can’t help but cringe when I see parents putting off childbearing into middle age purely for career and lifestyle reasons when they could very reasonably afford to have them much earlier, because it’s rarely putting the kids’ best interests first. There are many factors that go into deciding when to have a child, but if all of them center around the needs and wants of the parents and not those of the child, they should seriously reconsider whether having a kid is a good idea for them. A child deserves to be his parents’ top priority, not just something they balance equally with careers and lifestyle aspirations.