On what salary can you comfortably raise children?

When Sonya was a baby, a friend of mine was talking about wanting another child. At the time, I was in graduate school, getting a stipend for teaching while also working at Starbucks (side note: I loved that job), and my husband was working at Radio Shack not quite full time. I think our combined salary that first year was something like $35K.

“You should have another baby,” I said to her, mostly because I knew that’s what she wanted. Her son was 8 and she dreamed of having a little girl. “No,” she said. “My husband says it’s too much money.”

As An Expert with one measly infant, I told her the truth as far as I understood it: kids are not that expensive. My husband and I had split our schedules so we didn’t have to pay for child care. Diapers were something like $50 a month. You can get secondhand everything for babies, and even new clothes cost like $8 for an outfit. I’m sure I said what I have heard people say since then: “kids are really only as expensive as you want them to be.”

While that was sort of true, I had no idea what I was talking about. My thought was this: child care is crazy expensive! So if you opt out of that somehow, that’s it, you’re set!

Except no. We have worked out childcare for all three kids to where our main expense was usually $225 a month for half-day preschool, so according to my calculations, we should be flush with disposable income, especially since Viv is starting public school kindergarten next year; we are in the home stretch of paying for child care, and our salaries have increased considerably (we are up to 110K together at W2 jobs, about 155K with freelancing).

I had no idea about basketball shoes or gymnastics fees, piano lessons or zoo passes. 529s, minivans, teacher Christmas presents, restaurants that don’t have kids’ menus (or even those that do), birthday cakes and robot camp and dance recital costumes. I think we are middle-of-the-road with kid expenses: 98% of their clothes are hand-me-downs but we buy special first-day-of-school outfits and Christmas dresses, we go overboard on allowing them to do activities but live in an LCOL area so it’s manageable, we go to the zoo and children’s museum and amusement park a lot but have annual passes and pack lunches.

In a million years, expert-me-with-one-measly-infant could not have imagined us making $155K and feeling anything other than wildly, hysterically wealthy.

And every day, I’m astounded at the expenses.

We have other mitigating circumstances (mostly, a dependent mother-in-law, student loans, and leftover consumer debt from when our earnings hadn’t caught up with our responsibilities), but kids are expensive. And while I can see areas where we could make other choices – no robot camp, no piano lessons – those aren’t choices I want to choose.

Kids are only as expensive as you want them to be and oh yeah, if you are a parent, it turns out you want them to be expensive because you want them to have a fulfilling childhood.

At any rate, a Facebook post in a group of FI-minded people asked about this question: what salary do you need to raise children comfortably? I was surprised to see the answers, which ranged from “my single mom did it on a salary of $40K” to “$300,000,000,000,000.” The general consensus seemed to be somewhere north of $80K.

Many, many, many many many people raise children on much much less. A household income of over $80K puts you in the top 20% of earners in America, and more than 20% of people have kids, so obviously this is a privileged answer.

Still, in a group of people who are convicted to spend as little money as possible, $80K+ to be comfortable raising kids seems like so much money. The people in these groups, like me, don’t have cable, they buy older used cars, they have discount phone plans. What about the people in this world (which seems to be the vast majority) who don’t spend an enormous amount of energy optimizing hair cuts, hacking their travel expenses, and seeking out hand-me-downs?

Somebody posted this list, showing expected expenses for a family of four in my state, and what would be considered a stable income: “In Pennsylvania,the Household Stability Budget is moderate in what it includes, yet it still totals $99,360 per year for a family of four.”

This kind of list is endlessly fascinating to me. We spend much less than expected on many of these categories, with much more going to debt, savings, and miscellaneous (hello, piano lessons and MIL expenses).

Considering our nuclear family of five, our dependent mother-in-law, our $100K of student loan debt, and the fact that we’ve only been making above $80K for about three years now (but parents for over 9), I feel less guilty about the hole we dug for ourselves, and much more proud of the aggressive payoff we have been undertaking.

We are on a fairly strict budget, although I am not afraid to blow it from time to time. Other than me shooting death glares at anybody that dares suggest we walk into a gift shop, and spending a lot of energy finding ways to cut costs, we live a pretty great life: all of our needs are met, as are many, many of our ridiculous wants.

Perhaps a salary of around $150K is, in fact, a salary needed to make ends meet given our family situation and the lifestyle we want to lead and provide for our children, and I should feel proud of myself for making it stretch so much farther. I can’t tell you how many sentences of mine begin with “once we pay off this debt,” but…once we pay off this debt, our combined salary will be beyond sufficient. Assuming no more brain surgeries.

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