I’m Worried I’ll Never Be Able to Afford Kids

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Delia, 30, is a photographer who lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with her fiancé, Brendan, who works at an ad agency. Like many of their peers, they live pretty much month-to-month, but they also enjoy their lives — they eat good food, go out with friends, and save up for the occasional cool trip (Thailand this past year, where Brendan proposed). Delia is excited to get married and start the next phase of their lives together, but the financial implications of what that means — namely, kids — are terrifying. The bills that she hears about sound insane — when she Googles the cost of day care in New York City, it’s more than her rent (upwards of $2,000 a month!). What about food, and all the other stuff that kids need? It’s so overwhelming. And yet, people do it, somehow.

Basic expenses aside, Delia also struggles with the fact that they probably won’t be able to provide the kind of childhood that she had — for example, her parents were able to send her and her sister to camp and pay for their college tuition. What would she and Brendan have to sacrifice in order to swing that? And would it be worth it? She knows that there’s no “right” time magic dollar amount for a kid, but is there a way to know how much to save before they have one? Or can they just wing it and jump in, in the midst of their Seamless-ordering, Uber-taking, month-to-month spending lifestyle?

At a book club in my mid-20s, I remember a slightly older woman with a newborn son announcing that she and her husband had sworn off sparkling water to save money. “We looked at our budget, and it really adds up!” she said. My 25-year-old self was aghast — compared to the drinks I was spending my money on, any kind of water seemed virtuous. Her budget cut was my frugal night in. Did the sacrifices of motherhood really come down to carbonation, with every cent meticulously calibrated? To me, this was an alien level of financial consciousness.

Until a few years ago, my childbearing peers seemed impressive and almost foreign, as though they’d moved to a country in a distant time zone. How they made it work was beyond me; hearing people talk about 2 a.m. feedings and 5 p.m. day-care pickups was like watching drivers read street signs in another language. But as I rounded 30, the fuzzy picture of parenting began to look less intimidating, in part because more of my close friends and colleagues started paving the way with cute babies of their own (and still manage to buy the occasional Pellegrino — and more). Studies back this up: According to research by psychology professor Gary Brase, having positive experiences with other people’s babies makes you more likely to want one of your own. (His study also shows that if experiences with kids are negative — say, your friends’ offspring are screaming and pooping every time you see them — you might change your tune.) The same goes for your friends’ experiences of parenthood, too. Delia, take a look at the moms in your life: Are they incredibly stressed out? Do they constantly talk about money, and how tight it is? This is probably contributing to your anxiety.

Meanwhile, take a minute to pat yourself on the back. You’ve found a partner you love, a career you enjoy, a group of friends in a city you like, and financial habits that sustain you. By most measures, you’re doing swimmingly. And frankly, if you’d already socked away money for a hypothetical child that you don’t even plan to have for a few more years, that would be weird. Imagine everything you might have missed in the process, like the long dinners that helped cement some of your best friendships, or that trip to Thailand, or even meeting Brendan in the first place. Saving money is important, but you have to balance it with the financial to and fro of living a full life, which can sometimes be messier than expected.

Which brings us to the center of your dilemma: “Are you really ever prepared, financially, to bring a child into the world?” asks Kristy Archuleta, a licensed family and marriage therapist and associate professor of personal financial planning at Kansas State University. “The answer is no. You can prepare, but how do you determine what’s good enough?”

Brittany, 31, is a director of customer relations at a branding firm in New York and feels a similar amorphous fear when it comes to the future. “I’m not even sure where to start — what changes I’d have to make, or what I’d have to give up in order to afford kids,” she says. She and her husband talk about it, but only in broad brush strokes — and the timing is still shaky. “I definitely worry that we should be saving more and spending less, but we also have a ‘do it now’ mentality,” she says. “We have a calendar with a list of all the places we want to go in the next two years, and we’re working our way through them. Maybe the timing has an unspoken significance — like a pre-kid checklist. All of our friends who have kids are like, ‘Do it while you can!’”

To address the other part of your question, Delia, that isn’t to say you should just have babies without any plan at all. According to Kristin O’Keeffe Merrick, a financial advisor at Raymond James, you’re actually at the sweet spot of your pre-kid savings period. “It makes sense to put together a two-to-three-year plan in terms of savings targets,” she says. “Also, think about where you will live.” Before she and her husband had their first child, they moved from their pricey walk-up apartment in Soho to the more kid-friendly Upper West Side and started saving up to buy a house.

If meeting savings goals means you delay kids for a year, that’s not a bad thing. “We’re seeing this increasingly with millennials — people in their 20s and early 30s — who are prolonging having children,” says Archuleta. “They might be waiting for stable jobs, stable relationships, and some savings. I’d certainly recommend having health insurance and an income at the very least. Ideally, you should also have three to six months of expenses saved up, regardless of whether or not you have kids — and that amount will obviously change once you do. Look at your budget and think about the new costs that you’ll be incurring.” You can play around with estimates using a child-cost calculator, and practice factoring it into your expenses; then, instead of spending that money, try to bank it. If you’re feeling ambitious about paying for your child’s college education, Merrick also recommends setting up a 529 plan, which will give you a tax deduction on those savings.

Don’t beat yourself over it too much, though: “Sometimes people have irrational thoughts about what children cost,” says Archuleta. “They do cost a lot, but how are you going to reprioritize to meet those expenses? You might be shifting some of your funds, because you won’t have time to go out to dinner or entertainment — you’ll be home changing diapers. Remember that some of this money will come from other places.”

Of course, plenty of people don’t plan so thoroughly, and roll with it — like my friend Courtney, 33, an interior designer who lives in Brooklyn with her husband and 2-year-old daughter. “In terms of money, we had no idea,” she says. “We were blindsided by the finances of it. The day-to-day expenses — diapers and all that stuff — is just incredible. And even before that, the doctors appointments were so expensive. Obviously, a lot was covered by insurance, but the out-of-pocket costs were in the thousands, especially since I had a C-section. I hope things are different by the time my daughter’s a mom, but I don’t know.”

Even after the medical bills were paid, it’s been tough, Courtney admits. “We’re still trying to figure out how to cover all of our expenses. We have some savings and 401(k)s, but we live month-to-month. There’s no great solution.” Still, she doesn’t think she would change anything. “If we could do it over, we would probably try to save as much as possible, sooner. But you just don’t know, when you’re at that stage — and then we wouldn’t have been able to enjoy that time as much.”

Indeed, investing in quality pre-kid time could make for better parenting in the long run — and that includes digging into this anxiety a little bit more. “I think it’s important for you to look at the underlying issue promoting this fear of being able to afford children,” says Archuleta. “What’s really creating and contributing to it? Is it turmoil or trauma in one’s own personal history? Try to be open and honest with your partner about it, and encourage him to do the same. A key element in reducing anxiety within couples is communicating about it.” If you hit a wall, she recommends asking a third party — like a therapist — for help. “Once you work on that, you can appreciate the state of life that you’re in right now,” she continues. “It’s good to plan, and it’s normal to anticipate, but it shouldn’t get in the way of building the very important bond with your partner that you’re going to need once you become parents.”

I’m Worried I’ll Never Be Able to Afford Kids