Let Them Eat Cake

February 26, 2013 § 8 Comments


Yesterday, I received this comment/question:

I’m not sure if this is the appropriate place to put this question, but my husband and I are just starting the ‘when are we going to procreate’ conversation, and we think that we need to gather some info about how much kids really cost. We don’t have any friends with kids who live our kind of home-steady life, but I know you just wrote a whole book about money. Did you talk about money in the context of kids? Any chance you have some thoughts on the topic that you’d be willing to share here? My husband is specifically worried that if we don’t buy land and build our little cabin before having kids, we’ll be renters for the rest of our lives.

Goodness me. Where to begin? First, to the question of whether or not SAVED includes a discussion of money in the context of kids, the answer is absofreakin’lutely, although there are so many aspects to the intersection of these two life-defining forces, I can’t really say that anyone in particular is going to find the answers they’re looking for. I know that’s not much of a sales pitch, but hey: At least it’s honest.

I guess I’ll start with a little story. Fin was born in January, 2002, right in the messy midst of constructing the addition to the humble shack that had served as shelter for Penny and me for the previous half-decade or so. He was born at home, and I clearly remember a hurried attempt on my part to tidy up the construction zone in preparation for the midwife’s arrival. This was to be her first visit to our home, and since I already sensed that she didn’t like me all that much, I wanted to make a particularly good impression. (I should note that this is entirely out-of-character for me, but what can I say? I was about to become a father; I wasn’t thinking too clearly)

So whilst Penny was laboring in the unfinished upstairs bedroom (which is to say, there was a bare room with a mattress on the floor on which we slept, so we called it a “bedroom”), accessed via a set of unfinished stairs (which is to say, there was a ascending set of wobbly rough plank treads, so we called them “stairs”), I busied myself humping the table and chop saws to the basement and consolidating the various piles of debris. Anyway, the midwife arrived, took one look around the place, and said “Well, you’ve certainly got a long ways to go.” At which point she proceeded to park herself in a rocking chair and drift off to sleep in the middle of the damn doorway to the bedroom. Every time I sucked in my gut and squeezed past her chair on my way to bring Penny something or other, I felt like tickling the tender insides of one of her big, snoring nostrils with a knitting needle. Needless to say, we retained the services of a different midwife for Rye’s birth.

I suppose the point of this story is to note that beyond being warm, fed, and clothed, kids need ridiculously little. Fin was born into a construction zone, with few of the assumed conveniences of contemporary American life. His first nights were spent in between Penny and me, on a mattress in an otherwise bare room. We had no kitchen counters, no shower, and in many rooms, there was no drywall. But he was warm, and well fed, and we held him constantly. It was plenty.

Over the years, we have worked to maintain our boys’ modest expectations regarding material goods. This is not to say they don’t have stuff; they do. But they rarely get new stuff, and the sheer quantity of what they own pales in comparison to pretty much every other child I know. We have been vigilant, if not militant in compelling our parents to comply. They simply are not allowed to give them toys or other baubles. The rules are: homemade, books, or music. Otherwise, they can pretty much forget it. Regarding clothing, I literally cannot remember the last time our boys got anything that wasn’t handed down, made by Penny or a grandmother, or came from a thrift store. Actually, that’s not true: About two months ago, Penny bought them some socks at the annual Darn Tough factory sale. I think she paid $1.50 per pair.

Look, kids are expensive, there’s no question about it. Relative to most, our kids are cheap keepers. We grow most of our own food, we don’t spend much on stuff, and they generally don’t ask for things, ‘cause they know they ain’t gonna get it, anyway.

But of course that’s not the whole story, because certainly there are expenditures. Right now, between music lessons and Fin’s wilderness school, we’re shelling out a couple grand annually. Not only that, but by choosing to educate at home, in the absence of distractive technologies such as television and other digital entertainment, we allocate enormous quantities of time to the boys. If we were of the mind to equate time with money… well, then we’d probably have the priciest offspring in town. Thankfully, the lie that time is money is one we got wise to some time ago.

Look, without knowing the gritty particulars of someone’s financial situation, it’s hard to know how to advise them. And even then, it just seems so damn personal. Really, who am I to say?

To which I will add only one more thing: I don’t know anyone who wishes they hadn’t had kids because the little buggers are too expensive. Doesn’t mean these people don’t exist, only that I haven’t met them. And if I did, I sorta suspect we wouldn’t have much in common.

§ 8 Responses to Let Them Eat Cake

  • I completely agree with Ben! Children are as expensive financially as you make them — and modern consumer culture does everything it can to persuade you that they need lots (that is, that “good parents buy this for their child.”) The truth, as Ben says, is that they need precious little materially. The real “cost” is in time. That’s what they really want, and our material-abundant, time-scarce culture will tell you that spending money on them is a substitute for time. If it is, it is a very poor one.

    But the good news is that all the time and energy investment you make in your children will be repaid ten-fold in joy. That is the great secret of parenting. Everyone talks about how hard it is to be a parent, or how expensive it is to raise children. But love and joy is the greater truth.

  • Lauren says:

    Amen. That is exactly my mindset. We live on a small farm in addition to being surrounded by bunches of conservation land. My little guy is only 3 but can hike, climb trees, cast a pole, feed various farm animals, etc. All of the things that he enjoys most cost nothing except time and patience. Some of my relatives have their kids enrolled in team sports and karate already. No thanks. All of his clothes come from thrift stores. We live in a modest 650 square foot home debt free. Life is good.

  • Dawn says:

    My husband and I thought it logical to wait to have children until our farmhouse was built. Little did we know it would be 6 years and many heartwrenching losses before we had our two boys 10 months apart. In retrospect, I feel we were chasing some sort of false sense of security in thinking we had to have everything “just right” before children came along. Ben’s story tells it best – your children need very little other than your love and time. After our second son was born last Spring, my husband took a job making 30% less salary but one where he works exclusively from home and can see the boys throughout the day. I sell produce and eggs from our farm and do farm sitting jobs for my neighbors with my sons in tow. I suppose some would say this style of parenting is expensive because we could have made the choice to prioritize making money over spending time with our boys. But, I can honestly say we feel like the richest people in the world because we have made our family, which we worked so hard to have, our first priority. I have to believe they will grow up to value the choices we made to allow us to be with them more than any trinket we could buy.

  • …and then there’s the value of having someone care for you as you age and need help. That is, if our children shun modern societal norms and continue to love us as we age. I have to model this for them as my own parents age.

    You also have to mention the entertainment value of children. Moments of unspeakable pride and joy. Fleeting moments when you are trying not to laugh as your child makes up some fantastic, obvious lie to cover whatever it was they did this time. Having a little one curl up beside you and offer you support and a little kiss on the cheek because she somehow knows that’s just what daddy needed.

  • Miriam says:

    I think that kids only become expensive when they hit adolescence, and then they’re old enough to earn money themselves:) So it all works out…

  • betsyohs says:

    Thank you very much! I know it’s not possible to answer the ‘can we afford to have kids?’ question for someone else. But it sure does help to hear how other people have managed to prioritize affording to have kids over having stuff – it just makes it all seem more possible.

  • Doug W. says:

    If people waited until they could afford kids, we sure wouldn’t have a population problem!

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