Larger families don't always come with larger costs

Friday, October 21, 2011 | 2:52 p.m. CDT

ST. JOSEPH — If the numbers projected on parenting websites are right, you could buy a pricier home than many middle-class families own for the amount it costs to raise a child from birth through adulthood. Add another kid or two to the mix, and that amount skyrockets still further.

But are those numbers right? Joleen Aberer, a married St. Joseph mother of seven, doesn't think so.

"They come up with these astronomical amounts, but there's no way that's necessary," said Aberer, who owns Blessings of St. Joseph and whose children range in age from 1 to 17. "... It's just not as scary as people think."

People also might not take into account the extent to which economies of scale can come into play in families with multiple children. It's a concept addressed in a blog post The New York Times published earlier this year using research by author Laura Vanderkam. Contemplating adding a third child to her family, Vanderkam began looking into whether — and how much — the marginal cost of kids decreases after the firstborn.

What she found from examining USDA data is that the cost per child decreases with subsequent children. Quoting her, the blog post noted that "if you have two kids, ages 13 and 16, your costs as a middle-income family will be $23,000 per year" to feed, house and clothe them. "However, if you have three kids, ages 11, 13 and 16, your costs will be $25,880 — in other words, the third kid is costing just $2,880 extra."

It's a concept that isn't exactly news to Aberer, who not only has a large family but also grew up in one — as one of 11 children. But what exactly comes into play in lowering per-child costs as a family's number increases? For both Aberer and Marla Daugherty, another St. Joseph mother of seven, the answer lies in a combination of the natural order of life in a large family and an adjustment in standard-of-living expectations.

"The more kids we have and the longer we've been parents, the more we learn how to economize and make things stretch," Daugherty said of herself and her husband, whose children range in age from 7 months to 15 years old.

Some of the savings comes in the form of items that don't need to be purchased new for every child: Cribs, car seats and clothes, to name just a few. For Aberer, especially — whose children have 65 cousins on her side of the family alone — hand-me-downs are never in short supply.

"If I've ever purchased clothes for my own children, it's always been out of want rather than need," she said, adding that in her extended family, "Whoever has the 1-year-old gets the 1-year-old stash of boxes, etc. It's like going green to the extreme: Everything is reused."

Another savings that's come naturally for both families is the cut in tuition prices they receive at the schools their children attend. Rather than having to pay full-price for each child, the Aberers receive the family rate St. James School offers families with more than two children enrolled, and the Daugherty family receives scholarships and financial aid for having children at both St. Francis Xavier School and Bishop LeBlond High School.

And then there are the tried-and-true techniques for saving money that can be especially helpful for large families, such as knowing where to shop for good deals, buying groceries in bulk and making meals stretch by incorporating relatively inexpensive foods such as rice and pasta.

Strategies like this last one illustrate a second main way larger families tend to spend less per person — namely, in that they're more likely to accept certain sacrifices as a way of life than are families with fewer kids.

For the Aberers, one such sacrifice doesn't seem so difficult.

"We're more likely to make a simple meal at home than to eat out, because even the dollar menu gets expensive," Aberer said. "It forces us to sit down at home and have meals, and I think that's a great thing."

Having a large family also means her children share rooms with siblings and don't have as many toys or other "extras" as they might in a smaller family — not only due to financial constraints but also because a household of nine doesn't have a lot of space to spare.

The Daugherty family, too, knows about making lifestyle adjustments — whether this means cutting their boys' hair at home rather than going to a barber or relying on their teenage daughters for child care rather than hiring a sitter. But once an already-large family has adapted to a certain kind of living and the constraints that come with it, adding one more child to the mix doesn't necessarily contribute much financial strain (Aberer notes, in fact, that her family's financial situation didn't seem to change much with the addition of any child after the fourth).

From her research, Vanderkam found lifestyle adjustments such as these to be the norm for large families, and she notes a couple of other major ones: "Most of them don't plan to pay for college," she said. "They also tend not to buy plane tickets for 16 people. ... You might bring two kids to Europe. You'd bring four kids to your nearest state or national park."

Such trade-offs might not always be easy, but for large families, they do come with pay-offs.

"We know having the children we have requires some sacrifice now," Daugherty said of herself and her husband. "But we also know it comes with rewards, both now and later. We feel you don't regret the children you have, but you might someday regret the children you don't."

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