(Linda Stern is a freelance writer. Any opinions in the column are solely those of Ms. Stern. You can follow Linda Stern's financial notes on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/lindastern)
WASHINGTON - Kevin Costner just had his seventh child -- Oh well, he can afford it. According to a recently released Department of Agriculture report, it now costs as much as $475,680 to raise a child to age 18.
That doesn't count college. Financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz of FinAid.org estimates that parents will need an additional $127,683 (in 2009 dollars) to send a child born today to a median-priced state university when he is 18. Add to that a few travel team tournaments, the post-college boomerang kids, and that whole keep-them-on-your-health-insurance-until-they-are-26 plan, and it gives new meaning to the expression million-dollar baby.
None of this, of course, is to suggest that people should not have children until they can afford them. If that were the case, nobody would ever have kids, except for Kevin Costner.
Instead, it means that new and soon-to-be parents need to crunch their budgets carefully to make sure they are deploying the money they have strategically for the good of their kids and the entire family. Here are some pointers.
-- Personalize the info. Forget the averages; every family is different and will spend differently. Look at the calculator at babycenter.com (http://www.babycenter.com/cost-of-raising-child-calculator) and the calculator created by the USDA. (http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/calculatorintro.htm). You'll see that you can expect to spend more if you are in a two-income household, if you earn more, and if you live in an expensive area. You will spend less if you live rurally, in a low cost-of-living state. The amount you spend on your children truly is proportional to how much you make.
-- The first years are not the most expensive, they just seem that way. By the time a child is 15, parents can expect to spend 20 percent more a year on him than they did when he was an infant or a toddler. It may feel like the first year is tough, because you need to get the crib, the changing table, the diapers, the stroller, the swing ... need I go on? And they outgrow clothing about one minute after you buy it.
But that also makes the first year a prime time for saving money. Babies really don't care what they wear, and you can save thousands by using second-hand equipment and clothing. You can save even more by making your own baby food; check out tips on The Frugalbaby.com. (http://www.thefrugalbaby.com). Stash whatever you save in a college savings account, and after 17 years of growth, it should reward you nicely.
-- They are cheaper by the dozen. The Agriculture Department reports that you'll spend 25 percent more on an only child, and 22 percent less per child if you have 3 or more. Siblings can share almost anything, or at least make their peace with pre-owned equipment, clothing and toys.
-- Toys R expensive, but good for development. Save money by spending on classics like balls, art supplies and building toys, and skipping all the extra little plastic junk that ends up being ignored and underfoot. Buy used toys and disinfect them before turning them over to your kids. (You can, for example, put Lego through the dishwasher if you tie it into a bag or sock, or place it in a mesh box.)
-- Do the right math on childcare. Baby-sitting and pre-school expenses can drain most of that second salary from a family's income. But dropping the family down to one income usually doesn't help that much, over the long term. By the time the child starts school and the stay-at-home spouse heads back to work, her salary (it's usually the mom) has been set back.
-- Save on food. There are probably thousands of Web sites offering smart tips for saving on groceries; even a few dollars every week can make a difference. For starters; buy large bags of lunchbox items and split them into reusable containers yourself; go vegetarian at least one night a week for dinner; snack on home-popped popcorn instead of chips.
-- That miscellaneous category continues to be a budget buster. It includes everything from toothbrushes to cell phones. The only way to dominate that category is to plan for it. Figure out family priorities well ahead of time so all the money you will need -- for college, weddings and the like -- doesn't get blown on impulse purchases.
-- Save for yourself. Don't let those child-sized goals (even college) get in the way of your own retirement savings. Kids can grow and adapt and get jobs of their own and borrow to go to college if they must. The last thing you want to give them is the experience of having to take care of dependent aging parents just as they are starting to have kids of their own.
(editing by Gunna Dickson)