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The Hidden Costs of Having a Baby—Part 1

Categories: maternity leave, pregnancy


You guys have given me a lot of good advice over the past few weeks. Now it’s my turn to pay it forward.

A reader at another site I contribute to recently posed the question “How much does it cost to have a baby?” At first it sounded like a pretty innocent and straightforward query, with an answer dependent mostly on whether your taste and budget tends toward the hand-me-down umbrella stroller or latest-model Bugaboo, the backpack-as-diaper bag versus this season’s hottest pattern by Petunia Picklebottom. Not so. A few years ago when I asked some parent friends how much it cost to have their first baby, I remember them saying how surprisingly inexpensive it had been to raise their daughter, who was then about a year and a half old. “Diapers cost practically nothing,” Jim told me, “and you can get just about everything else used.” When my sister-in-law had her first baby last year, she echoed that sentiment: between gifts, hand-me-downs, and Freecycle, she was able to prepare for the arrival of her daughter at the low, low cost of about $400 American. (Granted, she lives in England, where the dollar is weak, but still…$400‽ Can it be true‽)

As for us, we’ve already experienced the extraordinary generosity of friends and family when it comes to feathering the nest for a new baby: we’ve received donations of everything from maternity clothes to a full-sized crib, and boxes upon boxes of baby clothes, blankets, toys, gear, and gift certificates. We’ve bought a lot ourselves, of course (especially on that first giddy shopping spree after finding out the sex of our baby), but even then a lot of our purchases have been from clearance racks, outlets, consignment stores, and eBay. We’ve even made a lot of things ourselves—we rehabbed and modified an old dresser for a changing table, and Simon sewed the baby the coolest guitar onesie you’ve ever seen—and yet…preparing for the new addition has still cost us an awful lot of dough.

What surprised me—and what may surprise those of you who haven’t yet been through this yourselves—is that the bulk of our money isn’t going where you think. It’s not paying for furniture or gadgets or feeding supplies. It’s instead going toward three things that, no matter how hard you look, you can’t borrow or buy used or on sale. You can’t find them on Craigslist, and you can’t register for them at Target or BabiesRUs. You definitely can’t handcraft your own out of pipe cleaners and glue. And here’s the real kicker: Unlike a fancy stroller or state-of-the-art, full-color, digital-sound, vibrating nursery monitor with CIA-quality nightvision, most of us can’t have a baby without them.

What are they? Here’s Part 1 of “The Hidden Costs of Having a Baby,” or “What I Think About in the Wee Hours of Third-Trimester Insomnia When Nothing Good Is on TV and the Baby Shows No Sign of Getting Over the Hiccups Anytime Soon”:

1. Maternity leave.

You’re getting time off work to recover from labor and to bond with your new baby! Hooray! Unfortunately, it may not be as much time as you’d like, and you’re probably also taking a pay cut. Depending on how your state government and/or employer allow you to combine unused vacation hours, sick leave, Paid Disability Leave, and time off in accordance with the federal Family Medical Leave Act, your monthly earnings are probably going to be compromised for the weeks or months you staying home. For freelancers and consultants, that income might even drop to zero.

If you’re trying to figure out how much a baby costs (or, if you’re really proactive, trying to figure out how much you should squirrel away in a savings account even before you get pregnant), it’s a good idea to research your state and company policies regarding maternity leave and do some rough calculations now. And don’t forget about your partner; he or she might want to take partially or un-compensated leave as well, which will further impact your available cash.

Sure, once the baby arrives you might not be going on vacation or even out to eat as often as you did in your former life, but don’t let that give you a false sense of savings security. If you’ve never worked from a budget before, now might be the time to start. Finding ways to shift and stretch your dollars can not only give you general peace of mind but help you feel as though you’re not a total drain on the family finances. If you’re up all night during maternity leave, it should be to feed, change, and soothe your child, not to stress about how much money you’re not making.

Maternity leave: It’s a blessing and a curse, but it sure beats the alternative.

(Check back later for “The Hidden Costs” Parts 2 and 3.)

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7 comments so far...

  • In Canada, if you are an employee, the government gives you nearly a year of paid leave. 55% of your original wage, up to a limit…which was far less than I was making when I went on mat leave.

    Some companies (and government agencies) will top up the payment to almost 100%, but you usually have to commit to going back for a certain length of time.

    Looking forward to the other hidden costs :)

    Angella  |  October 29th, 2008 at 12:31 pm

  • Oy. I hear ya on the maternity leave. The same day I revealed my pregnancy to my employer, I also (finally) inquired with HR about their maternity leave benefits. The mood of the day went from celebratory to OMG, my company offers me NOTHING in the way of benefits, OMG.

    Sure, I can take off 12 weeks and still keep my job, in accordance with FMLA, but here in the state of Washington, it’s up to the employer as to whether or not they will pay for some of the time off. I was devastated, especially since my company is one of those really progressive cool companies that let us take time off during the day to do fun things, like company bowling and advanced movie screenings.

    But, thankfully, my boss championed a change of policy, and lucky for me, I now get four weeks of my leave paid. This in addition to being able to take all of my vacation and sick time. In the end, about half of my 12-week leave will be paid, but that still leaves about six weeks of no second income, the prospect of which is really scary.

    Don’t even get me started on childcare costs. I’m in total denial.

    Jen  |  October 29th, 2008 at 12:51 pm

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    backpack and diaper bag | Bookmarks URL  |  October 29th, 2008 at 5:58 pm

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    nursery furniture | Bookmarks URL  |  October 30th, 2008 at 6:13 am

  • The cost that I didn’t truly appreciate was the childcare. We have a stay-at-home nanny and we pay her medical insurance too.
    And now we double up because we’ve got the costs for pre-school/music/dance/sports classes that *she* takes them to and from… Aaggghh!

    spacegeek  |  October 30th, 2008 at 3:26 pm

  • Yes, wish I’d read this before I had my second kid. In California (where my first was born) you get decent disability benefits. A portion of your wages, but still some cash coming in. In Colorado (where my second was born), a big fat $0. Since I had not signed up with my company’s disability plan, then had pre-existing condition (pregnancy) during open enrollment, we had not one cent coming in from my job for our 2nd maternity leave. 6 years, later it feels like we’re still paying off the debt. However, I could never replace those 12 weeks with my daughter, so I don’t regret it for a second.

    Kim  |  November 5th, 2008 at 4:47 pm

  • Yay for California! Although it’s not as great as Canada, I got 12 weeks paid maternity leave (6 weeks disability + 6 weeks Paid Family Leave) and my husband got 6 weeks paid paternity leave (Paid Family Leave)! Although it wasn’t full pay, it sure was something.

    I would totally take the 1 year in Canada and pledge to return to work for the company if they “topped off” my pay.

    Robyn  |  November 18th, 2008 at 3:26 pm