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Simple Ways to Spend Less on Your Children

Kimberly Palmer

Children born in 2012 will cost middle-income parents about $241,080 over the first 17 years of their lives, and that doesn't even include college. The latest figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, released last year, include costs for food, housing and other expenses considered necessities. Child care, education, health care and clothing were among the largest increases compared to the previous year. Even accounting for inflation, the cost of children has risen steeply since the department first started tracking figures in 1960.

Housing is a key factor in the overall cost of children, points out money and time management expert Laura Vanderkam, since it makes up about a third of the total cost estimate. "Many people buy that family house in the suburbs when they start raising a family," she explains, and since housing prices rose in the 1990s and early 2000s, so did the cost of having children.

Back in 1960, when the first report was released, a middle-income family spent just $25,230 in 1960 dollars, or $195,690 in 2012 dollars, on the first 17 years of a child's life. Child care costs barely existed, and health care expenses were far less. Housing was the largest expense, then as now.

[See: 12 Money-Saving Ideas for New Parents .]

Spending also varies widely by families' income level; middle-income parents earn between $60,640 and $105,000. Families earning less than $60,640 will spend an average of $173,490 on the first 17 years, and high-income families earning over $105,000 a year will spend close to $400,000, the USDA reports.

In addition to those hefty costs, parents also pay more now for convenience for items like prepared baby food, and because the baby product industry has exploded, says Molly Thornberg, founder of the Digital Mom Blog. "Every mom wants their kid to look cute, and all that cuteness comes with a price. There are hair bows, sunglasses, cute socks, diaper covers, personalized bibs and burp rags," she says, adding that even many luxury designers now sell lines of baby couture.

Thornberg, the mother four children, says her most wasteful purchases include items that didn't exist when she was a baby, such as a battery-operated nasal aspirator, which didn't work as well as the old-fashioned plastic kind, and a Diaper Genie, which she says failed to contain the smell of dirty diapers.

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To minimize child raising costs, Thornberg suggests finding hand-me-downs from a friend, especially for pricey but sturdy baby gear such as swings and bouncy chairs. Smaller items such as diapers and wipes can be purchased in bulk at a discount through online sellers like Amazon.

Heidi Murkoff, author of "What to Expect When You're Expecting," recommends focusing on just a handful of essential purchases, including a car seat ($90 to $350), stroller ($100 to $1,000), a crib and other nursery furniture ($150 to $3,000), diapers and clothes. "The best things in child rearing -- the hugs, cuddles, kisses -- are still free," Murkoff says. "Little babies are big business these days, putting the pressure on parents to buy, buy, buy, whether they need to or not ... the plethora of pricey products has become pretty overwhelming for parents who understandably want the best for their little ones," she says.

Wipes warmers and baby skinny jeans are among the items that parents can skip, Murkoff adds. "If babies were meant to wear skinny jeans, they would have skinny legs," she says.

The good news for parents is the Agriculture Department also found that the more children a family has, the less they cost. That's largely because children share bedrooms, clothes and toys, and families can also qualify for sibling discounts at schools and child care centers.

[See: Quiz: Are You Spending Too Much on Your Children? ]

Thornberg says in her own family, that pattern held true: When her oldest daughter was born, she had a designer nursery, many baby toys and dresses for every occasion. Then, by the time her fourth child was born, she and her husband realized how little the baby really needed. She didn't buy any baby shoes, since babies don't walk, and all his toys and clothes came from his older brother. "His entire nursery was done for under $500, whereas we spent $400 just on baby bedding for our first child," she says.

Vanderkam, a mother of three, says those cost-savings are also born out of necessity. "Most people don't get raises when they bring another kid home from the hospital. There simply isn't enough additional disposable income to keep spending the same amount per child as you would on one," she says. Plus, she adds, there's no evidence younger siblings suffer as a result.

"That seems to suggest that what we spend on kids matters less than we probably think," Vanderkam says.

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