Families dazed by the running of the bills



Back in the early 1980s, my dear old mum would dragoon her four kids into our weekly Pamplona; the running of the bills. Sourcing, buying, carrying and putting away the groceries was a drawn out affair. Then, drawing on familial Irish wisdom, she always looked at us and fervently declared, 'There's no point in buying you lot food; you only eat it.'

Empty walletMother Dear had a point; feeding the ravenous 17-year-old 'biggest brother', the 15-year-old ne'er-do-well (moi), the sweet 12-year-old-girl and the seven-year-old baby boy meant that she and Dad expended a king-sized portion of their weekly income on a soon-vanished bounty of meat, fruit, grains and veggies.

Parenting is expensive, financially and emotionally. We love our kids, and I would be fibbing if I didn't acknowledge the love and pride — the spiritual benefits — we receive from laughing with our progeny. Seeing them grow. But I'd be lying, also, if I didn't acknowledge that being a mum or dad can be hazardous to your financial, social, sexual and physical health.

Time is a resource almost solely expended in transporting young'uns. To school, church, libraries, competitions, stores and shops. To parties, concerts, sports practices, swimming pools and cinemas. Better still, take the fiscal view. It's probably the only parenting aspect we can empirically trace across Oz, with any hope of accuracy.

Is choosing to be a parent, in and of itself, now becoming a luxury lifestyle? It is a complex issue, with diverse sources of data, radically diverging standards of income and the maze of family and income support programs (e.g. middle class welfare) that were built up post-1970s.

The University of Canberra's NATSEM, the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, joined forces with AMP in 2012 to calculate the cost of raising kids. Depending on the age of kids and the income of parents, back then it cost from $86 to $1059 per week. On average, they found, parents spent from $144 to $717 per child each week.

All up, the study found the average middle class family was destined to shell out $406,000 per child, from the day you bring them home until the day they fly off to their own crib as adults (which may or may not happen, post-uni).


"I seriously doubt our Curtin Uni friends' belief that single parent households, and single income households, would see their existences as 'comfortable'."


Those figures were up more than 50 per cent from 2007. Not surprisingly, older kids cost more than babies. Also, logically, wealthier families spend more than those doing it tough, because they can.

I'd suggest that figure of $406,000 was more realistically derived than that of $1 million per kiddy, as touted by the Herald-Sun in 2009 (cost of raising a child until the age of 18). Both figures are dated. My household figure of some $812,000 (plus) is reflected widely in the lives of our relatives, friends, neighbours and peers.

It contrast markedly with an (under)estimate calculating nuanced, net-wealth figures, by Curtin University researchers Sherry Bawa and Michael Dockery. In 2014 they suggested that 'wealth is reduced by, at most, around $2000 for each year with a dependent child'.

My kids are older, both in school now, and we are fortunate that their mum is a teacher. So, by and large we no longer have to factor in the costs of childcare and childminding/babysitting. In 2016, the Sydney Morning Herald cited the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey, noting that as far as childcare goes, 'most parents [are] forced to pay twice as much as their counterparts a decade ago'.

Parenting is a growth industry (sorry). It is all the more so when you consider stagnant wages, rising utilities bills, food prices, 'soaring house prices' and an inflated rental market. To that empty wallet imagery of parents paying out for the privilege of being parents, add education, tuition and school fees, camps, excursions, leisure activities, holidays, birthdays and Christmases, transportation and vehicular emancipation (from Ls to Ps to go where you please, post km racked up, lessons taken and exams endured).

Throw in health care, pharmacy costs and dentistry (God help us if one of them needs braces; so far so good). Then there's accommodation (rental or mortgage), clothing, school uniforms, stationery, sports uniforms, sports fees, shoes, electronic gear, books and toys and burgeoning social lives (the children's, not the parents').

In my instance, the annual financial costings received an additional tick when our boy started percussion lessons this year (already a keen musician, he wanted to become a drummer also). To the purchase and maintenance/repairs of instruments, add music lessons (and sound proofing — we like our neighbours).

Our Curtin Uni researchers do point out the value of perspective, noting that 'even those on a low income in Australia can afford to have children and raise them comfortably'. Comfortably? It is true that a comparatively small percentage of Australian kids and their parents go to bed hungry; we are fortunate. That said, the hungry kids are out there.

The Salvos' 2017 Economic and Social Impact Survey (the sixth consecutive national ESIS) interviewed 1380 welfare clients, representing scores of thousands across the country. The clients had 1495 kids, with 54 per cent of those children 'affected by severe deprivation' and going 'without basic necessities due to inadequate economic resources within their family'. That means missing out on meals, medical and dental treatment. 'Many respondents commented that they would go without for themselves, so that their children did not have to.'

'Child poverty is increasing already,' the Australian Council of Social Services warned the Australian government last month, in its Minimum Wage Submission, 'and will continue to rise if minimum wages and family payments do not increase in line with wage increases generally.' 

So, on reflection, I seriously doubt our Curtin Uni friends' belief that single parent households, and single income households, would see their existences as 'comfortable'.

They also cited non-cost intensive activities, such as 'a night home with the family, a simple visit to the park, or watching your child play sport' as instances that 'may provide enjoyment that would otherwise be gained through income-intensive pursuits, such as holidays and going to restaurants.'

I love watching my son at the karate dojo each week. I love watching my daughter selecting yet another youtube musical abomination for us to listen to as we sit down for a family dinner. But the idea that those experiences somehow replace 'income-intensive pursuits, such as holidays and going to restaurants' is dislocated from both the aspirations and the reality of many Australians.

In the face of received parental wisdom, I will keep buying groceries and further tighten my belt; knowing that life is a hell of a lot tougher for many other Australians.



Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.


Topic tags: Barry Gittins, parenting



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Existing comments

"Bringing Up Baby" is a very funny film. But along with the fun, there is a very serious side and that is the responsibility, lack of sleep and financial burdens. Nevertheless, it's the best time of our lives and giving charities like the Smith Family a helping hand makes for a caring, and loving, society.

Pam | 10 April 2018  

Refreshing to see family and parenting on the ES radar, and hopefully it will stimulate further response from the magazine's readers. Barry Gittins's reflections resonate with many Australians.

John | 11 April 2018  

"To that empty wallet imagery of parents paying out for the privilege of being parents..." It takes a village. It's worth remembering that people who don't have children pay quite a lot (via tax) to educate other people's children, pay for their healthcare etc. Perhaps parents could at least acknowledge that.

Russell | 11 April 2018  

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