Shaky surpluses and dirty nappies


Bill stressYou could you call it fortuitous — or a not so happy coincidence — that on the week I'm asked to write a piece on family budgets, ours blows out.

Me? I call it life. This week's overdraft wasn't unexpected. Such is the cyclic nature of our one-and-a-half-incomes-and-two-kids lives that just when we think our savings are safe for another day, a new enrolment fee is due, the kids' jeans are suddenly a size too small and I've completely run out of nappies.

I'm also convinced that the utility bills use our letterbox to host their quarterly reunion. Why else would they arrive at the same time demanding our undivided attention?

Whether it be by design, luck or accident that we parents welcome a precious little person into the world, the two words we are taught to fear most in a single sentence are 'kids' and 'money'. There does seem to be a weird logic in it. Just when you lose an income, the cost of living goes up.

You need only read the reports and crunch the numbers to conclude that Life + Kids = Big Expense. Back in 2009, social researcher Mark McCrindle refuted the Federal Government's child-raising cost estimate of around $384,000 per child until the age of 18, saying it was closer to the $1 million mark.

For my husband and I managing the family budget isn't a matter of survival — no, certainly not that — but it's increasingly become an exercise in adaptability.

Terms like 'meal planning', 'going green' and 'free family events' are part of our everyday lexicon. We make good use of our local parks, schools, libraries and our annual subscription to the zoo. We're lucky to live in the inner city where we can take advantage of being so close to the river (free) and museums (economical).

Who would have thought we were such lateral thinkers? Certainly not us before we had children. Now, anything that can stretch the dollar is worth a second and even third consideration.

In truth, I feel I was more than ready for the changes parenthood would bring. Retail therapy was never my bag; nor were monthly trips to the hairdressers. My one regular treat was getting a shoulder massage. Now being 'worked on' by my own little 'doctor' and 'nurse' somehow meets the brief.

My husband, too, has long traded in the expensive late nights with the boys for early morning wake-ups with his boys, aged five and two.

And while it's certainly favourable to have a financial buffer when starting a family, I agree with Michael Dockery, associate professor in the school of economics and finance at the Curtin University of Technology — it doesn't feel right putting a price on kids.

Perhaps it's because parenthood came to us late in life (I was 38, my husband, 46). For us, having our first, and then our second child three years later, put us on top of the world. To this day I feel immeasurably fortunate, if not outright grateful.

It's easy to be unnerved by the cost of child-rearing, but I'm not convinced the stats are all that helpful. I mean, you could apply the math to almost anything in your life. I'd hate to think how much my cars have cost me over the years, for instance, and I'm not joking when I say my kids have been more reliable.

After all, as Dockery points out, children are so much more than the sum of their costly parts.

'There seems little justification for considering expenditure on children to be a measure of their cost, any more than going to a restaurant can be considered a cost to the patrons,' he recently told Fairfax online magazine Essential Kids. 'Restaurant-goers saw their night out as a benefit, not a burden.'

Thanks to all those bills (did I mention the birthday presents?) it'll be some time before we enjoy the 'benefit' of a restaurant meal. Ours is nothing like the situation Eddie and Tanya Harnovey find themselves in author Elliot Perlman's grim 1990s downsizing tale Three Dollars, but it will have me asking 'Do I really need that café latte?'

This much I do know. Our one-and-a-half-incomes-and-two-kids lifestyle allows us the 'luxury' of meeting our debts, being able to afford swimming lessons for our boys and having a weekly supply of good, fresh food. There'll always be warmth, laughter and friendship. And a surplus of cuddles.

Jen VukJen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including The Herald Sun, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age and The Good Weekend

Topic tags: Jen Vuk, family, parenting, Federal Budget



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Existing comments

Your last para is the crux, Jen. I was left with four children between ages nine and fifteen, when my dearly loved husband [no sarcasm in that statement]found himself a bankrupt and flew the roost. We managed in a rented property and now 30+ years later I know how fortunate we were to have to struggle. My fourteen grandchidren are not so lucky.
patricia Taylor | 09 May 2012

Many of us have been there and survived. I did it for 18 years as a single parent - it wasn't easy, but it wasn't diaabolical, either. Take one day at a time. Value what really matters. Attend to needs, not wants. Congratulations, you seem to be valuing what matters and what builds a loving family life.
Elizabeth | 09 May 2012

A beautiful reminder of the joys that children bring to us; thank you! I think having to abandon the pretence of independence, curtail fiscal excesses, and wave au revoir to spontaneity, help to mature we blokes encountering and working towards meeting the requirements and obligations of fatherhood. It's educational and reassuring to hear the female side of the equation so eloquently put, also.
Barry G | 09 May 2012

You are right Jen, there is no cost that can be placed on kids. But I must admit I viewed Mark McCrindle's pricing with scepticism, particularly because we have four kids and there's no way we will have earned what it takes and supported ourselves and our kids (including one with significant extra needs, entailing considerable extra cost) over the course of raising them. Our kids wear a lot of hand-me-downs, and like you, we are aware of money. Wouldn't change a thing though - kids truly are priceless.
Moira | 09 May 2012


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