Baby goes buy buy: once a child arrives, parents must turn their focus from retrofitting the bathroom, dining out and fancy vacations to budgeting for diapers, formula and day care - Life - various; parenting - Statistical Data Included

Baby goes buy buy: once a child arrives, parents must turn their focus from retrofitting the bathroom, dining out and fancy vacations to budgeting for diapers, formula and day care - Life - various; parenting - Statistical Data IncludedJack Kelly shocked his parents. Actually, it wasn't Jack, now 1 year old, but the expenses surrounding his arrival that caught them off guard. Neither his mother, Linda Sinoway, nor her husband, Doug Kelly, anticipated the cash outlays involved in having children.

"Before Jack was born, we were in shock at what it cost to create a place for this baby coming into your life," says Sinoway, who lives with her family in Washington. "Then, after his arrival, having never been around babies before, we were shocked at how quickly he grew and changed and the cost associated with all that."

For many couples, the plunge into parenthood is as much an economic as an emotional consideration, endlessly debated, calculated and analyzed. The evolving priorities inherent in parenting require evolving financial decisions, including spending and saving adjustments.

Economist Mark Lino and his colleagues at the Agriculture Department have crunched the costs of raising a child in the United States. Their estimate for the "middle-income group," taken from the Expenditures on Children by Families 2001 Report, is $9,030 for one year for housing, food, transportation, clothing, health care, child care and miscellaneous expenses.

The Agriculture Department breaks down the total this way: 37 percent for shelter and furniture, such as baby cribs; 12 percent for food; 13 percent for transportation, including car seats; 5 percent for clothing, including diapers; 7 percent for health care; 15 percent for child care; and 11 percent for miscellaneous expenses.

Although family financiers say there is no distinct "right" time to start a family, they agree that couples can do themselves a favor by setting financial goals and spending wisely. "If you're waiting for a magic signal that it's a perfect time to have a baby, there's no perfect time," says Ann Douglas, author of Family Finance and other parenting books, and the mother of four. "A lot of dads think they're terribly irresponsible unless they've saved for college already, and people think that if they're going to be `good' parents, they have to buy the best of everything. That's just not true--you can spend as much or as little on your family as necessary. Another thing: Sometimes people think your life won't change that dramatically--it will be kind of like your old life but with a cute little baby. As we know, it changes everything."

Robert Weagley, chairman of the Department of Consumer and Family Economics at the University of Missouri in Columbia, takes another tack. "Couples are ready when they are managing their finances in such a way as to support the goals that they have deemed to be most important," he says. That includes standard financial management, such as emergency funds, adequate insurances in place and a retirement-savings plan. "I call it the sort of mental and goal-setting plan to your life, rather than a cow-path method of following the cow in front of you," says Weagley, who doubles as a financial planner and investment adviser.

Jack was in the plan for Sinoway and Kelly. The couple were home owners, established in their careers, and purveyors of savings plans and retirement and life-insurance policies. They had an eye on a budget. "We were both in our mid-30s and knew that we wanted to start a family and that we shouldn't put it off much longer," Sinoway says. "We had all our ducks in a row."

The initial outlay included buying a crib and a glider, she recalls. "Someone loaned us a changing table, and people were very generous, throwing us several baby showers. We received a good portion of the things we needed as gifts, but we still had to go back and spend hundreds of dollars getting the rest of the stuff. We did splurge on a high-end car seat for Jack, based on safety ratings, but as far as the initial costs, it really was the little things that added up for us: items from crib and bassinet sheets to safety equipment, to sleepers and clothes, to age-appropriate toys and books for Jack."

Soon, the basics became a big deal. "One thing I think that has been incredibly shocking was when I had to introduce formula and jars of baby food," Sinoway says. "That was mind-bogglingly expensive. We'd go to Costco and buy it in bulk. I'd buy three large things of formula, costing $75, and that would last five weeks or so. And I'd go to Safeway with my coupons and come out with 30 jars of food, but then I'd run back to the store in five days after all those breakfasts, lunches and dinners."

Then there are the baby toys, clothing and other items that compel Alan Fields, coauthor of Baby Bargains, to use the words "grandma bait"--the industry term for products that specifically are designed to entice grandparents. In general, people are spending more on children than ever before, Fields says. "The juvenile-products industry has tripled its size in terms of dollars. It's a $6 billion-a-year business. You can see that when you walk into a baby store."

Fields says the last 10 years in the industry have seen an influx of foreign-made products. Strollers imported from New Zealand cost $300 to $400, while a Graco stroller made in Mexico still goes for about $50. An imported wrought-iron canopy crib sells for $1,300, compared with inexpensive domestic crib at about $100.

As for car seats, a standard model costing $50 or so can be trumped by one manufactured by a European racing company, full of adjustments and super padding, for $350. It's a hard sell, and a successful one, Fields says. "The baby-products business preys on emotions. It says, `Don't you want the very best for your baby?'"

Jeffrey Feinstein, owner of the baby superstore Buy Buy Baby, sees the boom in products as a positive, not a negative. "Parents are excited about the new products out there," he says. Each of his stores contains about 20,000 products, he estimates. "Having a kid is very overwhelming. When you can walk into one store and there's so many items that can help you with a problem or help make the job of parenthood easier--one, you don't feel alone, and two, you're happy to have a selection of items to try and see which one works for you, because all babies are different and all parents have different preferences."

To avoid breaking the bank, new parents need to determine what products are masquerading as necessities and what products their babies really need, says Douglas, the parenting author. "Most of us learn how to live without baby-wipe warmers. What you want to do is get some advice from parents in the trenches--they can tell you what you really need and what is a total waste of money. Poll your friends, especially those who've had babies in the last couple of years, because they're using the latest and greatest products."

RELATED ARTICLE: Working Parents Cry Out for Help

"The time has come for society to recognize the significance of those who care for children when their parents are not available, and the importance of stability and quality in these relationships," the National Academy of Sciences stated in October 2000. A few months later, however, a Gallup Organization poll showed increasing support for the idea of at least one parent staying at home full time with children.

These positions reflect Americans' ongoing love-hate relationship with child care. In theory, most Americans don't want to turn their children over to professional child-care workers. In reality, around 13 million children younger than age 6 spend at least part of their week in nonparental care, according to federal data.

Child care reemerged as a top domestic policy issue with this year's reauthorization of the 1996 welfare law, which includes a $4.8 billion Child Care and Development Fund. As always, the main agenda for child-care advocates and their congressional allies is money--perhaps as much as $4 billion more a year for child care.

What continues to be missing, though, is a public outcry about the lack of government child-care funding. There's no groundswell of public sentiment for more federally supported child care, according to the Family Research Council. Instead, the signs point to a shift toward mothers caring for their own children at home:

* In 1998, the Census Bureau found that 59 percent of new mothers had returned to work or were seeking jobs within a year of their children's births. By 2000, the number of such mothers had dipped to 55 percent.

* Of 1,015 Americans surveyed in a 2001 Gallup poll, 41 percent said it was ideal for one parent to stay at home full time "solely" to raise the children. This was higher than in July 1991, when 39 percent said a stay-at-home parent was best.

"It's time to recognize that `quality child care' is provided every day by parents" and child-care discussions "must include the needs of those who do not pay others to care for their children," says Cathy Myers, executive director of Family and Home Network.