Mediocre Mom: What The Books Won't Tell You About The Real Cost Of Parenting

As school begins, the buck stops here.

As if on cue, a cavalcade of offers to share the last few weeks of summer fun came rushing in during the past week. Realizing the end was near, I managed to pack in three trips to the pool with the kids, a girls' night in, a trip to the city with an old friend and as many walks and bike rides as the weather would permit.  

Most of these things cost money. Even if the event, per se, wasn’t pricey, I managed to put a spin on the day that added to the cost: a few dollars here on a patio drink, a few there on a quick bite between meals or a trip for ice cream. All this summertime fun caused our bank account to go into dry heaves. 

But none of it can compare to the gut-wrenching feeling of opening the fat, sealed envelope from York High School, the contents of which demand more money than we paid on our first mortgage.  

Sending our kids to school is not what it was for our parents. I am not sure what your high school was like, but I am fairly certain my parents never spent $700 dollars on used textbooks. I know this because anything that cost 10 percent of that amount would have brought the house down. (I am not saying my daughter's high school isn't justified in charging this amount. I am no expert in school finances, and I simply toe the line when it comes to these charges. I love the school and fall under the category of “parent who complains, but ultimately trusts the system.”)

Let us move to ulcer-causing form No. 2 of fatly packed envelope: the dreaded sports forms. I am quite sure if my own parents were charged half of the fees stated, they would have laughed the whole experience straight into the garbage can. I am beginning to value their generation’s parenting style more each day. But knowing how much my daughter adores her sport, I toed the line again and surrendered to the cramp forming in my fingers as I wrote out another check.  

After filling out the school photo order form, the promise that my daughter would not use steroids and other various pledges, I came to a small, green slip of green paper I had not seen before. It was for making a donation to help offset budget cuts in various programs. The amounts you could choose ranged from $5,000 to $50 to “other.”

Now, I wouldn’t dream of telling you if I donated or not. But let's just say that I may be ordering one or two less ice cream cones this summer. I am not sure who is ticking the $5,000 option, but god bless you if you are able. 

As I stuffed my forms and checks into an envelope, I knew the drain train had just started its journey. We hadn’t even gone to buy school supplies or clothes. We hadn't made a single run to Target. I had yet to endure the drive-by shooting to my wallet caused by a required $100 calculator, a viral-free laptop and the gym shoes to be kept at school.

And here is the saddest part: Every crippling cost of the coming weeks will pale in comparison to the future cost that haunts me daily—their college education.   

When faced with a parental crisis of this magnitude, I turn again to my own parents to scrutinize how they adapted to their environment. Again, there is no viable comparison. Not only is college dramatically more expensive, the economy feels acutely less fruitful.  

The hardest part about budgeting for college are the unknown variables in every part of the equation. Since costs range from $3,100 a year for tuition at College of DuPage to $58,429 for Northwestern University (according to each institution’s website) it becomes nearly impossible to comprehend creating a budget. Though the word on the suburban street is that colleges find a way to help students regardless of their financial need, that does not help with sleepless nights a few years before applying. 

Call me a control freak, but I really wish we had a little more preparation for the soul-destroying costs of parenthood. But that's probably unrealistic. After all, who would create such a list? How would we adapt this list to different cities, regions and needs of so many different families? 

I wish we had more help in creating a long-term budget for our children’s financial needs. If we had a guide, I may not have had the sucker punch to the gut the day I bought my daughter’s books and hoped our credit card would not be maxed out.

We have financial planning for retirement and saving plans for buying our first home.  But with a four-year degree ranging wildly from about $12,000 to $240,000 per child, how on earth are we to plan for three children? If we went to a Realtor and said that in two years we are planning on buying a house and our budget was somewhere between $36,000 and $720,000, they would think we had lost our minds. 

Like so many worries related to our children, the most experienced, wise parents will simply give the sage advice that came to me one day this summer from a friend who put four kids through college. 

“Through tough choices, savings and help, somehow it all works out,” he told me calmly over a cold beer one afternoon. I took a deep breath and a swig of courage and prayed he was right.   

As I stuffed my fat envelope filled with checks and forms into the mailbox, I sighed and stared into the setting summer sun. The cost of parenthood just can’t be calculated; there are too many unknown variables.   

Like so many things out of our control, in the end, all we’re left with is a prayer. And, the hope that maybe our kids’ generation will come a little closer to figuring it all out.

Elizabeth Major July 30, 2011 at 03:14 PM
Every year I complain about the cost of "public" school.... I don't think I even brought a pencil to school when I was a kid and now we are paying book fees, buying paper/pencils, supplying tissue/paper towels, etc... But that will be nothing to putting my 4 kids through college. I find myself secretly hoping my 13 year old's plans (which he shared with us recently) of skipping college and working in a New York or L.A. bar and becoming "discovered" for T.V. or movies comes true! :)
William Regnery July 30, 2011 at 03:23 PM
Regarding the wide cost range of $12,000 to $240,000, per child, for a four year degree, that you suggest: On your low-end: Unfortunately, C.O.D. only offers two year associate programs, and I am unaware of any academically regarded 4 year degree sticker-priced for as low as $12,000. You may be better served to consider quadrupling this low-end figure as a start. On your high-end: If you want to see the glass as half full, the good news may be that getting into Northwestern University (or any one of the nation's Top 12 universities) is next to impossible anyway. NU received 31,000 applications for only ~2,000 freshman spots this fall. And consider that 3,300+ of the 25,400 applicants they REJECTED this year scored 2300-2400 on their SAT's. So you probably will not have to worry about receiving their bill for $58,429/year. The bad news is that many less selective schools are not substantially less expensive, if at all. I found a helpful way to plan for college expenses is to use a college financial aid calculator (just takes a few minutes). http://www.finaid.org/calculators/faaefc.phtml This will provide you with a solid figure as to your Expected Family Contribution – or the amount you will likely be expected to contribute each year towards your child’s college tuition. This figure can be eye-opening for many.
Renee Gough August 03, 2011 at 05:02 AM
Patty, I guess we all make sacrifices and hope for the best! I'm sure your parents are happy with the choice they made.
Renee Gough August 03, 2011 at 05:04 AM
Elizabeth, I can relate to your secret hopes! We looked at the cost of buying a McDonald's franchise and it costs less than a four year, private college education. Yet you would emerge with an income! Hmmmmmm, another option besides being "discovered"?
Renee Gough August 03, 2011 at 05:07 AM
William, thank you for the link to the financial aid calculator. Also, to all my readers who I respond to rather late, I am sorry! I love reader comments and am always sad to get to them a few days too late. Thank you for posting!


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