Chris Wadsworth, Special for USA TODAY
With a husband working strictly on sales commission in a down economy, money has been tight for several years now for Laura Sowa. The Nashville woman works hard to keep things as normal as possible for her two daughters, but these days "normal" is being redefined. This hit home for Sowa recently as she listened to the girls playing "shopping trip" in the next room.
"It's so funny," Sowa says. "Samantha will tell Emily, 'No, you can't buy that today. It's not on sale.' Then Samantha will make coupons for Emily to use and say, 'Now you can buy it.' They both know you never pay full price for anything."
Child's play mimicking real life-mom is an inveterate coupon-cutter, bargain hunter and all-around economizer. Times are tough for millions of families like the Sowas, and the cost of raising kids just keeps going up.
According to the latest statistics released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, parents will spend an average of $235,000 to raise a child born in 2011 to the age of 17. (And that's not taking into account any savings for college).
Housing, food, clothing, health care, child care, schooling ... the list of compulsory expenses goes on and on. Discretionary spending such as family vacations, birthday gifts, music lessons and the like are mostly extra.
Couple this whopping $235,000 with the recent, sudden downturn in the American economy, and families are facing challenges unseen in generations.
"It does give some people pause," says Dr. Joyce Cavanagh, a family economics specialist and associate professor with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension in College Station. "Every year when this study comes out, there are people who think, 'Whoa, that's a lot of money. What are we getting ourselves into?'"
The numbers in the USDA's report are eye-opening.
The $235,000 figure is an average. For the lowest income groups, raising a child will cost about $212,000. For the highest earners, the number shoots up to $490,000.
The greatest share of these expenses is housing, which is 30 percent of the total. It's followed closely by child care and education at 18 percent and food at 16 percent.
"Because of the economic insecurity of life today, there are some tough trade-offs that families are having to make," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York City. "These aren't luxury trade-offs, like not getting the fanciest strollers. These are food and 'who's going to stay with my child' issues for so many families."
Indeed, who is going to stay with the kids is one of the biggest financial hurdles parents face. In 1961, when the USDA's Expenditures on Children by Families report was first issued, child care and education costs amounted to only 2 percent of the overall cost. Today, that number stands at 18 percent.
Rebecca Sutton of Belvidere, N.J., has two sons-Landon, 4, and Brody, 4 months-with her partner, Jared Coffin. When the couple found out they were having a second child, they started doing the math and the result shocked them.
"Our day care expense for just our older son was over $1,000 a month," Sutton says. "If we had put our younger son in day care as well, it would have been about $2,200 a month. That was more than our mortgage payment."
The couple knew they couldn't afford it and made a tough choice. Sutton returned to her job as an online marketing manager while Coffin, an electrician by trade, quit his full-time job in order to stay home with the kids. He picks up side work here and there, but being a dad is his primary focus.
"He's really getting into his groove now," says Sutton. "He's enjoying spending time with both kids."
For much of the past decade, Josh Bevington was living the high life. A successful real estate agent in one of the hottest markets in the nation, he whipped around town from open houses to closing transactions. He had a thick portfolio of clients and was helping buy and sell dream homes in southwest Florida.
But in 2008, the American economy began to struggle; the bottom dropped out of the housing market and few places were harder hit than the Gulf Coast of Florida.
"We would joke around the office that we were working twice as hard for half as much," Bevington recalls. "The membership at the local board of realtors decreased by half as a lot of agents got out of the business."
As the market constricted, so did Bevington's family finances. With three young children at home, Josh's wife, Caroline, tried to return to full-time work as a pediatric physical therapist. But money woes had hit local hospitals and the hours weren't there.
So Josh and Caroline sat down with their household budget and began making tough decisions. Gym memberships? Canceled. A treadmill? Sold online for extra cash.
Running outside was free. Old cars were kept longer than planned. Friends and family helped out with baby-sitting.
Financial experts say the Bevingtons took the right steps when money issues appeared.
"That's one of the bright spots of these hard economic times," Cavanagh says. "We have seen more families developing a budget or a spending plan. That's a first step-to become more aware of how they are spending money."
From there, it's a simple next step to identify the areas where money is being wasted or the areas where one can cut back without too much sacrifice.
Finally, if circumstances require it, families can move on to making more serious cuts, reducing food and clothing budgets, moving to a less expensive home, even selling a car and taking public transportation. Painful, but often necessary.
"After we found out we were having a second son, we knew we couldn't stay where we were living," Sutton recalls. "The cost of living was way too high. Our house was too small and we wouldn't have been able to upgrade, the housing market was too expensive."
So Sutton and her family packed up their home in Maple Shade, N.J., and moved two hours away-closer to family and to a home owned by Sutton's parents.
Every family needs to find their own balance-the amount of belt-tightening they can live with while still giving the kids everything they need.
"I operate on a zero weekly budget," Laura Sowa says. "The only money I spend during the week is for gas or groceries."
And she means it.
Sowa never dashes into a restaurant to grab a quick lunch or dinner. Rather, she keeps a picnic blanket in her car along with packed lunches so she and the girls can stop at a park or the library to eat. She pours over local magazines looking for free things to do with the kids at area attractions, museums and bookstores.
When it comes to shopping, Sowa is a coupon queen. Each week, she goes through the supermarket flyers to see what's on sale. Then she plans the family's meals based on what bargains she can get. She estimates she cuts at least 30 percent off her grocery bill each week, sometimes more.
"When I get it up to 40 or 45 percent, I'm pretty proud. I make a call to my husband and tell him how much we saved," Sowa says with a laugh.
"We have seen an incredible rise in the number of people using coupons," says Cavanagh. "A dollar here and 50 cents there really does add up over the course of a year."
There are other keys to Sowa's frugalness.
Special activities such as camps or lessons for the girls often go on Christmas and birthday lists and are given as gifts by grandparents. Sowa never buys any clothing new. All of the girls' clothes are either hand-me-downs from older cousins or items purchased at consignment shops. Sowa keeps tubs in the attic of their home, labeled by size and season. Shirts, pants, dresses, jackets-they all sit there waiting to be called into action. When they are being worn, Sowa takes fastidious care of them until the girls outgrow them.
"I do a lot of soaking," she says. "I soak them in detergent to get any stains out and then they go back to consignment. I press them and hang them and price them and off they go."
The money made selling items on consignment goes toward new things the family needs. It's a never-ending loop.
While times have been tight for many families with children like the Bevingtons and Sowas, valuable lessons have been learned. Lessons about budgeting. Lessons about making do with less. Lessons about what one really needs in life to be happy.
For Josh Bevington, the downturn in his real estate business brought some hardship, but also something of immeasurable value.
"It was a blessing in disguise. I had been working way too much, working 80 hours a week," Bevington says. "I was able to step back and realize that my priorities were out of whack. I started going to church. I started spending time with the kids. I'm coaching. I'm taking an active part in their lives."
Despite what the statistics say, it turns out that the high cost of raising kids isn't always as expensive as many believe.
"What we think our children need and what children actually need can be quite different sometimes," says Galinsky. "Don't think it's always something you have to purchase for your child or something you have to schedule for them. The time spent with you-taking a walk, looking at leaves falling-will be something they will remember forever."
Cutting the cost
Sometimes circumstances dictate that we cut back to the bare minimum. Here are nine things to consider when you have to stretch your budget.
1. Don't buy a top-of-the1-line stroller.
2. Cut your child's hair.
3. Find free entertainment at parks, libraries, restaurants.
4. Keep birthday parties simple - at home, games, cake, presents, done.
5. Handle pre-school at home.
6. Shift hours instead of opting for expensive childcare.
7. Look (but don't buy) in stores, then purchase online.
8. Shop bargain racks, consignment stores and garage sales.
9. Pack lunches, buy in bulk, and consider making food from scratch.
This article was excerpted from USA TODAY's Guide to Kids' Health magazine, available through USA TODAY's online store. The premium publication features articles on kids' wellness, nutrition, fashion and more.