Cheap Tricks

I recently came across the results of an Urban Institute study that set out to determine how much it costs to raise a child up to age eighteen. The numbers ranged from about $52,000 per poor child to $143,000 for a well-to-do one.

Now that these figures have been released, the demand for poor children is certain to skyrocket. But the truth of the matter is that there's no way to measure how much kids cost--only what their parents shell out for them. If a youngster is perpetually draped in $250 kiddie-boutique playwear, his final tab is going to be somewhat higher than the child who's decked out in blue-light specials.

But even 52 grand seems like quite a bundle to invest in a bundle of joy--especially when you consider that by simply cutting a few unnecessary corners, raising a child can actually be a profitable venture. All you need is common sense. And it doesn't even have to be your own. You can borrow someone else's.

For the nonce, I'll be happy to lend you mine.
|CHILD CAREWhy dump thousands into lousy child care when you can get lousy child care absolutely free?

On your way to work, stop off at the neighborhood supermarket. Tell the manager you've found a lost child, point to your kid and leave. By the time you return (sobbing hysterically over your "missing baby"), the store's day manager will have been replaced by the evening manager. No one will be the wiser.

After a while you might get a reputation for being terribly absent-minded. But so what? You'll be laughing all the way to the bank. Possible savings per child: $18,000.

|TOYSWhat do toddlers love about birthdays and Christmas? Pricey designer-label playthings that break within hours or go completely ignored? No. More than anything, they love romping in piles of giftwrap, ribbons and empty boxes. From ages one to three, wadded-up wrapping paper is truly the gift that keeps on giving. Take advantage of this phenomenon while it lasts. Possible savings: $8,500.

|CLOTHINGThere are few holidays children enjoy more than Halloween. So quit dropping hefty chunks of income on conventional duds and let your kid dress up as a new "character" every day! The list of fun, zip-budget costume ideas is endless: peasant, match girl, ghetto child, nudist, streaker, cardboard-box robot, cardboard-box monster, cardboard box. Possible savings: $28,000.

|HOUSINGYou can cash out on a bigger home to accommodate your growing family.|.|.or you can capitalize on the American youth's inborn love of adventure and the great outdoors. Erect a tent in the backyard. For even greater savings, hammer a stick in the ground and throw a sheet over it; your child's imagination will do the rest. Not only will you be helping to develop his pioneering spirit, your neighbors (or at least those under the age of nine) will think you're the coolest parent in the universe. Possible savings: $40,000.

|ALLOWANCESIt is very important that you teach your child the value of a dollar. So give him a dollar. Then tell him it's the last free cash he'll see until he wins the lottery, lucks out on a TV game show or successfully contests your will. Possible savings: $4,500.

|ENTERTAINMENTDuring a single one-week vacation, I took my three-year-old son to Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm, Sea World and the San Diego Zoo. He had a horrible time. So did I. When the boy wasn't cranky, he was either upchucking $3.50 hot dogs or asleep. And he wouldn't fall asleep until we reached the gate of our next destination.

For a later vacation, we went to the mountains. My son spent the whole week throwing rocks into a creek and dining on 35-cent campfire-roasted hot dogs. He had a great time. So did I. There's a lesson here, not to mention a possible savings of $11,350.

|EDUCATIONIt's fine to want to bestow the rewards of higher education on your children. But before you dump upward of $15,000 a year into your dream, consider these sobering facts:

Out of every ten students enrolled in college, nine goof off; three have read a lightly or nonillustrated book in its entirety; two read the book without moving their lips; one can remember the title; seven drop out of school before graduation; two earn useless degrees; one gets a degree in a potentially lucrative but hopelessly overcrowded profession and ultimately finds work as a grade-school crosswalk guard; and all ten become huge disappointments to their parents.

Conversely, out of every ten youths who do not enroll in college, ten goof off--but only eight become huge disappointments to their parents (who probably assumed their kid would end up in prison or journalism). Possible savings: $90,000.

|MEDICAL CAREExpensive stuff, no two ways about it. Luckily, the billing departments of many medical institutions are staffed by incompetents. Either 1) your child's records will be lost forever, 2) you will receive someone else's bill or 3) you will be outrageously overcharged.

Whatever the case, send them an indignant letter. They will reply with an indecipherable letter (no doubt composed by a college student). This back-and-forth correspondence can be stretched out for years. By the time everyone agrees on who owes what to whom, your child will be old enough to assume responsibility for his own debts. Possible savings: $32,000.

|DENTAL CAREThe marketing strategy known as "planned obsolescence" was inspired by baby teeth. No matter how much you spend on those itty-bitty pearly whites, they're going to fall out. And when the second set appears, you're gonna need every cent you can scrape together for the kid's orthodontist. So until then, let 'em rot. Don't throw good money after disposable body parts. You can further pad your bankroll by skipping the "tooth fairy" routine. At 25 cents apiece, 20 teeth will set you back 5 bucks. On top of that, your child will become a greedy capitalist who yanks out incisors whenever he's low on funds. So instead of slipping moolah under his pillow for every lost tooth, substitute, oh, a slab of calf's liver or a large, dead insect. That way, when his teeth start falling out, he may even Super Glue them back in. Possible savings: $7,508.

If you've been following me with a calculator, you're aware that these simple, top-of-the-head ideas could save single-child parents a whopping $239,858. This means they could produce an additional 3.7 poor children or 1.3 well-to-do children. . .and still break even!

Don't mention it. I'm here to help.

From ages one to three, wadded-up wrapping paper is truly the gift that keeps on giving.

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Michael Burkett