What could a young couple do with $266,698?

They could buy a nice house. Take a luxury trip around the world. Drive off with a fleet of fancy cars.

Or, they could have a baby.

According to BabyCenter, a Web site devoted to parenting and child-rearing, $266,698 is the basic estimate of what it would cost a Southern Nevada couple to raise a child through age 22, including four years of college.

If the number seems staggering, it's because, first of all, it is. But it's also jarring because most parents-to-be probably don't think of placing a dollar-and-cents figure on their progeny.

Tom Salway of ING Financial Partners, who teaches a class in money management at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is convinced most first-time parents don't ever think of breaking down the total costs of having, and then raising, children.

"If parents really knew what they're getting themselves into," he jokes, "there'd probably be a lot less people having children."

Poppy Helgren certainly knows. Helgren, a registered nurse in Valley Hospital Medical Center's post-partum unit who also teaches baby preparation classes, has eight children ranging in age from 10 to 31 and is expecting her ninth in July.

Having and raising a child is "much more expensive" than it used to be, says Helgren. Not only have the costs of child-related basics -- everything from food to clothing to health care costs -- increased, but "people expect more and want more material things than they did, say, 20 years ago when my first kids were very young."

Helgren suspects most first-time parents don't have as solid a handle on the costs of having a child as they might think.

"People think, 'OK, it's going to cost me this much for the doctor, and then I've got to buy a crib and maternity clothes and all that,' " she says. "Nobody thinks beyond that."

Not about clothing. Or piano lessons and soccer league fees. Or broken arms, tonsillectomies, and many, many bouts of the flu. Or fees for school activities and class trips, vacation souvenirs, birthday parties, day care and baby-sitting, summer camp or braces, either.

"There's a lot of stuff you just don't think about," Helgren says.

"We joke around here at work. People will say, 'My God, if we didn't have children, we'd be driving the most expensive cars and have a big house and have all of that stuff.' "

Online calculators offer a general, if ultimately fuzzy, idea of what it costs to have and raise a child. For example, a calculator at BabyZone (www.babyzone.com/cost-of-baby-calculator) pegs the cost through age 18 at $190,528.

A calculator at another site, BabyCenter (www.babycenter.com/cost-of-raising-child-calculator) came up with the $266,698 figure, with estimated first-year costs at $11,973.

Talk about intimidating.

"I haven't even earned that since I've started working, and that would have scared me off," admits Martha Silva, outreach membership specialist for the Girl Scouts of Frontier Council, who has an 11-year-old daughter and a 19-month-old son.

Silva suspects that men may be more immediately attuned than women to the financial impact of having a child.

"I think men and women think differently," she says. "Men actually put a dollar amount on it. We just don't: 'We're having a baby.' That's it."

Salway has noticed that older first-time prospective parents tend to be more aware than younger parents-to-be of the financial responsibilities of having a child.

People who get married later in life -- who wait until they're in their mid-to-late 20s -- "I see those individuals have a much better grasp of what they're looking at," he says.

And, Deborah Danielson, a certified financial planner and president of Danielson Financial Group, says second- and third-time parents often may be more attuned than first-time parents to the dollars-and-cents effect of having children.

However, as intimidating as those online calculators can be, here's something even scarier: They probably low-ball the total because they don't necessarily take into account the unplanned expenses of daily life.

For example, one calculator estimates annual food costs at $2,008 per child from birth through age 18. But, says Danielson, who has raised four kids to adulthood, when her son "would have buddies over -- which is good; I like to know where they're at -- he'd bring over two or three of his buddies and eat you out of house and home."

Kids also can affect the family's budget in subtle ways parents can't immediately see. For example, Salway says that, with his six children, vacation transportation means two taxis or a larger car, while dining at even a midrange restaurant means "you drop $100 easily."

Salway suspects the bottom-line figure would vary according to the gender of the child as well. "No question. I have four daughters and two sons, and my daughters have always been more expensive," he explains. "They need so many more things."

And, of course, the bottom-line figure can be altered by the decisions parents make for their children. Silva's daughter, for instance, attends Catholic school, which costs $320 monthly, and her son's child care costs $180 weekly.

On the upside, giving some thought to the costs of child-rearing can be just the incentive a parent needs to manage family finances wisely. Silva, for one, has become adept at bargain-hunting.

"You'll be surprised where you could come up with or cut down without even realizing it," she says.

Silva and her family have cut back on cable TV service. And, while they've found health care costs here higher than they did in California, "one thing I like here in Las Vegas is you can find clothing dirt-cheap."

"I never thought I'd be visiting the outlet stores, and that's what I do," she says. "I'm real big on sales now."

Thinking about child-raising costs also can prompt parents to develop a financial strategy for a child's future.

When should a prospective parent start planning? "If a couple truly decides they want to get married and want to have a child, they should make that decision right now, at that moment," Salway says.

Danielson suggests parents open a 529 plan for a child's college education. "You put money in, and everything you put in grows tax-free as long as it's used for college, books and tuition" she says.

Danielson says couples who are considering starting a family also should work to eliminate their credit debt and create an emergency account at the bank, at least to cover the time mom may have to take off work.

But planning for a child's future shouldn't prevent a couple from planning for their own as well.

"I think some parents are really denying their own retirement, and that's scary, because you can always borrow for college if you have to but you can't borrow for your own retirement," Danielson says.

And, if the dollars and cents become too overwhelming, there's this other reality: Nobody, ever, feels he or she is ready to assume the financial responsibility of caring for a child.

"There's never going to be a time when you feel totally prepared," Danielson says. "If you wait until you're totally prepared, there wouldn't be any kids."

Helgren agrees.

"I don't think you can ever sit there and say, 'Yeah, I'm ready,' " she says, "unless you're Angelina Jolie or someone like that."

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0280.


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