From A Financial Perspective, How Many Years Should You Wait Between Kids?

Is it a high cost (in terms of effort, time, exhaustion) in the early toddler years in exchange for greater returns in the future?

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After I had my daughter in 2009, it wasn’t long until my husband started bringing up the topic of a second baby. One of his biggest priorities is giving his children what he didn’t have growing up, and as an only child, he was eager to get going with the sibling project.

I, on the other hand, was totally gobsmacked by the realities of child-rearing, and couldn’t possibly imagine going through the experience of pregnancy, labor and infant care again anytime soon. When I realized our annual expenditure for preschool and childcare in San Francisco would top out around $25,000, I was even more convinced that waiting a while to expand our brood would be prudent.

Yet, as I amassed loads of emotional and career-related reasons for delaying #2, I had trouble finding sound financial backing for my position.

The Questions I Asked Myself

Everywhere I looked, moms talked about the lower marginal costs of having more kids. Lisa Belkin laid out the facts in a piece for The New York Times, in which she described how author Laura Vanderkam decided to have a third child after looking at her finances. With all their baby and toddler items already purchased, and discount rates for multiple kids at daycare, it would only cost the Vanderkam family another few thousand to support another kid.

Soon, moms who’d given birth around the same time as me started getting pregnant again and preparing for double trouble. There seemed to be a consensus in my cohort that spacing children about two years apart was the best overall, and indeed, 30 months is the American average. Health experts advise women to wait at least 18 months between pregnancies to recover physically and rebuild sufficient nutrients and iron.

But to me, the drawbacks of a two-year spacing seemed enormous in the short run–I cringed every time I saw a mom toting two kids under three. She always looked tired and overwhelmed.

Is it a high cost (in terms of effort, time, exhaustion) in the early toddler years in exchange for greater returns in the future? Sure, there’s the lack of sleep for a few years, and one member of the couple would likely take a backseat on his or her career trajectory for awhile, but wouldn’t it be great once the kids were in school, doing similar activities and sharing clothes and toys?

In order to figure out my own family planning, I decided to chart out the financial benefits of spacing kids apart by two years, three to four, and five or more. Here’s what I found.

2 Years or Fewer Between Kids

Cost-cutting: The financial benefits here are immediately apparent, especially for moms who stay at home or work part-time. By the time baby #2 arrives, you’ve got all the supplies you need and your house is already child-proofed. Whatever your childcare arrangements, adding a second kid won’t be twice as expensive—nannies charge a few dollars more per hour, and daycare centers and preschools give sibling discounts.

But on the flip side, won’t having two kids in college at the same time eventually drain your savings account? Good news: Probably not! Colleges usually lessen the tuition load and add on more grants and loans for parents with multiple college-age kids. Though socking away more of your money in a 529 will be something you’ll want to factor into your budget.

Career: Unfortunately for working moms, two closely-spaced maternity leaves can rub managers the wrong way, and four consecutive years of little sleep can impact work performance. But, once again, if the American average between kids is 30 months—and 39% of household breadwinners are moms, you certainly wouldn’t be the only mom attempting this feat. For those who choose to go the stay-at-home route, the closer spacing consolidates the mother’s time out of the workplace.

Effort: Spacing kids closely together comes with the obvious challenge of taking care of two little ones at the same time, whereas a bigger gap might mean older sibs are more self-sufficient. All the same, you’re still in the mode of changing diapers, washing sippy cups and able to remember the details of treating infant fevers and recognizing developmental milestones.

Overall: If you space your kids two years apart or less, you will ultimately save tens of thousands of dollars. All the same, you’ll want to consider the potential cost to your–or your partner’s–career.

3-4 Years Between Kids

Cost-cutting: This spacing generally produces less chaos in the home than a two-year gap, because the older child is gaining self-sufficiency and may even be helpful when the baby arrives. Many of the same financial benefits of the two-year difference still apply here, like reduced costs for both kids in childcare, schools and college. Similarly, you already have most of the gear you’ll need. The financial drawbacks aren’t huge compared to the two year gap—you may pay more for individual kid activities since your children won’t share the same skill sets until late elementary school.

Career: Working moms generally find this spacing easier to handle, both in terms of managing maternity leave and advancing in their careers, since they have a few years to learn how to manage work and family responsibilities, in addition to possibly accumulating more savings.

Effort: It’s not huge, but there may be more years when your kids attend separate schools, increasing your time commuting, planning, volunteering, etc. This may be balanced by the fact that one kid is already a little older by the time you have a crying baby again.

Overall: This plan may cost you a little more than spacing your kids out by only two years, but if you use the time to work on your career, the job boon may balance out the extra expenses like sending them to two separate schools or paying for different extracurricular activities. The difference between these two plans may come down to your priorities, and your rationale for wanting to wait a little longer between kids.

Of course, depending on your age, one factor you’ll want to consider is your biological clock. Do you have the time to wait—or could delaying trying to get pregnant mean you would need fertility help, which can get costly? As we all know, not all pregnancies can be planned down to the minute.

5 or More Years Between Kids

Cost-cutting: You have to start from scratch with a lot of baby preparation: re-proofing your house, updating car seats, replacing lost infant items, re-schooling yourself about birth and early childhood. All of this has a financial cost. You’re also unlikely to get any discounts for multiple kids in childcare or college down the line, though you may save on babysitting when your oldest matures and can watch the younger one.

Career: This age gap prolongs the total amount of time that a mom may stay out of the workforce, but for working moms this spacing provides similar benefits as the 3-4 year gap. Younger child may benefit from the parents’ increased income as they advance in their careers.

Effort: With an extended age gap between children, each child benefits from more individual attention from the parents, and the older child is usually helpful when the baby comes along.

Overall: A long spacing between children may come with a significantly larger financial toll in terms of baby gear, general preparedness and sibling discounts. All the same, if you want the time to really focus on each child separately, having a long gap between them may provide more of a sense of starting from scratch and enjoying the child-rearing experience all over again.

What We Decided, in the End

Of course having another child isn’t a wholly rational decision—the parents’ age, birth control methods and fertility also play a huge role.

For my family, we were lucky to be able to weigh the benefits of each spacing arrangement, and have arrived at a decision: Baby #2 is due late spring 2013, when our daughter will be exactly three and a half.

Reprinted with permission from LearnVest. Want more?

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