The Pros and Cons of Waiting to Have Children

a man rests his head on his pregnant wife’s belly as they lay on a bed

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My mother always said that if she and my dad had waited until they could afford to have kids, my brothers and I would never have been born. That’s a sentiment many modern-day want-to-be-parents can relate to. Today, raising children is more expensive than it’s been at any other time in history. In 2015, the average spent on raising a child from birth to age 17 hit a new record of $233,000, according to U.S. government statistics. And no, those figures don’t include the cost of college, which in 2020-21 averaged $10,000 to $27,000 per year for public colleges—and significantly more for private ones—depending on in-state tuition status, according to The College Board.

All of those costs have encouraged this generation to kick the parenting can down the road, explains Jamie Hopkins, Co-Director of the Retirement Income Program American College of Financial Services. “As parents struggle with paying off their own student loans, funding their children's 529s and education expenses can be a challenge,” he says. “Research shows that the increase in college graduate debt has pushed off many from buying homes, getting married and having kids until later in life.”

The question is—is it necessary? Or could delaying be a mistake? “Life is not lived in a spreadsheet,” says Peter Lazaroff, co-chief investment officer at Plancorp and BrightPlan, financial and investment advisories. “If you’re with your significant other, and you’re ready to start a family, that’s something you can’t measure in dollars and cents. To tell someone that they shouldn’t have a child because that will prevent them from saving for retirement is like pretending that money is the only thing that matters in life. It’s not.” Here are some other factors to consider.

When You Have Kids Early

Per-child expenses are generally lower. We tend to spend more when we have more, which means during your earlier, lower-earning years you do what you have to make it work. “When you’re making more money, you’re going to spend more money on your kids,” Lazaroff says. “Children quickly become the most important thing to you, and you’re going to want to buy them nicer clothing and toys—the temptation is more pronounced to give them everything.

Your parents—and you—will have more energy. Chris Chen, Certified Financial Planner at Insight Financial Strategists in Waltham, Massachusetts explains how wanting to involve your parents is another good reason to get going. “A grandparent in their 60s is still going to have energy available and be interested in helping out with childcare. But when they get into their late 70s and 80s, it’s more difficult for them.” In fact, energy should be a consideration for you as well, Chen stresses. When you’re younger, you’re more likely to get outside with your kids and play catch, go hiking and do other engaging (and calorie-burning) activities. When you’re older, the kids are more likely to have low-key indoor playtime. This isn’t, in and of itself, a negative thing, but when the parents are up and active, the children are much more likely to be as well.

You’ll have time after college to regroup financially. There’s also the consideration of where you’ll be in your financial life when your kid hits college, Chen says. If you’re in your 50s when they enter college, you’ll have at least 10 more years after they graduate to recoup some of what you spent. If, however, you’re in your 60s when they head to university, you’ll have very few working years left to sock away money for retirement, so those college costs could hit you hard

If You Have Kids Later

You’ll have more time to build a career. It’s no secret that children will take a lot of your time and attention, and in many cases become a priority over your own professional development, Hopkins says. “So for young individuals looking to work long hours and travel to build a career, taking on a growing family can add additional complexity.” Having kids too early can absolutely stunt career development, says Chen. “You’re going to want to take a little time off to bond with them, and once you have them you’re more likely to start leaving work at 5 pm, which could hurt your ability to work on certain projects.” According to a Pew Research study, women are the most likely to reduce their working hours in order to care for a family, and when those hours are reduced, the women are less likely to get raises and promotions, as per an analysis by the American Economic Association.

Your higher earning power will make saving for multiple goals easier. “Saving for retirement can become more challenging if you add children into the mix, as other costs will likely increase,” Hopkins says. If kids limit your ability to save, they’re limiting your ability to earn compound interest over time. Lazaroff agrees: “The person who saves early in life out-earns the person who starts saving later. The earlier you can start, the more secure you’ll be, and unfortunately it’s easy to let kids derail that if you have them too early.

Ultimately, of course, there’s no right or wrong answer. In both cases, having a plan to pay off debts and start on a lifetime habit of saving (even if you can only save a little bit to start) is exactly what it takes to build a successful financial life. As a bonus, checking these boxes has also been proven to reduce financial stress, which is exactly what all parents need. Especially when their children hit their teens.

With Kathryn Tuggle