Are you considering raising a child? Got $235,000?

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 $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.

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