The USDA says it will cost about 2.6 percent more to raise a child born in 2012 than one born in 2011.

SALT LAKE CITY — You didn't imagine it: It does cost more to raise a child to 18 than in the past, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new annual estimate on what a middle-income family with a child born in 2012 can expect to spend.

The price tag — $241,080 in 2012 dollars or an inflation-adjusted $301,970 by the time adulthood arrives — includes food, shelter and other necessities associated with child rearing for 17 years. College is an expensive add-on not included in the report.

The 2013 USDA Cost of Raising a Child report says the expected expense is a 2.6 percent increase over the cost associated with a 2011 birth. It includes larger increases in how much one will spend on child care, education, health care and clothing, with smaller increases for housing, food, transportation and various other expenses.

Still, it's a smaller increase than usual. From 1960, the average increase has been about 4.4 percent each year.

The cost report is not trivial, according to USDA Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Under Secretary Kevin Concannon. "As the economy continues to recover, families are naturally cost conscious," he said in a written statement. "This report gives families with children a greater awareness of the expenses they are likely to face. The report is also a valuable resource for courts and state governments in determining child support guidelines and foster care payments."

If the sticker shock has you reeling, remind yourself that a 2012 study in Psychological Science showed parents are happier and find more meaning in their lives than non-parents. The research, by psychologists at University of British Columbia, University of California Riverside and Stanford, found parents are happier caring for children than they are during other daily activities. That appeared to be especially true for men, and older and married parents.

As Dr. Peter Zafirides wrote for The Healthy Mind at the time, "The findings are among a new wave of research that suggests that parenthood comes with relatively more positives than negatives, despite the added responsibilities." Even evolutionists suspect "parenting may be a fundamental human need," he added.

Then, as now, cost per child drops as a family has more children. The report says families with three or more children spend 22 percent less per child than those with two children. The kids end up sharing bedrooms, clothing and toys passed down to younger ones. Food is purchased in bulk and schools and child-care centers sometimes offer sibling discounts.

Crunching numbers

But about that cost...

It's based on data from the federal Consumer Expenditure Survey, which found that in the year 2012, annual child-rearing expenses per child for a two-parent, middle-income family ranged from $12,600 to $14,700. It was a range because costs vary depending on how old a child is. There's a fair amount of difference, for instance, in feeding a teenager and a toddler and what it costs.

The report also offers an income range and variable cost estimate. A family earning less than $60,640 a year can expect to spend $173,490 in 2012 dollars over 17 years. A family earning more than $105,000 can expect to spend just shy of $400,000. The middle-income group that's center stage in the report earns between $60,640 and $105,000.

There's other bad news, according to the USDA blog discussing the cost: "This next generation faces a unique challenge that threatens their future health and well being: a growing health crisis, in the form of diet- and obesity-related diseases. And despite encouraging recent reports on declining rates of early childhood obesity, nearly a third of our nation’s young people are at risk for preventable diseases like type-2 diabetes and heart disease. Preventable diseases have serious consequences — which is why health experts tell us that our current generation of children may well have a shorter lifespan than their parents."

Then the USDA adds some good news: Resources abound, on its site and elsewhere, that provide practical advice, cost-cutting ideas and tips to improve health. Something as simple as making sure children have a healthy diet packed with fruits and vegetables, whole grains and other nutrients they need can help counter the bad news.

Food is one of the biggest expenses for middle-income families, and the USDA offers tips on how to save money while preparing nutritious meals. The advice includes a 10-Tips Nutrition Series and "The Thrifty Food Plan." The USDA also emphasizes its "My Plate," which replaced the food pyramid of old as a guide to healthy eating. A "SuperTracker" lets one keep track of calories and exercise.

In breaking down the cost estimate, housing was singled out as the largest expenditure, accounting for about 30 percent of the total over the 17 years. Child care and education (not college) came in at about 18 percent, while food was 16 percent.

There are geographic variations, with higher costs in the Northeast, then the urban West and urban Midwest. Families living in the urban South and in rural areas have lower costs, driven primarily by lower housing costs, according to the study's author, economist Mark Lino: "Families in rural areas also saw lower child-care and education expenses."

Blast from the past

According to the new report, in 1960 a middle-income family could have expected to spend $25,230 (that would be $195,690 in 2012 dollars). Housing was the big expense then, too. Health care expenses have doubled compared to back then. And some current costs, like child care, were "negligible" in 1960.

Overall, the cost of raising a child, adjusted for inflation, has shot up 23 percent since that first 1960 report.

Joe Burgo, a psychologist in Chapel Hill, N.C., and author of "Why Do I Do That?”, told USA Today he's not surprised by the higher cost of raising kids. It's partly driven, he said, by the "more" mentality — more sports, more extracurricular activities, more musical instruments, more educational summer camps. "Musical instruction, tutors, private sports club leagues — all cost a lot of money."

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He suggested that parents shouldn't focus on what they can buy their children. Instead, "allowing a child to discover his passions and then helping him to pursue them will go much further toward building genuine self-confidence," he said.

"Sharing quality time doing things you enjoy with your children — preferably activities that don't involve spending a lot money — will help them grow up happy and well-adjusted much more than footing the bill for them to be one of the cool kids."

For new parents or people thinking of expanding their families, the USDA's Cost of Raising a Child calculator lets someone plug in variables like household size, income and geographic region to get a more accurate estimate of expected costs.

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