The Extra Costs Today's Parents Face

Being a parent is more expensive than ever. How much more can American families take?
06/18/2012 11:58 am ET Updated Aug 18, 2012

As my daughter was preparing to take her DMV test for her learner's permit, I thought back to my own days of learning how to drive. When I was in high school, I spent half a year taking a course called "Driver's Theory," which taught me the rules of the road. It included practice on a driving simulator -- an arcade-like contraption with a steering wheel, brake and accelerator. We watched movies of typical driving scenarios and the machine scored our reactions. This class was held in a trailer outside the school building, and we all got a big kick out of it.

After Driver's Theory came "Behind the Wheel," in which we would hit the road with a teacher to learn how to drive an actual vehicle. This was a big rite of passage for upperclassmen. We couldn't wait until it was our turn to leave the school building in one of those silly cars with the warning sign on top: "Careful: student driver."

There's none of that now. Today, most school districts have eliminated driver's education -- another casualty of budget cuts. My daughter's driver education so far involves nothing more than reading a newsprint guidebook from the DMV. We're on our own. If we want her to take formal driving lessons, then we'll have to pay for private ones, at roughly $65 a pop. Could this cutback be one reason why fewer teens now drive?

It got me thinking about other expenses today's parents face, which previous generations of parents did not. For instance, our local school district has recently instituted a $60 "pay to play" fee for students participating in extracurricular activities, including sports, plays or band. Back in my day, that was all free for families.

What other new bills do today's parents pay? Well, when I was growing up, there was no such thing as cable TV, cell phones or the internet. These inventions have undoubtedly made life better for American families; I marvel at the ease with which our family can now navigate a family trip without losing track of anybody. It used to be much more complicated. I remember how my own childhood excursions always began with the selection of a rendezvous point and the instructions: "Now, if anybody gets lost, we'll meet at the giant clock, or the Wanamaker eagle, or the ticket booth." Today, we just run off any-which-way, willy-nilly, and call when we want to meet back up. Obviously, these devices have also greatly expanded our information and entertainment options.

Still, that convenience comes with a pretty steep price. I warrant that the average American family pays at least $200 a month on these modern utilities, and these are bills previous generations of parents simply didn't have to confront. It takes an enormous, steady toll on family finances.

Then there are college costs. No, these aren't new, but the shocking rise in them is completely destabilizing. Many experts now feel we are in a college tuition bubble that threatens family finances and children's economic futures. As ABC News recently reported, the college tuition burden on families is "growing geometrically, with no relief in sight."

But today, even when the kids graduate from college, parents still aren't off the hook. Thanks to provisions of the new Healthcare Law, 6.6 million young adults joined their parents healthcare plans last year, and can stay on the plans until age 26. While this is certainly preferable to their remaining uninsured, this coverage is not without cost. Estimates vary on how much this extended coverage increases premiums, but it is undoubtedly not free, and if the healthcare law, or portions of it, are struck down by the supreme court, it is likely that parents will be hit yet again. According to one analyst, if that happens, then parents' taxes will increase because they will have to pay for the child's coverage with after-tax dollars, whereas now that coverage comes out of pre-tax dollars. And, either way, let's face it: parents are shelling out more dollars when what they really want is for the economy to absorb their children into the workforce -- something previous generations of parents took for granted for their offspring.

The bottom line is this: Being a parent is more expensive than ever. How much more can American families take?