Family

What a Single Mom of Four Spends on Her Kids During One Week in Indianapolis

On an annual income of $76,000.

Collage of four boys with drawings of pizza, tickets, and a hamburger.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by 4x6/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

It costs $233,610 to raise a child from birth through age 17, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest estimate. In What Kids Cost, parents unpack a week’s worth of child-related expenditures. If you would like to nominate yourself or someone you know to be interviewed, please email humaninterest@slate.com.

This interview, conducted by Rebecca Onion, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Single mother with four kids: O, age 19; R, age 17; M, age 13; P, age 10 (all boys)
Parent’s job: Commercial lending
Home: Indianapolis, Indiana
Total family income before taxes, 2018: $76,000
Mortgage/rent: $930.15 a month for 4 bedrooms
Annual child care cost: $3,500 for various summer camps (kids go to public school)

Sunday, Nov. 25

$139.61
Target

This included a jacket for O ($49.99); a sweater for O ($30); a new toothbrush, toothbrush head refills, and toothpaste for O ($11.85); a pair of gloves for M ($22.99); and groceries for the house. I’d estimate the boys’ share of those at $24.78.

I’m pretty haphazard [about budgeting]. I have an idea in my mind of “that’s too expensive” or “no, we can’t afford that” or “yeah, why not.” But I don’t necessarily keep a super good accounting. I’m trying to be better about keeping track of money recently, now that my two older sons have started college, because I’m trying to get them both through as much school as possible with as little debt as possible.

Luckily, my oldest, O, who’s a freshman at Indiana University, is a 21st Century Scholar, which is a scholarship program here in Indiana.* Most of O’s tuition is paid, and I am only required to pay room and board. And books, of course.

I come from an IU family. Both of my parents are IU grads, both of my siblings are IU grads. I went to Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. We’re an IU family, so the idea of going someplace else never really came up. Here in Indiana, going to IU—or Purdue, if you’re more of a science person—is kind of a default setting.

And O also knew, all my sons know, that it’s pretty much IU or Purdue or nothing, because your mom can’t pay for anything else!

O was home for Thanksgiving the previous week, and we went to Target to get him some clothes. They have their own ideas about what they like. Luckily, R dresses like your 54-year-old dad: Dockers, sensible shoes, plaid button-downs. He wears a hat. All of his clothes come from Kohl’s, and he’s good with that. We go usually a couple of times a year, buy five new pairs of pants, seven new shirts—he’s set.

O has a lot more ideas on what he likes to wear. Luckily, he’s a big Goodwill shopper. He’s always very conscious of how much clothes cost. And M is just in eighth grade and doesn’t really care, and same with P. As long as they’re comfortable. The kids they go to school with are not super status-y, clothes-wise. Looking at most of their friends and their wardrobes, I’d say a good part of their wardrobes come from Target or Kohl’s.

$122.80
Walmart
The rest of my grocery shopping for the house

There’s a lot of cereal eaten in our house. A big part of groceries is milk and cereal. There will be days when you get out a new milk in the morning and by the next morning it’s in the recycling and the new one is already opened. We will go through a gallon a day. M eats two bowls of cereal before bed every night, and P eats one in the morning, and we all drink milk. I do comparison shopping a lot for milk. That’s my No. 1. What store has the cheapest milk? … And then the constant resupply of potato chips at my house is something important I have to do.

$10.84
Steak ’n Shake
Dinner for O

We ate together as I drove O back to school. I gave him $40, and he paid for his dinner out of that.

$29.16
Pocket money to O

I’m pretty lax on making my kids get jobs. Mainly because a lot of times when kids have jobs it’s more work for you. Like with R, I would have to take him and pick him up. I don’t wanna do that! And with O, when he was in high school he was in three different bands and did a lot of extracurricular activities. And he was busy.

When I was growing up, my dad’s attitude toward me was always: “School is your job. I’m not going to give you a ton of spending money, but if you need money for something, I will give it to you, because I don’t expect you to work 40 hours a week as well as go to school and get good grades.” And that’s my attitude with them now: School’s kind of your job. If you need 20 bucks here and there, I’ll give it to you. If they wanted something crazy, then yeah, they would have to make their own money. But my sons growing up with me have very level expectations.

Sunday total: $302.41

Monday, Nov. 26

$2.89
USPS

O forgot his Fitbit charger, so I bought a padded mailer for $1.89 and mailed it to him. Postage was $1.

$25.21
Lyft

R attends Ivy Tech, a community college here in Indianapolis. He is completing his second semester, so actually he is ahead of O. He didn’t finish high school; instead, he got his high school equivalency degree and started college.

He doesn’t drive, so he takes a Lyft to and from school. I usually give him some cash for the week too, but his grandma (my stepmom) gave him some money when she was over for Thanksgiving.

He’s learning how to drive. We’re still working on it. It’s not coming naturally to him. He’s on the spectrum, as they say, and he has trouble multitasking. So it’s difficult for him to pay attention to what other drivers are doing, and pay attention to what he’s doing, at the same time.

$22.50
Piano lesson 

P takes group piano lessons on Mondays. I pay $90 a month. The lessons are an hour long.

$25
Voice lesson

M has a half-hour-long private voice lesson on Monday.

$15
Flute lesson 

M also has a private flute lesson on Mondays. His teacher comes to school and pulls him out of one of his band classes for the 25- to 30-minute lesson. I pay $60 a month for these lessons, directly to his private teacher.

$9.67
Pei Wei

I took M to Pei Wei for a quick dinner after his lesson. R made dinner at home for P and my mom, who lives with us and has Alzheimer’s.

My mother has a home health aide who comes in during the afternoons, Theresa. This just started in September, when everybody had gone back to school. I had to go through the whole Medicaid waiver process and Medicaid approval process, which was a hassle! Mom has lived with me since 2006, and I would say it’s only been in the last two or three years that I felt like she probably shouldn’t be alone all day.

The boys do cook! If you like packaged mac ’n’ cheese, come on over. If you enjoy pizza, stop by. It’s pretty minimal. I cook most nights.

Monday total: $100.27

Tuesday, Nov. 27

$24.55
Lyft

$15
Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

I bought tickets for P and myself to attend an IUPUI alumni event at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. It’s a fun Christmas event held after hours, so no huge crowd. … We had a membership to the Children’s Museum for years, but since P is almost 11 now, I have discontinued membership since we only go once or twice a year.

I’d say I spend a lot on daily stuff, events and things, and then we don’t do big fancy stuff. We’re not a family that, like, goes on vacation. We’ve had one big trip. Three years ago, we went to Fort Walton Beach in Florida for a week. And I rented a condo on the beach, through VRBO, and we did fun stuff every day, and it was great. We drove down there—I had to wait to do the trip until I had a [son who was old enough to be a] second driver.

Traveling with four children is extremely expensive. You have to get two rooms—there’s a lot of things you don’t think about.

So that was our big trip. We talk a lot about what’s in the realm of possibility and what’s not. What’s in the realm of possibility? Going to Holiday World [in southwest Indiana] and staying for two days. What’s not? Disney World. That’s just not happening. Ever. What’s not happening is any place where we would have to fly. I’m not buying plane tickets for five people. If it’s not within a 15-hour drive, it’s not something we can do.

$25.37
Fresh Market

$25
Bass clarinet/Tenor sax lesson

M usually has a private bass clarinet/tenor sax lesson on Tuesday nights from 6 to 6:30. I pay his teacher $25 per lesson. He invoices me once a month. We are renting to own this tenor sax, and I pay $103.79 per month for it. M uses a school flute and bass clarinet for now, but we will probably end up purchasing one or both once he’s in high school next year.

O also was a musician, and I paid a lot for music lessons for him from middle school and high school. … That’s something I think is important and I don’t have any problem paying for. When it comes to “Hey, can we all go skiing?”—no. No! But when O went on a band trip in high school to London, I found the money for that.

M is going on a trip with his Spanish [class] next summer to Costa Rica, and I’ve only got five more payments on that one. I’ve been paying $101.65 a month for over a year. They go through this special class trip agency, where you set up your account and you can pay [in installments]. I’ll have that paid off right around the time I have to start paying for M’s braces.

Tuesday total: $89.92

Wednesday, Nov. 28

$25.90
Lyft

$10.65
Target

More milk and a couple of other items.

Wednesday total: $36.55

Thursday, Nov. 29

$25.85
Lyft

$25
Lunch money

Added money to M’s account. This is added automatically when his available balance goes below $10. Both M and P eat school lunch every day. It seems like every other week I get notice of a deposit from my checking account.

$33.39
Kroger

More milk, and stuff for dinner.

$50
Indianapolis Museum of Art

I bought tickets for all of us to go to Winterlights at the Indianapolis Museum of Art on Dec. 22. We went last year, and it’s beautiful. We do a lot of Christmas stuff because I enjoy it, and as I always say to them, we’re making memories.

$63.85
Penzeys Spices

I buy presents for teachers when the boys are in elementary school. P is the youngest of four, and at his grade school they all know me, I’ve been a parent there for many, many, many years. And so I always buy the teachers gift boxes from Penzeys Spices, like the “For the Love of Cinnamon” box. His sixth-grade teacher was his teacher in fourth grade and taught all the other boys too, so I get her something bigger.

Thursday total: $198.09

Friday, Nov. 30

$24.92
Lyft

$30
O’s bursar account at IU

O went to the health clinic with an ear infection, and this was the charge for the visit and prescription.

I’ve never really been on a career track because in my 30s I had four babies. So now I would say that I have a job. This is not my career, this is a job. It’s a fine job! It’s not an exciting job. The office is conveniently located, and the people I work with are lovely, and I have health insurance. Which is a huge bonus because for several years I had nothing. The kids were always covered through CHIP, but I didn’t have anything.

My three younger sons are still covered through CHIP. If I had to cover them through my job, which is a good job with good benefits, it would cost me so much money! So, luckily, through Indiana and through the sliding scale they have, they’re still covered by CHIP. I pay $50 a month for the three of them. O is currently covered under IU student health insurance, which I pay for out of his bursar account.

Friday total: $54.92

Saturday, Dec. 1

$20
Indianapolis Museum of Art

M went to see a show with his girlfriend, and I gave him some cash.

$19.69
Castleton AMC

P and I went to the movies to see The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.

One thing we do is we go to the movies in the theater and we get popcorn and drinks. That’s always been something we do. So I have no problem spending 60 bucks for all of us to go see a movie in the theater and eat popcorn. The couples combo! A large popcorn, two large Cokes, please. I have no problem with that.

Yeah, if we didn’t do stuff like that, we probably could have a big annual vacation. But my kids were raised more like I was, I guess, which is I would rather go to two or three movies a month than go somewhere one week in the summer.

$25.77
Five Guys

P and I went to dinner at Five Guys, and I bought carryout for R and my mom.

Saturday total: $65.46

How much did I spend on my kids this week? $847.62.

This week was pretty typical. Obviously, O’s not home every week, so I don’t always have the trip to Bloomington with him or the buying him clothes, but I do that fairly regularly with him anyway. December is a heavier spending month for me. I have three December birthdays, in addition to Christmas, and we do a lot of cultural stuff in December.

It’s right up there with August, which is back-to-school, so you have clothes and school fees. Here in Indiana we pay book rental fees for kids in the lower grades. This past year, for M and P together, my book rental fees and lab fees and stuff, even though they go to public school, that was probably $400 between the two of them. When I had all four of them in elementary school, that was really a lot. Of course, now I have the two boys in college, so this past year, getting ready for O to move to Bloomington, we had to buy stuff for his dorm room: the little fridge and the little microwave and all the hangers and the stuff to organize your desk, and so on. And of course, also, tuition and room and board. So August is another very expensive month for me.

I am an actual solo parent because there is no one else. No one else contributes financially, no one else is the decision maker. … I always laugh when people say, “I’m a single father.” Oh really, where’s your child right now? “He lives with his mom.” Ding ding, you’re not a single dad. If someone else takes care of your child for more than eight hours a day, you’re not a single parent. It’s a huge difference.

Correction, Jan. 9, 2019: This piece originally miscredited Indiana’s former Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels with starting the state’s 21st Century Scholars program. The program was launched in 1990, under Democratic Gov. Evan Bayh.