Family

What a Married Mom of Eight Spends on Her Kids During a Week in North Pole, Alaska

On an annual joint income of $71,000.

Photo illustration of four children out camping.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Darrin Klimek/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.

Married mom, with eight kids: Seven adopted; one biological. Girl, 16; boy, 14; girl, 13; boy, 13; girl, 11; boy, 11; boy, 9; boy, 8.
Dad’s job: Active-duty military
Mom’s job: Stay-at-home mom
Home: North Pole, Alaska, near Fairbanks
Total annual family income before taxes, 2019: $71,000, including a housing allowance of $2,100/month
Mortgage/rent: $2,400/month, for a 7+ BR, 3 ½ bath house on 3 acres
Annual child care cost: Five of the eight kids are home-schooled. $2,000/year for curricula, activities, testing, and online college classes

Saturday, Dec. 1 

$24
Bowling

$54
ACT registration

$32.18
Gas in the vehicle that’s only used for kid-related activities

$18
Birthday gift, for pool party

We have the maximum number of adopted kids we’re allowed to have by the state of Alaska. We adopted them all off of waiting-child lists, for kids who haven’t reunified with their families or been adopted out of foster care, for whatever reason. (You look at photos of kids online, you kind of shop for them like puppies; it’s the most disgusting thing you’ve ever seen.) We had looked into infant adoption but decided we were too old to be changing diapers. We looked into international adoption but thought, “There are so many of our own right here.” So this is the way we went. My life is centered around them, and I have to budget everything down to the dollar, but it’s worked out so far.

We have a solid two feet of snow right now, which is a little uncommon, because normally right now it’s too cold for snow. The kids ski and snowshoe, all the fun things, but the hardest part of this time of year is the dark—yesterday we had only three hours and 55 minutes of light.

The kids are all real stuck on bowling right now. We try to go on Sunday afternoon, when it’s $1/game, $1 shoes, not Tuesday after school when it’s $5 a game. With one kid, it doesn’t make that much of a difference; but with eight, it sure does. Just about anything you want to do has a day where it’s cheaper, and that’s the day we choose to do it. The bowling money comes out of a “play money” fund I have for every month; I set aside $100 for that.

I do home-school the kids, and there are a lot of free resources you can use for that, but I pay for them to be tested every year because I’m not as confident as some people are, and I want to make sure they’re where they should be every year. And sometimes I pay because it’s fun to be able to offer them something different, like right now most of them are taking an aviation class that wasn’t free.

The ACT fee was for the oldest girl, who’s taking that test this coming Saturday. In Alaska, you get dividend checks just for living in the state, and there’s a program where you never even see your check, it just goes straight to a fund for tuition at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks. That’s what we do with our kids’ checks. The tuition for locals is very reasonable and by putting that money toward it, I think by the time it’s said and done they will have their first three years paid for.

My husband’s car is paid off, but I have a big car to fit all the kids that we’re still paying on each month. (It’s actually a white passenger van; it looks like a free-candy van, if you know what I mean!) The gas adds up because they’re all in therapy, and we drive them there every week. Then of course, every single one wants to play an instrument or be in a choir, and even the ones that are home-schooled go to the school for that.

This birthday gift was actually an excellent deal, given that it’s usually $5 per kid to get into the pool! Kids with winter birthdays here have to have indoor parties, since you can’t just go sit out in 30 below, and parents usually rent out someplace to host it. People do tend to give gifts at kids’ birthdays, and this one was split between physical gifts and gift cards—mostly to Fred Meyer, since that’s where the good toys are. We got the kid Legos, because he’s 8, and what 8-year-old doesn’t like Legos?

This town does have quite a few free things for kids to do because you kind of have to, in a place like this, if you don’t want your kids to get into trouble. There’s nothing to do for four, five, six months. It started snowing in September, and I’m going to be staring at it on Mother’s Day.

Saturday total: $128.18

Sunday, Dec. 2

$78.42
Weekly produce run, Safeway

Vegetables are so expensive up here during winter. The transportation gets tacked right onto our bill. We don’t pay sales tax, though, and that helps a lot.

Whatever is on sale is what I buy. I’m a pretty confident cook; that is one thing my parents gave me. I’ve been a good cook my entire life, though never much of a baker; things like bread and cookies and cakes have taken some practice.

We have three chest freezers in the garage attached to the house—one devoted just to fish and one to meat; one for other stuff. I save a lot of stuff; every bone from a chicken or cow or whatever gets saved in the freezer, also with every end of a carrot or onion skin, it all goes into broth.

In the summer I grow as much as I can get out of the dirt around our house. I didn’t know it was a term, but I do vertical gardening, like I can grow 70 pounds of potatoes in a stack of tires. My parents didn’t teach me that; I had to learn it along the way.

Sunday total: $78.42

Monday, Dec. 3

$241.83
Bulk shopping day, Costco

This would usually be next week, but I skipped last month and used up what we had. The cupboards are bare, and I couldn’t put it off any longer! This was a bit more expensive than usual, but since I didn’t go last month, it’s fine. I got 50 pounds of flour; 5 pounds of sugar; 20 pounds of rice; 15 pounds of different beans. I make homemade meals, down to the bread. A 50-pound sack of flour is so much cheaper than that much bread.

Luckily, I don’t have to budget for meat. We raise and butcher goats, rabbits, chickens, and turkeys, keep hens for eggs, and were lucky enough to put two moose and four caribou in the freezer this year. We have nearly 250 pounds of halibut and salmon, both frozen and canned. There’s a limit to what you can catch per person, but with 10 people in the family, we rarely hit it. It might seem extreme [to have this much meat put away], but it’s not super uncommon up here, and it’s pretty necessary with eight kids!

I can get most of the animal feed for free: I signed up at the breweries, and every time they’re ready to get rid of their spent barley and hops and stuff, I just bring my 50-gallon trash bags, and they’ll fill me up with as much as I can put in the truck. Of course, buying the animals initially was an investment, but now they reproduce like anything else. The only thing that don’t reproduce on its own are the birds, and I have a great big incubator made out of an old wine cooler, where I can hatch up to 300 eggs for the meat chickens every spring.

I trade a lady out of town a ways, who has cows, two goats a year for weekly milk and occasional cream. The youngest kids still get a kick out of making butter from the cream and use a Mason jar to shake it up.

It was an excellent year for gardening and berry-picking—we’ve got jam, pickles, and tomatoes canned to see us through a couple years. We can just go into the woods and pick the berries, since they’re everywhere, so long as you beat the bears to them! But our bee lady’s hive died off, so no good honey this year.

When the kids first get to us, most of them have been raised on fast food their whole life, and a lot of them will turn their noses up at the meals. But it only takes them about six months to get used to it; the same amount of time it takes for their adoption to go through. Then they’re like, “Actually, this is pretty good.”

The kids help on the land, of course, and I make it into part of their schooling. I think it’s satisfying to do! I know that firsthand because I wasn’t raised that way. It’s satisfying. I do have some that just don’t have the stomach for butchering, and that’s fine; I won’t make you do that part.

$5.28
Rosin for Girl, 11’s violin

Monday total: $247.11

Tuesday, Dec. 4

$20, rounded up for food bank donation
Thrift store

We got some winter gear for those who’ve outgrown it. I will take them to Walmart if they need blue jeans to get new ones, but if you need a winter coat, those have to be specialized or your kids will freeze! But there is a pretty good economy here of people bringing things to the thrift store, because everybody puts so much money into cold-weather gear that when their kids grow out of it, they want to get some money back. The store buys it and sells it to the next person.

Luckily, a lot of what we get here can be passed down to our younger kids. I rarely donate anything when we’re done with it because once it’s been through everybody in our house, it’s pretty beat up, and that seems ungenerous!

If the kids ever want clothes that are more expensive or name-brand, I’ll tell them, “OK, this is what I’ve allotted for your tennis shoes. If you want the Jordans, what are you going to do for the balance?” To have money for things like that, they get odd jobs; everybody but my very youngest is shoveling snow right now.

And this is really disgusting, but here, it’s cold, and nobody wants to pick up their dog poop. It gets snowed on, and in April comes breakup season. Everybody’s yard is covered in four inches of poop and they don’t want to deal with it, and will pay 100 bucks, 200 bucks, 300 bucks just to hire someone to clear a normal-size yard. So in the spring, the kids make about as much money as they need to get through the year.

I make them do their own budgeting and all of that because I don’t want them leaving my house the way I left my house—without a clue. Finding all the debt in the world. I don’t want them learning that lesson.

Tuesday total: $20

Wednesday, Dec. 5

$24
Nozin, from the Nozin website

$5.98
Off-brand Sudafed, from Safeway

I ran out of Nozin—that’s a swab you rub in your nose to kill the germs that might enter—last month for the first time in two years, and I didn’t order more. Now I’m paying for it in the form of four sick kids. I’m sure the other four aren’t far behind!

Wednesday total: $29.98

Thursday, Dec. 6

We didn’t leave the house. I have six sick kids I’m not inflicting on the public! I was going from room to room, like, “Ginger ale for you, ginger ale for you … ”

Our house has a bedroom for each of the kids because so many of these kids come from different kinds of trauma; I can’t have them have to be sharing rooms. They’re not big rooms, but they’re their own rooms.

The kids who go to public school have flip phones they take with them when they leave the house, because if the school bus breaks down and it’s 50 below, I want them to have a phone to call me. But they don’t need a fancy one. I’m the only one in the family with a smartphone. Each of the flip phones adds 20 extra bucks to the monthly phone bill.

We have Kindle Fire 7s for everyone that live in my bedroom, and they have all the parental controls on them. In terms of screen time, it’s my perspective that there is just too much life to live. Plus, some of these kids can’t be on social media because it’s not safe for them to have contact with their family of origin, so I just make it a blanket rule. But if their grades are where they need to be, and they don’t miss schoolwork, they can get an hour on their tablet each night.

Thursday total: $0

Friday, Dec. 7

$27
Presents

I found the girls some bracelets for stocking-stuffers at a craft fair. I Christmas shop all year round, whenever I see something I know is going to make somebody happy, so this month isn’t as painful as it could be. I also write down whatever they want, when they tell me over the course of the year, in a notebook I keep in my purse.

I try to make the presents equitable between kids—equitable in terms of money, not things to open, because the older ones don’t need 18 things to unwrap, they’d rather have one really great thing. One of the older ones has been using a fake [off-brand] MP3 player for so long now that it’s broken, so I went to get the real live iPod for that one. Another one wants a 3D printer, about the same cost, so OK.

I have only two gifts left to find … well, and my husband; I haven’t figured him out yet.

Friday total: $27

Saturday, Dec. 8

$8.42
Off-brand kids’ cold and cough meds

$12
Bowling

And now the two little kids are sick. Bowling for the healthy; the others stay home with me and watch a movie. I had plans to go to craft fairs and look at ice sculptures, all of which would have been free, but we got sick.

Saturday total: $20.42

How much did we spend on our kids this week? $551.11.

I look at this diary and think, my grocery bill is still so high considering all the meat, dairy, and eggs in our life are basically free—in the sense that I don’t pay for them at the store. I still have a pretty obscenely high grocery bill for not having to pay for the protein. I’m gonna have to sit down and see what I can do better there. But when it comes to fresh produce, you’re never going to find coupons for it, and there’s no one else who sells it; there’s not a farmers market in December in Fairbanks!

I didn’t grow up in a family that did all of this stuff—gardening, baking bread, raising animals. Some of the people on the periphery of my life did, but not us. I also didn’t grow up in a family that was very money-conscious, and the first couple years of our married life were chaos. Neither of us knew what we were doing. I got a recommendation from a friend at one of our old military bases, who said I should pay to take Dave Ramsey’s course. I did, and actually also paid to get his home-school curriculum to teach my kids; that was also really helpful for me, to see it explained from the ground up.

The people I consider my peers around here probably spend more money on their kids. But they also have fewer kids to spend that same amount of money on. Food, entertainment for sure; they’re going to the movies every single week. If you have one kid, that’s cool, but with eight, that’s pretty significant. But I still feel like I’m giving these kids a lot of things other people aren’t giving their kids.