Middle-class parents weigh the costs of getting their kids ahead

Louis Jackson, a facilities manager for Alexandria, Va., gets to work at 5 a.m., so he can be home in time to take his children to their many after-school activities. His son, Kameron, is 12.

What people buy is often dictated by what everyone around them is spending. And for many parents, keeping up with the Joneses is all about helping their kids stand out -- whether it's spending on tutoring, sports, or experiences.

So what does it cost to get your kid ahead? Tong looked at a middle class suburb of Washington, D.C. to find out. Charles County, Md., has a per capita income around $36,000 and a median home value of $341,000. It's a diverse, fast-growing place. Louis and Nikki Jackson live in the county and Tong spent a few days trying to keep up with the family and their three kids -- 11, 12, and 18. They are all sports, music, and academic stars.

Here's just a sampling of what the kids' extracurricular activities cost the family:
1. One season of elite baseball for an 11 year old -- $2,000 (not including travel-team costs)
2. Clarinet lessons -- $100/month
3. Five iPhones to keep track of everyone -- $300/month

And then there's 11-year-old Konner's baseball bat. The cost? $179.

"You've got to pay to play. Sometimes you do have to step up and buy a better baseball bat. It's a big difference from a $40, $50 bat," says Louis. "It's a big difference, man."

"The funny story is, I went into the store, he told me the price. After I fainted, I got up and made the purchase," says Nikki. "Louis says, 'You know what, I don't care how much the bat was. Every penny spent is well spent.'"

So how are the Jacksons paying for their lifetstyle? Louis Jackson works as a facility supervisor and makes $77,000. He heads to work at 4:30 a.m. so he can do his job and get home for the activities. He pays in his time, money, and potentially his savings. While their eldest child, Jayda, got a full academic ride to a nearby college, their other kids aren't guaranteed college scholarships.

What the Jacksons are doing to keep up is characterized by two University of Chicago economists as "trickle-down consumption." That is, folks in the middle class are spending so much to compete against everyone else, including the very rich who are so far ahead of a lot us. But what happens to people in the middle is that they save less and borrow more, and it creates a parental arms race.


For middle-class parents, raising children becomes a consumer arms race Trying to give your children an advantage in growing up makes consuming a competition. When everyone has a tutor, a trainer or a special baseball bat, you can't help but keep up.

Konner Jackson, 11, plays three sports and is in his all-county orchestra.


Is it worth it? For Nikki, the answer is yes.

"If I have to get another job, work two jobs to make sure they can go to college and be afforded that opportunity, I will do that." Nikki says. "And one thing I will tell you, this is sort of personal: I don't mind applying for loans."

"We're paying this now, you know the baseball bats, football equipment, fees, gas, so that they can have an opportunity to be noticed and recognized by these schools out here. To get them what they want and where they to be in life," adds Louis.

Nikki and Louis aren't alone. Tong has kids himself and he pays to help them get ahead. Among his costs: $65/hour on a math tutor and $3,000/year on soccer.

So what do you think? Is spending to give your kids a leg-up worth it? How much would you be willing to sacrifice? Leave a comment.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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