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The Things They Never Tell First-time Parents

Creating a secure financial future for your new baby is one of the most important things you can do—but few parents know where to begin.

BY SIMONA COVEL

WHEN OUR SON COLBY WAS BORN, we received one monogrammed baby blanket, three hooded towels, and countless words of wisdom about sleeping schedules. But no one mentioned the long-term financial implications of our happy event.

Most new parents realize that raising a child is expensive—latest government figures put the cost at $245,340 for the first 18 years alone, not including college tuition or inflation. But we wanted to give our son more than the necessities: food, clothing, health care, a roof over his head. We wanted to create a secure financial future for him, and we didn't have a clue where to begin.

Snap Stat: Kids 'R' Cute —
But Expensive


Click here to see the average cost of raising a child from birth through age 17.

So I decided to do some digging. Turns out there are three really important financial steps every new parent should consider. Devoting time to these three things during the first year of your baby's life may seem like a challenge—especially when you're sleep-deprived. But, having done them ourselves, my husband and I are convinced that they were worth the effort. And we're sleeping better knowing we've taken steps to protect our little family.

Top 3 Tips for First-time Parents

Appoint a guardian and an executor. My own mortality was the last thing I was thinking about after bringing a new life into the world. Turns out, I'm not alone. Many people put off creating a will for just that reason, says Jean Kim-Wall, director, Strategic Wealth Advisory Group at Merrill Lynch, who has a two-year-old son and an infant daughter. But a will is critical for parents of minor children, because it allows you to name the person you trust to take care of your child if both you and your spouse should die.

"We're sleeping better knowing we've taken steps to protect our little family."

While it was difficult for us to imagine not being here for our son, we quickly realized how important it was to name a guardian. And not just any guardian—the right guardian: Someone who would be able to provide the love and support we hope to provide. Someone who shares our values and can pass them on to him. Someone who can keep our memories alive. Picking a guardian for our son may have been the most important parenting decision we've made so far.

Almost as important as naming a guardian is naming an executor—the person who wraps up your affairs, pays bills and expenses, and makes sure your property is transferred to those named in your will. A will allows you to stipulate how your assets will be managed and used to see your child through to adulthood. More specifically, you can use a will to outline exactly how your children can gain access to whatever money you may leave, and at what stage in life.

The terms can be quite specific: Money could be allocated for private school, to cover the cost of flying to visit grandparents, or even to help the guardian with additional expenses associated with raising your children. But regardless of the details, Kim-Wall says, it's important to start somewhere. "It's easy to spend so much time trying to get each provision perfect that you become paralyzed," she says. It's best to get a basic version down on paper, and then revisit it every few years to address changes in circumstances.

Get your insurance in order. Next, it was time to consider life insurance. For the first time, we took a good, hard look at all that paperwork from the human resources departments at our employers and saw that my husband's employer offered $500,000 in coverage, while I had a little less.

Those amounts would probably cover only a few years of lost income, says James D. Gothers, director, Merrill Lynch Personal Wealth and Retirement. So we considered what our family would require in the long term to help minimize major disruptions to our lifestyle if one of us died. One tip: Don't underestimate the need to insure the spouse who has less income or stays home. Child care needs and other day-to-day rhythms change when a parent dies, straining the surviving spouse both financially and emotionally.

"Picking a guardian for our son may be the most important parenting decision we've made so far."

Don't postpone college planning. When I was fastening my son's diapers, sending him off to college seemed light years away, but I couldn't think of a better way to help secure his future than to give him a good education. And I knew we'd be foolish not to think about those costs sooner rather than later, given tuition's steady march skyward. Years from now, when my son packs his bags for the college campus of his choice, we could be facing a $300,000 to $400,000 bill.

"Those numbers seem so daunting and unrealistic that a lot of people just do nothing," says Richard J. Polimeni, director, Education Savings Programs at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Polimeni, who has two school-age children, suggests starting with a specific goal in mind.

His family, for example, has set out to save and invest enough to cover four years of tuition and fees at an average-priced private school for each child. Once you have your goal established, you can then figure out what you need to put away each month to help you pursue it. "Even if I can only put aside a portion, that's money I or my child won't have to borrow down the road," he notes. After my conversation with Polimeni, my husband and I set up a 529 college savings account and started making automatic monthly transfers, and we feel better having taken that step.

My son is now three years old, and my life has a more regular rhythm than it did during those frenzied early days and nights. We're still adding new items to our financial checklist every day—like remembering to calculate the child care credit come tax time. But with each planning item we address, I feel that we've done a little something more for our family. And that leaves us more mental energy to focus on our growing child—and all the possibilities that lie ahead for him.

Simona Covel is a financial writer and editor based in New York.

3 Questions To Ask Your Advisor

  1. How can I best plan for health care costs for my new baby?
  2. Do we have enough life insurance and disability insurance?
  3. What strategies should I consider to help pay for my child's college education?

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