Pandemic Upends Many Americans’ Family Plans, Survey Finds
By Erin El Issa
May 18, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has touched just about every aspect of our lives, from health to finances. And more than a year in, the data is showing it’s affecting family planning as well.
Research from the Brookings Institution estimates that the pandemic could result in a significant baby bust, possibly 300,000 fewer births in the United States in 2021 than would otherwise be expected. But the pandemic’s impact on family size may extend beyond this calendar year. According to a new NerdWallet survey, 29% of Americans 55 or younger have changed their minds about the number of children they plan to have now or in the future due to the pandemic.
The survey, commissioned by NerdWallet and conducted online by The Harris Poll, asked more than 2,000 U.S. adults — around 600 of whom are parents of children under 18 — if the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their family planning and child-related costs. Throughout the survey, we use the term “have children” to include children added to one’s family by pregnancy, adoption or surrogacy.
- Health risks and caregiving woes top the reasons for having no/fewer kids: Of Americans who plan to have fewer children than they originally planned or no longer plan to have children due to the pandemic, 44% say it’s because they’re concerned about the health risk to themselves, their partner or the baby if there’s a COVID-19 diagnosis during pregnancy, according to the survey. Forty-three percent say it’s because of home schooling or lack of child care services.
- Some are postponing children until normalcy resumes: The survey shows that more than a quarter of Americans who plan to have children/more children in the future (28%) have postponed their plans due to the pandemic. Of them, around 2 in 5 (41%) say they want to wait until things are normal again.
- The pandemic changes how much parents spend on child-related expenses: Of parents who have children under 18, 34% say they’re spending more on child care now than they were prior to the pandemic, while 21% are spending less. Close to 3 in 10 (28%) say they’re saving more for children’s postsecondary education expenses, while 23% are saving less.
- Parents are prioritizing college costs over their retirement plans: For parents of children under 18, their current financial priorities are saving for emergencies (50%), saving for children’s education (36%) and paying off/down debt (33%), just as they were prior to the pandemic. Investing for retirement (32%) comes in at No. 4.
Why some are opting to have fewer children
Close to 3 in 10 American adults age 55 and younger (29%) say the pandemic changed their minds about the number of children they plan to have now or in the future. While 14% no longer plan to have any/more children, 10% plan to have fewer than they planned before the pandemic and just 5% plan to have more children in light of the pandemic, the survey reveals.
Many of those who’ve chosen to have fewer or no children because of the pandemic are members of the younger generations in peak fertility age. Some Generation Zers (ages 18 to 24) say they’ll have fewer children than originally planned (16%) or won’t have any/more children (13%). Of millennials (ages 25 to 40), 14% now plan to have fewer children and 17% say they won’t have any/more children.
Of Americans planning to have fewer children or no children due to the pandemic, the main reason is concern about health risk to themselves/their partner or the baby if a COVID-19 diagnosis occurs during pregnancy (44%), followed by the need to home-school/lack of child care services (43%).
Many parents of children under 18 have changed plans regarding family size as well, the survey shows. One in 5 parents of minor children (20%) no longer plan to have more children, while 15% plan to have fewer than they originally planned before the pandemic. Just 8% of parents of children under 18 say they’ll have more children than they planned prior to the pandemic.
Declining birthrates aren’t a new response to economic turmoil or even to pandemics. The New York Times article on the Brookings research highlights that when the labor market is weak, birthrates decline. But a public health crisis can result in this decrease as well, even without a recession. The 1918-19 flu pandemic occurred during a time when contraceptive options were far more limited than they are now, and still, birthrates consistently dropped nine months after spikes in pandemic-related deaths.
The pandemic has upended what it means to be a parent … it’s not surprising that many parents can’t imagine adding more children, and more responsibilities, to their already overwhelmed lives.Kimberly Palmer, NerdWallet's Personal Finance Expert
Of course, things change and people adapt quickly. Some of those now planning on smaller families might change their minds again and have the number of children they originally planned. However, with many pointing to financial concerns or lack of child care support, this baby bust could impact birthrates not just for a year or two, but for years to come.
“The pandemic has upended what it means to be a parent: The absence of in-person school and child care for many means that in addition to normal parenting duties, parents must also be their children’s full-time teachers and round-the-clock caregivers. Given the immense weight of those tasks, it’s not surprising that many parents can’t imagine adding more children, and more responsibilities, to their already overwhelmed lives,” says Kimberly Palmer, personal finance expert at NerdWallet and mother of three. “For me, overseeing virtual elementary school for two of my children while taking care of my toddler took more effort than I could have ever imagined.”
Others postponing family plans until a return to normalcy
Some Americans aren’t necessarily changing their plans for the number of children, but rather, when they have those children. According to the survey, of Americans who plan to have any/more children, 28% have postponed their plans due to the pandemic. The top reason why? More than 2 in 5 (41%) say they want to wait until things are normal again. Normalcy likely means different things to different people, but it could include factors like no mask requirements or no restrictions at doctor’s appointments.
Around a third of millennials who plan to have any/more children (34%) have postponed their plans, and 22% of parents of minor children have postponed their plans.
Parents spending differently amid pandemic
The pandemic’s impact on parents has been widespread but varied. Some parents have left the workforce due to lack of or interruption in child care or in-person schooling, while others are balancing this care with working from home. Those who have been able to send their children to day care may be spending more on these costs than they were pre-pandemic, due to the increased costs required for child care centers to meet enhanced health and safety requirements. As such, the survey shows that most parents are spending differently on kid-related expenses than they were before the pandemic’s onset. Notably, parents are likely to be spending more on necessities, entertainment and child care now than they were before the pandemic.
Saving for children’s college expenses continues to be a priority for parents of minor children, with 28% saving more than they were before and 39% saving the same amount they were prior to the pandemic. But our survey indicates that some may be prioritizing this cost at the expense of their own futures.
Many parents prioritizing kids’ college over retirement savings
While the pandemic has affected much of our lives, parents’ top financial priorities have remained about the same. When asked about their three financial priorities before the pandemic and now, parents of children under 18 said the same things: saving for emergencies, saving for their children’s education and paying off/down debt.
Saving for college versus retirement is one situation where parents need to put themselves first and funnel money into retirement accounts before college savings accounts.Kimberly Palmer, NerdWallet's Personal Finance Expert
Investing for retirement comes in at No. 4, which is a bit concerning considering that saving for a child’s education is the second most common priority. Of course, saving for postsecondary education isn’t a bad thing. It’s an incredible gift if you can help your kids graduate college with less student loan debt or even debt-free. But not if it comes at the expense of your retirement.
What parents and future parents can do
Financially prepare for future children: If you’re still expecting to add to your family, it’s a good idea to get your finances in order. This means estimating out-of-pocket medical costs, planning for parental leave (especially if it’s unpaid or reduces your pay) and making sure your emergency fund is where you want it to be.
Create a new parent budget: Along the same lines, if you’re planning on having a child, you might consider building a baby/child budget. It’s no secret that children can be incredibly expensive, but figuring out how you’re going to adjust your budget for the changing expenses before your kid arrives may help ease the sticker shock.
“Saving the amount of money each month you plan to spend on child care helps give you a cushion to put toward baby expenses and also helps you get used to the reality of your new costs. If you plan to stop working, then practice living off of your new, lower income before you have to,” Palmer suggests.
Prioritize your retirement over a child’s education costs: While we all hope we won’t face another crisis on the scale of the pandemic during our lifetimes, we don’t know what will happen in the future. Preparing yourself financially can help you weather the unexpected.
It’s tough, but if you have to choose between putting away money for your retirement and your kid’s college, choose your retirement. Not because you’re selfish — taking care of your financial future means your children won’t have to — but because your kids simply have more options to get through school than you will to pay for your living expenses once you leave the workforce.
“Saving for college versus retirement is one situation where parents need to put themselves first and funnel money into retirement accounts before college savings accounts. There are no loans to help you if you run out of money in retirement,” Palmer says.
Make plans now for the expanded 2021 Child Tax Credit: For qualifying parents of minor children, the Child Tax Credit has been increased for 2021 — it’s $3,000 per qualifying dependent child 17 or younger or $3,600 per child under 6 — and can be claimed earlier than usual. In the past, the Child Tax Credit was applied to your annual tax return, but under the cash payment program, you can start getting monthly payments for half of the refundable credit beginning in July. That means $250 or $300 a month per child from July through December, then the rest of the credit when you file your 2021 tax return.
If you don’t have to allocate this money to immediate needs, it’s smart to decide how you’re going to use it beforehand. Check out NerdWallet’s advice on good ways to use a tax refund; this advice can also be applied to any windfalls you receive that aren’t required for necessities.
This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet from April 1-5, 2021, among 2,078 U.S. adults age 18 and older, among whom 1,179 are ages 18-55 and 603 are parents of kids under 18. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, contact Lauren Nash at [email protected].