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Can Canadian parents really raise a child for $3,000 a year?

The Fraser Institute has told Canadians it's possible to raise a child on $3,000 to $4,000 a year. Dream on.

In a highly contentious report released Thursday, the conservative public-policy institute says it's never been easier financially to raise a child in Canada, especially if parents only include necessary expenses and watch their budgets very closely.

The Fraser Institute paper seems light years removed from other studies that have put the annual expense for each child in the $10,000 to $15,000 per annum range. Some child-care experts have put the total bill for raising a child to age 18 at more than $200,000.

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Authored by economist Christopher Sarlo, the paper says Canadians can be much thriftier in their child-raising. Sarlo admits his lower estimate is based on the cost of providing a child's essential needs.

The study's departure point from reality is in the definition of those "essential needs." In Sarlo's view, those needs include food, clothing, personal care, household supplies, recreation and school supplies. Yes, those expenses are real, but there's so much more.

Truthfully, we've never sat down to figure it out, but the cost of raising our 11-year-old daughter is well in excess of the $4,000 ceiling suggested by Sarlo. Hell, we spent more than that on her week-long dance camp last month.

But as any parent will tell you, it isn't the essentials of food, medical care and felt markers that makes raising kids so expensive. It's the little things that add up.

Things like: Buying new shoes for rapidly growing little feet. Dental care not covered by our respective health plans. Competitive dance outfits. Gymnastic outfits. CDs, DVDs and iTunes downloads. Cell-phone costs. Bicycle repairs. The occasional restaurant meal. Concert tickets. School photos and yearbooks (yes, Grade 6 kids have yearbooks). Birthday presents for other kids. I'm woozy just compiling the list.

Even more unforgivably, the Fraser Institute doesn't acknowledge the biggest expense currently facing most Canadian families: paying for daycare or lost income in the event one parent decides to stay home to take care of the kids.

Not surprisingly, the paper has raised the hackles of struggling families and various parent-advocacy groups.

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"Families are absolutely stretched to their financial maximum," said Don Giesbrecht, CEO of the Ottawa-based Canadian Child Care Federation.

By Giesbrecht's estimate, 70 per cent of Canadian mothers are currently in the workforce, which makes daycare a vital necessity for many families. "It's not a superficial cost that affects a minority of people," he said.

Daycare costs vary from province to province, but it's not uncommon, said Giesbrecht, for some families to spend upwards of $20,000 each year on facilities or caregivers to watch the kids.

So why were daycare costs excluded from the Fraser Institute paper? Sarlo claims the majority of Canadian parents actually have zero child-care costs, and says the item is best treated as a special expense for those families for whom it applies.

But hey, life is great here in the Great White North, right? According to Sarlo, real incomes are higher, there are more dual-income families and couples are having fewer children than ever before.

Try telling that to the Canadian family with two working parents, one of whom is handing his or her entire paycheque over to a daycare centre.

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