If you want to keep a conversation light, everyone knows to avoid three hot-button topics: politics, religion, and sex. You might also want to add "having kids" to that list.

The public can't seem to get enough of debate between those who choose to have children and those who choose not to: the childless or, as some prefer, the "child-free."

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton law professor and former State Department official, spurred a fresh debate -- and heap of backlash -- when she explained in The Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," at least "not today, not with the way America's economy and society are currently structured."

With the average cost of raising a child now $234,000 (not including college), according to the Department of Agriculture, it's certainly true that parenthood is one of the most significant financial decisions most Americans ever make.

Slaughter chose to leave her high-profile government job so she could spend more time with her two teenage sons. But her choice -- having kids and stepping off the career treadmill for a while -- represents only one side of the divide.

What about people -- both men and women -- who have chosen to skip parenthood and concentrate on career and, to the extent possible, financial security?

Doug and Lindsey CarnettYou Can Have a Rewarding Life Without Children

"Could we afford kids? Yes," says Lindsey Carnett, 29, a PR firm president who lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Doug, 30, a public servant. "However, with all of the traveling I do, the nanny bills alone would be astronomical."

"So I'd rather continue traveling the world," she says, "running my business, getting massages, getting pedicures and manicures, working out with my trainer, enjoying great dining experiences and enjoying life to the fullest."

For Todd Greene, a 45-year-old entrepreneur who lives in Santa Monica, Calif., the choice not to have children is as much a matter of worldview as it is of personal finance. "After college, having dated the same woman for three years, we discussed the 'next step' which would mean engagement, marriage, kids," he says. "I remember how many of my friends had the 'married by 25, kids by 30 plan.' I realized shortly after college that it wasn't my plan. We broke up about a year after that.

"Then I read a bunch of books that really made me think about what I really wanted. Books like Razor's Edge, The Fountainhead, The Alchemist," he says. "Obviously none of them were about kids, but it really made me want to see the world... The greatest advantage is mobility and flexibility in life."

DeAara LewisThe Price of Waiting vs. the Cost of Young Motherhood

For DeAara Lewis, 33, a TV producer in Memphis, Tenn., the decision not to have children (at least thus far) has, ironically, come at a high cost all its own.

"Choosing not to have children because I want to be more financially stable and my career more secure has cost me some romantic relationships," she says. "Being from the South, it is often just assumed I want children right away, regardless of my own personal goals."

Still, friends' examples have helped stay committed to her choice. "Many of my peers had their children as teenagers ... before their own lives were established or clearly defined," Lewis says. "The lack of maturity and readiness resulted in some of the fathers leaving, my peers' own dreams being put on hold or halted altogether, and regret."

Who's Going to Help You Program the DVR?

It's natural that both childless people and parents are concerned with the possibility that they'll later regret their choices. But the choice of parenthood -- at least in practical terms -- is best made before you reach your golden years. And those golden years are exactly the time when those who decided not to have children will feel the impact of those early life decisions the most.

"People may complain about having too many kids," Bryan Caplan says, "but no one ever complains about having too many grandkids."

Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University, is the father of four young children and the author of Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. When it comes to deciding on having kids, Caplan says, "don't just think about how you're feeling right now, think about what the effect will be over your whole life."

It's common sense to go out of your comfort zone now to have a better retirement, he says. "Most people don't sit around saying, what do I do to make my life better when I'm 60 or 70? But it's too late to have kids when you're 60 or 70."

What's more, Caplan argues that the hefty price tag affixed to American children today is more a matter of choice than it is a matter of fixed costs. "Children cost far less than parents pay," he has written, "because parents overcharge themselves."

That $234,000 price tag does vary according to the parents' income, as Caplan points out. Families that make more tend to spend more on their children.

The USDA reports that households with before-tax income below $60,000 spend on average between $8,000 and $10,000 each year per child, while households with before-tax income above $100,000 spend between $20,000 to $25,000 each year per child -- with extra costs including luxuries from private schools to iPads.

Endless Expenses Even for Low-Maintenance Parents

Still, even those who choose what might be termed lower-maintenance parenthood contend that it is incredibly expensive.

Julie, a 40-year-old mother of three in Richmond, Va., (she asked that her last name not be used), readily admits that she and her husband have struggled with the expenses of raising children.

"They always need something. Clothes, diapers, preschool, activity fees, school clothes, braces, shoes, makeup, doctor visits, bikes, etc.," she says. "It's something new every day. There are times as parents that we need or want something, and you sometimes don't get what you need or want because the money goes to what your kids need or want. And it only gets worse when they get older. There have been times that we didn't go out to eat, that we didn't take vacations, that we didn't do anything other than what was necessary."

That sounds a lot like not having it all -- but Julie isn't aggrieved. Her approach to life comes across as easygoing and improvisational.

"I had my first child at 26," she says. "We didn't plan it, but we were immediately excited and welcomed her. I can't remember ever thinking that I would not have kids. It's been something that I've always wanted."

What's your take, DailyFinance reader? Does it cost too much to have a kid? Did the cost affect your decision to become, or not become, a parent? Sound off in the "comments" section below.

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Enjoying childfreedom? Concerned about overpopulation? I am too and I'm trying to help others like us afford the sterilization procedures they so desperately want. A few dollars or just sharing this link can help so much.

July 31 2012 at 2:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

i'd just like to make the people who have the kids pay for them instead of having this collectivist society that makes everyone pay for public schools and give tax breaks for kids and welfare benefits, people on welfare have an incentitive to have more kids because then they get more EBT and more food stamps.

July 17 2012 at 7:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Wow big gov says parents spend 8,000 to 10,000 a year per child, I wonder where that number comes from?? I have 5 boys and I don't even make that much money a year and am considered middle class? Makes you wonder about any of the numbers there, I am sure i some areas it cost more than others but I don't spend anything near what they claim it costs and my boys range from toddlers to teenagers.

July 17 2012 at 5:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Isn't it selfish in itself to think having children for compansionship when you get old and with the expectation that they will be "taking care of you"?

July 17 2012 at 1:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Neither one of my daughters wants to have children. Right now they are not willing to sacrifice the way my husband and I sacrificed for them. They want to travel, see the world, eat at nice restaurants and take expensive cruises, but eventually that materialism will wear out and they will most likely die by alone, leave their money that they worked so hard for, to an animal shelter or other charity. Yes, children are a sacrifice and if you are the selfish kind then not having them is the right choice. I'm sad that I may never be a grandmother, but happy knowing that I can die broke and not have to worry about paying for my grandchildren's college education. I guess I can be a little selfish in my old age.

July 17 2012 at 1:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Whether a couple chooses to have children is their own decision. It should be based on their preferences -- do they want to invest the time, the money and the effort that rearing children requires. If they do, great. If they don't great. It's no one else's decision except the couple in question.

July 15 2012 at 7:56 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

What's the problem. As a school bus driver I had a family of five kids who all had new braces, free lunches, food stamps, Section 8 housing, straight old welfare and Daddy was in and out of jail. Two or three times a year they all showed up with brand new book bags, Aeropostale clothing, tennis shoes, and Ipods etc. So what's all this about expense?

July 15 2012 at 4:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It does seem that there should be less incentive for people who cannot afford to have many children,I know of one family of immigrants who have 13 kids,now I don't know how they support them but if I had to guess I would say a lot of public assistance.This seems to be a real drain on society in general,perhaps a sliding scale of returns should be implemented somehow?

July 15 2012 at 2:07 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to orlandcaro's comment

Look up "swipe yo EBT" in youtube. then you'll know/

July 17 2012 at 7:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

People who choice not to have kids have the right idea. Well if it were that easy. The fact of the matter is, for one kids make you grow up. They teach a responsibility that nothing else in life could. I guess because it's a 24/7 thing? Second if you plan to live past 50, it's sure nice having younger people around, that love you and will give you a hand when you need it. Is it a lot easy under 50 to not have kids?...LOL HELL YEA!! But in the end, your the one who would be losing out on more than you could ever know. Just something to think about. I don't care either way, what a person wants to do with their life. Wish you happiness in whatever you decision may take.

July 15 2012 at 2:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Yes well i think the main issue that will rise out of this is that those who really should be having kids as they will provide for them and help teach them to be responsible people are the ones who make the conscious choice not to have kids...

And that leaves all the others (not getting specific) that are generally poor and cant provide for their own to continue infesting.

There is only one solution, the child tax credit only qualifies for 2 children per home. After 2 the government doesnt give you money for your head count, i read stories of people who dont earn a dime in the year who get $15-20,000 tax returns O.o

To be honest though these kids are the victims, born into a house to be nothing more than an easy paycheck. With no true parents and even less care from the outside world what they are going to be by the time they are 18.

And the only way to stop it is to cut off the money spigot. Once there is no monetary benefit watch how fast we start to see poor parents on state provided birth control, so its not complete but its a start.

Whether people want to see it or not America is a Socialism and has been for years. Its time to end it. When i pay 5-6% more of my income to taxes simply because i cannot claim a child tax credit there is something wrong.

July 15 2012 at 11:46 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to steve's comment

So what you're saying is, people who don't earn more than $110,000 a year, shouldn't have children. And if they do have children, limit them to two. Do you know what the medium income is for working people in the U.S? It starts with a four. When you can figure out how to legislate morality, please, let me know. While you probably meant well, maybe you shouldn't limit your knowledge to just reading stories.

July 15 2012 at 1:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
5 replies to theycallmeroy3's comment