The U.S. downturn is squeezing parents. Here are some ideas to keep costs down.

By MEGAN K. SCOTT


NEW YORK — Children may be a blessing, but they can also leave you broke.

Middle-income families will spend $204,060 on feeding, housing and schooling a baby born in 2007 until his or her 18th birthday, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — a number that doesn't include designer clothes and the latest gizmos.

In these tough economic times, many parents are looking to cut the cost of child-rearing. But how do you save money without shortchanging the kids?

Here are some tips for being frugal but totally cool parents.

The more parents, the more gas savings, said Bonnie Harris, author of "Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You'll Love to Live With." She suggests involving at least one other parent for pick-up and drop-off at day-care and school, as well as for extracurricular activities.

Take your kids to Goodwill, Salvation Army or a consignment shop. On everyday clothes like T-shirts, shirts, athletic shorts, sweatpants and jeans, you can shave 90 percent off your clothes bill, said Harris.

Moms Randi Zuckerwise Madrid and Danielle Klein of New York City created their own music class for babies. Participants pay $20 for 8 sessions to cover the cost of tambourines, bells and shakers. Klein and Madrid download music to an iPod. Music classes in the area can run about $300 per session.

A tip from Sheila Lirio Marcelo, CEO of Care.com: Team up with neighboring parents and share a sitter. Most providers prorate their fees according to the number of children they are watching.

If you have boys, purchase electric hair clippers and cut their hair yourself, said Harris. Make sure the haircut kit comes with good scissors, clippers, a comb, oil, and length and blending guides. The savings is $120 an year.

Kate Ward, online director for TheBump.com, mashes blueberries, avocados and sweet potatoes for her 8-month-old. "It's good too because you can adjust the texture," she said. "It's also healthier and definitely cheaper." Madrid uses the remaining apple-y water after steaming and pureeing apples for juice. It's cheap and has less sugar than regular juice.

It's a time investment (all that laundering) and an initial monetary investment (you have to purchase the cloth diapers), but it can save you money in the long run, said Ward.

Hand me downs are coming back into fashion, said Ward. "Babies stop using things so quickly, there's really no reason not to pass things around," she said. Use the Freecycle Network (freecycle.org) to give and get clothes and baby furniture for free.

Have an honest conversation with your children about "wants" versus "needs," said Amy Tiemann, author of "Mojo Mom." Make it a point of pride rather than embarrassment to spend only what you can afford, she said.

Enlist the help of a relative to help with child care duties, said Marcelo. "Parents should still plan to pay a fee, but it can be much less when a family member is willing and able to help out," she said.

Amber Lesovoy, a mother of two in Kernersville, N.C., gives horseback riding lessons for child-care. A neighbor trades child-care services for chicken and eggs from a local family.

Madrid uses high quality diapers at night, and a lesser quality diaper during the day when she's changing her daughter every couple of hours.

You can check out books, magazines and DVDs for free. Libraries also have programs to keep children entertained, such as story time and puppet shows.