Not necessarily cheaper (or easier) by the half-dozen

How today’s large families make it work


Eryn McGary and Lori Keenan


Hey Mister, how come you got so many kids?” “Well, they come cheaper by the dozen, you know.”

So goes the good-natured exchange that inspired the title of the classic book written by two of the 12 children born to real-life motion study and efficiency experts Frank and Lillian Gilbreth in the early part of the 20th century.

Though one of Gilbreth Sr.’s favorite responses to a common question, the truth is: Nothing about raising a large family comes cheap.

Nevertheless, the decision to raise a large family—even in a very different age of pricey SUVs, costly after-school and summertime programs and soaring college tuitions—is, increasingly, not uncommon.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, family size is on the rise. Though the organization does not track exact numbers, its 2003 report indicates an average of 3.19 family members per household, a marked increase from the early ’90s, when the number hovered at or around 2.63.

In fact, today’s numbers are closer to those in the days when larger families were more the rule than the exception. In 1963, there were an average of 3.33 members per household; in 1940, 3.67.

Money matters

Take, for example, the Klamm family. Between 20-year-old son, Eric, 18-year-old Amy Jo, 14-year-old Sean, 12-year-old Scott and Patrick, Carl, Kendra and J.J. (10, 8, 5 and 3, respectively), this 10-member Evanston family’s monthly grocery bill could easily go into four digits, but with careful planning they keep it at $650. (See page 43 for more details.)

While any responsible parent is well aware of the importance of a family budget, the concept becomes even more integral to large families such as theirs.

“[Having a large family] has forced us to set boundaries for ourselves and our children, not according to what their friends are doing but what is best for the family, without sacrificing the individual needs—not wants—of each member,” says mother Kim Klamm, from a family of 12 herself.

“One of the challenges is definitely financial,” agrees father of five Vince Sweeney. “You have a vision of how you want to raise your kids, to send them to college.”

Based on an online college cost projector (, in six years, when Sweeney’s twin girls Allison and Elizabeth are 18, a four-year, public university education will cost more than $85,500, assuming inflation rates remain relatively constant. In 15 years, when 3-year-old J.J. Klamm is ready for college, the same tuition will cost a staggering $157,300 for four years.

But according to Ted Sangalis, a financial representative of Oak Brook-based Northwestern Mutual, these skyrocketing costs are manageable if parents take the right approach.

“Budgeting seems like a very wise and simple thing to do, yet very few families [do it],” Sangalis says, “Larger families face larger expenses day to day, larger college bills for multiple [children] and usually less disposable cash to fund all of these objectives.”

His advice: Develop a relationship with a reliable financial advisor and save as much as possible as early as possible, through either a company-sponsored 401(K) or a pre-paid tuition plan. The right balance, Sangalis says, will ensure families are taken care of, both now and in the future.

Even though one father of seven counts on his employer’s pre-paid tuition program allocating a significant amount of money towards future college costs, he says he still expects his children to save for their education with earnings from summer jobs and apply for partial scholarships and loans. The Sweeney family is currently participating in the Bright Start college fund. After all, they will incur double the cost when their twin girls start college. 

It’s the details

Large families end up that way for a variety of reasons: religious beliefs, blending families from previous marriages or fond memories of growing up with lots of siblings. But when it comes to money matters, it seems financial status is rather irrelevant for today’s large families.

“When you choose to have a big family, financials do come into play, but nine out of 10 times, that’s not why you choose to do it—just because you can,” says Wilmette mother Beth Brodell. She and her husband, Bob, each have two daughters from previous marriages, ranging in age from 6 to 18 years old, and 1-year-old twin sons of their own. “If you’re making $6 an hour, you can’t afford six kids, but you don’t have to make six figures,” she says. “You just have to be practical and find out what’s more important.”

Indeed, the day-to-day reality of raising five or more children compels these parents to adjust their own expectations and lifestyles, which they gladly do.

The families interviewed for this story live in Evanston and Wilmette; their husbands have careers in higher education, health insurance and medicine. Yet three of the mothers work part-time outside the home, one in retail, one as a physical therapist and the other as an accountant.

Brodell (who had 11 children—hers, friends and relatives—at her house and was simultaneously making lunch, playing referee and doing laundry as she spoke to Chicago Parent) just last month returned part-time to her job at a Northfield brokerage firm after a 1½-year hiatus.

“Daycare is outrageously expensive, so sometimes it’s worth it to live off one income,” she says. “[But] two college tuitions [for her daughter Christy and Bob’s daughter Jessie] are going to kill us.”

The money matters often mean long work hours and keep the fathers, the sole providers of income, away from the families they’ve committed to raising and long to be with. Though they make up for it by coaching sports teams and being involved when they are at home, there are other lifestyle concessions and sacrifices.

Because even a McDonald’s bill for five to six growing kids can stretch toward $50, these families rarely eat out.

“Tom makes breakfast several times a week,” Kim Klamm says. “After our seventh child was born, he took over the grocery shopping. He was appalled at the price of cereal, and this propelled him into the kitchen to learn how to make pancakes, French toast and eggs for a crowd.”

When it comes to family vacations, plane rides to faraway destinations are out of the question. Instead, families like the Sweeneys and Klamms pile into the car—make that van—for road trips to visit extended family and long weekends in nearby Michigan and Wisconsin.

“Your vacations are different, but they’re still vacations,” Brodell says. “When they’re little, kids don’t care if they’re looking at the Eiffel Tower or on the beach at Lake Geneva.”

Clothes are often hand-me-downs from older siblings and trips to the mall for back-to-school buys are definitely budgeted.

“The only thing I buy for everyone at school time is new shoes,” Klamm says. “I put an upper price limit of $30 to $40, which often causes consternation, but we are usually able to find things they want to wear.”

All six of the Brodell brood celebrate their birthdays in June. Mom Beth finds that for her 6-year-old, Emily, shopping is a no-brainer.

“The older girls have jobs and can buy their clothes, and [11-year-old] Maryellen gets new clothes because she’s bigger than [17-year-old] Jessie was at her age,” she says. “Emily gets the old toys, winter coats, shoes. So I always make it a point to buy her a bunch of clothes for her birthday, just so she always has something special. It’s just being a smart consumer.”

Ordered chaos

But beyond the obvious financial concerns facing large families, there still remain the logistical complications of raising so many kids. The question these women hear most often: “How do you do it?”

After all, traveling en masse requires a constant accounting of where everyone is and what everyone is doing, with frequent checks in the rearview mirror. One mother admits once nearly valet parking the baby, still in her car seat, after having unloaded all the luggage and belongings on a trip.

“You can’t micro-manage,” says Liz Brieva, mother of seven. “You focus on what’s really important and ignore the things that don’t matter so much, like if someone is wearing an outfit that doesn’t quite match.”

Still, “everyone has to be on the same page,” says Sheila Kaminski, whose five girls range in age from 2 to 14 years old. “If we’re riding bikes, then we’re all riding bikes.”

“We spend a lot of time walking to places,” adds Ann Sweeney. “It gives us time to talk and slow down.”

Indeed, keeping life simple is important. Despite their kids’ active participation in extracurricular activities—from Brownies to baseball to book clubs—these parents try not to complicate their kids’ schedules, particularly if they can integrate an activity like singing, swimming or reading into their family life.

This not only saves money by eliminating club, class and sports fees—it affords each child more opportunities for time with their parents.

Share and share alike

Catherine Pines, a clinical child psychologist at DePaul University, agrees that this is the best balance.

“Ideally, each kid should have room to pursue his or her own interests,” she says. “But in all families, regardless of size, some of the best quality time is between one child and one parent.”

The youngest of eight children himself, Vince Sweeney always assumed he’d have a big family and understands the active role it requires. “The biggest challenge we face is giving enough time to all of them, providing them the emotional support they need,” he says.

Martha Leinenweber, mother of six, agrees—even if it’s a quick trip to the grocery store. “I really try to have one-on-one time with each of the kids,” she says. “This is very important.”

And it’s infinitely more doable when everyone pitches in. “If kids have assigned tasks and everybody helps out, the logistics will run as smoothly as possible, so the parent can spend time paying attention to each of the kids rather than being consumed with [the details],” Pines says.

Liz Brieva agrees. “I think it’s great to give the kids more responsibilities,” she says. “It makes the house run smoothly, and it [helps each child understand the importance of] teamwork.”

In addition to keeping their (usually shared) rooms clean, the Brieva children are responsible for household responsibilities from setting the table and loading the dishwasher to putting away laundry and occasionally giving baths to younger siblings. When she had driving-age teenagers at home, Kim Klamm assigned them the time-consuming grocery duties.

The resulting resourcefulness and independence in problem solving is a big help, Ann Sweeney says. If she can’t get to her daughter’s requested ponytail in time because she is getting her 2-year-old dressed, one of her older daughters will step in.

It takes a village

“The best part [about our family] is what good friends my kids are,” Sheila Kaminski says. “Of course they fight. All kids do. But I don’t want them running to me to mediate. If you ignore it and let them figure it out, eventually they do.”

In fact, says Pines, children in large families will often create their own community with the siblings nearest their own age.

“I have a different type of friendship with all of my sisters,” says 14-year-old Maggie Kaminski. “Sometimes when I go to a friend’s house I like it because no one is bugging you, but at my house you’re never bored. There’s always someone to hang out with.”

Not cheaper, but richer

Still, for these families, some of the best times are spent with the immediate family gathered around the dinner table. “If we’re even missing one person from the dinner table it feels empty,” says Jena Brieva, 14, the oldest of seven.

Family dinners are especially helpful in managing the blended Brodell family. “We play a game called High-Lows every night at dinner,” Beth says. “Everyone gives their high of the day and their low. There are no exceptions. Everyone plays. If there’s something going on, we know where to focus our attention right away.”

She continues, “If we didn’t have as many kids, life would be lonely. Yes, we would have more money, but that’s it.”

Kim Klamm agrees. “Wants and perceived needs usually expand to use available resources just as possessions grow to fill available space. The real challenge in any family is to nurture the capacity for love-with the addition of each child our capacity has grown.”

“I wake up every morning and see six very happy kids,” Brodell says. “That’s the best part.” 


Eryn McGary is a freelance writer living in Chicago. Lori Keenan is a freelance writer, coffee-drinker and mother of three living in Evanston.

The average family of four spends $500 a month on groceries. But to the surprise of all of her friends, Kim Klamm spends $650—for her family of 10.

Klamm says the key to avoiding hefty grocery bills is store selection. She never shops at Jewel or Dominicks. “I only shop at Aldi and Produce Market,” she says. “They have great meat and produce.”

She also makes a monthly trip to Sam’s Club, where she buys certain foods in bulk. “For what you pay for a jar of pickles at Dominicks, you can get a quart of pickles at Sam’s,” she says.

And, when possible, the Klamms avoid buying what can be made at home. They bake their own bread—right in the oven. “My son [Sean] bakes the equivalent of eight 1-pound loaves every week,” she says.

Klamm rarely lets anything go to waste—she and her children use leftover chicken bones to make broth. “My neighbor is a single woman, and she puts out three times as much trash as I do every week,” Klamm says.

Her kids complain about the lack of snacks around the house, but Klamm says she doesn’t mind cutting back. “I like to cook, and I’m good at cooking,” she says. “The frugal gourmet could learn a few things from me.” Ryan Wenzel

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