With a husband working strictly on sales commission in a downeconomy, money has been tight for several years now for Laura Sowa. TheNashville woman works hard to keep things as normal as possible for hertwo daughters, but these days "normal" is being redefined. This hit homefor Sowa recently as she listened to the girls playing "shopping trip"in the next room.

"It'sso funny," Sowa says. "Samantha will tell Emily, 'No, you can't buythat today. It's not on sale.' Then Samantha will make coupons for Emilyto use and say, 'Now you can buy it.' They both know you never pay fullprice for anything."

Child's play mimicking real life-mom is aninveterate coupon-cutter, bargain hunter and all-around economizer.Times are tough for millions of families like the Sowas, and the cost ofraising kids just keeps going up.

According to the lateststatistics released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, parents willspend an average of $235,000 to raise a child born in 2011 to the age of17. (And that's not taking into account any savings for college).

Housing,food, clothing, health care, child care, schooling ... the list ofcompulsory expenses goes on and on. Discretionary spending such asfamily vacations, birthday gifts, music lessons and the like are mostlyextra.

Couple this whopping $235,000 with the recent, suddendownturn in the American economy, and families are facing challengesunseen in generations.

"It does give some people pause," says Dr.Joyce Cavanagh, a family economics specialist and associate professorwith the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension in College Station. "Everyyear when this study comes out, there are people who think, 'Whoa,that's a lot of money. What are we getting ourselves into?'"

The numbers in the USDA's report are eye-opening.

The$235,000 figure is an average. For the lowest income groups, raising achild will cost about $212,000. For the highest earners, the numbershoots up to $490,000.

The greatest share of these expenses ishousing, which is 30 percent of the total. It's followed closely bychild care and education at 18 percent and food at 16 percent.

"Becauseof the economic insecurity of life today, there are some toughtrade-offs that families are having to make," says Ellen Galinsky,president of the Families and Work Institute in New York City. "Thesearen't luxury trade-offs, like not getting the fanciest strollers. Theseare food and 'who's going to stay with my child' issues for so manyfamilies."

Indeed, who is going to stay with the kids is one ofthe biggest financial hurdles parents face. In 1961, when the USDA'sExpenditures on Children by Families report was first issued, child careand education costs amounted to only 2 percent of the overall cost.Today, that number stands at 18 percent.

Rebecca Sutton ofBelvidere, N.J., has two sons-Landon, 4, and Brody, 4 months-with herpartner, Jared Coffin. When the couple found out they were having asecond child, they started doing the math and the result shocked them.

"Ourday care expense for just our older son was over $1,000 a month,"Sutton says. "If we had put our younger son in day care as well, itwould have been about $2,200 a month. That was more than our mortgagepayment."

The couple knew they couldn't afford it and made a toughchoice. Sutton returned to her job as an online marketing manager whileCoffin, an electrician by trade, quit his full-time job in order tostay home with the kids. He picks up side work here and there, but beinga dad is his primary focus.

"He's really getting into his groove now," says Sutton. "He's enjoying spending time with both kids."

Formuch of the past decade, Josh Bevington was living the high life. Asuccessful real estate agent in one of the hottest markets in thenation, he whipped around town from open houses to closing transactions.He had a thick portfolio of clients and was helping buy and sell dreamhomes in southwest Florida.

But in 2008, the American economybegan to struggle; the bottom dropped out of the housing market and fewplaces were harder hit than the Gulf Coast of Florida.

"We wouldjoke around the office that we were working twice as hard for half asmuch," Bevington recalls. "The membership at the local board of realtorsdecreased by half as a lot of agents got out of the business."

Asthe market constricted, so did Bevington's family finances. With threeyoung children at home, Josh's wife, Caroline, tried to return tofull-time work as a pediatric physical therapist. But money woes had hitlocal hospitals and the hours weren't there.

So Josh and Carolinesat down with their household budget and began making tough decisions.Gym memberships? Canceled. A treadmill? Sold online for extra cash.Running outside was free. Old cars were kept longer than planned.Friends and family helped out with baby-sitting.

Financial experts say the Bevingtons took the right steps when money issues appeared.

"That's one of the bright spots of these hard economic times," Cavanaghsays. "We have seen more families developing a budget or a spendingplan. That's a first step-to become more aware of how they are spendingmoney."

From there, it's a simple next step to identify the areas

where money is being wasted or the areas where one can cut back without too much sacrifice.

Finally,if circumstances require it, families can move on to making moreserious cuts, reducing food and clothing budgets, moving to a lessexpensive home, even selling a car and taking public transportation.Painful, but often necessary.

"After we found out we were having asecond son, we knew we couldn't stay where we were living," Suttonrecalls. "The cost of living was way too high. Our house was too smalland we wouldn't have been able to upgrade, the housing market was tooexpensive."

So Sutton and her family packed up their home in MapleShade, N.J., and moved two hours away-closer to family and to a homeowned by Sutton's parents.

Every family needs to find their ownbalance-the amount of belt-tightening they can live with while stillgiving the kids everything they need.

"I operate on a zero weekly budget," Laura Sowa says. "The only money I spend during the week is for gas or groceries."

And she means it.

Sowanever dashes into a restaurant to grab a quick lunch or dinner. Rather,she keeps a picnic blanket in her car along with packed lunches so sheand the girls can stop at a park or the library to eat. She pours overlocal magazines looking for free things to do with the kids at areaattractions, museums and bookstores.

When it comes to shopping,Sowa is a coupon queen. Each week, she goes through the supermarketflyers to see what's on sale. Then she plans the family's meals based onwhat bargains she can get. She estimates she cuts at least 30 percentoff her grocery bill each week, sometimes more.

"When I get it upto 40 or 45 percent, I'm pretty proud. I make a call to my husband andtell him how much we saved," Sowa says with a laugh.

"We have seenan incredible rise in the number of people using coupons," saysCavanagh. "A dollar here and 50 cents there really does add up over thecourse of a year."

There are other keys to Sowa's frugalness.

Specialactivities such as camps or lessons for the girls often go on Christmasand birthday lists and are given as gifts by grandparents. Sowa neverbuys any clothing new. All of the girls' clothes are eitherhand-me-downs from older cousins or items purchased at consignmentshops. Sowa keeps tubs in the attic of their home, labeled by size andseason. Shirts, pants, dresses, jackets-they all sit there waiting to becalled into action. When they are being worn, Sowa takes fastidiouscare of them until the girls outgrow them.

"I do a lot ofsoaking," she says. "I soak them in detergent to get any stains out andthen they go back to consignment. I press them and hang them and pricethem and off they go."

The money made selling items on consignment goes toward new things the family needs. It's a never-ending loop.

Whiletimes have been tight for many families with children like theBevingtons and Sowas, valuable lessons have been learned. Lessons aboutbudgeting. Lessons about making do with less. Lessons about what onereally needs in life to be happy.

For Josh Bevington, the downturn in his real estate business brought some hardship, but also something of immeasurable value.

"Itwas a blessing in disguise. I had been working way too much, working 80hours a week," Bevington says. "I was able to step back and realizethat my priorities were out of whack. I started going to church. Istarted spending time with the kids. I'm coaching. I'm taking an activepart in their lives."

Despite what the statistics say, it turns out that the high cost of raising kids isn't always as expensive as many believe.

"Whatwe think our children need and what children actually need can be quitedifferent sometimes," says Galinsky. "Don't think it's always somethingyou have to purchase for your child or something you have to schedulefor them. The time spent with you-taking a walk, looking at leavesfalling-will be something they will remember forever."

Cutting the cost

Sometimescircumstances dictate that we cut back to the bare minimum. Here arenine things to consider when you have to stretch your budget.

  1. Don't buy a top-of-the-line stroller.
  2. Cut your child's hair.
  3. Find free entertainment at parks, libraries, restaurants.
  4. Keep birthday parties simple - at home, games, cake, presents, done.
  5. Handle pre-school at home.
  6. Shift hours instead of opting for expensive childcare.
  7. Look (but don't buy) in stores, then purchase online.
  8. Shop bargain racks, consignment stores and garage sales.
  9. Pack lunches, buy in bulk, and consider making food from scratch.

This article was excerpted from USA TODAY's Guide to Kids' Health magazine, available through USA TODAY's online store. The premium publication features articles on kids' wellness, nutrition, fashion and more.