How 32 Real Families Negotiate the Cost of Child Care

How 32 Real Families Negotiate the Cost of Child Care

Real families share how they juggle around the costly expense of child care.

By: Leah Maxwell

If you’re a parent, chances are you’ve had to “the talk” – you know, the one about child care. Yes, working moms, stay-at-home moms, single moms, moms of lots of kids or just one -- all of us at some point have to address the issue of child care. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 61 percent of kids under the age of 5 were in some form of paid child care in the United States in 2011. That means parents of children in day care centers or in-home facilities are spending on average between $4,000 and $17,000 per year on child care. That’s a lot of people sacrificing to make ends meet.

So how do families make it work? I asked some mom friends how they navigate the costly child care years, and their answers ranged from creative budgeting and putting their careers on hold to having fewer children than they’d like to adjusting their expectations about the type and quality of care their kids will receive. There appear to be infinite solutions to the single common dilemma of ensuring our kids are safe and cared for even if we can’t be with them.

Here’s how real families are making it work:

1. “[Child care costs] more than our mortgage, so it’s what we center the rest of our expenses around. I wouldn’t budge on the quality of care, and it’s close to our house … Four years in, I forget how much ‘fun stuff’ we have given up.” -- Sarah, mom of a 4-year-old son

2. “I'll drive the kids 30 minutes to my parents one time a week for free [babysitting] for a few hours. And we just live frugally in general.” -- Ashley, mom of two sons, ages 4 years and 3 months

3. “We have less savings than we’re comfortable with, we’re not as far in paying down the house as we’d like to be ... Our retirement is from jobs only. And college funds? HA! They're going to day care [instead].” -- Gaby, mom of two sons, ages 4 and 2

4. “We're lucky to live somewhere with a low cost of living and low cost of child care. But we did choose the slightly less expensive, slightly less ideal 'feel,' but very convenient day care.” -- Katrina, mom of a 19-month-old son

5. “We went without most luxuries for a few years. Cable, regular grocery stores, vacations, etc.” -- Jessica, mom of 5-year-old girl-boy twins

6. “The house/neighborhood we live in … if it weren’t for day care expenses, we probably would have moved years ago. I’m really looking forward to the end of the day care years.” -- Amy, mom of a 5-year-old daughter, a 2-year-old son, and another on the way

7. “We have a pretty bare-bones budget. There are very few unplanned purchases, and big stuff has been put off until [we have] no day care [expenses]. Like next year when [my son] is in kindergarten, we will likely get a new roof and have the house painted. Both are overdue. Also, we don’t save as much as we want (in general, for retirement or for their college). One more year and that changes. Yay!” -- Kate, mom of a 7-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son

8. “We gave up entertainment, all but most basic clothes and shoes, and eating out. We had one car, two kids, and two full-time jobs. It was harrowing.” -- Shannon, mom of two daughters, ages 12 and 10

9. “We would probably have moved if it weren’t for child care expenses. But we also pay far less than most.” -- April, mom of two sons, ages 6 and 4

10. “I gave up my job and settled for [my kids] having me as a sometimes less-than-ideal caregiver. We prioritized living close to [my husband’s] work and had one car for a few years and generally live frugally.” -- Rebecca, mom of two girls, ages 7 and 5

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11. “I have no degree and am therefore worth less than day care per hour. So I stay home. Working would be easier [and] more enjoyable.” -- Bethany, mom to two sons, ages 3 and 5 months

12. “We are lucky to have friends in a situation where we will pay them for part-time care and both families will benefit. But that still means bringing business into personal relationships, which is always hard, and we’re using student loan money to pay for it … Child care is a huge economic contribution. But for us, my work is important too, and we are lucky to be able to make it work. It’s sort of an investment in our collective long-term wellbeing.” -- Miriel, pregnant with her first child

13. “Other life priorities have just held still [while our kids are in child care]. We essentially have no retirement at this point.” -- Cheri, mom of a 6-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son

14. “I’m single and couldn’t make enough to pay for full-time child care [for my twins]. I brought home $150 per week after child care and taxes … I break even now (working while they’re in school pays for their school) only because of a scholarship and a discount from the church preschool.” -- Amy, mom of a daughter, age 7, and twin boys, age 3

15. “We selected a less fancy, less expensive day care based on a friend’s recommendation and we have loved it. At times I feel like we are sacrificing, since it is a small day care, but I see how much they love my son, and that’s what matters.” -- Julie, mom of a 3-year-old son

16. “I gave up my career as a graphic designer to budget for [child care]. While it sucks, it would have meant my making about $10,000 a year after paying someone else to care for the kids. And $10,000 didn’t seem worth letting someone else raise them. Granted, I realize how lucky we are that [my husband] makes enough for me to stay home.” -- Michele, mom of three sons, ages 7, 3, and 6 months


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17. “We've had to settle for me [taking care of our daughter] until [my husband] makes his next [military] rank next year. It is … far less than ideal for a lot of reasons.” -- Kelly, mom of a 3-year-old daughter

18. “We are lucky that [my husband] got a raise right when I went back to work. It let us choose the pricier but better day care. But we can’t afford for either of us to quit our jobs. He makes more than I do, but my job has the good benefits.” -- Megan, mom of a 3-month-old son

19. “We play nice with my mom to watch the girls. If I quit to stay home, insurance would kill us. So we play nice. The 3-year-old goes to preschool three days a week this fall, and my mom has to pick her up.” -- Katie, mom of two daughters, ages 3 and 3 months

20. “For us, it was mostly about reducing our savings. Which I think makes us luckier than a lot of people. Now that [my daughter] is in school we’re trying to put that money toward savings. Not easy, though.” -- Blair, mom of a 5-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son

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21. “[My husband] was a stay-at-home dad part-time for six months, then went to full-time work because the cost of full-time day care required him to work on his PhD and work a full-time job at the same time.” -- Steph, mom of a 3-year-old son

22. “[We] gave up cable. [Our] kid goes to a less fancy (but safe! and loving!) in-home care instead of the schmancy preschool.” -- Mandy, mom of a 4-year-old daughter

23. “We have a minimal fun budget so we can pay a lot for a [child care] place we love. It’s only temporary, and we are homebodies anyway.” -- Norah, mom of a 3-year-old son and an 8-month-old daughter

24. “When we first had the baby, we did two days in a nanny-share and worked at home three. It worked for about nine months and then, once she was mobile, we had to ask my mother-in-law to [help] us occasionally.” -- Lisa, mom of a 4-year-old daughter

25. “I think the big thing to remember is that this is (hopefully!) not forever. It’s a tough few really expensive years, but it will get better. For us, [that will be] in two years, when both kids will be in free public school. And then we will do things we’re putting off -- replacing a car, replacing old, crappy windows on our house, etc.” -- Roberta, mom of a 5-year-old daughter and a 20-month-old son

26. “We are fortunate to be able to afford care, but the cost was a not-insignificant factor in our decision to have only one kid. So … I guess we sort of gave up our initial vision for our family? But it wasn’t the only factor at play there.” -- Angela, mom of a 5-year-old daughter

27. “We are juggling between a family member and our schedules. It works for now and is free.” -- Louise, mom of a 13-month-old daughter and four school-aged kids

28. “I gave up most of my spending fun money to pay for [part-time child care], and we use lots of friends/family for evening care.” -- Linnea, mom of a 2-year-old daughter and a 9-month-old son

29. “I got the last spot at a local center, only it happens to be $24/day more than the in-home one. Luckily my mom said she would watch [my son] two days instead of one to offset the expense. … [Paying for] three days a week is almost as much as my rent.” -- Lindsay, mom of a 1-year-old son

30. “Most of the people we know where both parents work make similar salaries. That was not the case for us, at all, so it was not hard, in the financial sense, for me to walk away [from my job]. Personally? That sucked. [But] my balance is much better now ...” -- Jen, mom of a 16-month-old son

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31. “Child care costs are crushing. I didn’t feel like I could or would ever want to settle for less than an ideal caregiver -- that just felt wrong. And the guilt! I’d rather be a little poorer but rest a little easier knowing that [my kids are] really well cared for. I’m trying to look at it as an investment for the future ...” -- Sarah, mom of two boys, ages 4 and 2

32. “We are both self-employed and have pretty flexible jobs, so that allowed us to get very creative with child care. Sometimes we just traded off, sometimes we worked early and/or late, sometimes we had family help, sometimes we had none and [juggled work and child care] and hoped for the best, sometimes it was a part-time sitter plus preschool, sometimes I traded off with friends. We made it work for a long time, but now that all the kids are in school I’m so relieved and also kind of wondering how I did it for so long.” -- Meagan, mom of four sons, ages 16, 14, 10, and 8, and a 5-year-old daughter

Reading everyone’s stories, it’s a wonder any of us make it work. But we do, somehow, each of us in our own way.

How do you budget for child care?

Leah Maxwell is a book editor, freelance writer, cereal addict, wife, and mom to two young boys. She has been blogging at A Girl and a Boy since 2003.

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