How to Spend Less on Child Care

Until I started having kids, I hadn't given a lot of thought to the complicated situation that is child care in America. In fact, for most of my first pregnancy I had no plan for what I would do once the baby came.

child care

My lack of a plan stemmed partly from the fact that my then-partner and I were both working irregular schedules, and we just assumed that we’d be able to fit in taking care of our baby more easily than 9-to-5-ers could. And to be honest, I was utterly out of the parenting loop.

Midway through my third trimester, I got offered an amazing — though not incredibly high-paying — job, and after mulling it over I decided that taking it was the right move. The catch was that it meant I definitely needed regular child care.

I began researching my options, and I quickly discovered what any parent could have told me: Childcare is insanely expensive. The average annual cost of child care in the U.S. is $18,000, and in cities like New York (where I live) it can be up to $30,000. No surprise, then, that 2015 report shows that year over year, child care is the largest annual household expense.

And not only is it expensive, but child care can be a huge headache to sort out, and there’s a wide range when it comes to quality and safety.

Ten years and three kids later, I have a much better sense of what’s out there. Through a combination of trial and error, family and community support, and plain old luck, I’ve managed to get my children cared for without going broke. Here’s how I made it happen.

Bring Extended Family On Board
Though grandparents have historically been an integral part of child care across the globe, for a lot of Americans in recent generations it hasn’t been the most natural option. That may be changing. As Van C. Tran, an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University, told The New York Times, “The younger generation are working more hours than ever before, so they desperately need their parents to be around.” He calls this a “cultural norm-shifting moment,” given that the role of the grandparent as babysitter “was not expected or acceptable even a generation ago.”

Indeed, before I had kids, I never would have imagined involving my parents, let alone my in-laws, intimately in my adult life. But when presented with the option, I realized just how much sense it made.

My recently retired mother-in-law was living several hours north of us. A few weeks before my due date, we were still unsure what we were going to do for child care, so we asked her if she could come for the first month to help out. That month turned into a decade of babysitting that has alternated between being occasional and full time. For a time we even rented her an apartment in our Brooklyn neighborhood — it was more affordable than full-time day care or a nanny, she could keep her home upstate, and we could all maintain our privacy.

For us, the key to making this a workable situation was giving each other space, setting some boundaries early on, and looking at the sitting as more of a job than a favor. The grandparent option isn’t going to work for everyone, but if you have a family member who might be open to child care, don’t write it off.

Opt for In-Home Day Care
After two years, my mother-in-law returned home and we put our daughter in day care. We considered hiring a nanny, but after taking into account a salary, benefits, and vacation time, it was clear that day care was cheaper.
Plus, I didn't want to be someone's boss.

While we got lucky, it can be a huge challenge to find safe, reliable, affordable day care. Much has been written about the dire situation of American day cares, and waiting lists for state-subsidized child care can have more than 70,000 kids on them. It’s no wonder that a lot of people just dismiss this option.

But when day care works, it can be a great solution. Over the years I’ve used a few different ones, all licensed in-home family day cares. That meant they had only a handful of kids, but still had to follow various protocols (and any violations were posted on a government website).

By my third pregnancy, I knew day care was going to be my go-to from the start. I also knew that that finding an affordable place for an infant was different than doing so for a toddler. But this time I was way more plugged in to the parenting world. I knew people with kids, I was on a million parenting and neighborhood listservs, and I had my antenna up at playgrounds.

Doing my research and broadening my idea of acceptable options (e.g., choosing one that I hadn’t gotten through a personal referral) made it possible to find a good, safe option.

Trade Sitting With Other Parents
Swapping child care with fellow parents has been indispensable. With my first two kids, this process was made a lot easier by the fact that I lived in an apartment building full of parents, all of whom were scrambling for child care. No one had any formal agreements, but we loosely kept track of who owed who sitting.

I’m not in that building anymore, and our new place doesn’t have the same sense of community. But I’m keeping up the babysitting exchanges, and these days I do regular sleepover trades with my cousin who has kids around the same age as mine.

Other people go a more formal route and form babysitting co-ops — basically a group of parents who agree to take turns watching each other's kids for free. Some are fairly structured, and there are websites that can help co-op members keep track of the hours they’ve sat and the hours of sitting they’re entitled to. (You can do the same thing with a shared Google calendar.) Some co-ops set up systems where members can earn points for babysitting and things like carpools, meal prep, and running and managing the co-op. The website Frugal Mama has more on that.

If you prefer something more casual, you can start by having playdates to get to know other families and suggest sitting swaps. You can also host a sitting party where you offer to watch a few kids at once, and explain in the invite that the idea is for everyone who drops their kids off at the party to also host a similar event at another time. You can throw out some dates and ask people to pick their slots if they want to be involved.

Whether it’s a casual trade or a more formal situation, the freedom you gain when you don’t have to drop $100 every time you need to go out can be life changing.

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