U.S. Parents Are Sweating And Hustling To Pay For Child Care

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Parents struggle with the costs and choices with child care.

Life is pretty busy for Mike Buchmann, a high school art teacher and football coach, and his wife Shannon, who works as an assistant controller at a small private college near their home in Mishawaka, Ind.

Everyone is out the door by 7:45 each morning: Mike shuttles their two older kids to before-school care, while Shannon drops off their 14-month-old at a church-based child care center before they head off to their full-time jobs.

After their mortgage — which is about 20 percent of their combined take-home pay — child care is the family's biggest expense. In fact, the cost of their youngest child's day care alone — $660 a month — is more than half the family's monthly mortgage payment.

At the end of the month — after making payments for utilities, their car and Mike's school loan — the family has "zero for savings and zero left over," he says.

"All of a sudden, my wife is looking around, saying here's the bottom line: There's more red ink than there is black, we gotta do something about it."

That's why, several times a month — after he works a full day, coaches football after school, helps feed and bathe the kids before tucking them into bed — Mike heads out and spends a few more hours driving for Uber.

"It's a little hectic and the hours are insane. But you can sleep when you're dead," the 43-year-old says. "That's how you feel when you're a parent anyway, you're tired all the time anyway, you may as well make some money."

The Buchmann family isn't alone. Across the country, parents are hustling to find ways to balance the high cost of child care with their budgets.

The heavy burden of child care costs

More than 70 percent of parents say the cost of child care is a somewhat or very serious problem, a new poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found.

And no wonder: The average cost of day care in the U.S. — $9,589 per year — edges out the average cost of in-state college tuition at $9,410, according to a recent report from New America, a think tank in Washington, D.C., in collaboration with Care.com, an online resource that connects families and caregivers.

To put that in perspective another way: In four states — Kentucky, Montana, Oregon and Wisconsin — average child care costs exceed median rent. In 11 states — Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington — and the District of Columbia, the average cost of full-time day care is more than 90 percent of median rent.

That means for many families, a significant chunk of household spending goes toward child care; in states such as Mississippi and West Virginia, child care costs account for 40 to 45 percent of total household income.

Compare that to the Department of Health and Human Services' benchmark for affordable care: 10 percent of family income.

But these numbers capture only a fraction of the challenge and stress facing families with young children in need of care.

Ask just about any parent — regardless of where in the U.S. they live, socioeconomic status or race — and they're likely to have strong opinions and a story to tell of juggling priorities, cutting costs and employing creative strategies to get the best child care they can afford. A few of the NPR poll respondents share their stories.

A Wisconsin family embraces frugality

Child care is the single biggest monthly expense for Danielle Westhoff Smith and her husband Cameron: They spend more than $2,000 — or 34 percent of their monthly take-home pay — on child care for their 3-year-old and 4-month-old. By comparison, rent for their three-bedroom home in Madison amounts to a quarter of their income. Wisconsin is among the states where average child care costs are more than median rent.

Danielle, 33, is a postdoctoral fellow researching Ebola at the University of Wisconsin; her husband, a former engineer who is now an attorney for the state government. To make ends meet, the family lives frugally. They don't have cable, shopped around for a no-contract cell phone plan that costs $50 a month and bought "semi-smart" phones out of pocket. They eat out only once or twice a month. They have one car and use public transportation. They're trying to save $1,000 a month toward a down payment on a house and retirement, but miscellaneous expenses crop up all too frequently and there's not much left over.

"We don't have enough in the budget to save anything for their college," Danielle says. "I'm basically paying for it right now."

And it's no exaggeration: In Wisconsin, the annual cost for infant care at a center is $11,579, compared to $8,781 for in-state college tuition, according to a 2015 report from Childcare Aware of America. The Smiths pay $27,000 a year for their two children, with infant care accounting for a larger proportion of the total. On average, infant care at a center costs 12 percent more nationwide than for older children.

Managing these costs is a huge concern and affects more than just decisions about money.

"We have quite a few friends who had their children shortly after our first and now are thinking about second children, and it's all about cost of day care and the timing," she says. "All of our friends are in that same situation."

Danielle and Cameron would like to have three kids — "it's kind of our number," she says — but they are putting it off purely for financial reasons.

They'll wait until either their son starts elementary school or Danielle is at a point in her career that she can take a year off work to stay home with the kids. They did the calculations and a third child is the tipping point at which day care will cost more than she earns. She's put a lot of thought into when it would be best, professionally, for her to take a break — and how the timing will affect her future job prospects.

She never imagined that life in her 30s would require so much financial vigilance.

"When you go to college and plan your career ... you don't expect to be in a position where you have to nickel and dime everything," she says. "It just kind of hit us. We're right at that age where we're starting our jobs, starting our families."

She feels fortunate that they're able to make ends meet. Still, she can't help but worry.

"When you talk about finances and planning for the future, I know it's not enough, and so it makes me nervous," she says.

"But what options do you have? Not have children?" she continues. "That's something that's really important to us."

An Ohio family makes a plan and sticks to it

Michelle and Stephen Chester, of Cincinnati, are feeling similar anxieties.

"We're nearing 40, and it's like, OK, we thought we'd have these kinds of problems and such in our 20s, and here we are, almost 40, and we're still having these issues," says Michelle, who is 37.

Child care costs have squeezed the family particularly hard for the last 14 months, after the birth of twin daughters.

Michelle and Stephen spend $2,000 a month on full-time care for their daughters and a half-day of care for their 6-year-old son.

Even with a significant multi-child discount, it's equal to their mortgage.

"Every day, you wake up and go, 'Thank God I still have a job,' because if one of us for some reason loses our job, we're sunk," says Michelle, who is a client specialist at an investment firm.

Michelle and Stephen, a computer programmer, went through their budget item by item and cut out excess spending. They're delaying bigger-ticket purchases. They use a lot of coupons and eat out less. Michelle knows all of the restaurants that have kids-eat-free nights.

With the help of YouTube and advice from relatives, the husband and wife have also taken on various home repair projects themselves: replacing leaking faucets and toilets, weatherproofing all their windows.

Even though they've made a lot of cuts, Michelle says there is still plenty of day-to-day juggling.

"It's a challenge, and really, the tax credit that the government gives us ... it's the same as it was in the 1980s," she says. "And there's no way we're paying the same for child care for now that we were paying back in the 1980s."

Michelle is referring to Flexible Spending Accounts for dependent care, which allow employees to set aside pre-tax money from their monthly paychecks for child care for children younger than 13. Those contributions are limited to $5,000 annually — and have been since 1986. Compare that to average weekly child care costs, which have risen nearly 70 percent from 1985 to 2011, the most recent data available from the Census Bureau.

"When you think about it, $5,000 a year, we spend in the first quarter," she says.

And so far, congressional efforts to increase the limit — and to index dependent care to inflation — have gone nowhere.

Michelle and Stephen also discussed the possibility of one parent staying home. They sat down and ran the numbers when they found out they were having twins.

"If it were just day care, I would stay home," she says. "But because I also cover groceries, my car and a little bit of the utilities, I can't afford to. It wouldn't make sense for us."

There's regret in Michelle's voice when she discusses how little she and her husband are saving. The silver lining is that whatever little they do save, she says, goes into savings accounts they set up for the children.

"That's just money I don't want to touch," she says. "I want to be able to say, OK, this is your money. Kind of like my parents did for me, and my father-in-law and mother-in-law did for my husband, to give them a jumpstart later in life."

Many Americans hope to be able to give their children what their parents gave them; but the stark economic reality is that, in many cases, it simply won't be possible.

In the meantime, the Chesters have identified points where there costs will go down: when there are no more diapers ($100 less a month), when the twins move into the toddler room at their day care center ($80 less). Each change, as Michelle puts it, "gives us just a little bit more breathing room, and maybe a chance to start adding back to our savings."

Her advice for other parents who are struggling with child care costs?

"Make a plan and stick to it. Stick to it as much as you can. There's always going to be something that pops up, but if you've got a plan in place, you know how the numbers will fall," she says. "And it is a comfort at night when you can go to bed and say, OK, at least I know I can afford my house, my kids in a safe place, the utilities and groceries. Everything else? Not that important."

A North Carolina family talks money every month

A lot of families rely on grandparents for child care. For lower-income families, relatives are often the only option. But even for higher-earning families, relatives are a key backup to keeping often-fragile child care arrangements from unraveling.

That's the case for Brian Hickey of Raleigh, N.C. Even when his children were in full-time center-based care, he says, there were still sick days.

"Thank God my parents were in the area," he says.

But his parents have lives of their own, and Hickey is wary of taking them for granted.

"Old people used to tell me, don't wear out your welcome," the 35-year-old says with a laugh.

Bottom line is that there's no getting around the financial burden of child care.

"It's an astronomical cost," says Hickey, whose children are now 12, 8 and 5.

Managing child care costs is "arguably the most stressful part of my life," the 35-year-old geotechnical engineer says.

Full-time care for the two younger children cost Hickey and his wife about a quarter of their net monthly income — just $125 more per month than their mortgage payment. The Hickeys are another family who pay well over 10 percent of their income for child care — above the U.S. government standard for affordable care.

On paper, Hickey says, his family's household earnings — his wife works in retail management — should be enough. But with student loans and child support for his oldest child, Hickey says the reality was that paying for child care was a struggle.

He could have found a cheaper option — but did not want to compromise on quality.

"I didn't want my kid to be somewhere ... for 8 hours and not learn anything, not do anything, with no expectations of growth or development," he says.

And if finding that balance was difficult for the two-parent, middle-class Hickey family, it's all the more daunting for lower-earning families or single parents.

Hickey says frank conversations about finances and a constant re-evaluation of financial priorities are key ways he and his wife try to keep stress at bay.

"Every month, that's a conversation in this house. Every month, we sit down," he says. "You have to make your choices. Where are we at, and what can we do to keep moving forward? For us, if you do it frequently, you make better choices. Don't wait until there's a problem."

Despite the complaints about the cost burden, Hickey echoes other parents when he zeroes in on what truly matters: trustworthy, dependable child care.

"At the end of the day, I can lose my house, my job, my car, you can replace those," he says. "You can't replace your kids."

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