Our Survey Reveals How Parents Cope With the Staggering Cost of Child Care

Several preschool children lie down in a circle on a colorful carpet with their hands over their eyes.
FatCamera/Getty Images

Ridiculous. Outrageous. Expensive.

We asked hundreds of parents what they thought about the cost of child care in America, and those were just a few of the words they used.

Child care is often a necessity for parents of children too young to attend school — especially working parents. After all, infants, toddlers and preschoolers can’t stay home by themselves all day while their parents are off earning a living. But so many families struggle to afford that basic need.

The Penny Hoarder conducted a survey in mid-July to find out how parents deal with the cost of child care. Over 1,200 parents with children under age 6 responded.

Here’s a snapshot of the 1,224 people who answered our survey:

  • Just over half (52.5%) were between the ages of 25 and 34.
  • 64% had only one child under age 6.
  • 74% worked full time.
  • 7% identified as stay-at-home parents.
  • 91% were women.
  • 74% were married.
  • 61% were homeowners.

This is what they said.

Surprised by the High Cost of Child Care

Kristy Gaunt – The Penny Hoarder

The expense of child care often packs a hard punch for parents because so many are unaware of the costs before welcoming a new addition to their family.

Less than a quarter of the parents we surveyed said they fully understood the cost of child care before planning a family. Almost three-quarters of survey respondents said it was more money than they initially expected.

This lack of knowledge leads adults to enter parenthood unprepared. Seven out of 10 parents we surveyed said they did not factor in the cost of child care before deciding whether to have kids. About 85% said they had not saved for child care prior to having a child.

Still, the majority of parents tackle child care expenses alone. Four out of five parents we surveyed said they’ve never received any financial assistance — not from the government, not from their employers and not even from family or friends.

It’s no wonder 95% of those we surveyed said they felt overwhelmed by the cost of child care.

Budget Buster

Kristy Gaunt – The Penny Hoarder

Paying for child care takes up a significant amount of parents’ budgets. About 82% of parents we surveyed said they spent $500 or more on monthly child care expenses. Over 56% said they spent at least $750 each month.

Half the parents we surveyed said they spent at least 15% of their income on child care.

It isn’t just low-income parents who struggle to pay for child care. Forty-seven percent of the parents we surveyed reported household incomes of $75,000 and above.

Having a baby comes along with dozens of new expenses — bottles, diapers, cribs, car seats. The list goes on. Yet 85% of survey respondents said child care is their biggest child-rearing expense.

A Baby Changes Everything

Kristy Gaunt – The Penny Hoarder

The cost of child care has a major effect on parents’ careers and financial lives.

Some parents compensate by working more so they have enough money to pay their kids’ child care provider. Others feel forced to work less so they can care for their children themselves and don’t have to pay for outside help.

Almost half of survey respondents said they had to increase their income to afford child care. About one out of five parents quit a job to become a stay-at-home parent at some point. Almost 20% cut back on hours at work, about 16% negotiated more work-from-home time and 56% changed their work schedule to better accommodate their family’s needs.

One of out every two parents we surveyed (54%) said having to pay for child care has influenced how much is left to spend on housing.

Ninety-one percent said they can’t build up their savings. Eighty-one percent said they can’t pay down debt. In fact, nearly 3 out of 10 parents said they’ve gone into debt to pay for child care.

Over 100 parents wrote in to share other ways the cost of child care has altered their lives. Several said they can’t afford groceries, home repairs, children’s activities or family vacations.

A dozen parents said they won’t be having additional children due to child care costs.

Data journalist Alex Mahadevan contributed to this post.

Nicole Dow is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She is a single mother of a daughter who’s in preschool. About 15% of her monthly take-home pay goes to child care.