Parents of Young Children Struggle to Pay the High Cost of Day Care

A mother and son snuggle with one another at home.
Cassidy Weyel pays $160 a week for child care for her son Aurelius. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Cassidy Weyel grew up with a stay-at-home mom but knew she’d want to continue working after having a baby. What she didn’t realize was just how much she’d be paying for child care. Weyel was halfway through her pregnancy before she realized how expensive it would be. “I started doing the research, and my jaw just dropped,” she says. “I practically gave birth right there when I saw the rates.”

Weyel, a resident of Tampa, Florida, pays $160 a week for child care for her 21-month-old son, Aurelius. She and her boyfriend, Nick Fewell, secured the spot at an in-home day care when their son was about 3 months old, right before Weyel returned to work from maternity leave.

Though the weekly rate covers a full day of care Monday through Friday, Weyel leaves work at 2 p.m. each day to pick up her son early. She works from home for two hours in the late afternoons to avoid being stuck in rush-hour traffic.

As it is, Weyel spends over two hours a day commuting because her son’s day care provider does not live close to Weyel’s home or work.

A woman takes her son out of the car as they arrive home.
Weyel spends more than two hours a day driving between home, day care provider and work.  Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Fewell travels often for his job as an underground utility technician, so bringing their son to and from day care falls on Weyel, whose job as a writer for the Home Shopping Network is more flexible.

Though the commute is exhausting, the detour to Aurelius’ child care provider is worth it.

“He loves it there, and he’s thriving,” Weyel says.

Because there are never more than six children in the home, Weyel says she believes her son receives more individual attention than he would in a traditional day care center with more kids.

Another advantage to an in-home facility over a traditional center is the cost.

Weyel estimates she would be paying at least $40 more a week — almost the equivalent of an extra weekly payment each month — if she and Fewell had chosen a traditional day care center for Aurelius. Paying center rates comes at a premium. Hiring a nanny is even more expensive.

“I was going to save money anywhere I could,” she says.

Still, paying for child care eats up about a quarter of Weyel’s paycheck.

‘Money Disappears Fast’

A woman works on her laptop as her boyfriend and son play together in the living room.
After their mortgage, child care is the second highest expense for Weyel and Aurelius’ father, Nicholas Fewell. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Weyel pays for child care by writing out personal checks each week. A 30-year-old millennial who’s used to paying bills online, she has to be extra conscious about budgeting and tracking funds since it can take a few days for the checks to clear her bank account.

“It does get tight at the end of a pay period where I have overdrafted checks,” she says.

There have also been times when she has had to make tough decisions about which bills to pay. Weyel was diagnosed with thyroid cancer when she was 24 and has related health care expenses as a result. She has medical bills she hasn’t been able to pay.

“Having something like that and then also having the competing expenses of raising a child, it’s a lot to juggle sometimes,” she says.

Weyel wishes she and Fewell had money saved as a cushion or for emergencies, but buying a house a year and a half ago zapped their savings. With child care costs, “Money disappears fast,” Weyel says. There’s no room to set aside money each month.

Weyel says she finds it funny that when people talk about how expensive it is to have a baby, they tend to list things like buying diapers and paying for formula.

“That’s just a drop in the bucket,” she says. “What really takes up a huge chunk of change is day care.”

After the mortgage, child care is her household’s highest expense.

The Cost of Child Care in America

Weyel’s situation isn’t unique. Parents across America are burdened by the cost of child care.

The Penny Hoarder surveyed 1,224 parents who had at least one child under age 6. The majority — 95% — said they often or sometimes felt overwhelmed by child care expenses.

Kristy Gaunt – The Penny Hoarder

An analysis by The Penny Hoarder of microdata from the U.S. Census shows the average American parent with one child under 6 spent about $433 a month on child care in 2017. However, 82% of the parents we surveyed spent $500 or more a month on child care. A little over a third — 35.5% — spent $1,000 or more monthly.

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

New America, an independent think tank, and, a site that connects families with caregivers, joined forces to produce The Care Index in 2016. This comprehensive report on child care found the average child care center in the U.S. charged $9,589 annually for full-time care for children under 5.

That’s about 85% of the typical annual cost of rent. It’s $179 more than the average cost of a year of in-state college tuition.

While 18-year-olds can choose to take out loans, work through college or opt out if their parents can’t afford to pay for college, those aren’t choices an 18-month-old can make. And there’s significantly less time to save up for day care than for college.

It’s no wonder parents are waiting longer to have children — and having fewer kids.

Like Weyel, many new parents don’t realize before having kids just how much they’ll be paying for child care. About three-quarters of the parents we surveyed said their child care expenses were more expensive than their initial expectations.

A woman runs after her son after he grabbed her cell phone from her.
The average annual cost of full-time child is higher than the price of in-state college tuition. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Eighty-five percent of parents said they didn’t save up for child care costs prior to having a baby.

If it seems like the problem is getting worse over time, it is. Increases in household income are not keeping pace with the rise in child care spending. A Penny Hoarder analysis of little-used Census microdata shows that household income went up 8% from 2011 to 2017, but the amount parents have spent on child care shot up 27%.

To afford child care, parents have to make significant financial sacrifices in their lives. Of those we surveyed, 91% said they haven’t been able to build up their savings and 81% said they haven’t been able to pay down debt.

Nearly three out of 10 parents have gone into debt to pay for child care.

More to Love, More to Pay For

Affording child care can be a challenge for parents when only one child needs care, but it’s even more so when you have multiple children.

Jessica Nava lives in Egg Harbor City, New Jersey, and is a 31-year-old mother of three — 6-year-old Grace, 3-year-old Luka and 2-year-old Noah.

When she had her first child, Nava was a single mom waiting tables at Red Robin. Money was tight — and unpredictable.

“It wasn’t a stable income,” she says. “I could one week make $700 or $800, but the next week, if it were slow… I might find myself with two shifts making $200 a week.”

Nava sought out a management position so she’d have a higher, more reliable income. She chose an in-home day care provider for her daughter — the same woman who had watched her older sister’s kids about a decade prior. Nava says the $40-a-day rate was cheaper than most of the other child care providers or day care centers in her area that charge nearly the equivalent of her entire paycheck.

Still, it was hard to make ends meet.

For a six-month period, Nava was regularly withdrawing more money from the ATM than what was available in her bank account. Bank of America would tack on a $30 overdraft fee, but she’d be allowed to take out up to $300 more than she had in the account, she recalls.

“It was like this small Bank of America short-term loan that I would find myself having to do, because I would be short every week solely because of child care expenses and needing to pay rent,” Nava says.

When she had her second child, Nava was no longer a single mom, but child care expenses still took up a big chunk of the two-income household she shared with her now-husband, Hugo Nava. They were paying $60 a day for child care about four days a week, spending approximately 20% of their household income.

When the couple had their youngest child, that daily rate jumped to $80.

The financial burden wasn’t the only problem. The kids spending long hours away from home also put a strain on the family.

“Working in a restaurant, you don’t work eight-hour shifts,” says Jessica Nava, who at one time was working 12- to 13-hour shifts.

Her husband also worked in the restaurant industry.

When her middle child was 7 months old, Nava quit her food-service job — which she found demanding and stressful — and transitioned to a career conducive to spending more time with her family. She now works as a contract administrator for a local plumbing company. The Navas are able to significantly cut back on child care expenses by being strategic about their work schedules.

A family pose for a portrait in the snow.
Before she changed careers, Jessica Nava and her husband Hugo were spending $80 a day for care for their three children, Grace, Noah and Luka. Photo courtesy of Katie Thurlow Photography

Jessica Nava works from about 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and her husband, a bartender, usually starts his shifts around 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. Nava says her husband often has to switch shifts with coworkers to make his work schedule match up with the family’s needs.

To fill in the gap in child care between the time Hugo Nava leaves for work and his wife gets home for the day, the Navas rely on college students to come to their home to baby-sit.

Working opposite schedules has been a game changer for their family. By decreasing their child care needs, the amount they spend for child care each week is nearly equivalent to what they were paying per day for all three children.

Their current child care solution also benefits the kids directly.

“More than anything, I think our children have thrived with the sense of stability,” Jessica Nava says. “Before… they were always being shuttled around, which leaves very little time for cooking a wholesome family dinner or having a consistent bedtime routine at a reasonable hour.”

Though the family is saving money, Nava says their schedule does make it hard on her and her husband as a couple. They have only two nights a week off together.

“We have to put a great amount of effort into scheduling family time, couple time and personal time,” Jessica Nava says. “We try to schedule a family outing at least once every two weeks on our nights off together, and then make [an] effort to go to a playground or do something else as a family together on Saturday mornings before [Hugo] works.”

Nava says she wishes there were more support for working parents when it comes to child care.

“I always felt personally that [quality child care] should be a little more affordable for people… so people aren’t forced to choose between their child’s early education or their electric bill,” she says. “That’s not where we’re at now financially, but for a while, I mean, it was.”

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.