A Frank Accounting Of The Ups and Downs of (Almost) Avoiding Childcare

My husband and I haven’t paid for childcare in the 14+ years we’ve been parents.

With one short exception, which I’ll get to a in a few minutes.

On Friday I shared the story of the real reason my husband became a full time stay at home dad at 40. Since you all enjoyed hearing our story, I thought you might want to know a bit more about how we came to avoid childcare – and some of the pluses and minuses to our approach.

Disclaimer – My Decisions Are Not Your Decisions. My Life Is Not Your Life

I have no issues with parents that choose full time childcare for their children. None. Full stop.

I don’t believe in judging the choices of other people. Instead, I feel strongly we should support families in making the decisions that are best for them.

There are many families where childcare is not a choice. Single parents have to arrange childcare, or else they’re unable to work. There are families with a financial life that requires two incomes to pay the basic bills. Other families have two income earners where their salaries are enough to pay for childcare with plenty of room to spare. Perhaps parents simply want more income coming in, for whatever reason.

And I say, you do what works for you and your family.

We made the decision to avoid childcare long ago for a few reasons. One was the cost compared to our incomes when our oldest son was born 14 years ago. The other was that we had both grown up in households where one parent was always home, and we wanted that for our kids. In my case, my mother did in home daycare when I was young. In my husbands case, his parents both worked odd shifts so someone was home for the four kids. So the examples we both had were of arranging work around kids while they were young, and we wanted that for our kids too.

First, Some Childcare Facts

The cost of childcare has a real impact on the choices we parents make. How costly is it? You can check out the cost in every state here. In the US, childcare ranges from a low of 13% of annual income in Louisiana, to a high of 26% in DC. Quality childcare costs more than lower quality childcare – and the quality of childcare makes a difference.

Parents that can’t afford “high quality” (aka expensive) childcare are faced with articles telling them how low quality care will negatively impact their kids forever. The absence of cost effective, quality care causes many lower income folks to rely on relatives or unlicensed childcare providers.

Sixty percent of parents find it difficult to pay for childcare according to the Pew Research Center. The cost of childcare has increased by over 70% over the past 30 years while wages have barely budged. And that’s adjusted for inflation!

One fascinating fact I found when researching this article was that the child care cost increases have been highest for the high income. Costs for the low income haven’t changed, while middle income folks have gone up, but not as significantly. Check out this chart for the details.

The cost, and quality, of childcare had a big impact on our decisions back when our oldest son was born.

You see, back then our lives were totally different.

Back To 2003 – Our Oldest Is Born

My husband and I were married back when I was 21 years old, in the middle of college. For $2,000, in a dress from Hot Topic actually, which you can read more about here.

It was February of 2003 when we found out we were going to become parents. I was in my last semester of college and would be graduating in June. I was able to graduate with high honors, despite working full time and going to school full time in order to graduate debt free.

And yes, I worked full time in IT for a large company, went to school full time, and got high honors while pregnant that last semester. I’m a bit crazy like that.

Back then, my husband worked full time during the day as well. We had no kids, so of course this made sense. Obviously we were going to need to arrange for childcare. But what should we do?

Luckily, since I worked for such a large company, they had a service that helped you find childcare arrangements in your town. They provided us with a list, and we visited a local center that was in our price range.

We looked at places in our price range, but there was nothing good. It was then we started to think about other options. My husband worked at a factory that was open for three shifts, so he requested a move to third shift. Third shift ran from eleven to seven AM, and I was working full time during the day in my corporate job.

Honestly this arrangement didn’t last very long. Working full time third shift, and caring full time for an infant from 9-5, left about 3 hours for sleep. Luckily he was able to get a part-time job a few evenings a week, and weekends, which resulted in a significant cut in pay. For most of the first few years of our sons life, we made well under $50k combined. I employed many money saving tips from my handy Tightwad Gazette (buying everything used, making our own baby food, cloth diapering, etc.) to be able to save something for retirement and college.

After this period, things started looking up financially. My career took off and my husband was able to get full time second shift work. We bought a house – although it wasn’t really a good financial decision – and we did pretty well until his factory closed in the Great Recession. Then, of course, he got ill a few years later and that began a whole host of other issues.

We[ve continued to avoid childcare for all our kids, except for four months when my husband was ill. Obviously, he couldn’t care for the kids while he was away from home over a month. We had family helping, but I didn’t want to burden them long term. So I pulled our then-four year old out of his preschool and put him in day care for a few months until my husband had recovered. Our then-seven year old had to go in before and after school care, as well as camp for spring break, until school was over for the year.

So what are the ups and downs to juggling work like this?

The Ups!

The first, and most obvious, advantage is that someone is always home with the kids. They get one on one care directly from both parents. When there’s a school event going on, an early dismissal day, or one of the kids is sick and needs to come home – someones always there.

Juggling work, childcare, sick kids, events, and so on is extremely stressful. You get to avoid that by having these kinds of arrangements.

There is, of course, the financial aspect. You save a lot of money by not paying for childcare. But you don’t come out financially ahead – just wait for the downs.

Your kids can attend the kinds of things that stay at home parents get to take their kids to. Things like swim lessons during the day, reading time at library, and two hour long preschool (as opposed to daycare preschool). When your kids are older, you have an easier time getting them to activities with one parent always home.

The Downs

People might think it’s all sunshine and roses when you can arrange your work so one parent is always home with the kids.

Well I’ll tell you, it’s not. There are significant downsides to this path that my 23 year old self didn’t really appreciate – or know.

Someone is always home with the kids, yes, but you barely see each other. When we were both working full time, we would see each other about 15 minutes a day once I got home and before he left for work. While we were together on the weekend, the fact that I worked such early hours (6 AM – 3 PM) while he worked later ones (4 PM – 12:30 PM) meant we were on opposite schedules. I would be up early while he would sleep in, and be up late after I went to bed.

There is a large financial opportunity cost to most unusual work arrangements. With the exception of those who work in the medical field, like doctors and nurses, there’s not a huge demand for high-paying careers in second or third shift work. This meant that in the long run, my husbands income potential would take a big hit. It’s very similar to what a stay at home mom, or a mother working part time while her kids were young, would experience.

We most certainly would have come out financially ahead by paying for childcare when my oldest son was small. Yes, it would have been expensive and taken up much of my husbands income. But it would have increased his income and earning potential over the years, and likely meant he would have had some kind of disability insurance when he got ill.

It limited my career during those years. The company I worked for had a concept of “core hours”, where you could flex your hours on either side of 9 AM to 3 PM. Most companies didn’t, though, and require a more traditional 8-5 schedule. Working in any kind of higher-level role would have required me to give up my hours.

Also, since I had to be home to switch off childcare, I couldn’t stay at work past three. If there were later meetings, or issues, I had to take care of them from home. I couldn’t easily change companies, and I certainly couldn’t go to after-work happy hours. It was only once my husband started staying at home that I could stay late, hang out with co-workers, or change companies.

I want to mention that avoiding childcare like this made things more difficult when my husband was sick and couldn’t care for our kids. Since we were both splitting childcare, we didn’t have any childcare alternatives. We didn’t know what daycare were good where we lived, and we didn’t have anyone outside of family to care for the boys. This meant I had to scramble to try and make arrangements, while I was still reeling from my husband being in a coma.

Would I Do It Again?

If I could go back in time and talk with my 22 year old self, would I tell her to change the path they took?

Honestly, no. I don’t find that spending time wishing things were different, or regretting past decisions, is helpful in moving forward with life. I actually do think paying for childcare would have been a financially better decision. But we’ve done well with the choices we made.

If I were counseling another person who was in the same situation I was in back then, I would tell them that financially speaking, paying for childcare will put you ahead. Even if salary wise you break even for a few years, eventually expensive childcare will end.

Everything in life is a trade off. We’ve traded off more money for someone to always be at home with our kids. Other people make different trade offs. And making trade offs in one time of your life doesn’t mean that you need to make that trade off forever.

I Want To Hear From You!

If you have a less traditional working arrangement within your family, what is it? And what are the ups and downs you’ve experienced? Let me know in the comments!

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12 thoughts on “A Frank Accounting Of The Ups and Downs of (Almost) Avoiding Childcare”

  1. Mr MyStealthWealth

    We’re in the same boat. My wife left work while our kids were little, and when they reached school age we were able to work our schedules so that I would put the kids on the bus and my wife would be there when they got off.

    I think you wrote about it once before, but having one parent stay home full time imparts a huge amount of flexibility to the other partner. When my wife was home full time, I could easily move my schedule around as needed – and it was needed often, since I was managing multiple engineering projects that required me to be at work at weird hours. It also helped when school was delayed in our area, when one of our two was in school – no impact on us with my wife home, but it made life crazy on others at work. There’s an opportunity cost to having a stay-at-home parent, of course, but like you we felt it was important to do that. Our parents did that for us, so we just couldn’t get used to the idea of not doing that for our kids as well. (We are on the higher income end, which also helps).

    Honestly, the toughest thing about having a stay-at-home parent (other than the income loss) is attempting to explain it to others. For some reason people tended to look down on it. People would either interpret it as my spouse being unable to find work (not true), or they would go passive-agressive – ie “Must be nice to be able to stay home and do nothing all day.” (This is BS by the way, since as you know already, being a stay-at-home parent is a lot of work!). The responses were much more negative / agressive from other women, which actually kind of surprised me. I eventually learned to not only avoid the topic, but just avoid any conversation topic that could potentially lead to this.

    Finally, I think it made me a better manager as well, once I got to that level. I always let me team use flex/comp time as much as the company let me get away with. I also made for a good example I think – I would regularly take time off in the middle of the day to attend school events, and would work from home if the weather was bad, etc. I think it became easier for my team to use the flex time, take time off for kids stuff, etc when they saw me doing it as well.

    1. chiefmomofficer

      It’s interesting that the more negative responses were from women. I wonder if they wished they could stay at home, and felt sad or resentful. People also tell me I’m “lucky” my husband stays at home, but I would certainly trade his being at home back for his health.

  2. The biggest reason why we never really considered shift hours is the big downside you mention – we would never get to see each other during the week. I am so thankful that we have family for part time care and that I’m able to have a reduced schedule. I’m not sure what we would have done if both our jobs required full time hours because we tried that for a while and it was crazy making. Then again, neither of our “full time” jobs were just 40 hours a week, so that certainly contributed to the stress.

    1. chiefmomofficer

      Yes it’s a big downside, and we did it for years. And it is crazy, especially when you have two kids.

  3. I am so thankful that my wife is at home with our 3 month old. She was on a lower income than me, with the cost of daycare and other work related costs her pay would have been only $10 per hour and she is worth much more than that at home. Having a well managed house allows us much more time together at nights and weekends than if we were both working. It is also nice not having to constantly juggle work schedules to work around our baby girl.

    1. chiefmomofficer

      The juggling can be quite stressful. And I will say it’s nice to have things around the house, and the errands, taken care of during the day so evenings and weekends are more enjoyable

  4. Time for Money MD

    My husband stays home but we’ve sent each of our kids to preschool at age 3. We had 4 kids in 5 years, so staying home with all 4 and staying sane seemed really difficult. But it’s definitely been expensive. The fact that you guys have avoided paying for childcare with three kids is remarkable. Kudos!

    My doctor schedule has always been so unpredictable and involved so many nights and weekends that my husband working would have involved a crew of helpers. Managing the helpers is its own (not very fun) job also, with its own downsides.

    1. chiefmomofficer

      I can imagine! Yes that’s one of the challenges with work that’s at night, or on an unpredictable schedule. If my husband worked it would make traveling for work much more challenging.

  5. I never wanted to be a SAHM because I’m not patient enough to entertain kids after a certain age, but I did really enjoy our year of juggling a mix of alternative childcare arrangements. I wrote a quick daily series of that here: http://agaishanlife.com/2016/03/a-day-in-the-life-working-mom-with-childcare/

    I wouldn’t have foreseen enjoying having to juggle work between naps, childcaring during the day, having a baby in my lap for conference calls, and working late into the night after bedtime but it felt like the perfect compromise until my body couldn’t take it anymore and by that point JB was temperamentally very ready to go to daycare part time. And the savings! We sacrificed *some* earnings during that time but not much, our work arrangements are also a bit alternative, so we were able to keep our salaries and save money on childcare in that first year.

    It also made a difference that we had already pushed ourselves and our careers to a higher level before we had JB but I do have to wonder sometimes if it was a mistake to wait so long. It feels like we have a longer way to go to pay off our mortgage and reach FI.

    1. chiefmomofficer

      It’s great that you enjoyed it! And yes, you do save quite a bit, especially if you do it for a short time. I think the long term impact on earnings comes when you do it for a long time.

  6. CMO, thank you for the article. My wife and I as well started our family pretty early on and ended up having 4 children before we turned 30. We have been fortunate to be able to allow her to stay home with the kids (both of our desire) so I don’t have any experience with childcare.

    But I empathize with marriage and children young in life. A lot of folks probably think it is a bad decision since it immediately can make you a one income family (if you so choose) but on the contrary I think it has been great. I like being young and having young, energetic kids, I also will be 48 years old when (in theory) my youngest is OUT. OF. THE. HOUSE!

    As we get closer to our Financial Independence, my expenses will be dropping because the kids will be gone as opposed to increasing with school costs.

    Thanks for the article and I will certainly be reading more of your blog. You are doing a great job!

    1. chiefmomofficer

      The fact that your kids are out of the house while you’ll be young enough to enjoy it certainly is a perk! 😀

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