Is Daycare Worth It? Analyzing the Financial Impact of Childcare Costs When You Don’t Get a Steady Paycheck

Image Credit: Found Animals Foundation on Flickr

I looked at the title above that I just typed out on a whim, and I just had to guffaw, heartily.  I am probably the last person in the world who should be advising anyone about anything involving the words “financial”, “analyze” and “impact.”  And all the Dave Ramseys and Suze Ormans in the world can’t help me with my own bad habits and disinclination to be bothered with such things as budgeting and retirement planning.  I grew up in a relatively lower-middle income household that was constantly in and out of debt, with a couple bankruptcies to boot.  When I started making tips as a waitress at the age of 16, hoarding all of my money seemed the only reasonable thing to do.  After all, the only way I knew how to “budget” was to try to make as much money as possible, and in turn spend as little of it as possible.

Making tips was awesome, and when I was old enough to start serving alcohol, I knew that those busy Saturday nights would not only pay my share of the rent, but allow for the occasional splurge, like a sushi night.  And I also knew that if I hustled, I could make even more in tips than the average server just going through the motions.  I also began to learn that every penny counted.  It was tempting to take a weekend night off once in a while, but I started examining the opportunity cost of doing so.  Was spending the money on a night out worth it, compared with the money I was likely to make slinging stuffed lobster tails and glasses of chardonnay during the same four-hour period?

I slowly transitioned from hourly-wage-plus-tips employee to salaried professional, with benefits and everything.  I was glad to not need to hustle anymore, until it dawned on me:  the hustle was still there, but instead of the opportunity to take home more cash at the end of the day, I was just expected to do the grind for the same amount in my paycheck.  Ok, working as a law firm associate certainly made me a lot more money, was better for my resume, and was more intellectually stimulating, at least most days, than waiting tables.  But nonetheless, I missed the instant gratification of more cash in my pocket as a reward for my own efforts.

In the past year and a half or so, following a brief period of self-employment, I’ve been working under a base pay plus commission type of compensation model, and it’s been going really well for me in general.  There is essentially no billable hour requirement, because aside from that small base, I earn a percentage of the monthly revenue that is generated directly from my work.  Just like when I was deciding whether to take a Saturday night off or plan for a great night of tips, I can pretty much ease up my workload when I want to, so long as I’m comfortable with the reduced income.

But here’s the problem, whether you work for a salary or hustle when you want more income:  you’re trading hours for dollars either way, and you can never get that time back.  There are other benefits to gainful employment than making a living, of course.  You might find meaning in your work, you might get great benefits, or you might be gaining experience points toward achieving your next career goal.  But … who wouldn’t love more of a passive income lifestyle, where you do the necessary work upfront, and then sit back and let the money roll in while you play golf spend time doing the other things in life that you love and are important to you?

My kids are now officially school-aged, so taxes are paying for me to have a child-free work day from about 8:00 to 3:30 every day, at least during the regular school year.  However, we pay a small amount of money for an after-school program that buys me two more hours to get work done or just do whatever I need to do.  My job flexibility means that I don’t necessarily need to be working during those last two hours of the day, although that is frequently the case.  There are periods of frequent travel in my work, so on days I know I’ll be late getting back, Dad can get the kids, although it helps if he leaves a bit early to beat traffic.

Is it worth it?  Do those extra two hours a day (really an hour and a half, when I consider the travel time back to the school) make a difference?  In theory, what we pay for the after-care program is a fraction of what I can make if I use that time for billable work.  Actually, the cost is already a fraction of what I bring in monthly, even if I use that time to Bookface or stare at my cuticles or whatever.  But it’s not an insignificant fraction either.  That money could be groceries, or gas, or other stuff I want to spend my money on.

And then there’s the issue of the kids being exhausted, and dinner being a mere idea, when we walk in the door around 6:00.  We somehow make it work, but the night often feels like a marathon, with no sip of water at the finish line, let alone a medal.  And the after-care staff are the ones doing homework with my kindergartener.  I mean, it’s practicing letters and coloring frogs green and such, so it’s no big.  But my daughter loves showing me the words she’s learning to read and the simple addition problems she can do.  I feel like I should be doing this with her at the kitchen table, while I have a roast or some crap in the oven.  My preschooler will be coloring and snacking on apple slices as my husband walks in, prompting me to fetch his slippers and martini.

[Record scratch.]  Whoa, what just happened?  I guess that’s my issue … I would love to save some cash by picking up my kids every day at regular school dismissal, and in my fantasy world this scenario is better for my whole family.  We save money!  Kids sit with Mom for homework!  There is a roast!  But I haven’t pulled the kids out of the program yet, because I get that feeling in my gut telling me that I would rather just keep hustling.  In fact, what if I lose some of my income along with those two hours of time, because now it’s been redirected toward domestic duties that may be important, but actually diminish our bottom line?

Oh, you came here for an answer to the question posed in the title?  You must not read my posts that often.  I haven’t decided yet, unless you consider maintaining the status quo to be a decision of sorts.  I have the feeling this topic will be revisited in a future post, however.  And did I mention that we will face the spectre of exorbitant infant care costs again in 2016, as I happen to be pregnant at the moment?  What a fun surprise!  I was so hoping this cost-benefit analysis would get more complicated, as I was starting to get bored with it.

I think the real answer may be this:  regardless of how you justify your decision in this type of scenario, you are likely just going with whatever feels good to you, emotionally.  I believe that most of us do what feels right in our gut, so to speak, and find ways to rationalize our decision afterward.  If you’re in the pull-the-kids-out camp, you probably feel like it’s best for me (or you, perhaps) to be home with your kids during that precious late afternoon period.  You may even believe it will make me more productive, and perhaps raise my income, in a way.  On the other hand, if you knew how little we were paying for childcare now, compared with the days of full-day infant and toddler care in a private center, you might roll your eyes and remind me that I can make up that cost with a few relatively painless billable hours.  And you’d be right.  So maybe it doesn’t really matter what we do with our kids, or our work, or our home life and parenting decisions.  We all just do the best we can and it usually just works out, because it has to.  And even when it doesn’t work out, that’s usually ok somehow too.

Image Credit: Found Animals Foundation on Flickr

Share Some Comment Love

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s