The real cost of child care: Two parents in Thornton, Colorado, with 1 kid

July 15, 2019

Child care is necessary for every family. All parents must find a solution that fits their unique situation, and cost is often the biggest factor driving decision-making. In fact, more than 40% of families spend over 15% of household income on care. To see how different American families are juggling the cost of care, we're asking parents how they spend their money each month — and how, specifically, they budget and save for those all important child care expenses. All answers are anonymous. Our financial expert also weighs in on each family’s big-picture strategy. 

Here, we spoke with two working parents from Thornton, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. The married couple shares custody of a 9-year-old son with the husband's ex-partner, and they work split schedules so that they don’t have to lose any income to child care costs. “In our five years together, we have never had to pay for child care,” she says. 

Still, even with a no-cost child care arrangement and a schedule that allows for some flexibility, the couple feels the strain on time and resources that comes with not having access to flexible, affordable child care options. 

Family makeup: Two parents, shared custody of 9-year-old child

Location: Thornton, Colorado

Parent #1:

  • Age: 29
  • Occupation: Social worker
  • Monthly gross income: $4,436

Parent #2: 

  • Age: 34 
  • Occupation: Retail
  • Monthly gross income: $4,092

Child care type: No paid child care

Percentage of combined income spent on child care: 0%

Here's how this family has avoided the rising cost of child care so far and where their money goes each month until they welcome another child.

Strategy #1: Work opposite schedules

Both parents work full-time, but they have found a way to shift their schedules so that when his son is in their care, someone is at home with him at all times. They have custody of the 9-year-old every week from Thursday through Sunday and occasionally for an extra day during the week. She works traditional hours and has the traditional weekend days off from work while his schedule requires more early mornings, late nights and work during the weekends. Two days a week, he works the early shift so that he can be home to pick his son up from school. 

Strategy #2: Take the benefits, even if they’re not financial

The choice to avoid child care costs helps financially, but the couple also opted to skip day care so they could try to have as much one-on-one time with their son as possible. As co-parents with his ex, they don’t have their son around full-time, so they try to make the most of his stays.

Strategy #3: Price out child care before you need it

The parents have plans to adopt another school-age child in the future, and the couple has thought a lot about what their child care situation will look like when that happens. She says they will need to pay $12 per day for a child care program in the mornings before school, and her husband would continue to work morning shifts to ensure that he’s always there in the afternoons. 

“We would have to budget for summer camp, [though] we would qualify for subsidized rates due to our child being in the foster care system,” she explains. “At that time, we would rely on my husband’s parents and brother more for support. Additionally, we have a neighbor who provides babysitting from home in the event of emergencies.”

No matter what, the parents will continue to look for ways to keep their child care costs low while prioritizing spending as much time as possible with their children. 

Tips from a financial expert:

“Staggered work schedules to allow the parents as much time as possible to care for their children is a common strategy,” says Jen Mulder, financial planner and owner of Pathway Financial Services in Los Angeles. “With both parents working, the budget for the family is workable with a net surplus each month.” To bolster their current situation, Mulder recommends increasing their retirement contributions to at least 10%. 

Even with their low-cost child care arrangement and a schedule that allows for some flexibility, this couple admits they feel the strain on their time and resources. His schedule often means going to bed extremely early so he can’t always participate in evening events like family movie nights, and the couple has to plan their date nights carefully around their parenting and work schedules. “Our honeymoon was the first time in four and a half years that we were able to spend more than two days together without work or a child,” the stepmom says.

To help, Mulder says they could “consider using some of the monthly surplus to pay a babysitter for more frequent date nights and occasional weekends away.” 

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Parent #1



Parent #2











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More 2019 real cost of care interviews with families:

Read next: This is how much child care costs in 2019

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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