It’s no secret that child care is expensive. During the Care.com 2022 Cost of Care Survey, 51% of parents revealed they spend more than 20% of their income on child care costs alone. But what does that percentage look like in a real budget and how are families making it work? On TikTok, one mom just bravely shared her actual day care bill with her followers, and her video has jumpstarted a vital conversation about what needs to change in order for families to afford quality care.
What day care costs in the real world
Ellen Wood, who goes by @tallmomrunning on TikTok, says she lives outside of the Twin Cities in Michigan and her day care rate increased 7% in 2023. She has two kids who need care, an infant and a preschooler, so she pays a different rate for each child based on their ages.
“Our infant care rate, per week, is $443. Our preschool rate is now $358 per week” she explains. “So, for five weeks of care, it was $2,215.00 for our infant and $1,790.00 for our preschooler.”
Wood says she gets a 10% discount on her preschooler’s weekly rate, since she has two kids enrolled in the child care center, so that deducts $179.00 from her total bill. “So, we paid $3,826.00 for five weeks of care,” she says.
The consequences of high child care costs
Wood’s day care bill may sound unbelievable to someone who doesn’t typically pay for child care, but other parents say those prices sound all too familiar. “When I had all three of my kids in full-time day care, it cost more than my rent and bills combined,” one mom writes.
Other people talked candidly about the financial and career gymnastics they perform every month to cover the cost of care. “My husband and I work opposite schedules in order for one of us to be home with kids,” one mom says. “It’s stressful.”
“I’m a day care teacher, and even with an employee discount I can still barely afford to take my son with me,” another person adds.
Some parents say the high cost of care has driven them out of the workforce entirely. “I literally just had to quit my job to stay home with my kids because it was too expensive. I was working to pay for day care,” one mom explains.
Another writes bluntly, “Our country is missing out on so much talent and innovation in the workforce because of this.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services concludes that affordable child care should cost no more than 7% of a family’s household income. Costs can vary greatly by location and the number of kids someone has, but we know that, on average, most families are spending significantly more than that. In some places, child care is even more expensive than sending a child to college. 58% of families plan to spend more than $10,000 on child care this year. Meanwhile, the average annual cost of in-state college tuition is $9,377.
So, what can families do to afford quality child care?
It’s impossible to overstate the value of quality child care providers, but families still need help covering increasing costs. There are a lot of steps individual families can take to help lower their child care costs, including:
- Comparing child care options to find the best fit for your family and budget.
- Taking advantage of child care subsidies.
- Setting up a Dependent Care Account.
- Using child care tax credits.
Nonetheless, parents can’t do it all on their own. It will likely require intervention from employers and government leaders to get the U.S. child care system to a place where every care worker earns a living wage and families aren’t overspending to cover the costs of daily care. New Mexico is a great example of how this is possible.
In 2022, New Mexico became the first state to guarantee child care funding in its constitution and overhauled its child care system. As a result, many parents there are enjoying access to care with far less of a financial burden. One New Mexico mom who commented on Wood’s TikTok post writes, “During the pandemic we voted to expand child care access and subsidize heavily. I have paid maybe $500 in four years.”
Child care bills like the one shared by Ellen Woods are familiar to so many families, but it doesn’t have to be that way. According to the New York Times, other wealthy countries contribute about $14,000 per year to cover child care costs for the average toddler, while the U.S. contributes just $500. There is endless room for improvement when it comes to the U.S. child care system, and this “realistic bill” proves that affordable, high quality child care access needs to be a priority for leaders and employers alike.