An Experienced Frugal Parent’s Guide to Child Care

Child care. It’s one of the biggest expenses out there for most new parents. Like it or not, it’s something you’re going to have to face if both parents are planning on returning to the workplace after the birth of a child, and for parents with a frugal streak, that’s an expensive proposition.

Sarah and I have felt the full force of the cost of child care. At one point in 2011, we had three children in full time child care. The bill for that added up to almost as much as Sarah’s take home salary at that time. In fact, it was that child care cost that caused 2011 to be our worst year financially of the past decade.

Still, if we hadn’t been diligent in figuring out ways to spend less money on the tremendous expense of child care over the years, our net worth would be tens of thousands of dollars lower.

Here’s our guide to saving money on child care costs for frugal parents, straight from two rather frugal parents who had three children go through the preschool years of child care in the last decade.

A Few Key Principles

A few things need to be stated very clearly before we dig into this topic.

First of all, Sarah and I did not consider any child care situation where we were uncomfortable at all with the safety and care of our children. When we were evaluating child care options, we visited a number of places and some of them were immediately discarded because they set off red flags in our head. This included some of the child care options that had the lowest prices among the ones we looked at. Our children’s safety and health was the highest priority.

We also tapped our social network for recommendations, particularly negative recommendations. We asked our friends which child care options they chose and what they liked or disliked about those options. The goal was not to narrow things quickly down to a few choices, but to eliminate some of the really bad choices.

We also used our state’s child care provider rating system, a system that many other states emulate. This wasn’t a be-all-end-all thing, but when we learned about the system, we decided that a minimal rating (at the time, two stars; today, we’d probably want a minimum of three and ideally four as the rating system as matured) was fairly important to us.

The truth is that most child care options are perfectly fine and there isn’t a whole lot of difference between a good child care option and a great one in the same class. What you’re really looking to eliminate from your decision are the ones that have serious issues.

how to find affordable child care?

Your child’s safety and health should be the No. 1 priority when exploring child care options. Photo: Mike Liu

The Stay-at-Home Parent Option

The first option that should be discussed when it comes to child care is the stay-at-home parent option. Does either parent have an inclination to want to stay at home with the child for the first years of their life, putting their career on pause to take on primary child care responsibilities?

The reality of this choice is that you’re essentially “paying” for child care by sacrificing a salary for a few years. Of course, with that one parent at home, you open up the door to some frugal options that might not necessarily have been on the table before, as the stay-at-home parent can take on some home economizing tasks that will significantly trim expenses.

For example, it becomes much easier to eat at home if one parent is there and can handle some of the meal prep during nap times, for instance, which cuts down on food costs.

Be sure to consider savings when thinking about the stay-at-home parenting option. This can make stay-at-home parenting a much more frugal option than you might immediately think, especially if one parent earns a much lower salary than the other and is willing to take on that kind of career switch.

Sarah and I both declined this option, but it was an option we discussed thoroughly and with seriousness because it was an option we both had an interest in. Our salaries were pretty equivalent at the time, so it wasn’t obvious which one of us should take on stay-at-home duties. In the end, we decided against it for a number of reasons, but there was a long list of pros and cons.

Look at Career/Work Flexibility

Another thing to consider is whether or not either of your jobs offer enough flexibility that you would only need part-time child care. There are several options worth considering here.

First, could either of you work from home? The possibility of telecommuting at least part of the time enables you to keep the child at home with you one or more days a week instead of paying for a care provider.

Second, could either one of you shift your work schedule dramatically? Perhaps one of you could go on an evening or night shift so that he or she could be at home during the day with the child. I know a family where one parent works from 5:30 AM to 2 PM and gets home at about 2:30 PM to relieve the other parent, who goes on to work an evening shift (roughly 4 to midnight). This allows them to completely avoid child care costs. Another couple I know has both parents working three 12-hour shifts per week with no overlap.

Finally, does your job offer any special discounts or other benefits related to child care? Some jobs offer child care services on site, while others have arrangements with local child care centers to offer discounted rates to employees. Ask your human resources officer whether any such benefits exist that would apply to your situation.

Check the Social Network

The first thing you may want to consider is a family option. Is there a grandparent or other close relative available that could provide steady child care?

There are some big advantages and big disadvantages with tapping friends and family for child care. The obvious advantage is that you know the person well and have a good idea of what kind of care that person would provide. Your expense will also be pretty agreeable (although it likely won’t be tax deductible).

The disadvantage is that it can put a strain on your relationship with that person if the child care doesn’t work out for some reason. You may end up feeling uncomfortable with the care provided, but removing your child causes social problems that you may not want to deal with.

This wasn’t an option for us as we didn’t have any suitable family members or close friends that would be able to do this within a reasonable radius. However, this was a strategy that my brother and sister-in-law were able to take advantage of and it saved them quite a lot of money over the years.

Make a Big List of Possible Options

If you’ve decided against stay-at-home parenting and there aren’t any realistic social options available to you, assemble a big list of possible commercial options. Don’t worry yet about prices – just look at everything that you would reasonably consider using if price weren’t a consideration at all.

My biggest piece of advice is to avoid the mindset of desiring the “perfect” child care option. In some areas, there are some child care centers and preschools that are very well marketed and many people buy into the idea that if you don’t get into one of those well-marketed “premium” child care options, you’re practically abusing your child. It’s just marketing nonsense, so don’t pay any attention to it. Instead, focus on eliminating just the bad ones from the big list instead of quickly narrowing down to a few really good ones that you must get your child into.

We started assembling our list by looking at all options that were within five miles of our respective commutes or within five miles of reasonable alternative commutes. This covered most of the ground between Ames and Des Moines and a fair amount of the suburban areas around Des Moines as well. In other words, we had a pretty big list.

I would suggest that as your first filter for what goes onto the list. Consider only options that are reasonably convenient for your current daily routine or convenient with a slight alteration to your routine.

The most effective tool for doing this is to simply use Google Maps and search for “child care near me.” While this isn’t a perfect list, it will often include a lot of options, many of which aren’t on your radar yet. You may also want to search for “child care near ” followed by the address of your workplace or addresses that are directly along your commute.

Winnow Down That List with Sensible Restrictions

You can pretty quickly start knocking out large portions of that list of providers with just a few sensible restrictions.

For example, you may decide to only consider child care options within two miles of your commute. That will likely eliminate a lot of options right there if you shrink the radius from five miles to two miles.

Depending on how your state rates child care providers, you may want to restrict your list of options to ones that have a minimum rating. Don’t make it too high – I’ve found that, in Iowa at least, many good child care options don’t earn the maximum rating due to quirks in the ratings system, but any decent place that’s been open for a few years should be able to earn at least a three-star rating.

You’ll also want to eliminate any child care options that have a strong “avoid!” message coming to you from people in your social network.

I put almost no value into online reviews of child care providers. Many of them are written by shills, either employees or close friends of the provider that give overly glowing “reviews” or by employees or close friends of competitors that give overly negative “reviews.” The only reviews I truly trust for things like this are ones from people I know and trust in my personal social network.

You do not want to cut down too much at this point or else you’ll find yourself in a position where the only two options left are extremely expensive and have limited space.

As we did this, we found ourselves with a list of about 20 child care providers, and that’s when the real work began.

Fill in Some Basic Facts

Hopefully, at this point, you have a list of 20 or 30 providers that might work. You’ve been a bit restrictive, but not overly so, and that leaves you with a healthy list of options. Now, start comparing those options.

Go through each potential candidate and find out a few key pieces of information about each one. What would the weekly cost be to take your child there with the frequency that you expect? Are there openings available at that location? (Obviously, a “no” answer makes it easy to wipe that option off the list.)

Do their hours work with your schedule? There are also a couple of good red-flag questions to ask when doing this, such as whether or not they have an open visitation schedule with parents (meaning parents can drop in at any time to see and pick up their kids) and how they are accredited (you’ll probably find a few very common accreditations and you should hear at least one or two, but don’t put a huge premium on a center that can reel off a whole bunch).

For this part, you mostly just want a dollar amount and some yes/no/simple answer questions because you’ll want to do this part by email or over the phone. We found that keeping a spreadsheet of information worked really well for us during this process.

As you go through these questions, you’ll often end up eliminating some options just because they don’t meet your basic needs. That’s fine, and that’s part of the reason it’s a good idea to start with a relatively big pool of options.

It takes some time, but it’s well worth it. You’ll often end up with very promising candidates that are quite inexpensive that simply weren’t on your radar before, and that’s exactly what you want.

When we went through this process, we wound up with about 10 candidates, only a few of which we had even heard of before via our social network. That was a good thing.

Visit by Price

At this point, it can be tempting to visit all of the options, but that’s actually a bad idea. The reason is that expensive centers can often afford to put up very showy but unnecessary things that are really attractive to new parents but really have very little to do with the care of the child.

Basically, we found that when we had whittled our list down to ten candidates using the above process, all of the remaining options were pretty good but some of them were definitely more expensive. What we found is that the more expensive ones that managed to make it through our guidelines didn’t really offer anything that really raised the quality of the child care, but it certainly looked good at a glance.

I’ll give you an example that I remember really clearly. We visited two different child care centers on the same day. One of them charged about 40% more than the other one. The more expensive one had a brand new set of play equipment that they were eager to show off that looked shiny and new. The other one had almost the exact same play equipment, but theirs had been installed and played on for a few years so it looked a bit older. At first glance, the shiny and new one looked way better and that was our initial takeaway, but the more we thought about it, the more we realized that there was barely any difference between the two. In fact, the somewhat worn play set was indicative that children had played on it many times and had loved it. After all, shouldn’t a child care center use the same philosophy we use at home – use it until there’s actually a real problem with it, repair it if you can, and replace it if you must? That’s the philosophy I would want my child care center to have.

So, what I actually found to be a great strategy is to visit the child care options that qualified by their price, starting with the least expensive option. I would visit at least a few options just to see how they differ, but as soon as you find one that meets your needs, there’s really no purpose in continuing to visit all of them, especially when you’d just be looking at expensive centers that have a lot of unnecessary flash.

What to Do When Visiting a Child Care Option

Here are the key things to look for when visiting a child care option. (A note: it’s a good idea to show up semi-unexpectedly if you’ve planned a tour. Get there a little early if you can, and also ask if you can stop in at a later time to spot check things.)

First, what is the entrance security like? There are a lot of different methods for entrance security, but you want to be sure that people can’t just walk in and have immediate access to kids without some restriction.

At the center we ended up using, you had to go through two different doors, walk by two different reception desks, and also walk by the cafeteria area to get to any of the classrooms, which was more than adequate. There were always at least two or three sets of eyes on you before you could even reach a child and unless you were a known parent you were immediately sent back to the first reception desk. Other care providers have different setups, but whatever the setup, you want to make sure that people can’t just walk in and go straight to your child.

Second, is there someone at the center that is trained in pediatric first aid? Inevitably, things are going to happen. Children will choke or a child will fall and hurt themselves. Your child is going to come home on occasion with a bruise or scrape or two – that’s life, and it’s something that would happen if they were at home with you and doing much of anything at all. The question you need to ask is whether there is someone on staff that can handle moderate injuries immediately if they do occur.

Third, what is their curriculum like? The purpose here isn’t to deeply evaluate the curriculum, but to at least see that they have a clear plan for what ideas they’re introducing to the children. Different people are trained in different ways and have different ideas about early childhood education. The key thing to know is whether or not they have ideas and standards. If they stand there and look dumbfounded at your question, that’s a bad sign.

Fourth, do the peers of your children look safe and well cared for during your tour? For instance, are babies placed on their backs to sleep? Is the floor soft or hard? Do they have a good policy for keeping track of the children when they transition from place to place (how do they do head counts)? What is their transportation like if they ever leave the premises?

Fifth, are the food options decent? Remember, your child won’t necessarily receive the same exact food there as at home no matter what center you look at. What you’re looking for is something approximating balanced food options. Are balanced meals and snacks served?

Finally, what is the care provider to child ratio for the various ages at this center? You can estimate it on your own by looking around the room, but asking the person giving the tour is a good idea. For babies, you should be looking for one care provider at work for every four children. I do not see significant advantage for having a much lower ratio than that, but I would be worried about a much higher ratio.

Here’s the thing: Most child care options should breeze through these things. If the option you’re looking at struggles with any of these things, don’t hesitate to move on. You have more options.

If an option looks great, do a random spot check if they allow you to do so (they should). Just stop in at a random time and ask to look around and see whether the things you saw on the tour match up with the spot check. If they do, then you’re in good hands.

If an option passes the spot check, I’d encourage you to stop your search right there and sign up. Ideally, it will be one of the large handful of options that passed your initial screening, but on the low end of the cost spectrum of those options.

Final Thoughts

This is almost the exact procedure Sarah and I followed when choosing child care for our children. The biggest mistake we made was visiting some very high-end child care centers, which dazzled us with a lot of seemingly amazing features that were actually pretty nice, but were also largely unnecessary for the care and nurturing of our children.

After a lot of deliberation, we ended up taking our children to what I would describe as a mid-level center in terms of cost and features and it was a great decision. They cared for our children wonderfully.

The key is to know what features are actually important – things like safety, security, and a genuine interest in the well-being of children – and which things are not, like having everything be brand new. I would far rather have a child care provider focus on the important things and not worry so much about the other things while providing a great price point for the families that they serve.

Good luck!

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