Childcare Costs Almost As Much As Rent — Here's How Parents Feel About It

Christine Eaton*, 35, lives and works in San Francisco, CA and her two-year-old’s monthly toddler daycare is more expensive than her mortgage payment — $2,350 and $2,250, respectively. Eaton makes $66,000 a year, and has an annual household income of $110,000. Still, she feels “terrified” by these staggering costs.
Though it’s true that San Francisco has one of the highest costs of living in the country, soaring childcare costs are certainly not a Bay Area-specific issue. According to recent HotPads analysis of a index, the median rent in the U.S. is $1,500 while average monthly childcare costs are $1,385. And, though rental prices are still higher than childcare in most cities, the gap between these two expenditures is shrinking — quicker in some places than others.
In New York City, where the median rent is $2,360, average monthly childcare costs have reached $1,630. In Chicago, median rent is a mere $285 more than average childcare costs per month. And, in some cities, such as Detroit, monthly childcare costs have already surpassed median rental prices.
These numbers are terrifying for new parents, so we did a callout to see how they're handling their childcare budgets and how they felt about it. We heard from over thirty parents, most of whom were women, aged 25 to 45, in cities across the U.S.
Cynthia Wright*, a 34-year-old mother who lives in Arlington, VA, says she feels “completely depressed” about her family’s childcare costs. “My daughter loves her class, but I feel like I'm working just to pay for her daycare costs,” Wright said of her $2,000 monthly childcare bill for her two-year-old. “I'm constantly searching for HR jobs that are part-time and remote so I can stay home with her, but they're impossible to find. We want a second child but can't afford to send two kids to daycare — even making over $200k."
Wright explains that with her and her husband's student loans, car payments, mortgage payments and HOA fees, her financial situation is tight despite her high household income. Still, Wright admits that her family's challenges aren't as bad as others in the country. "These are first world problems. I spend too much on clothing for myself and my family, indulge in nice dinners sometimes, and occasionally we go on family vacations," Wright said, adding that they could probably afford a second child if they cut down on all of their 'extras.' "I grew up in a lower-middle class family and I get the level of privilege that I have now, but something needs to be done to fix affordable childcare in this country, along with the total lack of paid maternity leave."
Wright isn’t the only one feeling bogged down by childcare costs. Krista Dorn*, a mother in San Mateo, CA, spends $5,100 on childcare each month for part-time preschool and a full-time nanny for her two children. And though she is not currently renting, her monthly mortgage payment is significantly lower at $3,500. Dorn is a stay-at-home mom and has found paying over five thousand dollars a month on childcare hard but necessary given one of her children has special needs and requires constant medical appointments and therapies.
“I need a full-time nanny to help me out and for schedule stability — appointments run late, [there is] terrible traffic, [I] need to be sure someone is there to drop-off, pickup, [and to] watch my toddler if I’m not able to,” Dorn said. “There's no way around it. Except moving out of the Bay Area. Which we plan to do in the next one to two years.”
Dorn said the thought of moving out of the Bay Area makes her sad, particularly since her parents and siblings and their families all live in the area. After all, family help certainly does make a difference. Caroline Duffries*, a 38-year old mother in New Jersey, spends $2,000 each month on childcare for her three kids, but says that having relatives in the area has proven to be crucial. “We rely a lot on family help, which is the only thing that makes it possible for me to work at all,” Duffries said, noting that the situation has been difficult and impacted her career. “The cost of childcare is a big factor in figuring out what kinds of jobs I can take.”

I try to save any overage but things always pop up. I can never get ahead and if I lost my job it would be catastrophic.

Unsurprisingly, the financial weight of childcare is even greater for single-income households. Mara McDowell* is a 29-year old single mother in Columbus, OH. Though her child’s $400 monthly daycare costs are still less than half of her $1,100 rent, McDowell said that affording both of these expenditures on her $52,000 yearly salary is a struggle — especially since she does not receive child support. “I have to provide everything for my daughter after all my [monthly] expenses I only have $200 left,” McDowell said. “Some months I have to use credit cards to cover unexpected expenses.”
Nearly all the parents we heard from agreed that the price of childcare is steep, and emotions about it ranged across a spectrum — terror, sadness, anger, denial.
There were a few who, though inconvenienced, felt relatively indifferent about the costs, claiming that costly childcare “comes with the kid territory.” However, most felt uneasy about managing these rising expenses, especially those who felt that their shoestring budget meant that one emergency or slip-up could threaten their financial stability. “I try to save any overage, but things always pop up,” McDowell said. “I can never get ahead and if I lost my job it would be catastrophic.”
Overall, every parent’s situation was different, based on various factors including location, income, career, and amount of family help that was available. But, in the end, the general air of unease was palpable and very much in line with what the numbers demonstrate: that the skyrocketing costs of housing, and childcare costs weigh heavily on many parents in this country — even those with high salaries. Much of this is rooted in the skyrocketing costs of living across the country, an issue explored by Alissa Quart, the executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, in her new book Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America.
In Squeezed, Quart illustrates the evolution of this country's middle class from a previously secure demographic to a what Quart calls "The Middle Precariat" — a group that isn't truly poor but isn't quite 'making it,' either. Quart notes that middle class life is now 30% more expensive than it was two decades ago and, in some cases, has actually doubled. Quart says she has experienced herself, telling NPR: "When I got pregnant with my daughter, both my husband and I were freelancers, and we didn't have that much security. We had savings. We were better off than many people, but we didn't have, you know, pensions and all the things that people used to have."
Given the prevalence of these challenges, it should come as no surprise that many people are coming up with creative solutions to the high costs of child care and housing costs. Some of the solutions involve encouraging parents and communities to vote differently and try to bring about changes like maternity leave across the board, universal Pre-K and 3-K for kids. Other solutions were more grassroots, like alternative living arrangements that help with the cost of childcare.
As troubling as the price tags on child care and rent are in this country, it seems this may be new normal. As such, more attention should be placed on creating legislative, community-based, and personalized solutions to this pricey status quo.
“I think that there need to be better governmental policies and programs in place to support families,” one 34-year-old mother from Oakland, CA told Refinery29. She added, however, that though the cost of childcare is steep, there can also be a silver lining. “I fully support folks receiving a living wage for providing this service, so I am happy to pay. I happen to live in an area where everything is expensive, but I feel fortunate that we can pay.”

More from Work & Money

R29 Original Series