The invisible costs of childcare

A new series from The Joint Account.

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Welcome back, friends. Today, we’re introducing a new series called The Invisible Costs. Every day, we encounter costs we can see: sticker prices, service rates, listing amounts, and more. We start with these numbers when we’re trying to answer questions like, “Can we afford this?” or “How do we work this into our budget?” But you shouldn’t stop there. 

Invisible costs lurk around many of our wants and needs. The more you acknowledge them, the more you can account for them. Expectations are everything. When you’re not caught by surprise, you can have more productive, less emotional conversations with your partner. 

It’s also worth noting that many of these costs shouldn’t be invisible. We deserve greater transparency around the ways we both choose and are forced to spend our hard-earned money. There’s a cumulative impact from these hidden items that might appear incidental standing alone, but big picture, they extend beyond increasing our cost of living and could even impact our careers and goals.

For this very reason, let’s begin with childcare. 

I often joke that the highest invisible cost of parenthood isn’t childcare–it’s fruit. Obviously, I’m kidding. It’s childcare. In my opinion, the problem begins with how we even define what constitutes “childcare.” By our tax code’s standards, only certain types of childcare are definitionally recognized and deductible from our pre-tax income. But even under a narrow definition, the expense data is staggering. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, childcare represents between 8% and 19.3% of the median family income per child, and those are 2022’s numbers. 

Meanwhile, real childcare that real parents need is a labyrinth of plans and contingency plans. Most of these arrangements aren’t being captured by our budgets when we’re staring down a tuition chart for the first time; nor are they acknowledged by employers and managers who question parents struggling for continuity when every week feels like another shoe’s about to drop. Particularly when it comes to parents working outside of the home, there aren’t just costs; there are consequences, which widen the wealth gap and the gender pay gap. I could go on, but let’s do what this series is meant to do and let the numbers speak for themselves.

After-school sitters. Most school days end between 2:30-3pm. Most jobs don’t. Parents will pay after-school sitters an average of $275 per week for one child, according to’s 2023 Cost of Care Survey. While facility-based after-school programs might cost a bit less, sitters provide the flexibility that many parents need to remove the pressure from rigid pick-up times when there’s traffic or your train’s delayed. They also allow your kids to participate in extracurricular activities rather than sit in a classroom until 6pm.

Holiday programming. Kids are out of the classroom for an average of six weeks every school year, per Costs vary based on the program, but I can confirm through personal experience that finding reliable, engaging activities for children during these windows comes at a premium. For example, one local art camp offers a three-hour, three-day program for $160. Another offers a four-hour program for a daily fee of $75. Note that neither covers a full workday–you’d still need to fit another piece into the puzzle.

Summer camp. Any parent who’s ever logged in at 8:59 am to register for summer camp knows it’s more than just something for your kids to do when the weather gets warm–it’s an integral part of your family’s childcare arrangements. Citing data from the American Camp Association, offered some insight into camping costs. For day camp, the average daily per-child fee is $178.49. For sleepaway camp, the average daily fee is $448.53. This doesn’t include the towels, bathing suits, sunscreen, clothes, and other gear you’ll need to purchase to attend. 

Unpaid sick days. For all the uncertainty around parenthood, one thing is certain: your kids will get sick. You will get sick from your kids being sick. Data from the Economic Policy Institute indicates that only 39% of the lowest paid workers in the United States can earn paid sick days. That means anyone who can’t will not get paid their wages and potentially risk losing their job for staying home with a sick child. 

Gifts. Several times a year, parents should demonstrate how much they appreciate the people teaching and caring for their kids. An etiquette expert for suggested that gifts valued from $10-$50 per teacher per occasion are appropriate, depending on circumstances such as whether your child is with them all day, whether there’s pooled class gifting, etc. When it comes to holiday gifting for caregivers outside of the school setting, I will tell you we’ve always given at least an additional one week’s pay

And the biggest invisible cost of all. Most families can barely manage the explicit costs of childcare, let alone, the invisible costs that pile on top of them. As a result, some parents opt to leave the workforce altogether; though they are likely performing an incorrect calculation on how much money they’re truly saving. There’s a lost opportunity cost when a parent–most often, a mother–makes a career sacrifice to care for a child. Despite the fact that the U.S. offers no guaranteed paid family leave, workers could lose three-to-four times their annual salary for each year out of the workforce, according to a report from the Center for American Progress. Lost opportunity can also materialize in smaller amounts when someone forgoes a promotion, reduces hours, needs remote-only work, or has to seek employment closer to home. These decisions have long-term financial consequences that aren’t easily recouped.

Are you impacted by the hidden costs of childcare? How did you like our first installment of The Invisible Costs? If you have any suggestions for next month, let us know: [email protected].


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