I went back to work full-time just three months after having my first child. Though I knew I’d be losing a significant chunk of my salary to daycare costs, plus a bit more to commuting expenses, the numbers painted a pretty clear picture: Going back to work was the right move financially.
However, the decision was much trickier from a logistical perspective. Since my husband and I each had a fairly long commute, we knew we’d have to tweak our schedules to allow for timely daycare pickups and drop-offs. We simply weren’t comfortable hiring a nanny, and the cost would’ve been prohibitive. Plus, from an emotional standpoint, the idea of leaving my baby behind for the day wreaked havoc on my brain, so much so that I often found myself tearing up the moment I boarded that bus to the city.
Deciding whether to return to work after having a baby is an unquestionably tough decision. Rising childcare costs coupled with the stress of managing both a household and a career make many new parents go a little crazy when figuring out what to do. If you’re faced with this dilemma, consider the monetary, logistical, and emotional implications of going back to work versus staying home with a child.
The Costs of Going Back to Work
Aside from the often-tricky logistics of having two parents working outside the home, going back to work after having a baby doesn’t always make financial sense. You may think you’re taking a huge financial hit by losing an entire salary, but when you consider the costs you incur by working, the loss of net income may not be as significant as you initially anticipated.
Childcare is a major expense of working full-time outside the home. Unless you’re fortunate enough to have a family member close by who’s willing to watch your child for free, expect to fork over a huge chunk of your salary to pay someone else to watch your baby.
These are the most common options for infant childcare:
- Daycare Centers. According to the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies, the average cost of a U.S. daycare center is $11,666 per year, or $972 per month for infant and toddler care. Prices range from $3,582 to $18,773 per year, or $300 to $1,564 per month, and vary by geographic region. Those in close proximity to larger cities typically pay the highest fees.
- Home Daycare. BabyCenter reports that the average home daycare in the U.S. charges approximately $7,761 per year, or $646 per month, for infant and toddler care. Prices range from $3,582 to $11,940 per year, or $300 to $995 per month, and tend to be higher in and around larger cities. While home daycare is cheaper than daycare centers, some home-based providers don’t offer as much in the way of extended hours and programming. Also, since home daycare providers aren’t always licensed, there may be some concern as to whether they can uphold the same health and safety standards as their center-based counterparts.
- Nannies. With a nanny, you don’t have to worry about shuttling your infant to daycare early in the morning or leaving work in time to pick him or her up, but the added convenience might cost you. BabyCenter finds that the average cost of a nanny is $500 to $700 per week, or $2,167 to $3,033 per month, for full-time care. A live-in nanny might charge less in exchange for room and board, but then you have to consider the costs of feeding another adult and whether you want your childcare provider living in your home full-time. You may also incur other expenses by hiring a nanny, like having to provide yours with health insurance and paid vacation time, which also requires forking over money for backup care.
The number of children you have can play a huge role in determining your childcare costs. For example, nannies tend to charge more for multiple children than for single children because of the added work involved, and some charge a premium for younger infants, as they tend to require more hands-on care. Some parents go back to work after their first child because paying daycare fees for one still leaves them with enough money to make working worthwhile. However, if you have two or more young children, all of whom need full-time care during the day, then your childcare costs could end up wiping out your salary or reducing your take-home pay to the point where working full-time just isn’t worth the effort.
This is precisely what happened to a friend of mine. It made sense for her to return to work after having her first child, but when she had her second two years later, she did the math and realized the cost of daycare for two plus a train pass would completely negate her take-home pay. For her, returning to work made zero financial sense, so she now stays home with her children.
While it’s true that childcare is a huge expense, there are steps you can take to save money if you do need to pay for it:
- Arrange a Nanny Share. Find a local family whose childcare needs are similar to yours and split the cost of a nanny down the middle. While most nannies charge extra for each additional child, you can still come out ahead financially by divvying up the total expense with another family.
- Ask Your Daycare Center for a Sibling Discount. Some centers offer reduced rates for each subsequent child you enroll. Others offer a discounted price for every child when multiple siblings attend.
- Refer Friends to Your Daycare Center. Many centers offer tuition credits in exchange for referrals. While some place a cap on how much you can earn for referrals per year, others offer unlimited incentives.
- Prepay for Childcare. Some daycare centers offer a discount when you pay for a year of service up front, as opposed to paying weekly or monthly. You could save 5% to 10% of your total bill just by paying in advance.
- Set Up a Dependent Care Flexible Spending Account. With a dependent care FSA, you can allocate up to $5,000 annually in pre-tax dollars to cover daycare costs if you’re married and filing jointly. While an FSA won’t reduce your childcare fees, it can reduce your overall tax bill. The only thing you need to be careful about is not allocating too many pre-tax dollars to cover childcare. FSAs operate on a “use it or lose it” basis, so if you have any money left over in your FSA at year’s end, you’ll have to forgo it.
Unless you work from home or are able to walk or bike to your job, commuting expenses are another factor to consider when calculating the cost of going back to work. If you take public transportation, you need to account for the cost of your monthly train or bus pass. This could be anywhere from $100 to $400 or more depending on where you live.
If you drive to work, you have to account for gas, tolls, and wear and tear on your vehicle. The more mileage you put on your car, the more oil changes and other such basic maintenance is necessary. If you don’t have access to free parking, you need to account for those expenses too.
You may also pay more for auto insurance by using your car for commuting purposes. Some insurance companies offer a discount for cars that don’t see a lot of mileage and are considered leisure vehicles.
You can save money on your transportation costs by allocating pre-tax dollars to pay for your commute. The IRS limits for 2015 are $130 per month for transit passes, and $250 per month for qualified parking expenses. Some people also save money on commuting costs by carpooling, but if you have a baby or children at home, chances are you need the flexibility that comes with driving your own car back and forth.
Being a stay-at-home parent means not having to worry about adhering to an office dress code. On the other hand, maintaining and updating a business wardrobe costs money. Even if your wardrobe is already nicely stocked, you may need to pay regularly for dry cleaning, which could be anywhere from just a few dollars to several hundred dollars per month depending on the type of attire you own.
Also keep in mind that if you’re returning to work after having a baby, your old wardrobe may not fit quite as well as you’d hope. If you’re unable to squeeze back into your old collection, you may need to spend some money on clothing just to return to your job. The cost of a business suit can range from $50 to more than $300 depending on where you shop and what you buy. Slacks cost as little as $20, but can also exceed the $100 mark, and blouses and sweaters tend to fall in a similar price range.
You can save money on work attire by borrowing clothing rather than buying new pieces, or by laundering your outfits instead of taking them to the dry cleaner. However, if you’re juggling a full-time job and a baby or multiple children at home, you may not have the time for extra laundry.
Lunches and Incidentals
Being out of the house all day means accounting for your nutritional needs. Depending on your schedule, you may need to eat one or several meals each day at the office.
While you always have the option of packing your own lunch to save money, some offices have limited fridge space, which makes brown-bagging a challenge. Also, when you work in an office, there’s often pressure to do things like attend group lunches to celebrate a birthday, chip in for a gift for a newly promoted coworker, or purchase Girl Scout cookies from your boss’s daughter. These costs can add up over the course of a month.
Saving Money at Home
It makes sense for financials to play a big role in your decision to go back to work, but there are factors outside of your salary to consider as well. You may be able to recoup some of the money you would lose forgoing your salary via the following:
- Having More Time to Cook. If you go back to work full-time, there’s a good chance you’re going to have less time to cook, which means you’re more likely to spend money on restaurant meals and takeout. You can cook a meal at home for much less than half of what the same dinner would cost at a family restaurant.
- Taking Advantage of Sales. If you work full-time, your ability to run errands is usually limited to nights and weekends, in which case you may end up missing out on sales and paying more for things like clothing, household goods, and groceries. On the other hand, if you stay home, you may have more time to seek out bargains, procure coupons, and take advantage of doorbuster-type deals that are only available certain hours of the day.
- Lowering Your Overall Tax Burden. If you’re married and filing jointly, not returning to work could drop you and your spouse into a lower tax bracket. This means that you could wind up paying less in taxes on your spouse’s income.
- Enabling Your Partner to Earn More. Your spouse may wind up doing better financially if you opt to stay home. For example, a spouse who doesn’t have to worry about leaving work early when your child has an unexpected doctor visit, or who has more flexibility to work late without having to contend with a daycare pickup schedule, may perform better on the job, resulting in a raise, bonus, or the ability to work (and get paid) overtime hours.
Other Options to Earn Money
If you’re worried that losing a salary may negatively impact your financial situation, remember that working is not an all or nothing deal. If returning to work full-time doesn’t make sense financially, or if it’s something you just don’t want to do, you may be able to pursue other options:
- Working Part-Time. If the cost of childcare would whittle your take-home pay down to nothing, you could try pursuing a part-time opportunity. If you work a few nights per week or on weekends (when your spouse is home to watch your child), you can make some money without having to fork over a portion of your earnings to childcare.
- Freelancing From Home. Working a full-time, 40-hour-per-week schedule from home while simultaneously taking care of a baby is a pipe dream – one of those two jobs is bound to suffer. However, freelancing for a few hours a week is another story. Depending on your child’s schedule, you may be able to squeeze in anywhere from one to three hours of work per day, or more. Some gigs are more conducive to at-home work than others, but popular options include writing and editing, telemarketing and sales, and event planning and consulting.
- Providing Childcare for Other Working Parents. Who better to watch over someone else’s child than an experienced parent? If you think you can manage taking care of another child in addition to your own, you could earn extra money as a daytime babysitter or childcare provider.
- Starting Your Own Business. Whether your talent is crafting, online marketing, or IT, you could always try launching your own business and taking on clients or projects as time allows. Though you may have to put in some money up front to cover things like business paperwork, filing fees, and equipment, you may be able to generate a steady part-time income that makes up for your missing salary.
Quality of Life
The decision to return to work or stay home with your child is more than just a financial one – there are emotional and logistical implications as well. Taking a break from the workforce does come with certain benefits, including the following:
- More hands-on time with your baby or children
- Zero job-related stress
- The chance to pursue a new and potentially rewarding side gig
On the other hand, losing out on your salary could impact your lifestyle and overall well-being. You may find yourself unhappy if forgoing your salary means giving up certain luxuries, such as travel or dining out.
Ultimately, your decision, in large part, boils down to your budget and expenses. For some people, going back to work only to bring in $100 to $200 per week after childcare and commuting costs just isn’t worth the hassle. For others, that extra money could mean the difference between paying the bills or going into debt.
When weighing your options, consider the following:
- Savings. If you’ve got a decent chunk of money in the bank, you may have more flexibility to give up your salary, even if it does mean falling short on your monthly expenses. Think about what your time is worth. If working a 40-hour week will result in a mere $200 in take-home pay – effectively $5 an hour – and you’ve got the savings, it may make sense to dip into your bank account to cover that shortfall rather than push yourself to work.
- Spouse’s Job. If your spouse has a steady job, you may be more comfortable giving yours up. However, if your spouse’s position is more precarious, or if the company isn’t very stable, you may want to consider returning to work so that you have a source of income if your spouse’s job is eliminated.
- Your Job’s Benefits. Your salary is only one component of your overall compensation. Giving up your job could also mean saying goodbye to perks like 401k matching dollars and stellar health insurance, which could translate into better medical providers and fewer month-to-month out-of-pocket costs.
- Lifestyle. If living in a comfortable home and indulging in luxuries is important to you, it may be worth pushing yourself back to work. On the other hand, if you’re willing to give up certain indulgences, staying home may not have such a crushing impact financially. Also consider the effect of losing professional colleagues and spending all or most of your time with young children. For some parents the lack of “grown-up time” can negatively impact their quality of life.
A close friend of mine chose to become a stay-at-home parent because after crunching the numbers, she realized she’d be taking home less than $500 per month by working full-time. Though she and her family are now on a tighter budget, they’re still able to pay for essentials like food and electricity without worry. They haven’t gone on vacation in several years, they dine out infrequently, and they have little wiggle room for extras like movies or family outings – yet my friend remains happy with her decision and insists that the sacrifices are more than worth it.
Another friend, however, is in a very different boat. Though she only brings home about $80 per week after childcare fees, commuting costs, and taxes, her family needs that money to pay for basics and avoid going into debt. While she would much rather stay home with her kids, she has no choice but to continue working until her husband’s salary increases.
Finding a Compromise
Whether you can’t cover all of your expenses on a single salary or you simply like your job and want to continue building a career, it’s always worth taking steps to make your new situation work.
- Ask for a Raise to Help Offset Childcare Costs. If you’re valued as an employee, the higher-ups at your company may go out of their way to entice you to come back. When I told my boss that I was considering leaving as my maternity leave came to an end, she countered with more money and a flexible work-from-home schedule. I still had to put my son in daycare, as I was expected to continue working a full 40-hour week, but the extra money in my paycheck helped make up for the cost of childcare. Plus, not having to commute made my schedule more manageable and allowed me to still spend a fair amount of time with my son.
- Reduce Hours for a More Manageable Schedule. If you fear that working full-time outside the home will turn you into a perpetually frazzled, exhausted human being, try adjusting your schedule to work fewer hours. Your company might allow you to work 20 or 30 hours per week instead of your usual full-time schedule. This option works especially well if you happen to have a family member available to provide part-time childcare.
- Requesting a Contract Role at Your Old Company. If the cost of childcare is too high to warrant a full-time return to work, or if the logistics of full-time employment make it unappealing, try securing a contract position at your old company. For example, you may be able to remotely manage specific projects on your own schedule. A friend of mine who opted to stay home with her baby now puts in 5 to 10 hours per week consulting for her old firm. While she still has deadlines, she has the flexibility to work pretty much any time of day or night she wants.
- Taking a Year Off. If you’re motivated to retain your job for financial or career-related reasons but can’t bring yourself to go back right away after having a child, you could ask for an extended leave of absence. If you’re a good employee, your company may be willing to work with you – especially if they’ve already secured a temporary replacement to cover you during your maternity leave.
The decision as to whether you should return to work or stay home after having a baby can be difficult on many levels, so start weighing your options well in advance of your parental leave period. During those first few sleep-deprived, hormone-driven weeks post-baby, there’s a good chance you won’t be in any position to think clearly, and your emotions could wind up getting the better of you.
On the other hand, remember that no matter which option you choose, you’re not locked into it permanently – if you decide to go back to your job and discover that it just doesn’t work for you, you can always resign. Similarly, if you opt to give up your full-time job for the time being in order to raise your child, you always have the option of returning to the workforce down the line.
Did going back to work after having a baby make financial sense for you?