The Working Mom’s Cost Calculator

I feel incredibly lucky and grateful to be a working mom. I am thankful to my support network for all the ways that they enable me to have a professional life outside of the home. Some of my support is unpaid, namely the help of my husband who, despite also being a busy professional with a long commute to San Francisco, still manages to make it home for story time and tuck our kids into bed each night. My parents live so close to us that they can babysit with a mere hour’s notice and often take the grandkids over to their house for sleepovers that last all weekend long. This kind of support is priceless, and thank goodness because the other kind of support can be so costly that it is often cited as the reason why more women do not return to the working world after having children.

Every mom I know has done this ‘working mom’s’ cost calculation in her head, usually way before she has to decide whether to be a stay-at-home mom or some form of part-time or full-time working mom. It’s heartbreaking that so many women feel forced to give up their careers and the work they are passionate about because of economics, but you do the math and tell me how it can be different.

Let’s use a real example from here in the San Francisco Bay Area, since childcare costs are incredibly high here and the problem is even more exacerbated than in other parts of the country:
– Meet Cindy, an elementary school teacher making $54,000 a year in after-tax income.
– Cindy is having a baby and calculates that replacing herself as primary caregiver will cost her $15/hour for a qualified nanny to care for her daughter in her own home.
– Cindy does not want to put her daughter in daycare, and she has no room in her home to hire an au pair, so a part-time nanny is her only option.
– Cindy estimates she needs 45 hours of care per week, given her teacher’s schedule.
– Cindy calculates 45 hrs x $15/hr = $675/week to pay someone else to take care of her daughter.
– Cindy pays her nanny $35,100 per year in after-tax income.
– Imagine Cindy’s heartbreaking realization that, despite having a decent teacher’s salary of $54k/year, her after-tax income is only $40K, of which $35K goes to her nanny
– In Cindy’s mind, she is working full-time so she can earn a mere $5k more than her own nanny, who has the added benefit of spending time with Cindy’s daughter, while Cindy is hard at work and away from her

Question: If you were Cindy, what would YOU do? Would you continue to work at your very tough teacher’s job, earning a very modest teacher’s income, given the childcare costs in your area? Would you ‘compromise’ on childcare quality for a ‘cheaper’ nanny, or send your child to daycare even if you don’t want to? Or would you do what many of my teacher friends have done, which is opt-out of working entirely and stay home with your child, because in the end, the economics don’t make sense?

Here’s another example:
– Jane is a mid-level executive making $140K per year at her technology job.
– Jane has one child, and just found out she is pregnant with twins. Jane researches the cost of childcare for three children and discovers that the rate for a full-time nanny of three children is $24/hour.
– Because of her executive duties, Jane estimates she needs at least 60 hours of childcare per week.
– Jane calculates it will cost her family $75K in after-tax money to pay for the childcare needed for her to return to work after her maternity leave.
– Jane’s take-home pay after tax is $77K, since she and her husband earn enough to put them into the 35% Federal and 10% California State income tax bracket.
– Jane calculates that she is making a net effective income (post childcare expenses) of $2k.

Jane is making what most Americans would classify as *a lot of money*. However, it doesn’t feel like a lot of money to Jane when she takes the after-tax childcare costs into account. Jane tells me, and I quote (Jane is not her real name by the way), “I feel like I am working my *ss off at work and barely seeing my kids, just so I can pay my nanny….it’s frustrating and I wonder every day whether it’s worth it.”

Of course this is an overly simplistic model of calculating the ‘cost’ of a working mother’s time. I fully acknowledge it does not take into account the emotional, psychological, and long-term professional career benefits of a woman’s work. However, this is the simple ‘back of the napkin’ calculation that every mother makes while weighing in on all the factors regarding the ‘working mother’ vs. ‘stay-at-home mother’ decision in her mind and heart. I made this calculation myself, and thank goodness with the help of my husband realized that I am a way more happier person and a better mother while working than when not, which also needs to be factored into the equation.

However, the reason I highlight this calculation as part of my blog is that it’s not something we women and mothers feel comfortable talking about out in the open. I think we need to talk about it more, actually. When I look at all the successful women in Silicon Valley running technology companies at the C-Level, I know for a fact that ALL of these women have full-time nannies, au pairs and often a multitude of care providers at home (housekeepers, gardeners, family assistants to pay their bills). None of these women are wives to stay-at-home dads, in fact many of their spouses are also busy executives. They can afford to be successful at work AND they can also afford to work while someone else takes the role of caregiver of their children. They make enough money for the working mom’s cost equation to make sense. However, below a certain threshold of salary income, there is a number at which making just enough money to pay your nanny doesn’t really add up.

Not every family has the luxury of hiring an au pair, still the most cost-effective childcare option (under $10/hour regardless of number of children), since many families don’t have an extra room to house an additional person. Here is the cost calculation for an au pair:
Au Pair Cost Calculator
– $9,000 – program fee to au pair agency, including matching fee
– $250/week – weekly stipend to au pair for 45 hours of work
– $22K/year all-in expenses ($9.40/hr)

As long as childcare continues to remain expensive and cost inefficient for most working mothers making an ‘average’ income, the cost of returning to work after having children means that many mothers won’t feel that they even have a choice to be a working mother. We as a society miss out on more than just the productive contribution of these women to the professional world, our daughters miss out on mentors and successful role models of women who can have great careers and also have children who are well-cared-for.

What other factors should a woman weight in her decision to return to work? What work situations should she negotiate for that would make it easier to transition back into work after children? What kind of childcare support should women demand of their spouses in order to be able to work part-time or full-time? Should the spouse who brings in the most money be the one who ‘gets to’ work?

Your thoughts welcomed here!

One thought on “The Working Mom’s Cost Calculator

  1. More companies utilizing job sharing might help; The government in some countries helps stay at home parents with a supplement (as if that’s going to happen here); Part time opportunities could be made more available; Living close to a trusted relative who charges much less is the avenue of many who actually have family or friends not working and geographically nearby. It saddens me to see how much it costs to find trusted childcare these days. I personally had a two year maternity leave after the birth of my only daughter. I’ve never regretted doing that. My policy was, which many cannot do, was to make sure my child was old enough to walk and talk enough to tell me about their daily care/caretakers. It’s such a difficult decision, but I often recall how hard teaching was while parenting, and think that working motherhood was terribly overrated in my day.

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