What Childcare Actually Costs, From A Parent Who Has Been (And Still Is) There

Nursery fees for us come to £8,400 a year for three days a week.
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Do you wince when you get your monthly nursery invoice? Me too – and if you do, the news that UK parents spend the equivalent of a year’s university tuition on childcare won’t come as much of a shock.

The figures, released by the Coram Family and Childcare Trust in 2019, found the average cost for 25 hours a week at nursery for a child under two is £175 in London, or £9,100 a year.

More than half (55%) of families described these early years as “the most financially challenging of their lives”, according to Noddle.co.uk, with more than a quarter (28%) relying on credit to meet costs – even those with a higher income.

I get it, I’ve been there. I am there. I take a (very) deep breath when the bills come in – and squint at the total as though it might change – but it sadly never does. It’s always the same: £700 each month, for three days of 8am-6pm childcare for my two-year-old – a total of £8,400 a year.

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That amount – nearly £9k a year – doesn’t take into account the added costs of after-school clubs for my eldest (£15 for two hours) or before-school breakfast club (£3 a day). I work as a freelance journalist three days a week, and my other half is a primary school teacher working in state education.

As a family living on the outskirts of London, monthly childcare costs us, all-in, close to a grand. And some months – such as December with its onslaught of gift-giving – it is literally unaffordable.

We’re taking in only a fraction more than we’re paying out, and it often slides into the red (such as when one of the kids is ill and off school – as a freelancer, if I don’t work that day, I don’t get paid). Most of the time, we hurtle headfirst into our overdraft, and spend the rest of the month fretting about how to make it work.

Should we change energy suppliers to squeeze a little more from the ‘new customer’ benefits? Can we afford to pay for all of those extra-curricular activities our daughter is so desperate to do at weekends: ballet, gymnastics, swimming? In short, no. Swimming and ballet have had to go, but gymnastics is staying (for now) – though it’s on probation.

Still, however much of a squeeze it is, I’m talking from a position of privilege. Because it is, truly, a privilege to be able to ‘choose’ to work in this way at all, given the costs. It’s no surprise that statistics show so many mothers don’t go back to work after having kids – it’s simply too expensive. The Family and Childcare Trust found in 2015 that it simply “does not pay to work” – and we live in a world that doesn’t adequately recognise the need for affordable, subsidised childcare (government subsidies don’t kick in until a child turns three).

For many women, staying at home with their children can be a choice – one they enjoy and are proud of. But for others, the concept of ‘choice’ is taken away by the prohibitive costs of childcare. They’re not choosing ‘not’ to work – they just can’t afford to. And what about the effects of thousands of women dropping right off the career ladder? Nothing good. This deprives the UK workforce of an entire slice of talent, and unfairly impacts women. The gender skew has never seemed so stark as when it comes to working mothers.

I work because I want – and need – my career. The ‘benefits’ it gives me to work (and I’m not talking about sick pay, maternity pay or a pension, because as a contractor, those are rare) have more to do with personal happiness than being comfortable. I work because I want to show my children how important it is for women to pursue their careers, and by doing so, I hope to be a role model to them – particularly to my daughter: a major study by Harvard University in 2015 found that the daughters of working mothers tend to have better careers and more equal relationships.

So, how do we do it? As a family, we can’t afford to be frivolous. We haven’t been on holiday for years, we don’t make any home improvements, we budget carefully for our weekly shop. We’ve made some unusual, but necessary choices – such as not buying anything new for our kids this year, and at £10-an-hour at the local going rate, we rarely go out together, because we can’t afford a babysitter.

We’re sitting tight, and ‘peddling’ – at least until our son turns three. Then he can go to pre-school, where he’ll be covered by the 30-hour-a-week government subsidy. The only problem is that he’ll then only be able to do the usual 9am to 3pm school hours, which aren’t compatible with our working days... so we’ll likely have to find a childminder, to arrange suitable wrap-around care.

The cycle begins again – indeed sometimes, it feels like it never ends. In the meantime, we’re just gritting our teeth and hoping, along with everybody else, that we make it through.