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Affordable child care in tough times

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One of the most difficult — and most important — decisions a parent can make is finding reliable and safe child care. Unfortunately, child care can become a budget buster, and finding affordable care in these tough times is difficult. When you cannot be the caregiver, the choice of how your child spends his day guides the search for child care. So will family finances.

It helps to identify what type of program is needed, and then figure out how to work that into your budget. Although a paid position generally creates higher expectations of what will and will not be done with your child and in your home, the different positions — nanny, au pair, sitter, casual sitter, family friend, relative, or child care programs — all have different pay scales and infrastructures.

If you don’t have a huge budget, try to craft a position for a child care provider and add perks to go with the job. If the caregiver has access to the family car, gets a ride after sitting, or can use your swimming pool or art studio, it might be attractive enough that she will lower her fee. If your position comes with paid sick days, vacation days, and holidays, these perks may put you in a better negotiating position. Leverage whatever perks you can during the interview process.

Relatives

A relative — for instance, a mother-in-law — may assist for free, but then might feel comfortable to criticize parenting skills (but not yours, of course). Or, you may not be overjoyed that Uncle Jim still smokes cigarettes in the house. Yet, you don’t want to take any chances with your precious child, so what’s available for free may not always be the best choice. If you can find someone good for free, consider yourself lucky. Adela, in Queens, had to opt out of free family child care when her son, Gian, starting using some unsavory language he picked up at his cousin’s house.

Nanny

The most popular type of child care for working families with young children, which has been popularized by reality TV, is the nanny. Brooklyn resident Mary was able to keep her nanny at a lower price for several years by throwing in benefits like vacations with the family.

“She is one of the family,” said Mary. “The boys love her and she is very good to us.”

Mary found that the child care relationship turned into “family care.” Her situation beautifully illustrates that the search for child care can also consider what other needs the family may have in connection with this person. If a mother’s helper is needed to assist with shopping, laundry and child care, this is a different position than one that will focus solely on child care. Some nannies will cook and clean for the child, but may not be willing to do so for the entire family. Most nannies are hired by referrals.

Day care

When you don’t have room in your budget for full-time care with paid vacations, an affordable option is drop-in day care, which provides flexible and part-time care. This option allows you to pick and choose the day and time slot combination that is needed. It is ideal for those who work at home or stay at home and only need a few random hours of child care. A drop in center provides a safe and healthy environment and usually has some creative activities for the children. The drop-in day care also provides a chance for your child to socialize with others, and many are connected with nursery schools or summer day camps.

Casual sitter

A legal live-in or nanny will need to be paid on the books with health insurance and regularly scheduled time off. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the person who is looking for immediate cash without the hassles of it being a job on the books — like high school and college students. The student may be most affordable, but may not be the most reliable in keeping to a schedule. Exams, social obligations and lack of interest may eventually clash with your expectations. The potato chips on the sofa may someday irritate your sensitivities. But your reactions may pale in comparison to the savings in child care expenses. The easiest place to find a student is in the neighborhood, or even at a local college. Many schools have employment and career offices that will keep a list of students available for child care services. To cover yourself and your child, interview more than one person and keep a list of five alternate candidates that you have interviewed at all times. You never know when you need backup for the backup.

Interviews

Unfortunately, child neglect and abuse lingers in the back of every parent’s mind when selecting child care. Providers should pass at least a minimal background check and you should check more than one reference before any hiring decision is made. Make a list of interview questions for this person as well. For example, questions like, “Have you ever had a medical emergency on the job, and what did you do?” “What would you do if there was a blackout while you are sitting?” Also, lay down your ground rules and expectations during the interview process. The more you talk about things, the clearer they will become and will help solidify your position for the candidate.

Resources

Check out these websites for finding child care options:

• A good resource for finding a variety of child care workers who run the gamut from casual sitters to live-ins is www.care.com.

• There are two agencies that will assist parents in locating community-based child care and educational programs:

Office for Children and Family Services (212) 383-1788, www.ocfs.state.ny.us and Administration for Children’s Services (877) 543-7692, www.nyc.gov.

• For finding nannies in New York, www.nycnannyfinder.com is great.

• If you’re considering hiring a nanny, you’ll want to be aware of the nanny tax and employment guidelines, and www.4nannytaxes.com is a great resource.These are tough times, but a family can easily go from family care to full-time nanny to a sitter and on to a nursery school program over the course of the child’s development. I recommend negotiating at every step in a way that will not compromise the quality of care, but won’t break the banks, either. If you feel that you need to transition from one provider to the next, try to keep a good relationship going and line up your replacement nanny before you fire the current one. Remember what is best for your child. After all, your child is priceless, but your budget is limited.

Candi Sparks is the author of the “Can I Have Some Money?” book series. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook as Candi Sparks (writer).

Updated 4:29 pm, July 9, 2018
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