I’m headed toward one of those parental milestones to which many of you with multiple children either remember fondly or look forward to with something like desperation: all of my boys will be in public school as of next Monday. September 10th is my independence day.

I’m of mixed feelings about this coming date. I, rare among work-from-home moms, love summer and having my kids around all the time, but it is true that managing my new magazine and my literary writing life will be so much easier with all my boys out of the house six hours a day.

And then there’s the financial windfall.

Having three kids in school will save me a few hundred dollars a month in child care costs. That, by far, compensates for expenses associated with school, like lunches and supplies and PTA dues and activity fees. But this is tiny, really; most of my child care expenses are in the evenings. I’m a rare case.

Some parents save $1,000 a month or more in child care in September as compared to August.

They’ll save up all year to pay for the cost of summer care, which, depending on the family, could include “camps” each week often costing $300 per child, or nannies that make $12 or more an hour.

  • Ben, an editor, and his wife, an adjunct professor, are looking so forward to the school year; they both have somewhat flexible jobs, and will only pay for a nanny two afternoons a week after school. They’ll save $1,200 a month in child care. After costs for lunches and school supplies and fundraisers, they’ll save about $900 a month.
  • Andrea, an executive director of a political action committee, and her engineer husband pay so much each summer that they’ve created flexible jobs. They each take off one day a week and that saves them as much as $2,000. Still, and even with help from one of their kids’ grandmothers to pick up after camp ends each day, they spent over $3,000 total for the summer. Thanks to those flexible jobs, they pay nothing for after-school care during the rest of the year.
  • Cheryl and her husband are both self-employed artists — she’s a writer, he’s a filmmaker. They haven’t done the math, but thanks to her ultra-successful books (meaning she was traveling a lot on tour over the summer) they paid “thousands” to care for their two children. Once school starts, it’s a few hundred dollars a month for after-school care.
  • The few friends who weren’t experiencing the September windfall were those who had created creative child care situations, with trades and bartering, or took flexible freelance jobs that allowed for work after bedtimes and in early mornings (exactly how I’m writing this post right now). These are the families who have created some sort of “having it all” work/life balance. They’re not looking forward to September as much as the rest!

Summer is not a vacation for working parents

One friend wouldn’t even discuss her situation; she began a persuasive and foot-stomping post about year-round school. While I am not a fighter for this solution (the “we are not an agricultural society” argument makes me sad and has me wondering if, in the quest for more perfect post-industrialization society, we’re leaving behind the “society”, not to mention the “life” part of the equation), I admit I can see the argument.

Providing for elementary-aged children’s care during the summer is a messy, expensive business for which many people I know build complex spreadsheets of camps (with early sign-up deadlines and deposit fees and limit-seeking equations built in) and others beg grandparents to come in for the summer. Summer is not relaxing for the two-income family. It’s an endless juggle of lunch-packing and sunscreen-stocking and transitions and lots and lots of driving.

Thank you, Federal government, for your public schools

While I was writing this post, I was half-listening to an NPR piece on why we might be thankful for government. One of the really obvious things government does for us: it educates our citizenry. Without this, we’d be in an even more disparate social structure than we are now, with only the wealthy able to educate their children. Worst of all, the lower classes wouldn’t even be able to afford child care to work. Whatever are your feelings about “entitlements” like education, many families would be single-income by necessity if public schools weren’t in the picture.

We’re getting a big gift from the government; not only are they teaching our children in a way that will hopefully increase their earning power down the road, they’re also relieving us from what would be crippling (and, in most cases, mom’s-career-ending) child care costs.

Using the windfall wisely

I’ll be using my “windfall” of time to focus more on my writing, setting daily goals for the book project I think I can sell most easily, and working to increase the public image of the magazine so that our income will be enough to pay salaries for myself and the other editors. The money I’ll save won’t be enough to do anything other than pay a bit of debt; my big impact is just on alone time, and I’ll cherish it.

My guess (our conversation didn’t get this far) is that most of my friends will start saving for next summer with their reduced expenses, or take up again on retirement and college savings that were suspended due to the high cost of summer.

How do you make this work?

I’m curious, because there doesn’t really seem to be a one-size-fits-all solution to the nine-month school year. For parents of preschoolers and high schoolers, there is very little to complain about. Most preschools now run through the summer; high schoolers can take advantage of time off to get their own jobs and contribute to family finances. So elementary students and their parents are stuck in a co-dependent, dysfunctional financial system that benefits no one but the companies that run summer camps.

I’d love to hear about families who used barter to pay for summer camps (a thought I’ve certainly had), or who set up frugal budgets forged in summer for the rest of the year. If I was to advise a two-income couple with elementary school-aged children on what to do, it would be to budget annually based on the costs of living in the summer. Getting by with that ultra-high cost of care would mean lots left over to add to savings the rest of the year.

Is the school year a windfall for the expense side of your family budget? What do you do with this extra cash?

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