Struggling parents use loans and credit cards to pay for childcare
Parents in Northern Ireland are now spending over £6,000 per child in annual nursery fees.
New figures show the average weekly cost for a child under five is £117 - and that more and more parents here are cutting back on the number of days they work in an attempt to cope with the prohibitive costs.
Indeed, more than half say they have to rely on grandparents or other family members to help with childcare issues.
But, in many cases, the £6,000 price tag - which equates to almost a quarter of the average salary in Northern Ireland - can be significantly higher, often rising to over £8,000 per part-time place for many parents.
The Belfast Telegraph has also spoken to a Belfast mother-of-two who spends almost £10,000 a year on childcare and a Glengormley mum whose annual bill has now reached £15,500 for her two children.
Both Alison Bingham and Jennifer Burns said that exorbitant child-minding fees meant having more children was out of the question.
The annual 'Real Cost of Childcare' survey from independent investors Killick & Co showed that over 42% of those polled in Northern Ireland reported a significant increase in the cost of childcare over the past two years.
And, apart from affecting working hours, the hefty fees - which can consume one-third of household income - are also influencing parents' attitudes towards having any more children.
The report reveals that 50% here have cut their working hours by one day a week in the last five years due to the cost of childcare, with a further 25% having to cut down by two days a week.
Svenja Keller, head of wealth planning at Killik & Co, said the findings of the study show how lifestyles have had to change for families.
"Unsurprisingly, our report shows that parents are cutting back on the number of days they work to lower their childcare costs: this is the case for 33% of parents in Northern Ireland, and this proportion is markedly higher in women than it is in men," she said.
"We also found that over 61% of Northern Ireland parents are relying on wider family members to help with childcare.
"Grandparents are increasingly being called upon to help with childcare as parents struggle with costs and balancing."
The data unveiled by the study shows that the annual cost of childcare in Northern Ireland works out at £6,084 per child. That compares to £5,772 in Wales and £5,044 in Scotland, where costs are lower.
Aoife Hamilton, policy and information manager at Employers For Childcare, said the cost of childcare is a heavy burden on families here.
"In one-third of households, the childcare bill is the biggest outgoing - more than the mortgage, rent or heat and food bills," she said. "Action is needed when one-quarter of parents have resorted to using credit cards, loans from family and friends, or even payday loans to cover the cost of childcare.
"The impact is not just financial. Our research highlights how childcare costs can influence the working patterns of parents, causing some to leave the workforce limiting their career aspirations, as well as contribute to stress and strain impacting on the overall wellbeing of families."
The Family Benefits Advice Service at Employers for Childcare runs a free helpline (tel: 0800 028 3008) for working parents, or those wishing to get into work, to help maximise their incomes and manage childcare costs.
Last year it carried out 6,542 personalised calculations. Working parents who received a personal benefits check gained an average of £4,084.
Parents can call the service for free, confidential and impartial advice.
Case study one
East Belfast couple Alison Bingham (40), a manager, and engineer husband Richard (38) have two children — Anna, who is four-and-a-half, and two-and-a-half-year-old Hayley.
They take home a combined salary of around £75,000 and spend £9,984 a year on childcare.
Alison said: “We use a mixture of informal and formal childcare. Hayley is in nursery three full days a week and Anna, who’s in primary one, is there on a part-time basis three times a week.
“Their grandparents look after them on the other two days. I’m not in a position to cut back from five days a week in work so my husband and I have accepted our fate in terms of the colossal bill.
“This time last year when both kids were in full days at three days per week (even though Anna was in funded preschool) we were paying £13,500 a year.
“We cope at the moment but we definitely couldn’t afford to have any more children. Apart from the cost, it’s very stressful rushing around with the drop-offs and pick-ups.
“I’m always running on a tight schedule.”
Case study two
Health service admin worker Jennifer Burns (39) and husband Christopher (35), a civil servant, have an annual childcare bill of £15,500. Their combined salary is around £38,000.
The Glengormley couple have two children — P1 pupil Alex (5) and Jake (2) — who are at nursery five days a week, part-time and full-time respectively.
Jennifer said: “We get tax credits which means that around 52% of the childcare costs are paid for but it still costs us £600 a month, which is a lot more than our mortgage.
“If we didn’t get tax credits I couldn’t have gone back to work. I considered going back part-time but full-time was the only way it worked for us financially.
“But, as a working parent, it’s soul destroying that I pay £90 more than I get in wages per month to have someone else look after my children while I go to work.
“It’s hard to make ends meet. I haven’t had a pay increase for eight years, so I’m much worse off because my wages have gone down in real terms and the cost of childcare has continued to rise. We couldn’t afford to have any more children.”