Sunday, December 16, 2007

The cost of work

A year ago, I went back to work part-time after receiving a call from my university that they needed a tutor for one term. I leapt at the opportunity. I had been away from teaching and research for several years now, having left paid work after my first baby was born. At the time, with two young children at home, the chance of going back to a university classroom for one day a week seemed like a wonderful opportunity not to be missed. I love teaching. I love the intellectual challenge that comes with being in a classroom full of bright young people who are keen to learn and able to question what is being put to them. It was a good experience. Yet, it was also an experience I won’t repeat any time soon.

Being a “casual” employee at the university means you only get paid for the time you are actually in the classroom. You do not get paid for the many hours of preparation, nor for the time you spend marking students' essays and exam papers. The course I was teaching was exciting, with a lot of new material to be worked through. I found I spent many hours every weekend with reading and research, and preparing my classes. This resulted, to put it mildly, in a bit of strain on our family life. Two young children, then aged two and four, need a lot of looking after, and having Mummy stuck in her office all day was not particularly helpful. Household tasks that usually get done over the weekend remained undone and had to be picked up during the week. There was no time for relaxing family outings. Nobody in the family got a break.

Eventually I started wondering how much I was actually earning per hour if taking into account the amount of time I spent working outside the classroom. I sat down and looked at the cost for going to work (childcare, petrol, parking), and the total amount I earned. The result came as a shock. By the end of six months of working between two and three days a week, most of that during weekends, I had earned a total of minus $60.00. I had not only not made any financial headway, I had actually lost money by going to work.

Now we have three children aged one, three and five. I am home full-time. Being at home allows me to do a lot of things myself such as growing almost all our vegetables, making bread, and doing repairs around the house as soon as they come up, resulting in massive savings.

Nevertheless, getting by on one income is a challenge in a two-income world, so once again I was wondering whether I should be trying to find a job. Not that I wanted to – the children are far too small, the older two never really enjoyed their limited childcare experience and I actually like being at home with the kids. Still, there remained that nagging feeling that maybe I needed to contribute more to the family income.

So I sat down to work out how much I would have to earn to pay for going to work full time. I have been keeping a budget for the last number of years, and I know that we have spent over $6000 a year less on household and food items compared to two years ago, when I first started growing vegetables. (And that is despite the fact that we had another addition to the family during that time!) I took this amount into account, plus an annual inflation rate of approximately three per cent. In the case of food, this may well be too little, as many fresh food items have gone up by double-digit percentage points, but I was trying to keep my calculation simple.

We have no extended family living close by and no access to informal childcare. I looked up typical childcare costs and contacted before and after school care facilities plus holiday programs to find out how much it would cost to care for a school aged child. I also calculated the cost of petrol but not parking, clothes or any other such expenses.

With both parents in fulltime work, we would, of course, lose the single income family tax benefit. I also quickly realised that I would have to earn so much just to pay for childcare that we would definitely lose any other family tax benefits, too. Childcare tax rebates are only available to families receiving family tax benefit, which means that I would have to pay full childcare fees. Plus, of course, I would have to pay tax on my income.

The single biggest cost item clearly is childcare. For three children under and up to the age of five in full-time childcare, I would have to fork out close to $55,000 in annual childcare fees. Add to that the other costs listed above, and I would have had to earn slightly over $100,000 this year only to be at exactly the same point financially as I am now.

In 2008, when my oldest will be the right age for school, child care costs would go down to slightly over $44,000 a year, meaning that the amount I would have to pay for going to work before actually earning any extra income will be reduced to $85,000.

Now, to me that is good news. I can confidently say that I am earning $85,000 by being at home, without having to rush out day after day, dropping my kids off at three different childcare centres, pre-school programs and primary schools, racing to work and doing a double shift at home in the evening.

Of course there are drawbacks. I am losing out on career time and that will be difficult to recover. In our case, a dual part-time arrangement for my husband and me didn’t work out. It may work for others, and that may be one way to get around this issue.

But for me, the positives far outweigh the negatives. My children get to spend all the time in the world with me, and we are having a lot of fun together and enjoy each others’ company. We are able to substantially reduce our environmental footprint because we have the time to think about what we do and make changes to our lives. There is time to enjoy life and even do some volunteer community work. The only thing that we are missing out on is the ability to borrow more money against a greater nominal family income if I were at work. But maybe that is a good thing, too.


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1 comment:

  1. I always knew I was worth more at home than at work, I never worked it out though in the detail you have. I so agree with you and actually I believe that although time away from career is difficult to recover it is far easier than trying to recover time away from your children. I also believe that the camping holidays we have taken with our children, whilst not as glamerous as 5 star resorts are certainly way more memorable because as you say with your day to day life, it is just you and the children. Currently we are living quite a different life and we are relatively comfortable financially but I long for the simple grow our own food and camping life that we left behind to come here. You go girl, you are all so much better off for the choices you have made and you make me even more determined to do the same. Love Jxx

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