Special Segment: The Au Pair Advantage

March 29, 2009 8:41:27 PM PDT
As families struggle through tough economic times, there is another way for some parents to save money. This particular childcare alternative isn't for everyone. However, some families have invested in an au pair, a young live-in caregiver from overseas, for the financial savings, and they are getting a cultural bonus to boot.

Lena Schmarrenberger, 20, spends some of her 45 weekly working hours with children Zoey and John in and out of their Wicker Park home, preparing meals, and helping a 4-year old and a 3-year-old learn German.

That's key for mother Dagmar Ladle who can devote more time to her educational consultancy.

"As soon as you have multiple children, it is a no brainer to me," Ladle said. "It is much more economical. For $320 per week to have both my children cared for 45 hours, I can't get that."

That can add up to big savings for a family, especially those with more than one child. Most state department-certified au pair services cost less than $350 per week, and that covers everything except room and board.

In the Chicago region, day care for two children can cost $404 per week, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services. More traditional nannies can charge from $480-800 per week, depending on their age and experience.

Such numbers compelled Stephanie Thompson to take in 21-year-old Sara Welen from Sweden to help take care of 2-year-old Finn, after a disagreement over schedules caused Sara and her first host family to part ways.

"I had never thought about it, an au pair. I didn't know what it would be like to have someone living in my house," said Thompson. "I thought it was worth the risks involved or any downside to try it out and see."

"It doesn't really feel like work; it is more like play," said Welen.

While they've lost some clients, Cultural Care Au Pair says, overall, today's tough times have driven more families to them. They and some other services will refund program fees when families lose jobs.

"We can provide an affordable childcare option without sacrificing quality," Cultural Care Au Pair Brandi McNally said.

It's another reason for the Ahmad family to sign up for their next au pair. Panamanian Vanessa Jimenez will return home in nine months. And for the financial planning father of four kids, the benefits are many.

"For us, Vanessa is a God-send," Feroz Ahmad said. "So, we do find that it takes some sacrifice from our end to be able to give them the flexibility to live their life. So having said that, it does have a very, very good value for the money."

Au pairs take mandatory childcare training through their agencies, and they can't be in charge of newborns. There are 11 national agencies, none Chicago-based. The agencies screen au pairs and host families and make suitable matches.

Finally, it appears the key to making the au pair experience work is being flexible about having a stranger live with you, a young stranger who will hopefully grow to love your kids, but is there to grow themselves.