(CNN/WJZ) — For the past year Mariana Gomez paid nearly $5,000 a month in childcare expenses for her 4-year-old daughter, Julianna, and her 2-year-old son, Ben, in Washington DC — way more than her mortgage.

But this school year, her daughter has a coveted spot in a public pre-kindergarten program, bringing their monthly childcare bill closer to $3,000 a month.

“I don’t really know how we do it,” says Gomez, a lawyer for a trade association. She and her husband, Dan Vock, a journalist, also have $200,000 in student loans. Gomez is repaying her loans on a 25-year extended repayment plan, they skimp on 401(k) contributions and still drive a 16-year-old Honda.

Their youngest child is in a nanny share, in which two families split the cost of a caregiver. Gomez’s base share is about $2,500 a month. But because she and the other family pay taxes, health care and gas reimbursement for their caregiver, the actual cost is greater. Her oldest child also attends an after school program that costs about $500 a month.

Childcare is a major budget item, says Ryan Frailich, a certified financial planner in New Orleans and parent of 2-year-old Elijah, whose daycare costs $700 a month. “Especially when the cost of childcare has gone up faster than wages.”

Of working parents surveyed by Care.com, 31% put themselves further into debt to afford childcare, 37% stopped paying off debts and 37% stopped saving money. Following the traditional financial rules of thumb — like putting 15% of your income toward retirement — are not always possible, he says.

In 33 states and DC, a year of infant care is more expensive than a year’s tuition at an in-state college, the EPI found. In Washington DC, the average annual cost for infant care is 27% more than average rent in the city. At that price, it would eat up nearly 30% of the median family’s income.

That’s significantly above what the government deems “affordable” childcare. In order to be affordable, it should not exceed 7% of family income, says Zane Makhiber, a data analyst at the Economic Policy Institute. “There is definitely a need for action, and 7% is a good target for policymakers to shoot for.”

Even in Mississippi, which has the lowest costs in the country, childcare eats up about 12% of a median family income.

According to a July 2019 study by Care.com, Maryland ranks as one of the more affordable places to get childcare. Maryland ranks second among the top five most affordable states to hire a nanny. DC is the least affordable for daycare.

READ: The Care.com study on childcare. 

To work or not to work?

Nearly two-thirds of parents have changed where they work, how long they work or if they work at all based on their childcare needs, according to the same Care.com study. Of all parents, 26% shifted from full-time to part-time work and 36% asked for a more flexible schedule so they could save money on childcare.

Mothers, in particular, are sacrificing their careers to make up for the shortfall. More than half of moms scaled back their hours to save on childcare costs and a quarter left the workplace completely.

Jeni Schoemaker is one of them. A mother of two daughters, ages 6 and 2, in Washington DC, she opted to leave her job as a public school art teacher because the family’s daycare costs nearly equaled her paycheck after taxes, union dues and pension.

“I was going to take home roughly $100 a week once I paid for daycare,” she said. She and her husband decided that it was best for her to care for her daughter and not work. When the second baby arrived, working made even less financial sense.

“I love being able to spend so much time with my kids,” says Schoemaker, “but I enjoyed my career and worked very hard to achieve what I had as an educator. I miss teaching, but we couldn’t afford to lose money by having our daughters in daycare and a nanny cost even more.”

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