Au Pairs Are More Accessible Than You Might Think
Child-care decisions can weigh heavily on a parent or parent-to-be. After all, you're choosing the people who will stand in for you while you're at work or taking care of other responsibilities. But one option that often goes overlooked when families are weighing the pros and cons of daycare, nannies, babysitters, and family assistance is au pairs.
"An au pair is a young adult who travels to a foreign country for a defined period of time to live with a host family," Garth Pritchard, a corporate content specialist with Germany-based AuPairWorld, says. "The au pair supports the host family with child care and light housework while learning the language of the host country and getting to know its culture."
We asked child-care experts about how much au pairs cost, how they're different from other forms of child care, and how to know if the option is the right choice for your family.
What Is an Au Pair?
An au pair is someone, between ages 18 to 26, who lives in a host family's home for the purpose of childcare. The au pair comes from a different country through an agency that matches families with providers. The person typically stays with a family for a year but may extend their visa for up to two years if they and the family both agree.
How Is an Au Pair Different From a Nanny or Babysitter?
There are several differences between au pairs and nannies or babysitters, including with their living situation, pay, qualifications, and responsibilities.
Babysitters don't live with a family and are typically paid an hourly wage. Nannies are only sometimes live-in, and while they may be paid hourly, they're often paid a salary. Au pairs, on the other hand, always live with a family — it's part of the arrangement — and receive a weekly stipend in addition to room and board, according to Christy Waller, the senior director of marketing of Cultural Care Au Pair. You may also have to pay for your au pair's transportation and other room and board costs. Plus, you'll typically pay an agency fee. (More on the living arrangements and the nuts and bolts of the costs of au pairs below.)
One reason many people end up loving au pairs as an option is that they have some guaranteed qualifications. Since they're entering the country on a specific type of visa, the US State Department requires them to meet certain conditions before getting accepted into a placement program, including a criminal background check. They must also have at least 200 documented hours of child-care experience with children under 2 if they work with that age group. Nannies and babysitters don't legally need any formal training, though they may have gone through some on their own.
The visa comes with some other conditions that will affect your working relationship as well. For example, federal regulations prohibit au pairs from spending more than 45 hours a week and 10 hours a day on child-care responsibilities, Waller says. Babysitters work much less than that, and while nannies can be full-time, they may have some flexibility on extra-busy weeks (although federal regulations come into play here too: for domestic workers, anything over 40 hours a week is considered overtime and must be paid time and a half).
Au pairs' visas also run out, which means their tenure usually last one year, and while you can extend the arrangement for up to 12 more months, there's a clear end date — unlike with babysitters and nannies, Pritchard says.
The bottom line? "Hiring an au pair often requires a bigger commitment than a nanny since the family will host the au pair and must strictly follow the au pair agency's rules to ensure an equitable arrangement," Brown says. But au pairs essentially become a family member and bring a different culture and experience to a home, which many parents love. "With the au pair coming from a different country, they share a unique exposure to a new culture, and sometimes even different languages, with the children," Brown says.
How Much Does an Au Pair Cost?
It depends on the agency and family. Waller says that the average cost is about $20,000 per year. The weekly stipend must be at least $195.75 per week based on federal minimum wage laws, though some families and au pairs may agree to higher wages. You'll also have to consider that your grocery bill will go up with one more mouth to feed, and you may also have additional transportation and miscellaneous costs. (AuPair.com has a detailed breakdown of common expenses.) Then on top of all that, there's an agency fee, too: typically about $10,000 to $11,000, according to Au Pair in America.
Those lump sums can be overwhelming. But if you're deciding between an au pair and a nanny, the difference isn't what you'd think: in 2021, Care.com put the cost of a live-out nanny at $694 per week for one child and $715 per week for two children. These wages tally up to $36,088 per year for one child and $37,180 for two, which is comparable to the total cost of an au pair.
In the Care.com survey, toddler-age day-care cost $226 weekly for one child and and $429 weekly for two, making it a more affordable option. That said, an after-school sitter adds in $261 per week for one child and $269 per week for two. If you're paying for both, the gap becomes smaller.
That said, au pairs simply aren't doable for many families for other reasons besides the cost. You might not have the space to house an au pair, for instance. "The upfront time and cost investment to find the au pair, the live-in aspect, and the one-year commitment are also cons for some families," Maressa Brown, the senior editor for Care.com, adds.
Au pair costs are also less flexible than other forms of child care. Families might be able to save on a nanny by doing a nanny share, where they split the cost with another family, for instance. Or they may only put their kids in day care part-time or have a family member or friend who can help watch their kids after school. Au pair costs are fairly set, which can make the option less accessible.
Where Does an Au Pair Live?
"An au pair stays together with the family and has their own separate room in the family home as a big sister or brother in the family would," Pritchard says.
They don't need their own separate kitchen, and while a private bathroom is a plus, it's not a requirement to bring in an au pair. "The au pair model is based on the idea of integrating the au pair into daily family life," Pritchard explains. "That means the au pair and the family typically have most of their meals together . . . and use the same kitchen and other basic appliances. Depending on how the house is built, au pairs might have their own bathroom."
How Do I Find an Au Pair?
You'll go through an au pair agency to find the best fit. Some options include AuPairCare, GreatAuPair, or Agent Au Pair, and you can find more at the US Department of State's BridgeUSA. "An au pair agency will guide parents through the entire au pair vetting and connecting process and can advise on considerations for choosing the best fit for their family," Brown says. "It's important for parents to do their research, reading reviews and testimonials and interviewing different au pair agencies to learn more about specifications for how they vet their au pairs."
Brown says the process often involves parents and prospective au pairs writing bios with photos and connecting via email and video to get to know one another.
"We generally recommend that families start matching three to four months before they want their au pair to arrive," Waller says. "This will give families time to connect with potential au pairs several times and truly get to know each other and for the visa and travel arrangements to be made."