AS PHOTO frame makers, Madam Shen Boon Keow, 46, and her husband, 50, bring home a total of $2,000 every month.
Unable to afford a maid, they had to send their six-year-old son to a childcare centre, though its $330 monthly fees eat up a chunk of their finances. To cut expenses, they rarely venture out on weekends, preferring the pocket-friendly mode of watching TV at home.
But with the Government's latest move of giving more subsidies to make childcare services more affordable for lower- and middle- income families, they will soon pay just $3 a month from April.
On the other end of the spectrum are middle-income families like Mr Adrian Tan's. With a monthly household income of $7,000, the sales engineer is able to quite comfortably fork out some $700 every month in childcare fees for his two children aged six and four. Yet the 37-year-old still feels the pinch from the rising costs of living and cuts back on enrichment programmes for them.
"When we go swimming, my son would ask me if he could go for lessons as he is still using a float. I told him maybe when he is older when we have more savings," said Mr Tan, who will now save $200 when the additional subsidies kick in. He intends to enrol his children for lessons.
Families with five or more members - including more than two dependants - who bust the $7,500 household income criterion can still apply for subsidies based on their per capita income. If it is $1,875 and below, they may still receive them.
Childcare operators that The Straits Times spoke to say the move is timely, given the recent childcare fee hikes. Over the last two to three years, there have been fee increases ranging from $50 to $400.
"Rental fees and teachers' salaries have shot up, so the centres have to increase the fees to stay viable," said Ms Lurvin Lee-Yuen, director of childcare chain Just Kids Learning Place.
She added that the latest subsidies will reduce the incidence of low-income families sending their children to school late, resulting in possible learning loss.
"Parents with many children tend to either delay sending them to childcare or they send them for a shorter-hour programme to save money... They may lose out in areas like social skills if they are left at home with grandparents."
Madam Nurasitin Md Shamhudi, 29, sent three of her children to infant-care programmes when they were just 18 months old but when one more came along, she could no longer afford to do so. Her youngest child attended childcare only at four years old. "My household income was $2,500 then and sending four of them to childcare ate up about half of that, so we had no choice."
The subsidies have tipped the balance for parents previously hesitating to send their children to childcare services. "We struggle to put food on the table so we were cautious. But now I am definitely sending my twin boys there so that they can learn and mingle with others," said Madam Faridah Markalee, 28, whose household income is $1,500.
Though parents and childcare operators welcomed the added financial help, they hope more can be done to raise the quality of childcare. Acting Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing said yesterday that the ministry will be looking into the training of teachers.
Said Mr Francis Ng, founder of childcare centre chain Carpe Diem: "Besides training teachers, we need to embark on research and development to enhance the curriculum and foster a culture where operators can discuss and share these resources."