It’s a familiar debate: Should I go back to work when childcare is so expensive? Am I making money or are we basically breaking even?

The figures can be discouraging if one is only looking at her after-tax, take-home pay and then forking over a healthy sum to a daycare or babysitter.  But that current paycheck is just one piece of the financial incentive of going back to work.  

“Staying home with your kids will cost you way more than childcare,” says Michelle Friedman, the founder of Advancing Women’s Careers, an executive coaching and organizational consulting firm.

Friedman took a six-year career break when she had children. “If you are looking at taking a five-year career break, your paycheck would not remain constant. In those five years, you would have career advancement opportunities,” Friedman says.  “Also, every increase to your salary level would affect retirement benefits.”

The Steep Lifelong Impact

The Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, created a career break cost calculator that requires one to rethink the formula “length of break, times salary, equals cost of career break.” The calculator combines lost income, lost income growth, and lost retirement benefits. A sample calculation for a 26-year-old woman taking a five-year career break results in a $467,000 financial loss. A substantial portion of this figure is lost retirement benefits and the accrued interest lost over her lifetime.

These figures aren’t meant to scare anyone, but rather to provide a compelling counterargument to the often cited notion that women should take a career break because childcare is expensive. The economist who created the calculator, Michael Madowitz, told Fortune that he was interested in the topic because he and his wife were trying to decide whether one of them should take a career break. Comparing the cost of childcare to the lost income from one parent staying home for five years is “not even close,” Madowitz said.

“If you want to take a career break, the conversation should be taking a break but being prepared,” Michelle Friedman says. “How can women minimize the overall impact of the break?” Friedman recommends that women take a shorter career break and plan how they’ll return to the workforce before they leave.

So for the women who say they’ll “just be breaking even” after childcare, perhaps they need to look at that calculator to see just how much their work is worth.

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