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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- How impressed were we, to walk into the Hardages' home in Riverside and hear 2-year-old blond-haired, blue-eyed Olivia speaking Chinese as well as she does English.

"She picked up the language so quickly," says Olivia's mom, beaming with pride.

"And we have Chen to thank for it!"

24-year-old Chen Zhang has been a fourth addition to the Hardage household for the past year-and-a-half.

"The benefits for our family are great," explains mom and dad, Charlie and Elizabeth Hardage.

Chen has her own room in the Hardage home, shares meals -- she's considered more a member of the family than merely an employee.

Chen is what's called an au pair: a childcare worker -- very often from overseas -- who lives and works in the home, in exchange for salary, room and board.

Not only is Oliviaintimately exposed to a different culture, the flexibility of having child care literally within arm's reach has relieved some of her parents' stress in a home where both of them work.

Charlie's a lawyer. Elizabeth is a school administrator, a job that includes some travel.

"There are many times when babysitters have been available until 6 p.m.," Elizabeth recalls, "but my schedule at times requires child care after normal business hours."

One of the most interesting aspects for the Hardages when choosing an au pair through the company Au Pair Care, was the ability to select specifics online: An au pair's nationality, the language(s) they speak, whether they can drive, swim, if they smoke -- even their religion.

Sounds like all that flexibility would come at a hefty price.

First for you -- we compared the costs of hiring an au pair with the average costs of hiring a babysitter to come to your home daily during the week.

We also checked out the costs of a typical day care.

Advanced Homecare Placements LLC (JaxNanny.com) is a local company which screens and matches full-time and part-time babysitters with families.

The company reports that the current rate for a full-time sitter is $11.00 to $14.00 an hour, depending on the hours needed, the number of children involved and other variables.

For parents who need a babysitter eight-hour days, five days a week, that means the lowest cost averages about $21,000 a year. That's about $1,700 each month, or $440 a week.

Add tothose figuressick days, vacations or any other type of time off, and you'll pay a bit less.

Looking at day care centers across Jacksonville, you can expect to pay between $100 to $300 a week.

The National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agenciessays the average weekly cost for child care is $150 a week; that's about $600 a month, or $7,200 a year.

Again, the cost can vary depending on a family's needs: service hours needed, special needs for your child, their age, meals provided, etc.

According to AuPairCare.com, most of those variables are irrelevant when examining the costs of using an au pair for child care.

The websitestates the average annual cost falls between those of babysitters and daycare centers; about $17,800, despite thenumber of children or other needs that may otherwise drive up the costs of child care.

A challenge for some families wanting an au pair's services, can be the way the costs are distributed.

Typically with babysitters or day care centers, costs are evenly distributed over the period of time families use their services.

Also, payments are usually weekly or bi-weekly.

With Au Pair Care, half of that $17,800, is costs paid up front to cover fees, including the au pair's travel and specialized training. The other half is given to the au pair themselves as a weekly stipend.

Even with the company's Family Friendly Payment Plan, an initial down payment of more than $3,000 is required to start the process of bringing an au pair to your home.

While the Hardages did feel that pinch in their pockets, for them the benefits far outweigh any inconvenience felt by the costs --or cozier living arrangements.

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