As Emily Katz weighed child-care options last fall for her toddler and the twins who were on the way, one thing became clear: Taking them to a child-care center would be more expensive than simply keeping them at home with a live-in au pair.

"Compared to having three children in day care full time," she said, "it's much cheaper."

A recent report showing that Minnesota has the nation's fifth-highest costs for center-based child care might have other Twin Cities families doing the same calculation. A year of infant care cost $12,900 on average last year, and care for a 4-year-old cost $9,900, the report said.

By contrast, an au pair -- a young foreigner who provides full-time child care in exchange for a room, a stipend and the cultural immersion of living in the United States -- might cost roughly $17,630 per year.

One au pair matching agency, Cultural Care Au Pair, is even promoting the economic advantages in Minnesota, based on the new figures.

The number of au pairs working in Minnesota has actually fallen recently, according to visa records from the U.S. State Department. That's presumably because of the weak economy, as newly unemployed parents stay home and households have cut spending. The number of au pair exchange visas dropped from 435 in 2008 to 239 in 2010, presumably due to the recession.

And yet for some families, particularly those like the Katzes of Edina who have more than one child, au pairs have become lifesavers as the cost of traditional child care has surged.

"Cost-conscious parents need to be creative with their child-care solutions as [they] take on additional jobs or work longer hours," said Tina Mercurio, Cultural Care's program director for Minnesota. "In this ... economic climate, I am talking to more and more middle-class families" about au pairs.

Cultural Care reports a 12 percent rise in inquiries from local families.

In Minnesota, where parental expectations, state regulations and child-teacher ratios elevate costs, a family could easily spend $20,000 a year on center-based child care for two young children.

"To have two of those children, it really became a no-brainer as far as an au pair," said Dr. Amy Haarstad, a veterinarian who hired au pairs over the past two years for her 4-year-old and infant twin girls.

It doesn't have to be an either/or choice. Minnesota has a high rate of licensed home-based child care providers, which cost $7,350 a year per infant and $6,600 a year per 4-year-old, according to an August report from the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies.

Then there are nannies, who provide in-home help without needing bedrooms or three meals a day. But Haarstad said the cost of a 20-hour-per-week nanny equaled the cost of a 40-hour-per-week au pair for her Maple Grove family.

A member of the family

Of course, money isn't the only factor when parents consider inviting a stranger into the family.

"You are basically taking young adults and placing them into your home for a year, which means they will be with you at all times," Katz said.

Getting rid of bad au pairs also can be more complicated than removing kids from unsatisfactory day-care centers.

Mercurio said the extensive application process limits the number of mismatches, but that families occasionally do have au pairs removed from their homes.

Families review the backgrounds of au pairs, and interview them by phone at least once before selecting them. Skype video-conferencing has also helped families learn about prospective au pairs.

Cultural Care is one of 14 agencies authorized by the State Department to recruit and match au pairs to families.

The Massachusetts-based company has 28 complaints listed by the Better Business Bureau -- including claims that it "recycled" poor au pairs who had been removed from other homes. But it received an A-rating based on its service and handling of those complaints.

Mercurio said her agency has had success in Minnesota -- with au pairs being placed from Elk River to Woodbury -- and that most local families ask to extend the stays of their au pairs by six to 12 months.

Chocolate and gifts

Some Midwestern families prefer Germans or Scandinavians -- especially if they need them to drive in wintertime -- while others want au pairs from Latin America who can speak Spanish to their kids.

Katz screened applicants for experience in caring for infants and found Fabienne Buehler, a 21-year-old from Switzerland, who arrived with a suitcase full of chocolate and gifts to the delight of the Katz's 3-year-old daughter, Natalie.

An accountant, Katz said she doesn't have the artsy ideas that Buehler offers to her daughter, such as the papier-mâché pig they made. Buehler eats dinner with the family and travels with them on vacations, but Katz said she tries hard to respect her time off and to prevent the children from leaning on her too much.

"We sometimes have trouble keeping Naddy from constantly bombarding Fabi with questions," Katz said.

Haarstad is grateful for her au pair, Chrissy Bieche, 19, from Germany, and for the gift of not having to rush her kids out the door each morning.

"When my kids get up in the morning, they get up when they are rested," she said.

While federal laws limit au pairs to 45 hours of work per week, Haarstad said her au pair is willing to work day or night hours. "I can actually go to the dentist and get a haircut -- by myself," Haarstad said.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744