Saving for retirement is hard enough for most Americans, many of whom have far too little money set aside. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown another wrench into the works: Millions of parents across the country have been left without good child care options. 

In fact, according to a July study from E*Trade Financial, 46% of parents indicated child care was a barrier to retirement, up six percentage points compared with the first quarter, before the pandemic set in. Schools across the country have switched to virtual learning, leaving in the lurch all the parents who depended on schools being open so they can work.

Parents of young children, including those not yet in school, have largely been forced to either scramble for limited day care options (which may come at a huge expense or increase their risk of exposure to COVID-19), cut back their work hours, or even give up their careers altogether. And this can profoundly affect retirement in several ways. 

Parents cradling new baby.

Image source: Getty Images.

How the COVID-19 child care crisis might affect retirement

For parents who have been forced to reduce work hours or put their careers on hold due to child care issues amid the pandemic, saving money may be much more difficult or even impossible due to the resulting reduction in income.

And earning lower wages this year (and potentially in years to come due to the career interruption) could also affect Social Security benefits, which are based on average wages in the 35 highest-earning years over the course of your career. 

This double whammy means many Americans facing these challenges could end up with both less money in their nest egg and smaller Social Security checks, leaving them woefully unprepared for retirement. 

What can you do to mitigate the damage?

Sadly, many parents have been left with limited options due to the nature of the coronavirus child care crisis. While you may be able to embrace techniques such as forming a "bubble" with other families and trading off child care while minimizing outside contact, such solutions aren't available to everyone and may still increase your risk of exposure. 

If you cannot find an affordable solution to child care or your career does suffer a setback, you'll want to prioritize retirement savings in your budget as much as possible. With the pandemic affecting the ability to travel, dine out, or engage in many leisure activities, you may be able to divert some of the money that used to go to recreation to shoring up your retirement savings instead.

You may also need to think about working longer in the future. If you put in a few extra years on the job toward the end of your career (when your children are grown and no longer need your supervision), you can score some extra time to save, shorten the time when your nest egg will need to support you, and increase your Social Security benefit by ensuring your higher-earning later years replace some low-earning ones in benefit calculations. 

These sacrifices aren't fun, but for the millions of Americans who indicate child care is a barrier to retirement, they may be the best -- or only -- options to avoid long-term damage to your retirement security from the pandemic.