Full-time child care eats up a huge portion of families’ incomes. In fact, in some states, parents are paying more for child care than they pay in mortgage payments or rent.
As a mom with a full-time job, I know what it's like to write that huge childcare check every month. I also know how important it is to have high-quality childcare when I'm not with my kids.
Here are 32 simple ways that you can start saving on child care right away:
1. Start early
I cannot stress the importance of this enough. Because child care is expensive and often in high demand, especially in large cities, waitlists run long. Our daycare, which is one of the most affordable and highest quality in the city, has a six to twelve month waiting list for infant rooms. As soon as you’re pregnant or close to bringing home an adopted child, start shopping around for child care, and get on at least one or two waitlists. Otherwise, you risk having no options at all when you’re ready to go back to work.
2. Use a Flexible Spending Account
With a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), your employer will put pre-tax money from your paycheck into a dedicated account for child-care expenses. The limit for contributing is $5,000 for a married couple in 2018. Unfortunately, that’s not likely enough to cover all your full-time daycare costs, but it can be a big help. Since you contribute to this account tax-free, you’re effectively giving yourself a child-care discount of whatever your marginal tax rate is. Note that you can also use the childcare FSA for necessary before and after school care for your young school-aged children, as well.
3. Leverage your Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit
If you cant contribute to a dependent care account, take advantage of the child and dependent care tax credit. Youll get less bang for your buck this way, and the limits are lower. But this is still a decent tax write-off that you can take even if you don’t itemize your taxes. You can also use this tax credit for childcare expenses that go beyond the $5,000 you ran through your childcare FSA.
Note: To use either the dependent care FSA or the child and dependent care tax credit, you’ll need to show that you and your spouse (if you’re married) were either employed full-time, running a business, in school full-time, or unemployed but looking for work during the year that you use these tax write-offs.
4. Get to know your local market
Before you sign up for a particular daycare center, research your local market. I was recently part of an informal survey of child-care costs for local working moms. It’s amazing how much costs vary from one side of town to the other in a mid-sized city like Indianapolis. Plus, in some areas, church-based centers are the cheapest, and in others, home daycare is the most affordable option. Just do some comparison shopping or ask friends and coworkers to get a feel for what child care costs are like in your area.
5. Look into church-based options
Some churches run daycares as part of their ministry. This means they charge lower rates. In some states, daycare ministries can follow more relaxed guidelines than public or private daycares. But many churches run high-quality programs that follow best practices, even if they don’t necessarily need to. Even if your family isn’t particularly religious, a local church could provide a high-quality daycare option for a lower fee. If you’re not comfortable with religious instructions, other non-profits like the YMCA and Boys & Girls Club also provide low-cost childcare.
6. And check out home-based daycare
In some areas, home-based daycares are a cheaper option than ministries. It really depends on your local market and the types of home-based providers that are out there. Some parents are more comfortable with home-based providers and their smaller groups. But even if that’s not your reasoning, a home-based daycare may be a cheaper option for you.
Your state may have a home-based daycare database, so be sure to check online. Many of them even list the licenses held by the owner, if applicable. You can also find many providers through Care.com and SitterCity.com.
7. Check out third-party certifiers
When you’re shopping around for daycares, it can be intimidating to find great providers without paying through the nose. But one way to ensure you’re getting quality, safe child care is to check out third-party certifiers. Here in Indiana, we have a program called Paths to QUALITY, which inspects and rates childcare providers independently of the state. Look for similar programs in your area, as often they’ll turn up high-quality, affordable options that arent fully licensed in your state.
8. Talk to your HR representative
If you’re currently working or about to go back to work, talk to your HR representative about your employer’s benefits for child care. Dependent care accounts are just one-way employers help employees access more affordable care. Your employer might also offer discounts with certain local providers, for instance.
9. Ask local stay-at-home moms
Have a friend who is a stay-at-home mom? Sometimes these moms would love to care for an additional child in order to bring in a bit of extra cash. And if your friend or neighbor doesn’t run a licensed child-care operation, they’ll likely charge lower rates. Just be sure to shop around for comparable providers so you can settle on a fair price.
10. Host an au pair
This is a good option for older kids, especially. Au pairs are often foreign young women (and sometimes young men) who want to live abroad for a time. You can often host an au pair as part of your family for a summer or even an entire year. Typically, an au pair will charge less than a live-in nanny, but they do live with your family -- which can be convenient if you’re juggling hectic work schedules.
11. Change your schedule
Talk to your employer about shifting your work schedule so that you can save on child care. For instance, you could work Tuesday through Saturday, and have your spouse as the primary caregiver on Saturdays. Then, you could have Mondays off to be the primary caregiver, so you’re only paying for four days a week of daycare. If you and your spouse have this option, you could even shift your daycare needs down to two or three days a week, though this can wear on your family over the long term.
12. Shift your hours
Maybe you don’t need to work completely different days from your spouse to save on child care. Instead, you could just shift your work hours. Say you work from 7 AM to 3 PM, and your spouse works from 9 AM to 5 PM. In this case, you’d only need childcare from 8:30 AM to 3:30 PM. If you’re paying a provider by the hour, that could create some huge savings.
13. Nanny share
If you’re more comfortable with the one-on-one care and flexibility a nanny offers, consider a nanny share. This is where you share a nanny with friends or neighbors, preferably those who live close by. Nannies are often happy to do a nanny share because it means higher weekly rates for them. But since you’re splitting up the rates with another family, you’ll pay less.
14. Have kids close together
Most daycare centers offer sibling discounts, sometimes substantial ones. We get a $30 per week discount just for having our son in the daycare that does our daughter’s after-school care. Having kids close together means you can take advantage of such discounts for a few years while all your children are with the same care provider. Plus, childcare expenses will drop out of your budget altogether more quickly.
15. Have kids far apart
On the flip side, you could have your kids further apart. You won’t get a sibling discount, but you have the luxury of paying for only one kid’s cost of child care at a time. If your job allows you to work just during school hours and you choose public school, you won’t have to pay for child care for your older, school-aged child. Youll just have to cover daycare costs for your younger child for most of the year.
Youll pay for child care for a greater number of years, but you’ll also pay less in any given year. If your budget is tight, spreading out your kids (and their costs of care) may be the preferable option for your family.
16. Opt for a parent co-op
If you have a somewhat flexible work schedule, find other parents who do, too. Then, exchange child care. This can look something like the work schedule suggestion above, where you get out of just one or two days of paid child care a week. Or if you find the right people to co-op with, you could wind up paying for zero child care. Youll just have to take care of other people’s kids as well as your own when you’re not working.
17. Leverage the local teen workforce
What if your childcare needs are shorter-term? Say you just need after-school care for your older son or daughter. In this case, consider paying a local teenager to stay with your kid for an hour or two after school. Teenaged babysitters can be fun for kids, and they can cost a lot less than a formal after-school program.
18. Check out low-income assistance
If you’re truly struggling to make ends meet, be sure you check out low-income child-care assistance in your area. In much of the country, if you’re making 200% or less of the poverty income level, you’ll qualify for at least partial assistance with your costs. Search for state and county subsidized programs to see what options are available to you.
19. Look into additional fees
Before you sign up for center-based childcare, ask about their fees. While many child-care providers offer a flat rate, some have additional charges. For instance, your daycare could tack on a fee for taking your older child to school or for feeding your child their lunch and snacks. If this is the case, you can likely lower your costs by trimming out some of these fees.
20. Stay home for a year
Because infants are so care-intensive, the child-to-caregiver ratio for infants and toddlers in daycare centers is considerably lower. This means that infant care is much more expensive than child care for older kids. It may be more financially viable than you’d think to stay home for your child’s first year of life, when childcare costs are highest.
Related: Baby on the Way? How to Make a Money Plan for Your Maternity Leave
21. Ask family and friends for help
Are you lucky enough to live near family members or good friends who are willing to help out with care? Maybe having a family member or friend help with your child full-time doesn’t work well for you. But you may be able to trim your costs by asking someone you trust to be with your child one day a week, or even to help with getting kids to school so that you don’t have to pay for before-school care.
22. Work from home
Working from home with bigger kids is often possible without child care, depending on your job and its expectations. With smaller kids, you’ll often need help to care for the children, or you won’t get any work done. (Trust me on this one. I know from experience!) However, when you work from home, you can often use more-affordable child care, such as a mother’s helper. Or you can work more flexible hours, so that you can trim down your paid childcare needs.
23. Look at part-time employment
In some cases, part-time employment is a way to keep making extra money while still paying something for childcare. It all depends on whether your part-time income will be enough to cover the costs of part-time child care. But if you have affordable childcare options -- or even free ones, like a parent babysitting co-op or a family member willing to pitch in twice a week -- working part-time can be an excellent option.
24. Get more from your nanny
Think a nanny will be the best fit for your family? Consider asking more from your nanny, such as grocery shopping, home organization, or cleaning. Many nannies are willing to take on these extra tasks for additional pay. But you could pay your nanny an extra $100 a week for these services, whereas you’d have to shell out many times that amount for the same services from separate providers. This doesn’t necessarily trim your childcare costs, but it does get you more bang for your buck and put more time back into your schedule.
25. Plan ahead for summer care
Just like you need to plan far ahead for full-time child care for your infant or newly adopted child, you’ll need to plan well ahead for summertime care for your school-aged children. The most affordable high-quality options will certainly fill up first, so you’ll want to get on that waitlist sooner rather than later.
26. Opt for a blend of summer child-care options
Most areas have some great, interesting child-care options for the summer, such as sports camps, overnight camps, craft camps, and more. These specialized options can keep your kids engaged and learning all summer, which is great. Unfortunately, they often cost more than traditional summer day camps. Make your kids and your budget happy by opting for a blend of these options. Spring for one or two weeks of a more-expensive specialized camp, but have your kids spend the rest of the summer in at-home care or a less expensive day camp.
27. Talk to local college kids for summer services
College-aged students can be a great option for summertime child care. Because they’re younger and less experienced than adult caregivers, they’ll often charge much lower rates. In-home care from a college student can be fun for your kids, who can enjoy a more relaxed summer, and responsible college students can even handle driving your kids to various fun activities.
28. Barter your services
These days, preschool co-ops are popping up across the country. And now, even daycare centers are offering more cooperative models. If you have services that would be of use to your childcare provider, offer them in exchange for free or discounted childcare. For instance, if you’re in marketing, offer to run all of your daycares marketing for free in exchange for a steep childcare discount. Or if you do construction or handiwork, offer to take care of a few projects per year in exchange for the same benefit.
29. Get a mothers helper
Parents who work from home usually find that they need some sort of child care so they can get actual work done. One of the best ways to fill this gap is with a mother’s helper. Since you’re home working, you don’t need an experienced high school or college student for this role. Often 5th and 6th-grade students from your block will charge $5 to $7 an hour to entertain your kids while you’re nearby in case of an emergency.
30. Check out free pre-k
More and more school systems are offering free pre-k programs at their public schools. These are more academic pre-k programs that focus on kindergarten readiness, but since they’re at a public school, they’re free of charge. If you can flex your work schedule around normal school hours, you could stop paying for childcare during the school year as soon as your child turns four or five.
31. Look at weekly vs. daily rates
When I was still a work-from-home mom, I found that it was cheaper to pay for full-time childcare at a weekly rate than to pay a daily rate for part-time care. This may not hold true in your area, but its worth looking into. When we moved to our current home, I bumped up our childcare to full-time, even though my daughter often stayed home with me once a week. This gave me flexibility if I had a busy work week, and was still cheaper than if we’d paid for three days a week at a daily rate.
32. Find income-based options
Some childcare centers, especially those run by non-profits, offer sliding scale fees based on income. If you make too much money to qualify for state-based subsidies but not enough to comfortably cover childcare, look into daycare centers with these types of options.
33. Leverage your maternity and paternity leave benefits
We still have a long way to go in the U.S. to match the parental leave benefits of many other countries. But more and more companies are offering longer maternity leaves, and even paternity leave. If your goal is to save on childcare, be sure you leverage these policies correctly, especially if you have two parents with parental leave benefits.
For instance, if Mom can take twelve weeks of partially-paid maternity leave, that should come first--especially if she's recovering physically from birth and/or breastfeeding. But maybe Dad can take an additional four weeks of leave during the first year. Instead of using the leave at the same time, they could use the leave back-to-back, giving the family a whole four months without paying for childcare.
34. Account for other expenses
As you're figuring out your best childcare options, remember to think about additional expenses, such as the drive to and from daycare. A more expensive option that's closer to your home or workplace may actually save you money rather than driving out of your way to get to a cheaper childcare center.
35. Consider your career
A local daycare center might be the cheapest option. But what if you frequently have to travel out of state? Or stay late for additional work meetings? If you have a demanding career, you might need to spring for more expensive--and flexible--childcare, such as a nanny who is willing to work with your schedule. This is just something to keep in mind when shopping for the childcare that's right for your family.
36. Use a combination of options
Don't be afraid to mix and match when it comes to care for your kids. Maybe you can negotiate for one work-from-home day a week, where you can hire a mother's helper to entertain your littlest kids. And then you can give the kids and grandparents time together one other day a week. So you'll only pay for care three days a week.
Using a combination of options can often get you better childcare coverage for a lower cost. Just be sure that you have steady enough arrangements that you're not suddenly left scrambling trying to cover a day when grandma or the babysitter down the street backs out.
These tips won’t all work for everyone. But by trying at least some of them, you can cut this huge expense down to a more reasonable amount of money each month. And, remember, your kids aren’t little forever. Someday they’ll be able to take care of themselves. And when they are, you’ll be glad you searched for the highest-quality, most caring childcare providers you could find!