Shot of a cute baby girl sitting on the floor with her mom and playing with toys

When my son, Jude, was a baby, I naively thought that finding a great day care provider would be a snap. I’d walk into a day care center, fall in love, they’d shower my baby with one-on-one attention all day, and I’d come home from work floating like Mary Poppins. Not only was I slapped with the harsh reality of how difficult it was to find a quality child care facility, but I realized I had completely neglected to notice the high cost of child care.

My husband and I found a nanny who was everything we wanted, and more, well within our budget, but it took time. We were torn between what we could afford and what we wanted for our son. Once my daughter came along, we had access to onsite child care at my job, but were met with the sticker shock of now paying for two little ones.

We were fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time for both kids, but not everyone has had the same opportunities. I spoke with a few parents of young children to see what they did when it came to paying for child care. If you’re a new parent researching options, I hope this is helpful. The good news is you have more options than you think.

Family First

One of the best, and easiest, ways to save money on child care costs is to first check with your family. Sometimes, we get caught up in our quest for the right day care venue, that we forget there may be some family members willing and able to help supervise and engage your kids on a full- or part-time basis. When Jude was a baby and I was frantically touring day care centers, I completely forgot that my sister-in-law was working part-time and had three days a week free to watch him. After she gently reminded me she was available, I was able to adjust my schedule slightly to accommodate those first couple of months with her help.

Many people I spoke with mentioned they first went to friends or family members to help with child care. A couple of people, like my friends Jennifer and Sarah, had stay-at-home mom friends who were willing to help them out during the day, while others had extended family members who were available. Not all were able to do this for free, but many parents mentioned their families did it for much cheaper than the average weekly cost of a day care facility

Work From Home

More companies in the United States are trying to understand and accommodate the need for a work-life balance for employees. Many look to European companies as a template, where in some parts of the country, mothers get as much as 52 weeks of leave. While we have a far to go to match the working-parent benefits of parents in Europe, more parents who work outside of the home are beginning to work flexible schedules that help ease the burden of child care demands.

Consider talking with your employer about adjusting your hours so that you can help work around your child’s schedule. This is especially helpful for parents of school-aged children who need to be home early. According to a recent report by care.com, parents pay an average of $196.80 for weekly after-school care, If you are able to adjust your schedule to arrive early so you can leave early, it would help save you thousands over the course of a year.

In-Home Child Care

We found Jude’s nanny on Craigslist. While I understand this may not be everyone’s most comfortable choice, we did our research and due diligence into her background and references. It was the best choice for us because it was in her home, she had three school-aged kids who became buddies with Jude and gave him the one-on-one attention we were hoping to find. Also, unlike most chain child care centers, she didn’t charge for the days I didn’t bring Jude because he was sick, or we were vacationing.

Dependent Care Flexible Spending Account

Some employers offer a Dependent Care Flexible Spending Account (DCFSA), which allows you to set aside money from your paycheck – pre-tax – into an account that you use to pay for dependent care expenses. The minimum and maximum contribution amounts to your DCFSA are determined by your employer. However, the maximum allowed by the IRS is $5,000 a year for individuals or married couples filing jointly, or $2,500 for a married person filing separately. When both of my kids were in day care, I used a DCFSA to help offset the costs. It allowed me to budget and plan expenses ahead of time, while also helping reduce the amount of taxable income.

Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit

An alternative to using a DCFSA account is to file for the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC). This income tax credit returns a percentage of your child care expenses up to $3,000 for one child or up to $6,000 for two or more children. The credit can be worth up to 35% of your qualifying costs, depending on your income. But you cannot use the DCFSA and the CDCTC together, so you need to determine which would make the most financial sense for you and your family.

Government Assisted Programs

There are many government-assisted programs that can help you find a child care center that fits your financial needs. Most states offer some sort of financial assistance, but the exact details vary by state.

Some states rely on their social or health department agencies to assist families. However, the National Women’s Law Center is a great resource to help begin your search for assistance. The Child Care Resource Center may also be a beneficial place to check for help as well.

Military Programs

The Operation Military Child Care program provides financial assistance to service members and their families. If you are a member of the National Guard or Reserve and are currently deployed, your child is eligible to participate in this program for the length of your deployment and for 30 days after your return. If you are a deployed active-duty service member who does not have access to child care at your military installation, you’re eligible for the duration of your deployment period and for 60 days after your return.

The Military Child Care in Your Neighborhood program helps active duty families find and pay for community-based care in the case that they do not live close to an installation or the installation program does not meet their specific child care needs.

Nanny Share

In my research, I discovered what is becoming a very popular option – nanny sharing. This is where friends or co-workers share a nanny. For example, my friend Andrea and her husband Jacob work late and needed help after school with their two kids. They couldn’t leave work early, based on their schedules, so they reached out to one of the other parents at their children’s school. Together, they decided to pool together their resources to hire one nanny for their collective three kids. The nanny watches all three kids together at one house, and both families contribute to the bill. It helps keep costs down, and you know that your kids are in good company.

When in doubt, an online search can be your best friend. Many people I spoke with had no idea where to begin to start their search. In fact, most parents said they just had to figure out how to make it work. You don’t have to be trapped by child care costs. A great resource I found that can help get you started is Child Care Aware. This online tool will help parents in any situation find free or reduced-cost child care. The state-by-state map will help you learn more about state regulations, inspections, licensing and more.

There’s a lot to consider when searching for the right child care provider for your family. Hopefully some of these things I’ve learned along the way can help you!

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