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Shot of a mother and father playing with their two sons in their bedroom

Let’s just come out and say it: raising a child is expensive. And finding ways to decrease the cost of raising kids can be tricky. But there’s one helpful resource that parents often take for granted – until it’s gone, that is.

For many people, the school year offers more than a traditional education. It also provides reliable – and often free – child care that keeps their kids safe, engaged and supervised. But when the school year ends, so does that resource. When that happens, working parents are often left scrambling to find the best child care option at the cheapest price. And it isn’t easy.

Saving money on child care over these 10 12 weeks may require you to be equal parts strategic and scrappy, but it is doable. Follow these tips to keep summer break from breaking the bank.

Shop Around

To find the best value, take some time to shop around and compare. Pay attention to the condition of the facilities and the services they offer and consider what you will and will not sacrifice to save money. Is a state-of-the-art facility worth the extra cost or will an older building with kind and engaging caretakers be sufficient enough?

When comparing price, take a look at what the total cost includes. Is a cheaper price actually saving you money? For example, a center that is $10 more per week but includes breakfast and lunch may be a better value than the less expensive option that requires you to bring your own food.

Ask About Discounts and Assistance Programs

Many day cares offer a discounted rate for military families or families with a second or third child. Make sure you ask about any and all discounts available. Some providers also offer assistance to families who qualify. These programs may include scholarships, payment plans or a sliding fee scale, which is a rate that is based on income.

Cut Day Care Costs

Many day cares will include fees for meals, supplies and field trips, among other things. Ask for an itemized fee list and see if there are any fees you can cut from the total cost. For example, if you opt out of field trips or offer to bring your own supplies, such as food or diapers, you may not have to pay those fees.

Use a Dependent Care Flex Spending Account or Tax Credit

If your work offers a flexible spending account for day care costs, use it! A flexible spending account (FSA) allows you to put pre-tax dollars aside to pay child care costs every year. Employers have the option to contribute to these accounts as well, giving you free money to put towards the cost. However, the maximum annual amount you can contribute to your Dependent Care FSA is $5,000 and if you do not use the funds by the end of the year, you lose them.

Another way to help with child care costs is by using the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit. If you qualify, you can receive a tax credit worth up to 35% of the day care expenses you paid that year. The maximum credit is worth $2,100 but the specific amount depends on your income and how many children you have.

Keep in mind, you cannot use the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit if you use a Dependent Care FSA. To determine which option is best for you, we recommend speaking to a financial advisor.

Give In-Home Day Care a Try

If you need child care services, but can’t afford traditional day care, consider in-home day care. Normally more affordable than traditional day care, the in-home option is run in a similar way but is set inside the provider’s home with fewer children. Keep in mind that licensing, training and quality requirements vary by state, so some in-home day cares may not need to be licensed, nor do they have to follow certain quality requirements. To make sure your child is receiving the best care, always go with a licensed in-home day care with good reviews and a clean, stimulating environment.

Supplement or Replace Day Care with Other Options

One of the best ways to save money on child care this summer is by not needing it as much or at all. Supplementing day care with other options can help reduce the weekly cost by hundreds of dollars. If you can find other fulltime options that remove the need for day care completely, even better. Here are seven ways to do it.

Enlist the Help of Family and Friends

It may sound cliché, but it really does take a village. Ask close friends, family, and neighbors you trust to help out a couple of days each week, so you can go part-time with your day care plan. Many times, family members – specifically grandparents, aunts and uncles – are more than happy to spend time with their favorite kids and will happily do it for free. If not, there are plenty of ways to compensate them for their help including offering to help around the house, running errands for them or paying them at a “friends and family” discount.

Hire a Babysitter or Nanny

Summer break also means that high schoolers, college students and even teachers are off and looking for work. Instead of traditional day care, try using a babysitter or nanny to watch your kids in your own home. While many people think babysitters and nannies are the same, they are not. Nannies are a regular fixture in the child’s life, taking care of the day-to-day responsibilities of caring for the child, including making meals, taking them to various activities, and supervising them. They often work on a salary and are hired for long-term, daily care. On the other hand, babysitters are paid hourly and work with the kids as needed, usually for a certain number of hours a few days a week or whenever they can. Since a babysitter typically works when they are available, you may want to have a few on hand.

Participate in a Nanny Share

If nannies are in high demand or too expensive, consider participating in a nanny share. In a typical share, one nanny watches the children of multiple families. Those families then share the cost of the nanny’s salary and come up with an agreed-upon schedule that meets each family’s needs. The schedule may be split between the families or the nanny may watch all the children at one time.

This set up has benefits for everyone. Since multiple people pitch in on the salary, the nanny can earn more money than working with one family. Parents can get a discount on their care and the kids will have friends to play with. Of course, there are some things to consider. You’ll need to be flexible when it comes to the needs of the other families, be a good communicator and know what to do if the kids – or the parents – don’t get along.

Join a Babysitting Co-Op

In a babysitting co-op, a number of parents join forces and take turns watching each other’s kids. Instead of paying each other, they trade weeks watching the kids. For example, parent No. 1 will watch their own kids along with the kids of parent No. 2 and parent No. 3 the first week. The next week, parent No. 2 will watch all of the children and so on. That covers 2 weeks of free babysitting for each parent.

You can join a co-op in your area or start one yourself with other parents you know and trust. Just remember, while you may be able to get a couple weeks of free babysitting, you’ll be responsible for a week or 2 of watching your kids and the other kids in the co-op. And every parent will have a cap on how many kids they can watch. The fewer the kids in the co-op, the fewer the weeks you’ll get of free babysitting.

Check Out School Programs

Just because school is out doesn’t mean the programming stops there. Some schools offer a few options for parents in need of care. Summer latchkey is a popular after-school and summer program for kids of working parents. It is a licensed program hosted by local schools and offers half- and full-day care for children entering kindergarten through fifth grade. While it does cost money, it often does so at a discount and includes snacks, arts and craft activities, games and weekly field trips. You must register your child for most summer latchkey programs and registration is usually on a first-come, first-served basis.

Another school program available for kids, but often overlooked by parents, is summer school. Known for being a program for “struggling students,” summer school can actually be a great child care resource for parents of children who love to learn, who want to get ahead in their class, or who could use a little more practice in certain subjects. It’s a great way for kids to stay engaged throughout the summer and prepare for the next school year. Keep in mind that summer school may not last a full day and is usually not every day of the week. However, it may be a good filler. The cost of summer school depends on the institution, school district and program. Public school programs may cost less than those at private institutions.

Register for Day and Overnight Camps

Summer camp gives kids the chance to experience the great outdoors and make new friends while unplugging from their electronics. There are two types of summer camps. Overnight, or resident, camps host children 24/7 for any time between a few days to multiple weeks. Day camps host children for a full day, then parents take them back home at night.

Day and overnight camps can be pricey, most costing an average between $314 $768, according to Care.com, a company that helps families find all kinds of care (e.g., child, senior, special needs, tutoring, pet, etc.). For more affordable options, look into camps hosted by the YMCA®, Boys and Girls Club, county park and rec centers, and other nonprofits. For example, Detroit City Camp is a non-profit summer day camp offering fun for roughly $90 $150 per week.

Many programs offer scholarships to offset the price so more kids can experience camp. Along with the actual camp, there are businesses, non-profits and churches that offer these scholarships, as well.

Tweak Your Work Schedule

It may take a bit of strategizing, and some kindness and flexibility from your boss, but you may be able to tweak your work schedule to accommodate your child care needs.

If your job allows for flex scheduling, see if you can change your hours to work 6 a.m. – 2 p.m., or 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., instead of the average 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. That way, you’ll only have to pay for half the day. Or, try working Saturdays and Sundays – when your co-parent has off – and take Mondays and Tuesdays off. You may have to sacrifice your weekend, but you’ll only need to pay for 3 days of day care instead of 5. You could also see if your company will let you work from home a day or 2 each week. Just make sure your children are old enough to care for and entertain themselves. If they require too much supervision, your work – and sanity – will suffer.

Many parents use their vacation days to take care of their kids throughout the summer. Co-parents can stretch this time out even more by staggering their vacation days with one parent, taking a few days off one week, then the other taking a few days off the next.

Plan Ahead and Stay Organized

No matter what methods you choose, planning ahead and staying organized are the keys to saving money on child care for the summer.

Preparing, saving and paying throughout the year will help offset the costs when summer rolls around. Along with using a Flex Spending Account, save for expected costs on your own throughout the year so you have the money ready when the bills start coming. If possible, make payments to programs throughout the year or see if you can go on a payment plan during the season so you aren’t hit with a big expense all at once.

When it comes to registering your child for any program this summer, the earlier you sign them up the better. Summer programs are in high demand as many working parents are trying to find ways to keep their kids busy and cared for in the summer. When registration opens, popular camps and local programs fill up within days, even hours, so keep your eye out for announcements and mark the dates on your calendar. Early registration ensures a spot for your child and may even earn you some early bird discounts.

Organization plays an important role in helping save money on child care because late payments, last-minute cancellations, no shows or late pickups can cause additional fees. It can be complicated to stay on the ball, especially when you’re incorporating a number of activities and child care options. Use a calendar to stay organized. Color code each activity by type (e.g., pink for day care, green for camp or red for a babysitter) and record drop off and pickup times. Organize carpools with other parents to help ease the burden and prepare lunches, outfits and other needs the night before.

You want the best for your kids, and that shouldn’t come at a price. Follow these tips to ensure your kids can have a safe, engaging break and enjoy all the fun in the sun – without you feeling the burn.

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