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How to find child care you can afford

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The real cost of care

With families reporting that child care takes up as much as 18 percent of the family budget, how can anyone afford care? Here are some tips to help make child care reasonable for your family.

Children at daycare | Sheknows.com

Photo credit: kristian sekulic/Vetta/Getty Images

By Katie Herrick Bugbee, Senior Managing Editor and Global Parenting Expert, Care.com

The cost of child care is what? That was pretty much my reaction when pregnant with my first child. We toured day care centers early to get our name on wait lists. We had our favorites with baby yoga and curriculums I could only dream of. And then I realized the annual fee was more than my post-tax salary.

Seriously.

So then we lowered our expectations. No baby yoga. Just loving people in a day care center with good reviews. At the end of each week, I still had money in my pocket.

The cost of care in this country is no joke — in certain regions (I live in Boston). In fact, national data shows care as the biggest budget item for families — more than their housing expenses — and takes up 18 percent of the family’s budget.

I wasn’t prepared, but now that I’m expecting again (my third), here’s what I learned. Check out this cost of child care infographic for more information and tips.

How do you find care you can afford?

  • Day care centers: Tour your local facilities and ask questions about their curriculum, the ratio of child per teacher and the activities they plan. The bigger names may have more of a presence in your community, but use care-finding sources and message boards to learn of the lesser-known options. Family child care centers are often the least expensive option, but you need to make sure they are state accredited. Talk to a number of parents who currently have their children in the center and ask them what they love and what they’d change about the program.
  • Nannies:  If you know you want a nanny or a nanny-share, create a list of the qualifications you want in your care provider. Make sure to think of this person growing with your family, so be sure to think out of baby phase, and perhaps even out of one-child phase (can she handle 2 or more kids?). Ask friends who have hired nannies what personality traits and skills they think worked best for their family — and what they might have done differently in their hiring process. This can help you determine what you might need as well. Then put the word out with friends, message boards and care-finding communities. Just be sure to thoroughly interview, check references and run background checks before hiring. The other cost to factor in is the price of nanny taxes. It’s important to discuss an average post-tax take-home salary when giving your nanny the offer (this won’t be set in stone until you work with the household payroll company). If you’re agreeing on $12 an hour, this might be more like $9 to $10 after taxes. And she’ll need to be prepared. The best part of paying legally? You can use the child care tax credits for your nanny’s wages (and she’ll have great benefits too).
  • Preschool: If your child is old enough for preschool, there are many programs that run early and late-afternoon schedules. This might get you until 3:30 in the afternoon for a lower cost than day care and nannies. You just have to be prepared that preschools often work around the public school schedule, leaving you in need of care for school vacations and snow days.
  • Au Pairs: The average national cost of using an au pair is $360 a week. However, you have to provide room and board, and stick to a certain number of hours a week.
  • Family care: While this is wonderful if you have in place, it’s not necessarily free. I still recommend paying for the work (often at a reduced cost) and having a contract in place to make sure you, as the parents, are still in charge of the care being provided. It’s hard to boss Mom and Dad around (let alone your in-laws), so making this a paid, contractual agreement — on friendly terms, of course — can keep everyone on the same page. And help you both decide if you’re up for the job.

What child care cost savings should you be using?

The good news is there are a number of options out there to lighten the financial load. Here are three we recommend utilizing.

  • Child care tax breaks. With the ability to take advantage of tax breaks on nannies, day care, preschool and camps, it’s shocking that 52 percent of families don’t realize they are eligible. And you can get up to $1,200 back.
  • Flexible Spending Accounts (FSAs). This company benefit allows families to set aside $5,000 in pre-tax child care expenses. Sadly, only 31 percent of employees sign up for this. As someone who personally takes advantage, I can tell you it’s well worth it.
  • HR Benefits. Often employees have child care benefits through work that they don’t even know about (it might have been described when you started — but kids weren’t even on your radar then. Or, your spouse has no idea what benefits are offered). Care.com has an employee care service that many companies pay for. Speak up. Companies want to keep their workers happy and engaged — and innovative ones listen by offering their employees programs like flex-time, FSAs, on-site child care and back-up care.

Does it pay to work?

In some cases, paying for child care just means moving items around in the budget and putting the extraneous expenses on hold for a bit. In others, it may feel more like you’re paying to work than working for pay. But the price of staying in the workforce can also work for you — especially in a career with good growth potential. Don’t discount the fact you’re also contributing to health care benefits and (hopefully) to your 401K.

These decisions are never easy and are incredibly personal for every family. Armed with this information, you’ll be well on your way toward preparing for this thrilling, scary, exciting new chapter. At least more than I was.

Katie Bugbee is the senior managing editor and resident parenting expert of Care.com. A busy working mother of two, she's an expert on many parenting dilemmas, from appeasing picky eaters to finding the perfect babysitter.

More on child care

Preschool vs. day care: Which is best for your child?
Everything you need to know about sick child care
Setting babysitter expectations

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