Ten tips Kerry Boetel, Midwest advertising manager for Jane magazine, wanted to shift to part time when her daughter, Keira, was 9 months old. Her biggest financial concern? Affording her babysitter, who had cared for Keira full time for six months. At $10 an hour, in-home childcare would strain their reduced family income, but Boetel hated to disrupt the relationship between babysitter and child.
Her solution? Share care.
The Boetels found neighbors who needed part-time care for their 7-month-old daughter, and the families agreed to split the sitter’s $12-an-hour fee for both girls. With a little creativity, the Boetels could afford the babysitter, and Keira benefited from the socialization and consistency.
The Boetels’ situation is far from unique. With more parents working outside the home, the need for quality childcare continues to grow. Yet affordable options are hard to find. Sixty-one percent of children birth to age 6 spend time in nonparental care, and a family’s annual childcare expenses are typically second only to mortgage payments or rent, according to the Nation’s Network of Child Care Resource and Referral.
Here are some strategies for keeping childcare costs down:
1 Take advantage of federal and state tax credits. Many Illinois families are eligible for thousands of dollars in tax credits, but you have to claim them on your tax return. Federal tax breaks include: the child and dependent care credit, worth up to $2,100 per family toward childcare expenses; the child tax credit, worth up to $1,000 per child; and the earned-income tax credit, worth up to $4,300 for couples earning less than $35,458 or individuals earning less than $34,458. Illinois’ earned-income tax credit is worth up to $215. Some Illinois families who don’t earn enough to pay income tax may qualify for a government support payment. Call the Illinois Department of Revenue, (800) 732-8866.
2 Check on company discounts. Some companies negotiate discounts with local childcare providers. Others offer direct subsidies. Contact your human resources department.
3 Set up a flexible spending account (FSA). These accounts, created by the Internal Revenue Service and offered by 73 percent of employers, according to the Society for Human Resources Management, allow workers to set aside pretax dollars for childcare expenses.
4 Explore additional state funding. You may qualify for the Illinois Child Care Assistance Program, offered through the Department of Human Services, which subsidizes childcare expenses for lower income families. Contact Child Care Resource and Referral, (800) 649-1884.
5 Look into free pre-K programs. When your children are old enough for public school, your childcare bill takes a nose dive. But you may not have to wait until kindergarten. Some local school districts offer public pre-kindergarten classes. During the 2003-2004 school year, 30 percent of 4-year-olds in Illinois participated in state pre-K programs, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. And Illinois children ages 3 to 5 in low-income families may be eligible for the Prekindergarten Program for At-Risk Children. Contact your local school district about eligibility.
6 Maximize parental coverage. Some parents coordinate work schedules to minimize overlap so one parent is usually home with the kids. Perhaps dad works days and mom works nights, or one parent works weekends. This isn’t ideal for your love life, but it can save money on childcare.
7 Explore share care. As Kerry Boetel learned, sharing a babysitter makes the convenience and personal attention of in-home child care much more affordable.
8 Enlist help from loved ones. Forty-seven percent of grandparents living close to their grandchildren help with childcare, according to Child Trends, a nonprofit research center based in Washington, D.C. And why not? Grandparents are trustworthy and may be the only people in the world who like your kids even more than you do. Siblings or friends can also provide loving, cost-effective childcare.
9 Do your homework. Don’t settle for the first childcare option you find. Ask friends for references, check your local phone book, look for postings in your area or search online on Web sites such as chicago.craigslist.org. Once you’ve compiled several options, conduct phone interviews and meet personally with your top candidates. By expanding your search, you’re more likely to find a provider who satisfies your standards for quality, convenience and price.
After researching several daycare centers in Lakeview, Bethany and Eric Scheiner chose a home-based provider for their 3-month-old son, Tristan. “The home-based facility offered more one-on-one attention, flexible drop-off and pickup times and a loving family environment,” Bethany explains. “Plus, it was significantly cheaper than the other daycare centers.”
10 Don’t be late for pickups. Many daycare centers charge fees for late pickups, and these fines can quickly inflate your monthly childcare expenses.