What If I Can't Afford Child Care?

What to Do When Day Care Costs More Than You Earn at Work

What If I Can't Afford Child Care?
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Families in the U.S. that can’t afford child care may have more options to their dilemma than they realize, including alternatives to traditional day care and more flexible work options. Whether a single parent or a couple raising kids, you may also be able to pay for or subsidize the cost of child care through financial assistance programs.

Finding Financial Assistance for Child Care

Several programs exist to help families pay for or subsidize the cost of child care. You’ll have to do a bit of research to see what’s available to you, but it will likely be worth the time. Start by looking into the options below.

State programs. Each state offers child care assistance that’s funded by the federal government, but eligibility requirements and fund availability vary by location. In some cases, states fund free or low-cost pre-K programs for children ages 3 to 5 years old.

Child Care Aware of America provides a map that lets you choose your state and view all of the child care resources available there. You can also reach out to your local Child Care Resource and Referral agency to find more affordable care options where you live.

Head Start. Other federally funded initiatives include the Early Head Start and Head Start programs, which provide care and child development services to low-income families and their kids from birth to age 5. Find out the location of your nearest Head Start center and contact them to see if your family qualifies for their services.

Military assistance. If a member of your family is in the U.S. military, you may be able to get help paying for child care. Select your branch of the military on Child Care Aware’s website to find out what’s available to you. Some child care providers also offer their own discounts to military families, but you’ll need to reach out to each provider to find out what they offer.

Tax breaks. If you’re working and have a child or dependent who can’t be left alone, you may qualify for the child and dependent care tax credit. This credit subsidizes a percentage of what you pay for child care, and it’s based on your income.

Alternatives to Traditional Child Care

Options for child care go beyond day care programs, nannies, or child care centers. In some cases, these options may be cheaper than the more traditional routes.

Nanny shares. With this model of child care, two or more families share a single nanny. In some cases, the nanny watches all of the kids together, and in other cases, the nanny alternates based on your work schedules and needs. Nanny shares may work well for families that don’t need full-time day care, or for neighbors with similar schedules. Since multiple families are contributing to the cost, they usually end up paying less than they would for other child care, and the nannies are able to earn more money than they would at a child care center or working for a single family.

Child care co-ops. This is another shared child care option. A child care co-op is essentially a group of parents who know and trust each other to take turns watching each others' children. Usually, no money changes hands. You're providing free child care in exchange for other parents’ free child care services. This can be especially beneficial to part-time workers and parents who have varying schedules. You may need to take the initiative to set up a child care co-op in your area if one doesn’t already exist.

Alternating schedules. If you have a partner who is raising children with you and you can’t afford child care, you may look into alternating schedules. This way, one of you is always home with the children when the other is at work. This option is usually a last resort, because it means you won’t get to spend much time with your partner.

Work Options for Parents

If the cost of day care is eating into your budget too much but you don't qualify for assistance, consider some alternative ways to make money, either to supplement or replace your current work. Those include consulting or any freelance work you can do using a computer, pet sitting or dog walking, and tutoring.

Depending on what you do, you can also check with your current employer to find out if it's possible to start working from home full time or part time. Some jobs are difficult to do with children underfoot but may offer more flexible schedules so that you can work after your kids are asleep or before they're awake in the mornings.

No matter what you decide to do regarding working and caring for your children, get a good picture of your finances and create a budget for your family. Doing so will not only help you stay on track with monthly expenses but also help you save for your child's future.