What if I Can't Afford Child Care?

Pre-school childcare teacher helping little girl
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Trying to make ends meet while paying for child care can be a big challenge. However, there are some resources available to help you meet those obligations, including alternatives to traditional daycare and more flexible work options.

In addition, several financial assistance 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.

Child care is an increasingly expensive proposition for many families in the United States. In fact, among working families with children under the age of five, spending on those services amounts to almost 10% of the average income.

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 three to five years old.

Child Care Aware of America provides a map that lets you choose your state and view all of the childcare 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 five.

Find the location of your nearest Head Start center, and contact them to see whether 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 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 (CDCTC). This credit subsidizes a percentage of what you pay for child care, and it’s based on your income.

There's a dollar limit of $3,000 for a qualifying individual, and you can get up to $6,000 if you have more than one child in an eligible care facility.

In 2021, the American Rescue Plan temporarily increased the benefit from the CDCTC. The cap is now 50% of expenses, up to $4,000 for one individual receiving care, and $8,000 for two or more. Families with incomes up to $125,000 are eligible for the full credit.

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 who don’t need full-time daycare, or for neighbors with similar schedules.

Since two or more families are contributing to the cost, they usually end up paying less than they would for other child care, and the nannies can earn more money than they would at a child care center or by working as a sitter for a single family.

If you're considering a nanny share, be sure you understand tax laws governing nannies and how you can be in compliance. For extra help, you may want to consider enlisting a tax professional.

Child Care Co-ops

Another shared childcare option, a childcare co-op is essentially a group of parents who know and trust each other to take turns watching each other's children.

Usually, no money changes hands. You're providing free child care in exchange for other parents’ free child care services. It can be especially beneficial for 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 the last resort, because it means you won’t get to spend much time with your partner.

Check with Your Employer

Find out whether your employer offers child care help. Some companies are willing to pay for a summer camp for kids, or even allow you to take your kids with you on business trips (and reimburse you).

Other employers offer on-site childcare. Before you assume that you can't make it work, ask your employer what benefits they offer.

Work Options for Parents

If the cost of daycare is eating into your budget too much, but you don't qualify for assistance, consider some alternative ways to make money, to supplement or replace your current income. Those could 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 whether 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 morning.

In fact, almost half of human resources managers claim that their companies have tried to make it easier to accommodate parenting schedules in recent years.

Finding the Best Solution for You

Depending on your situation, you might be able to combine multiple options to make child care more manageable for your family.

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 will also help you save for your child's future.