After Evgeniya Usmanova, co-founder of CareLuLu, had her second child, she and her husband debated whether it made more financial sense to have her return to work or stay at home. She lives in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., which has one of the highest child care rates in the country. Ultimately, she decided to return to work, and found cost to be an important factor, as she searched for the right caregiver for her two young girls.
Usmanova is like many working moms. In fact, nearly two-thirds of mothers return to work within the first year of giving birth, which means they need some form of child care. And it isn't cheap. In every region of the U.S., annual daycare costs for an infant exceed the average amount a family spends on food in a year.
Here are seven tips to help you chisel away at those costs:
Begin your research online.
After a long and tiresome search, Usmanova decided to create CareLuLu.com, a free, online platform to help other parents navigate child care options in their area and compare rates.
Usmanova says, "Finding child care is a daunting process for most families, and this was the case for me. I spent a lot of time calling child care providers to ask the same basic questions over and over again, such as: Do you accept infants? Do you also have a preschool program? What are your tuition rates? Do you have a playground? What's the teachers' minimum level of education?"
CareLulu.com collects all of that information on local daycare providers and preschools in one place, which helps parents cut down on research time, easily identify providers within their budget and stay organized throughout the search process.
Search for free, universal preschool.
Federally-funded, universal early childhood education isn't yet available, but there are currently some state-sponsored programs. Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Illinois and Washington, D.C. offer free early childhood programs through public schools. These programs are typically in high demand, so familiarize yourself with the application process early on and check to see if your child is eligible.
Seek employer benefits and tax incentives.
See if your employer offers perks that would support child care. Some employers offer benefits that would allow you to get a discount on child care or subsidies for extended work hours. An obvious perk is an employer that offers on-site care. A less obvious benefit is that your company may have an arrangement with a local child care provider to offer group or corporate discounts for employees.
Find out if you qualify for a federal tax credit for daycare expenses. If you meet criteria, you may be able to claim up to 35 percent of the costs, as a credit on your federal tax return, depending on your adjusted gross income. Flex spending accounts are another possibility.
Consider surrounding cities.
Traveling to a neighboring city or town can save you a bundle. Picking a center or home provider in the suburbs or a smaller town can be more cost-effective than choosing one in a major city. Compare rates of providers, particularly along the path of your work commute. Weigh the cost savings with gas expenses and other incidentals you may incur from a longer commute.
Ask for discounts.
It never hurts to ask if there are any current discounts or special offers available. Some providers are known to offer discounts for multiple children, or extend a special offer or coupon advertised in a local magazine or ad campaign.
In competitive markets where child care providers are vying for new clients, child care centers might be more likely to offer discounts or waive registration fees as incentives to sign up new families. This could save you $100 or more when enrolling your child in a new daycare or preschool.
Cut back or change your hours.
An easy way to reduce child care costs is to cut back on your work hours. If your boss is open to you shaving off an hour or two per week or telecommuting, this would allow you to cut back on time your child spends in daycare.
Rearranging your hours or changing your work shift to begin earlier or later could help you and a spouse create overlapping work schedules, so that one could drop off the child later or pick up earlier from daycare.
Do you have a trusted family member that may be willing to watch your child once a week? This could be a great time for a grandparent to spend regular, quality time with a grandchild. Ask if your relative would be willing to do this for free or at a lower rate than your current child care provider.
These tips can help you find the best child care for your family while still staying within your budget.
Laura Harders is the founder of Beltway Bargain Mom, one of Washington DC's most popular sites for money-saving tips, finding the best deals and living a frugal lifestyle.
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