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How to Find Affordable Child Care

Posted on 8/4/2011 16:40 EST

The search for cheap child care has many American families on edge. The dearth of affordable child care options periodically crops up in the news as parents continue to struggle with the lingering after-effects of the recent recession, which include reduced funding for some child care programs targeted to low-income families. Child care costs vary substantially around the country, ranging from about $3,800 at year up to nearly $19,000; in major cities like New York and L.A., cheap child care is almost an oxymoron. Your child's age affects costs, as well; rates for infant care are usually higher than for toddlers and preschoolers because babies require more attention.

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There are several ways to minimize the expense of making sure your children are well cared for while you're at work.

Check to see if your employer offers what's known as a flexible spending account. These accounts let you set aside several thousand dollars a year, deducted from your pre-tax earnings, to be used for childcare. Once you've paid the child care fees, you're reimbursed from this account. Hold on to receipts so you can prove how you spent the funds. Workers who don't have access to such accounts can still qualify for a tax credit that can shave up to 35 percent from daycare fees. This tax benefit maxes out at $3,000 for one child and $6,000 for two or more.

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Help with your taxes is one thing, but finding a cheap child care program is equally important. YMCAs throughout the country often offer affordable child care to member families. In states such as Kentucky these programs are called Child Care Enrichment Programs (CEP) and provide before- and after-school care for as little as $35 a day, depending on the number of children enrolled and the hours when care is needed. The centers are usually open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, including weekends, holidays, and days when schools are closed for inclement weather or teacher in-service training. In other states, this program is called Y-CARE. Regardless of the name, these programs provide health assessments and value- and family-based education along with basic child care, and are well-liked by parents. Reviews of some cheap child care programs sponsored by the YMCA award lots of four- and five-star ratings.

Some parents save money with home-based providers who typically charge less than daycare centers. One parent posting on BabyCenter.com says she pays just $120 a week for in-home care of her infant. The advantages of such arrangements are the comfortable home setting, a stable and small group of children, and one primary provider rather than several. The biggest drawback to this type of affordable child care is that some home providers are not licensed. If you opt for home daycare, contact your state licensing agency to see if the provider has the proper credentials; each state's basic requirements are specified at the National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education.

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Most states have some kind of resource and referral network to help you find cheap child care and point you to financial assistance, if needed. Families living in the southeast can refer to the Childcare Network. Georgia residents can turn to Quality Care for Children, a nonprofit agency that provides temporary grants to parents who need help paying for daycare. One Decatur parent says the partial subsidy of a $238 a week daycare bill reduced the stress of going back to work because her 18-month-old daughter can now attend a quality program. Other states facilitate cheap daycare with programs that offer sliding-scale fees; Neighborhood House and Destinations Children's Center, located outside Salt Lake City, is one.

The quality of care is usually a top concern for parents. According to an article in the Deseret News, an upcoming website will enable parents in more than half the states to assess the quality of cheap child care services in their area by seeing how they fare according to the Quality Rating Improvement System (QRIS). QRIS is designed to help get providers up to professional standards and to offer parents a guide to quality child care. In the meantime, several other resources can help you identify accredited and cheap child care. Visit NACCRRA, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and the National Association for Family Child Care for childcare resources and accreditation information.

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