Child care is expensive. Here's how to save up for it.

Whether it's by telecommuting or tapping into extended families for support, Hamm says there are ways parents can reduce child care costs — even before the baby arrives.

Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters/File
Children listen to their nursery school teacher reading a story at their Kindergarten in Hanau, Germany earlier this year. Raising a child can be extremely expensive — but it doesn't have to break the bank. Hamm offers advice on how to cut costs.

As this school year approaches, our situation is different than it has been in a very long time when it comes to child care. We have two children enrolled in school full time, with another child in a full-time preschool setting.

In other words, the era of crushing child care costs is pretty much behind us. There was a period where we spent almost $20,000 in a single year on child care. That era is long gone.

When I look back to that time before our first child was born, when we were searching for the right child care and trying to figure out what we should be doing, I feel a sense of pride mixed with regret. We did some things absolutely right and we did a few other things completely wrong.

Here’s the advice I would give to Sarah and myself circa 2005 regarding child care and child care costs.

First, look at your own schedules and see how you can minimize child care costs. If you’re looking at child care, that likely means you’ve eliminated the possibility of one parent staying at home with the child (or children). However, that doesn’t mean that you truly need full-time child care.

Both parents should look at the possibility of telecommuting, if at all possible. Even if it’s just one day a week, it can save money. Both parents should look for alternative scheduling options. Can one or both of you work ten hours a day, four days a week?

If you can reduce the number of days in a week that you’re going to need childcare, then you’re going to significantly reduce your child care costs. This is particularly true if you have multiple children involved.

Second, consider a co-op service with other families. If you know of other families that have very young children or are expecting, talk to them about sharing child care instead of paying for a service.

For example, if you’re available on Thursdays and Fridays to care for children, your wife is available on Sundays and Mondays to care for children, and you find another couple who have free days on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, then you’re pretty much all set for child care. Seek even more parents to make this circle work better, so that you’re perhaps watching three kids two days a week in exchange for free child care on the other days.

If professional couples are all committed to finding somewhat alternative schedules to allow for child care, this can work really well. Work together to come up with a schedule that enables all of you to avoid the costs and stress of professional child care.

Another option is to tap into extended families. If you’re expecting and your parents are nearby, they can be a great option for handling some of the child care burden for you.

This is a situation that depends heavily on the family dynamic, of course, but if we had lived closer to either of our parents, we would have taken advantage of this option. Not only does this allow for a very strong bond to build between grandparent and grandchild, it can take some serious pressure off of your child care needs.

If you’re still seeking child care, evaluate a ton of child care options. Visit as many as you possibly can in the weeks before the child’s arrival.

The more you visit, the more you’re going to know about what to expect from different child care options. You’ll know what’s going to cost you, you’ll be able to figure out what kind of standards you expect at a minimum, and after a while, you’ll start to get a great grasp of what services provide the most “bang for the buck” for you.

This is one thing that Sarah and I did fairly well at the time. We visited a lot of child care homes and centers in the months before the birth of our first child. Sarah had quite a few preconceptions about what she was looking for, as did I. Unfortunately, as we went through the search, we found that our preconceptions didn’t really line up with each other, nor did they line up well with what was actually available.

We visited three places at first and were somewhat ready to commit to one of them before a friend strongly encouraged us to visit more places. If we had made that commitment instead of continuing our search, we would have wound up with child care we would have been unhappy with over the long haul. Instead, we ended up finding what we now consider to be the absolute best “bang for the buck” in terms of child care in the area.

When you’re searching and feeling confident about a center or home, research those businesses. Do background checks and make sure that you’re leaving your child with someone reputable.

Finally, start saving now. As soon as you know a child is coming – or even as soon as you’re planning for one – start saving for the expenses related to that child. Child care will be one of the biggest during the child’s early years.

Here’s the truth: children are expensive. When they come into your life, they’re going to gobble down resources like Pac-Man. Saving in advance of the child’s arrival helps in two ways.

First, you get used to a spending routine with less available cash. You’re going to have to pay for this baby’s meals, clothes, child care, and other expenses in just a few months, so putting a couple hundred a week into savings will help you ease into this new routine before you have to walk the tightrope for real.

Second, you’ll have a big “child emergency fund” in the bank when the baby does arrive. That way, when you are walking that tightrope, a little problem doesn’t mean a quick plunge into debt. You have a safety net already in place.

Taking care of a child is challenging and expensive. Taking charge of these changes and expenses before the baby arrives in a sensible and logical manner will make this all go much easier.

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