Forget the $1,740 Child Care Bill. These Working Moms Found Affordable Summer Options

Igor Stevanovic/Getty Images

I pay a little over $1,300 a month for my toddler’s day care bill. And as much as I love the school’s proximity and his development, the bill sucks. 

But I’m apparently lucky — my husband and I can comfortably afford my son’s monthly bill, even if we think it’s too high. That’s not the case for many. Child care costs can be the single biggest expense for families, especially those with multiple children who may double or triple that monthly bill. Roughly 67% of parents spend more than 20% of their income on child care, according to a 2023 survey. 

And now that kids are out of school for the summer, the cost of additional care is weighing on millions of parents. Summer care costs an average of $87 a day or $1,740 per month, per child, according to the American Camp Association’s latest data, a rep said in an email to CNET. For many parents, that’s more than their mortgage, or even some colleges’ tuition.

I’ve been writing a lot recently about how high inflation and steep prices on everyday essentials make it hard for households to get by. Finding the extra funds for summer care can seem impossible.

So, I decided to find out how some other financial expert parents are affording this steep cost. I talked to Alaina Fingal, owner of The Organized Money and a CNET Money Expert Review Board member, and Toni Husbands, a CNET Money staff writer, to find out how they’re navigating child care while school’s out, and to get some tips for other families struggling with this expense. Here’s what they recommend.

Look for free or low-cost activities 

If you don’t need full-time care for your kids, but want to enroll them in activities part of the day, Husbands recommends checking out local recreational centers. Many cities offer free or lower-cost summer care.

Headshot of Toni Husbands

Toni Husbands, CNET Money staff writer

James Martin/CNET

Husbands found a low-cost summer camp in her Chicago neighborhood for her 10- and 12-year-old children. Her kids will be able to participate in weekly activities, like tennis and a virtual animation class. 

Instead of paying $435 a week (the average weekly cost of day camps), she’ll pay around $260 for each child for the entire summer. Shocking, I know. That’s $520 for five hours a day, five days a week. And the camp offers lunch, although Husbands will still provide lunch for her kids. 

“Summer programs in Chicago can be expensive,” Husbands said. “I begin researching summer camp options, fees and registration deadlines no later than March. It’s an annual exercise because seats at the most cost-effective and desirable options can fill up quickly, leaving camps that can cost $500 or more a month per child.”

You can also check out your local YMCA or Boys and Girls Club for low-cost care options. Additionally, your child’s school may have recommendations for reduced-cost or free summer care programs available in your area. You may even be able to pay a trustworthy teenager to babysit your kids during the daytime, especially if you work from home.

Partner with other parents to set up a child care swap

If you work outside the house, you might be able to barter with other parents to share child care responsibilities. That’s what Fingal is doing. Instead of paying thousands, she set up a child care swap with her in-laws, who also have kids.

Headshot of Alaina Fingal

Alaina Fingal, founder of The Organized Money

James Martin/CNET

Since Fingal and her in-laws have alternating availability this summer, they worked out a plan that can save them both money and tend to their work responsibilities. 

For the first half of the summer, Fingal and her husband will have their 10- and 12-year-olds, plus her in-laws’ kids. Then, for the second half, Fingal will send the kids to her in-laws. “Instead of having them for two months, we have them for one; it’s a little bit easier,” she said.

Taking a month off of work isn’t something everyone can do. But if you can set up a swap with multiple parents, each family may be able to schedule time off so the kids go to a new house each week. Even if you need to pay for child care for a few weeks, swapping for part of the summer could save you thousands.

Joining local Facebook groups can help you connect with other parents to help coordinate a summer care swap.

See if your employer or insurance offers child care benefits

In some cases, you may have access to dependent care benefits from your employer. If your employer offers on-site day care, you’re likely already aware of it, but you can ask if it offers any seasonal discounts if you just need summer care.

Otherwise, check your benefits, as some employers offer child care reimbursement up to a certain amount. And if your employer offers a dependent care flexible spending account, you can start a sinking fund to save pretax money throughout the year, then use the FSA like a debit card to help cover dependent care expenses, including child care. 

You may also check to see if your employer offers discounts for select day care providers or camps. And don’t forget to ask your colleagues for local child care options, too. 

Lower your costs by taking advantage of tax credits

While it won’t help you right now, make sure you deduct any eligible child and dependent care credits from your tax bill each year. For 2023, the maximum child tax credit was $2,000 per child and the maximum dependent care credit was $3,000 per child under 13, or $6,000 for two or more qualifying children. 

Keep a record of all of your day care expenses handy — your day care should have a record of your payments that you can include on your tax return. If you’re using multiple camps, make sure you get each provider’s tax identification number so you’re not scrambling to track them down come tax time. You may get some of that hard-earned money you forked over for summer camp back in your tax refund, depending on your situation.