Child care a necessity for Alabama families, but high costs eat up the budget

Taking Action
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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – You may have seen the headlines in recent years. In many places, child care now costs more than the monthly rent or mortgage.  As crazy as that sounds, it’s something many Tennessee Valley parents have no trouble believing.

Zach and Laura Cole know all about the high costs of day care.  On weekday mornings, you’ll find them rushing around the kitchen, whipping up an instant breakfast shake and loading up son Caden, 2, in the car.

On the challenge of finding an affordable, quality center, Laura said, “It was really hard to find anything that had any openings.”

After a long search, Laura settled on St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Huntsville. Caden spends full days there at a cost of $150 per week.

Child Care Aware of America reports Alabama’s 2014 average yearly cost of child care, in a center, was $5,869, for a 4 year old. Click here for more facts and numbers.

That’s actually on the low end of what parents pay nationwide, but it’s still a hefty number to dole out every year.

Margie Aerostatico
Margie Areostatico is Director of Child Development at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Huntsville. (WHNT News 19)

Margie Areostatico, St. Stephen’s Director for Child Development, said the “family first” focus in Huntsville and surrounding communities means parents are willing to pay more for the best. That drives up costs and leads to long wait lists.

“It’s supply and demand,” Areostatico explained, “There is only, I’m gonna say, about 25 quality educational schools and Huntsville and Madison County.”

Poorer families are often hit especially hard, with fewer options. Families in poverty spend nearly 30 percent of annual income on child care but the U.S. Health and Human Services Department recommends no more than 10 percent.

That’s about what the Coles pay but it’s still not easy. In fact, the shock of realizing what one child in day care costs has changed the family’s future plans.

Laura Cole
Laura Cole says the shock of realizing what one child in daycare costs has changed her family’s future plans.

“I wanted four kids,” Laura explained. “I’m from a big family, I have five older brothers. We started paying [for Caden] weekly and I thought you know what, there’s no way… there’s just no way.”

So how can you bring the cost of day care down?

First, don’t be afraid to ask for a discount at a provider you like. Some may be willing to work with you and they may offer discounts for more than one child attending at the same time. You can also look into home-based day care, which typically costs less than an early learning center. If you have family and friends in the area, you could turn to them. Lastly, consider whether it might be better in the long run for one parent to stay home.

Experts also stress the importance of making a household budget. Knowing exactly how much is going to day care every week, or month, or year, lets you compare and shop around accurately. You can also trim your household budget in other places to offset your day care costs.

Oh, and don’t forget about tax breaks! Business Insider reports 52% of Americans don’t realize they’re eligible for up to $1,200 in child care tax breaks.

Flexible Spending Accounts are also key. If your employer offers one, use it! You could save up to $2,000 on child care expenses every year.

This report is part of WHNT News 19’s week-long series, Taking Action for Families.  Join us Thursday, July 16 — we will host an Action Line from 4-7 p.m. Experts from the National Children’s Advocacy Center will be here to take your questions about parenting.