FSA or Tax Credit: which is best to save on childcare?

The sticker shock of daycare, babysitting, or a part-time child care program can cause many parents to panic. Regardless of income bracket, the fact is clear: Childcare is expensive.

In fact, according to a recent study, a family with a median household income spends ⅕ of it to cover full-time child care at a center. If a family is earning minimum wage, care costs jump to 64% of their total income. I know that this is true both for my own family, as well as many of the families I work with as a financial planner. For some of us, child care costs are equal to carrying a second mortgage month to month.

Financially preparing for child care

Families each plan for the financial stress of child care in their own way. Some parents choose to have one of them stay home full time with kids who aren’t in school yet because it actually costs less than having a dual income household that pays for full-time childcare. Other families save in advance for child care expenses or look for lower-cost solutions, such as an in-home daycare, care from relatives, or a cobbled together schedule of drop-off programs, babysitters, and flexible work arrangements that allow partners to tag team and simultaneously work/care for their kids.

When my husband and I decided it was time to grow our family, we immediately started budgeting and saving for child care costs. While this helped to offset the costs, we now have two little ones with full-time care, and the monthly expense adds up quickly!  No matter which way you look at it, the cost of childcare often sparks some tough financial decisions for a family.

Saving ahead of time helped put a dent in our upfront costs, but we also had to take a close look at how childcare fit into our lives, and we use ongoing financial planning strategies to reduce the impact that those expenses have on our family’s budget.

Two of the strategies that many families might consider to help augment the cost of child care are the Dependent Care Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA) and the Child Care or Dependent Care Tax Credit. Families can only opt to use one option, and you may need to crunch some numbers or speak with a financial advisor to figure out which option makes the most sense for your family.

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What is a Dependent Care FSA?

A dependent care FSA is an employer-sponsored, pre-tax account. You set up automatic deductions from your paychecks that are contributed to this account and are eligible to use those funds for qualifying child care expenses. The current maximum contribution is $5,000 per year for each household. So, even if both you and your spouse have a Dependent Care FSA available through your individual employers, you can only contribute $5,000 total to one or across both accounts.

Potential benefits of a Dependent Care FSA

  • Your Dependent Care FSA is funded with pre-tax dollars. Much like a workplace retirement plan, this helps to reduce your total taxable income, meaning you may pay less overall taxes as a result.
  • Dependent Care FSAs are also sheltered from the 7.65% Social Security and Medicare tax.
  • In most cases, Dependent Care FSAs are sheltered from state taxes, as well.

An example of your tax savings would be: If you contribute the maximum $5,000 in a given year, and fall into the 24% tax bracket, you’d be saving about $1,583 a year in taxes including both federal income tax and the 7.65% Social Security and Medicare tax.

Potential drawbacks of a Dependent Care FSA

While Dependent Care FSAs have some obvious positives, there are a few drawbacks.

  • FSAs are use-it-or-lose-it accounts. The funds you contribute don’t roll over from year to year. If you and your partner’s childcare plans change, then you may be out that money.
  • Not all employers offer Dependent Care FSA options.
  • You’ll need to make sure all of your expenses qualify. This means tracking receipts, reimbursements, and other qualifying costs associated with your childcare and making sure that all childcare services you use are eligible for the funds in a Dependent Care FSA. For example, the cost of babysitters hired for care unrelated to your employer may not be qualified expenses for reimbursement.

Because FSAs don’t offer a year-to-year rollover, you’ll need to carefully budget for the amount of qualifying child care related expenses you actually have (although it’s not hard to get to the $5,000 limit these days). If you over contribute to the account and don’t use the full amount of funds, you’ll lose that money at the end of the year.

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What is the Child Care and Dependent Tax Credit?

Qualifying for the Child Care and Dependent Care Tax Credit requires that you:

  • Have work-related expenses for childcare. Basically, child care has to be necessary so that you can work. To prove this, the government requires that both parents provide proof of income. The exception to this rule is if a spouse is disabled or a full-time student.
  • The care has to be for qualifying kids, 13 years old or under. A spouse or dependent who lives with the taxpayer for more than half the year and is either physically or mentally incapable of caring for themselves also qualifies.
  • There is a limit to how much the credit is worth – which is typically between 20-35% of qualifying childcare costs. This percentage directly correlates with your income.

As of 2018, the total expenses you can claim is $3,000 for one child and $6,000 for two or more children. The credit starts at 35% for the lowest income earners and goes down to 20% for anyone earning $43,000 or more. Individuals who pay for child care expenses for their children and earn more than $43,000 may be eligible for a federal tax credit of up to 20% percent of the cost of care. You can claim only up to $3,000 for the care of one person and $6,000 for two or more. So regardless of how much you pay, the potential maximum child and dependent care credit is $600 (20 percent of $3,000) for the care of one person, twice that for two or more.

Remember to deduct any financial help your employer offers for child care prior to calculating your credit. Occasionally, an employer will provide a childcare stipend, and that amount doesn’t count toward your tax credit.

The potential benefits of using the Child Care Tax Credit

The Child Care Tax Credit can be a great option for parents looking to reduce the impact that childcare costs have on their monthly budgets. A few of the benefits of this tax credit are:

  • The Child Care Tax Credit is a direct way to lower the amount of taxes you owe.
  • If your family earns less than $43,000 a year, the tax credit may provide a larger benefit to you than a family who owes more.
  • The Child Care Tax Credit is an excellent way for individuals without a Dependent Care FSA option to offset some of the cost of childcare for their family.

The potential disadvantages of the Child Care Tax Credit

Although saving money on your taxes may feel like it’s always a good idea, there are a few drawbacks to the Child Care Tax Credit to keep in mind.

  • The limits on the Child Care Tax Credit are lower than what many families spend each year on childcare.
  • If you’re a high-income family that earns over $43,000, the tax benefits that come with using a Dependent Care FSA may save your family more money than the Child Care Tax Credit

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Can I use a Child Care Tax Credit and a Dependent Care FSA?

With both of these money-saving options available, you might be wondering if you can take advantage of them simultaneously to maximize savings. Some stipulations restrict who can utilize both the Child Care Tax Credit and the Dependent Care FSA in their financial planning. And, in many cases, you may have to choose only one option for your family.

However, there are some exceptions. For example, if your family has two or more kids and you’ve already maxed out your Dependent Care FSA to the $5,000 limit, and your qualifying child care expenses hit or exceed the $6,000 cap for the Child Care Tax Credit — you can take advantage of both the FSA and the Tax Credit. The Child Care Tax Credit will only be applicable on the $1,000 that was “unreimbursable” from your FSA. So if your income puts you in the 20% credit range, that could save you another $200 on taxes.

Which option is right for your family?

If you’re in a situation where you need to pick between the Dependent Care FSA or the Child Care Tax Credit, you should start by calculating your total child care expenses each year, and the benefits you’d receive using each program.

You should also consider how you’d maximize tax savings with whatever vehicle you choose. A great way to do this is by staying aware of what expenses qualify for either the Dependent Care FSA or the Child Care Tax Credit. For instance, you may know that daycare or preschool qualifies as a deductible child care cost. But did you know that after-school care or day camp during the summer or school breaks may also qualify for either option?

It’s also important to be clear on which babysitting options qualify as a deductible expense and to make sure you keep receipts, a contract, or pay your babysitter via a third-party wage system, so you have all your paperwork in place.

Think about your overall financial picture

Remember, as with any decision involving taxes, your budget, or your childcare options, maximizing your total savings isn’t about picking the “best” option out there — it’s about picking the right option for you and your family. Keep in mind that, while it’s tempting to save money on taxes by using either tax credits or tax-friendly accounts, you should also make sure that your tax savings plan fits into your big-picture financial goals. Speaking to a tax professional can help you to decide whether the Child Care Tax Credit or the Dependent Care FSA (or both) is a better option for you — and speaking with a comprehensive financial planner can help you structure a plan that addresses your childcare costs and balances them with your other expenses and savings goals for your family.

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Mary Beth Storjohann, CFP® and Founder of Workable Wealth, is an author, financial planner and accountability partner working to help clients in their 20s-40s across the country make smart, educated choices with their money. Her recent accolades include the “Top 40 Under 40” by Investment News, “10 young Advisors to Watch” by Financial Advisor Magazine, and “10 of the Best Personal Finance Experts on Twitter.” She frequently appears on NBC as a financial expert and her expertise has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Forbes and more.

Haven Life Insurance Agency offers this as educational information. Haven Life does not offer investment or tax advice and encourages you to seek advice from your own legal counsel or tax professional.

Haven Term is a Term Life Insurance Policy (ICC15DTC) issued by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual), Springfield, MA 01111 and offered exclusively through Haven Life Insurance Agency, LLC. Not all riders are available in all states. Our Agency license number in California is 0K71922 and in Arkansas, 100139527.

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