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FSA or tax credit: Which is best to save on child care?

A child care tax credit can help you save on childcare expenses. So can putting money in an FSA account can help you save on childcare bills. But which is better?

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 — child care is expensive.

The average annual cost of center-based infant care in the U.S. is nearly $16,000, according to a 2021 study by the Center for American Progress. This amount accounts for more than 16 percent of median married-couple family income — well above the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) recommendation that child care should cost no more than 7 percent of household income.

The cost of child care has a significant impact on my family, as well as many of the families I work with as a financial planner. For some of us, child care expenses are equal to carrying a second mortgage month to month.

In this article:

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 child care. 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. Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, many families have also had to balance working at home with kids — a situation that is unlikely to change in the near future.

When my husband and I decided it was time to grow our family, we immediately started budgeting and saving for child care costs. We also got appropriate insurances in place, like term life insurance, while we were young and healthy to help save on 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 child care 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 child care 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 cover the cost of child care are using a Dependent Care Flexible Spending Account (FSA) and taking 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.

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. For the 2021 tax year, the maximum annual contribution was increased to $10,500 per household as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA). In 2022, the maximum contribution dropped back down to $5,000 per year, per household. Even if both you and your spouse have a Dependent Care FSA available through your individual employers, you can only contribute up to the annual maximum to one or both accounts.

Potential benefits of a Dependent Care FSA

There are many benefits to opening a Dependent Care FSA, including the possibility of saving money on your taxes.

How much can you expect in the way of tax savings? If you contribute the maximum $10,500 in 2021 and fall into the 24% tax bracket, you’d be saving about $3,323 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.

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. If you overcontribute to the account and are left with unused funds, you’ll lose that money at the end of the year.

What is the Child Care Tax Credit?

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

Thanks to ARPA, the 2021 tax credits became more generous than usual. For the 2021 tax year, households can claim up to $8,000 in child care expenses for one child and $16,000 for two or more children. The credit starts at 50% of qualifying child care costs for households earning up to $125,000, and goes down to 0% for anyone earning $438,000 or more.

In 2022, the Child Care and Dependent Care Tax Credit will revert to 35% of up to $3,000 in child care expenses for one child or $6,000 in child care expenses for two or more children. As before, the percentage of child care expenses you are allowed to claim goes down as your income goes up. (Note: All facts and figures for the 2022 update to this post were verified by Betty Wang, CFP® and founder and president of BW Financial Planning.)

Remember to deduct any financial help your employer offers for child care prior to calculating your credit. Occasionally, an employer will provide a child care 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 child care costs have on their monthly budgets. A few of the benefits of this tax credit are:

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.

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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 your 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 2021 Dependent Care FSA to the $10,500 limit but 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 child care 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 and Dependent 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 child care costs and balances them with your other expenses and savings goals for your family.

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About Mary Beth Storjohann

Read more by Mary Beth Storjohann

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Haven Life is a customer-centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

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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.

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