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Tax bill provisions may help parents defray this massive cost

  • In the Northeast, the average annual cost of care for an infant and 4-year-old is $24,053.
  • You can save up to $5,000 in pretax dollars in a dependent care FSA.
  • The tax bill doubles the child tax credit to $2,000.

A few breaks in the tax overhaul may soften the blow of sky-high child care expenses.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the GOP's overhaul of the tax code, includes an enhancement of the child tax credit, doubling it to $2,000 per qualifying child.

Lawmakers also expanded the availability of the child tax credit to higher-income earners: This break will begin to phase out for taxpayers who are married and filing jointly with adjusted gross income of $400,000 ($200,000 for singles). Under current law, the child tax credit begins to phase out at $110,000 for joint filers who are married and $75,000 for singles.

"Families are really struggling with the crisis of paying for child care. They get sticker shock when having a baby, trying to understand what it will do to their budget." -Michelle McCready, Child Care Aware of America

Further, lawmakers have kept the child and dependent care credit, which can be worth up to $1,050 for one child under age 13 or $2,100 for two kids under 13.

Finally, the bill leaves intact a break that allows workers to save up to $5,000 in pretax dollars ($2,500 for married taxpayers who file separately) in a dependent care flexible spending account to cover costs for qualifying dependents.

Initially, the House proposal called for the elimination of the break for dependent care FSAs. Lawmakers later decided to keep it.

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"The fact that dependent care FSAs are still in place, that's a big win for families that are able to contribute to those accounts," said Douglas A. Boneparth, a certified financial planner and president of Bone Fide Wealth in New York.

"From a child-care perspective, it's more favorable," he said.

It's as costly as housing or college

The cost of child care for two kids is about on par with housing expenses, according to a report from Child Care Aware of America.

In the Northeast, center-based care for an infant and a 4-year-old costs an average of $24,053 each year, Child Care Aware of America found. In comparison, housing costs in that part of the country cost an average of $21,140.

Even in the South, where care costs are the lowest, child care for an infant and a 4-year old is an average of $16,704 each year, just a few dollars shy of the average housing expense of $16,741.

"Families are really struggling with the crisis of paying for child care," said Michelle McCready, chief of public policy and research at Child Care Aware of America. "They get sticker shock when having a baby, trying to understand what it will do to their budget."

To put things in perspective, the average cost of tuition, fees, room and board at a public four-year college in 2017 was $20,770, according to the College Board.

No tax break will cover the full cost of having someone look after your little ones, but parents have a few tools at their disposal to help defray that expense.

Footing the bill

Assuming the dependent care FSA is available at work, it may make the most sense for higher income earners, who save more on taxes if they're in higher brackets. That's because any money that goes into the account escapes federal income levies.

Meanwhile, parents can also use the child and dependent care credit. A word of warning: You may not use this credit and the FSA to cover the same costs.

"The fact that dependent care FSAs are still in place, that's a big win for families that are able to contribute to those accounts." -Douglas A. Boneparth, Bone Fide Wealth

Parents of school-age children should also note that the tax bill also allows them to use 529 savings plans to cover the cost of private elementary and high school. Under current law, these accounts grow tax-free and parents can use the funds tax free, provided they're used to cover educational expenses.

"People are a little wary about using the 529 that way," said Cathy Derus, a certified public accountant and principal of Brightwater Financial in La Grange Park, Illinois. "But it's still a good thing to be aware of."

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