NEW YORK -- On-site day care -- it's the serene ideal so many parents pine for.
The reality, of course, is that it's often not available and stricter budgets are forcing moms and dads to scramble for new ways to manage child care costs.
For Jamie Lichtenstein, that means putting her 15-month-old son in a small day care run out of a nearby home. Two days a week costs $140. A traditional day care she looked into charged $2,000 a month for full-time care.
"Financially, it didn't make sense. I would've used my whole paycheck," said Lichtenstein, a 34-year-old post-doctoral fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health.
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She also joined a local group in Cambridge, Mass., that swaps chores such as child care, home repair and baking in lieu of payment. It's an additional resource she uses on evenings when she and her husband go out.
Such creative measures might be necessary in the hunt for cheaper child care. Other strategies include requesting flex time at work and rallying a team of parents to rotate baby-sitting duties.
Across the United States, average annual prices for full-time care for a toddler range from $3,400 a year in Mississippi to $10,800 in Massachusetts, according to the National Association of Child Care Resources and Referral Agencies. Nationwide, the average annual cost is $6,700. If such prices have no place in your budget, here are some ways to save.
CONSIDER CARE ALTERNATIVES -- One alternative to traditional day care is family child care. These are small operations run out of homes by stay-at-home guardians looking to earn extra money.
The family child care home that Lichtenstein uses has only two other children, including the child of the caregiver.
As with any outside care you employ, ask for references and what credentials or experience the provider has. For family child care, licensing and regulation vary from state to state.
In some states, providers need at least a year's experience caring for children. Homes must meet safety and space guidelines and generally can take on no more than six kids.
Regardless of where you live, one way to assess a home is to bring your child along for a visit.
"You can tell a lot by that. If the provider is warm and nurturing, the children will just melt into her," said Linda Geigle, executive director of the National Association for Family Child Care, an advocacy group in Salt Lake City.
The YMCA also offers child care at about 10,000 sites across the nation. Costs vary depending on the region.
If you employ a caregiver at home, consider switching to an au pair to dial back spending. Unlike nannies, au pairs work for room and board instead of a salary. Most au pairs are college students, however, so their work week is often capped at 20 hours.
LOOK INTO COMPANY BENEFITS -- Flex time and telecommuting can cut back considerably on child care expenses.
Before you approach your boss about a special work arrangement, however, consider the level of trust you've built. You might want to wait a few months to broach the topic if you're still relatively new, said Steve Williams, director of research at the Society for Human Resource Management, an industry group based in Alexandra, Va.
Once you get the green light, don't let your boss regret the decision. "It goes both ways; you have to be flexible so your schedule doesn't cause a disruption to the organization," Williams said.
Many large companies offer tax-free spending accounts to care for a dependent. The benefit typically lets workers set aside as much as $5,000 to cover costs such as child care. On-site day care usually is available only at corporate headquarters. That means the majority of U.S. workers don't have access to it.
MOBILIZE THE VILLAGE -- There might be a retired grandparent or stay-at-home mom in your circle willing to watch the kids a couple of days a week. Even if you pay a small fee, it probably will be cheaper than a day care center. "People are really starting to embrace this notion that it takes a village to raise a child," said Suzanne Riss, editor in chief of Working Mother magazine. "Parents are calling on friends, family, neighbors and forming informal cooperatives."
A small group of families might want to pool its resources and split the pay for a group nanny. Or parents with flexible schedules might eliminate the cost of a caregiver by taking turns baby-sitting.
To get started, engage other parents in conversation next time you're at a school function or picking up your kids from soccer practice. Check Web sites such as Meetup.com to see if there are parent groups in your area.