Two Tax-Efficient Ways to Minimize Childcare Costs

By Jimmy Turner, MD
The Physician Philosopher

My wife and I haven’t argued this much in a long time.  You’d think that my wife going back to full time work  – and making more money – would only be a good thing, but it has brought about a lot of stress. It’s more proof that money isn’t the only thing that matters.  Time mattersPassion also means somethingProfessional fulfillment has a place, too.  For all of these reasons and more, I’ve fully supported and empowered my wife going back. That said, child care expenses are hella-expensive. Today we will discuss two ways to ease the pain a bit: the flexible spending account and 2018 child tax credit changes. Given that part of this blog has always been about following my family’s journey to financial independence, it seems that this post is warranted.  Also, one of the most common comments/questions I get when I discuss our financial independence journey is “That’s wonderful that you guys are accomplishing your financial goals, but do you have kids?”  I am pretty sure I won’t be the only one who can relate to this topic: balancing family, money, and time. The struggle is real.

The Dilemma

Mrs. TPP (my wife) has debated going back to full-time work as an educator for the past year or so.  She never really left work completely, though.  For about five or six years she has worked part time in some capacity, averaging about 20 hours of work each week. However, she always had the itch to go back to full time work.  And for good reason. My wife is a better teacher than I am a doctor – and I am no slouch at my job.  She is simply a gifted educator.  In every sense of the word, education is her calling. Who am I to stop that? Outside of trying to be a decent husband, her exceptional ability at teaching – and being the best mom I know – has always made it easy for me to empower her to do what she finds fulfilling.  I’ve always supported her goals.  Whether she wanted to stay home full-time and rule the roost, or to work full-time and change the world with her gifts, I promised to always support her. The dilemma came when the job she started lining up wasn’t a typical “teacher job” that fits neatly into a 10 month schedule.  It’s a 12 month job.  While it pays more, it also comes with particular problems we had to trouble shoot. In particular, the dilemma has revolved around two important topics:  finding child care and paying for it.  Let’s discuss the problem and then two possible solutions.

Children are Expensive

The other day I was working with a resident who is newly pregnant and planning to have a kid at the beginning of next year.  As I was talking about my family’s current situation and the anticipated increase in the cost of childcare, I could tell she was concerned about her own situation with a new baby on the way. I mentioned that the hospital day care where we work charged $1800 per month for two kids.  Given that my wife works in education, this $1800 monthly cost was going to eat up pretty much every dime of her take home pay. In my resident’s situation, it was going to be around $900 ($10,800 per year).  This is a substantial cost when you are making $55,000 per year.  It’s 20% of her income! Fortunately, there are a couple of ways to make this a little less painful to the bank account.

Dependent Flexible Spending Care Account

Our hospital – and many others – have a dependent flexible spending care account (DFSCA).  We use $5000 pre-tax to fund this account and then submit paperwork to have the money reimbursed post-tax. Given that our income places us solidly into the 32% bracket,  this matters.  That means I get to keep 68% of my income post-tax.  This $5,000 post-tax reimbursement is really like getting $7,353 pre-tax to use on child care ($7,353 x 68% = $5,000 post-tax reimbursement). As I explained this benefit to the resident I mentioned above, I could immediately see the stress release.  The burden was lifted just a little.  Now, she is in a different tax bracket, but the same principle still applies (she will get to use $5,682 of her pre-tax dollars to pay post-tax childcare expenses). Important Note:  These flexible spending accounts must be opened during “open enrollment” which is usually in the fall for most people. At my hospital it is in November, for example.  Please, plan accordingly. 

Child Tax Credit

The second way to ease the pain of rearing children is through the child tax credit.  Before the recent tax changes in 2018, most high-income earners were not able to take advantage of this credit. However, with the new Tax Cuts and Jobs Act this is no longer the case.  Here is how the new credit works:
  • $2,000 per qualifying child (<18 years old)
  • The phase-out for the tax credit starts at $200,000 for single filers and $400,000 for those filing joint returns while married
The important distinction here is that this is a tax credit and not a tax deduction.  The difference is that a tax credit lessens your annual tax dollar for dollar.  If you owed $50,000 in tax prior to the credit, you’ll know owe $2,000 less per child ($48,000 for one kid; $46,000 for two; etc). If it were a tax deduction, it would simply lower your taxable income, which may not help much now that the standard deductions are $12,000 (single) and $24,000 (married).  Many who itemized deductions before will now be using the standard deductions. So, taking my family’s situation into consideration, we have three kids ($2,000 x 3) and so we get a $6,000 tax credit.  Pretty sweet deal. For my resident mentioned above, this will bring home an extra $2,000 to her house.  

Combining the two benefits

Combining the two two tax-efficient techniques to pay for childcare, we can start to see some real benefit.  Let’s see how it shakes out for both my family and my resident. For my family’s situation paying $1800 per month ($21,600 annually) in child care, here is how it shakes out.  We get to cover that $21,600 with $7,353 pre-tax dollars via the flexible spending account and receive $6,000 in child tax credit.  This reduces our overall expected cost to $8,247 annually – or $687 per month. That’s actually a really good deal for childcare for two kids! But what about my resident? Well, in her situation, we anticipate her monthly cost at $900, or $10,800 annually.  She will get to use her pre-tax flexible spending account for a post-tax benefit of $5,682 and her new child tax credit of $2,000.  Thus, her annual expenses are now lessened to $3,120, and her monthly payment is now $260.  This is not quite the burden that $900 seemed!

Take Home

Sometimes all we need in life is to know all of our options.  The outlook can look bleak at times, but we must make sure we are using all of the resources we have available to us. If you are in the process of planning a pregnancy, currently pregnant and worrying about the expenses, or you feel like you are being swallowed by childcare costs… I hope this information can be helpful to you! Do you guys have any tips on saving for childcare expenses?  Is a flexible spending account offered by your employer?  Do you use it?  Leave a comment below. TPP  


  1. Half Life Theory

    I love this…awesome hacks!

    I actually have known about the dependent care flex spending account, but sadly we haven’t actually implemented this… so we are paying for child care costs with after tax dollars…. ugh! (i know, i need to fix this ASAP)

    In my defense, i only gained access to this account within the last year. Another hack we implemented in the first couple years of day care, was going to a church day care… which cost literally a fraction of what most places charge. I think we paid about $75 per week.

    We did that for 2 years or so, and then transferred to a better day care that was more along the lines of $900 per month… but education was a lot better.

    • ThePhysicianPhilosopher

      Yeah, when my wife was part time this is exactly what we did. For two kids, it cost $650 a month. Much better, but only runs from 8am til 1pm. Worked perfectly when she was part time, but now that she is full-time won’t cut it.

      Thanks for the encouragement!


  2. Drew

    We have parents close (within 40 minutes) by who are offering to help with childcare. A coworker of mine said not to involve parents as you never get any space. I feel like it is too much to give up to not accept their help. Any experience with parents providing childcare?

    • ThePhysicianPhilosopher

      Absolutely. My in laws live about two and a half hours away, but are both retired.

      With my wife going back full time, we have had to call them up several times to watch our kids for the week when day care started back, but my oldest was still out or visa versa. It has been really helpful when we have needed it, though it may be tough if we lived in the same town. I’d probably still do it, though.

  3. Tyler

    Thanks for the article.
    Just to be clear on the monthly cost: you still have to pay into the Dependent FSA and at $5000 for the year, that is $416.67/month. So in the case of your resident, she would be seeing that plus the $260/month you show, giving a total cost per month of $676. Notice $676 * 12 = $8120 as the total cost of daycare, which is still a nice discount ($2k from tax credit, $682 by using the Dependent FSA) from the original $10,800 . Still a great vehicle to use to try to reduce those costs!

    • ThePhysicianPhilosopher

      I still get a different number, but maybe we are saying the same thing and just doing the math differently.

      Her total annual cost = 10,800
      FSA money that she has to pay in, but gets full reimbursed post tax =$5000
      Child tax credit = $2,000

      So even just strictly looking at the post tax side of this, it comes out like this in my mind.
      $10,800 – $5,000 (remember, fully reimbursed) – $2000 = $3,800 annually.

      $3,800/12 = $317

      The number in the post comes from pre-tax savings, though it’s probably more helpful to think about it as a post tax difference.



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