Childcare can be expensive, but help is available if you need to cut costs. From claiming free childcare hours to registering for extra-curricular clubs, we share 13 ways to get help with childcare costs.
Check what help you are eligible for
The best place to begin to find what help with childcare costs is available to you is the childcare costs calculator on Gov.uk.
You’ll need to share your income and working hours (as well as your partner’s if you have one). You’ll also need to give information about your children including their dates of birth, an estimated cost of approved childcare and any disability benefits they are entitled to.
The calculator will help you estimate how much money you can get to pay for approved childcare provided by a:
- registered childminder, nanny, play scheme, nursery or club
- childminder or nanny with a registered agency
- registered school
- home care worker through a registered agency
Depending on where you live, the rules for how childcare providers are approved are slightly different. But you can use the following places to check or find an approved childcare provider in your area:
- England: Ofsted or list of registered childminder agencies
- Wales: Care Inspectorate Wales
- Scotland: Scottish Care Inspectorate
- Northern Ireland: Early Years Teams
Claim free childcare
You may be able to get help with childcare for children aged between two and four years old. The amount you can claim will depend on where you live, your child’s age and your financial circumstances.
Free childcare for two-year-olds
- England: You can get 15 hours of free childcare a week for children aged two years old for up to 38 weeks a year if you receive certain benefits or your child has a disability.
- Wales: You can claim 2.5 hours of free childcare per day for five days a week up to 39 weeks a year for two-year-olds if you live in a Flying Start area. You can find out if you’re eligible by contacting your local authority.
- Scotland: You can get 1,140 hours of free childcare a year, which works out at around 30 hours of free childcare a week in term time, for two-year-olds if you receive certain benefits or the local authority has looked after your child.
- Northern Ireland: There currently is no free childcare provision for children under the age of three in Northern Ireland.
Free childcare for three- and four-year-olds
- England: You may be able to claim 15 or 30 free childcare hours a week (for 38 hours a week) if you have a three- or four-year-old child and live in England. Check your eligibility and apply online at Gov.uk.
- Wales: You can get up to 30 hours of free childcare per week for three- or four-year-olds if you live in Wales. To find out if you qualify, simply head to the Childcare Offer for Wales eligibility checker.
- Scotland: You can get 30 free hours of childcare a week (up to 1,140 hours a year) if your child is three or four years of age.
- Northern Ireland: You can claim up to 12.5 hours of free preschool education per week. You can find out if you’re eligible on the Education Authority website.
Upcoming changes to free childcare
On 15 March 2023, the government announced that access to free childcare will be extended to families in England.
From April 2024: 15 hours of free childcare per week for all working parents of two-year-olds.
From September 2024: 15 hours of free childcare per week for all children from the age of nine months up to three years.
From September 2025: 30 hours of free childcare per week for working parents of children aged between nine months and three years.
Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will receive funding as a result of the Budget, but it is up to the individual authorities to decide how they use it.
Claim Tax-Free Childcare
Tax-Free Childcare is a government scheme to help working parents in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland pay for approved childcare providers.
The government pays 20% of childcare costs up to £2,000 a year for each child. This increases to £4,000 a year if a child is disabled.
Your eligibility for the scheme will depend on your:
- employment status
- income (and your partner’s income, if you have one)
- child’s age and circumstances
- immigration status
Your child will need to be 11 years old or younger, or 16 years old or younger if your child is disabled.
You can apply for Tax-Free Childcare online and your money will be transferred into an online account which you can use to pay your approved childcare provider. You can claim Tax-Free Childcare in addition to 30 hours of free childcare if you’re eligible for both.
Use Childcare Vouchers
Although the scheme closed to new applicants on 4 October 2018, you can continue claiming childcare vouchers if you’re already registered and your employer continues to offer them.
Childcare Vouchers allow working parents to use their pre-tax salary to pay for childcare for children under 16 years of age (or 17 if they are disabled).
The scheme uses salary sacrifice, which allows workers to trade part of their salary for this benefit and lower their National Insurance contributions.
You can use up to £55 a week of your pre-tax wages depending on your salary when you joined the scheme.
Childcare Vouchers don’t have to be used straight away. This means that you can save them up for school holidays, such as a half-term or summer break.
It’s worth noting that you can’t claim Childcare Vouchers if you receive Tax-Free Childcare. And you’ll need to let your employer know if you decide to switch to Tax-Free Childcare so that it can stop sending you new vouchers.
Working Tax Credit and childcare support
You may be eligible for help with childcare costs if you qualify for Working Tax Credit.
The amount you’ll be able to get will depend on how many children are under your care. You can claim up to 70% of what you pay for childcare up to:
- £175 per week for one child
- £300 per week for two or more children
You can also claim the childcare element of Working Tax Credit if you only use childcare for short periods of time – for example, over the summer holidays or if you need to arrange emergency childcare for a day or two.
You won’t be able to use the childcare element of Working Tax Credit for the following:
- any childcare costs already covered by childcare vouchers.
- free childcare hours provided by your local authority.
- payments from the government to cover childcare costs if you’re a student or have just started working.
The government began to phase out the tax credit system in 2012 to make way for a single benefit payment called Universal Credit. And, most tax credits have now been replaced by Universal Credit.
This means you won’t be able to make a new claim for Working Tax Credit. Instead, you may be eligible to apply for support through Universal Credit.
Universal Credit childcare support
Working families who qualify for Universal Credit, may be able to claim help with the cost of childcare for children under the age of 17.
There are strict eligibility criteria for government support such as Universal Credit, and you can find out if you qualify on Gov.uk. If you would prefer to speak to someone directly, you can call the Department for Education’s helpline on 0370 000 2288.
If you qualify for Universal Credit, the government covers up to 85% of your childcare costs and you could claim up to:
- £646.35 per month for one child
- £1,108.04 per month for two or more children
Help with childcare costs through Universal Credit is currently paid to you in arrears. This means that you’ll only receive a payment after you have paid your childcare provider.
Upcoming Universal Credit childcare support changes
As announced in the 2023 Spring Budget, this support will begin to be paid to families upfront later this year.
The government also announced plans to lift the cap on how much families can claim to:
- £951 per month for one child
- £1,630 per month for two or more children
The exact date for when these changes will come into effect has not yet been confirmed.
Claim Child Benefit payments
Child Benefit can help with childcare costs if you’re eligible for the payments.
You can get Child Benefit if you’re responsible for bringing up a child under 16 or under 20 (if they stay in approved education or training).
Child Benefit is paid every four weeks, and there is no limit on the number of children you can claim for. There are two Child Benefit Rates and the table below shows how much you can claim.
|Who the allowance is for
|Eldest or only child
|£14.45 per child
Only one person can claim Child Benefit for a child, so you’ll need to decide which person is best suited to claim.
Whoever claims Child Benefit will also get National Insurance credits. These will count towards their State Pension if they earn less than £242 a week or are not working.
If you or your partner’s individual income is over £50,000 you may be taxed on your Child Benefit payments. This is called a High Income Child Benefit Tax Charge, which is paid back through a self-assessment tax return. Parents earning over £60,000 can’t claim the benefit payment.
You can find out if you need to pay tax using the Child Benefit tax calculator.
Get help while you study
You may be able to get help with childcare costs while you study, depending on where you live.
If you’re studying in Scotland, you can find financial support available on the Student Awards Agency website. Funds available for students in Northern Ireland and how to apply are available on NI Direct.
Consider flexible working options
Flexible working is when you can adjust the way you work to suit your needs. It can include any of the following changes:
- changing your start and finish times
- reducing your hours or working part-time
- working from home
- sharing the job with another person
Some employers offer a flexible working policy, so you may just need to speak to your manager and ask to rearrange your hours.
All employees in England, Wales and Scotland have the right to request flexible working if they have been with the same employer for at least 26 weeks.
So even if your employer doesn’t have a policy in place, you can make a ‘statutory application’ by sending them a letter explaining why you would like to change your working pattern.
Northern Ireland has different rules around flexible working, and you can find out more on the NI Direct website.
It’s worth noting that reducing your working hours may reduce your workplace pension contributions (if you’re enrolled in one). So it’s important to weigh the savings you’ll make on childcare against how much you’ll be able to save for retirement.
Check your local area
Your local authority website should have a list of childcare providers in the area that may be free or cheaper childcare alternatives. These include services such as breakfast clubs, after-school clubs and play schemes that run over the holidays.
It’s also worth checking organisations such as the YMCA and local church groups to see if they offer childcare services.
Reach out to family and friends
Asking trusted family or friends to help out with childcare, where possible, can help you save money. It will also give your children the chance to spend valuable time with their relatives or family friends.
Unretired grandparents who can offer childcare support to children under the age of 12 may qualify for National Insurance credits. This can help them build up qualifying years to get the State Pension.
Share the care costs
You can save on childcare costs by grouping up with other parents to share a nanny or childminder. Websites such as Childcare.co.uk (across the UK) and Koru Kids (cities and some counties in England plus Edinburgh) can help you find a suitable childcare provider in your local area.
Find cheap and free ways to keep the kids entertained
There are lots of cheap and free activities to keep your children entertained over the school holidays, which can help you save money on childcare costs.
For example, organisations such as Activate Camps and Super Camps offer a wide range of activities, including residential stays in England. It’s also worth checking whether you can use your childcare vouchers to help cover the cost or get a discount if you book early or register more than one child.
Image source: Getty Images
Dive even deeper
The government’s Childcare Choices scheme is expanding, so more families stand to benefit from 15 or 30 hours funded childcare. But accessing what you’re entitled to isn’t always straightforward. We explain how to claim what you’re eligible for.
National Insurance contributions for employees are being cut from 6 January 2024, while cuts to National Insurance rates for self-employed workers will follow in April. Find out how this applies to you, and what difference it could make to your take-home pay.