If you pay for childcare, using special vouchers saves many parents £1,000s a year in tax. If you're not taking advantage, check them out as a matter of urgency.
They're a special Government scheme operated through employers that allow you to pay for childcare from PRE-TAX salary. It mightn't sound big, but the impact can be huge.
How childcare vouchers work
Childcare vouchers can save many parents with kids aged up to 15 over £1,000 a year on childcare. Frustratingly, it's only available via employers, but many large and small companies take part.
The key is they enable you to pay for childcare out of your PRE-TAX and National Insurance income. While this doesn’t sound much, the benefit is huge.
It works by 'salary sacrifice'
A few very generous employers will simply give you the vouchers on top of your normal salary, but most will ask you to do what's called a 'salary sacrifice', which, if you're on basic rate tax, works something like this.
For more accurate savings figures, look at the childcare voucher calculators on Computershare Voucher Services or KiddiVouchers. Yet always check first if you're eligible for tax credits - see the tax credit warning for more info.
Of course, once you no longer need to pay for childcare, you should make sure you get your full salary back. We've never heard of this being a problem, but it's always worth checking.
How many vouchers can you buy?
Basic rate taxpayers can pay for up to £243 of childcare with vouchers each month (£55/week). This is PER PARENT, so two working parents could get £486 of vouchers each month. (This also applies to higher/top rate payers who joined before 5 April 2011, as long as they don't take a break from the childcare voucher scheme of more than 12 months.)
On 6 Apr 2011, new joiners paying higher or top rate tax had their allowance cut so all taxpayers have roughly the same maximum tax gain. The limits from April 2013 are:
Basic (20%) taxpayer: £55/week voucher, max annual gain £930.
Higher (40%) taxpayer: £28/week voucher, max annual gain £630.
Top rate (45%) taxpayer: £25/week voucher, max annual gain £590.
The number of children you have doesn't affect this, so the limits are the same whether you've one child or an entire Brady Bunch.
Vouchers tend to last for a long time, so if you know you're going to have higher childcare costs during the holidays, collect vouchers in advance.
Also many providers will let you backdate vouchers up to six months, although your child must be born for you to be able to sign up. Check your individual provider's procedures first.
What's the new tax-free childcare scheme?
In March 2013 the Government announced a new tax-free childcare scheme will replace the existing voucher scheme. It's due to start in late 2015, after the next general election.
Under the proposed initiative, eligible families will get 20% of their yearly childcare costs paid for by the Government. This could mean payments of up to £1,200 per child (the scheme assumes a maximum of £6,000/yr childcare costs per child).
See the MSE News story New childcare cost help – winners and losers for full details.
What counts as childcare?
The vouchers cover childcare up to 1 September after your child's 15th birthday (their 16th birthday if they are disabled).
The provider must be regulated
They're usable by any nursery, playgroup, nanny, childminder or au pair who is registered and regulated - most are.
Surprisingly, you can also use childcare vouchers for tuition for your child - as the tutor is providing 'childcare' at the same time as the tuition. However, the tutor/institution must be regulated and accept vouchers, so check first.
The easiest way is to simply ask them, but you can also do a wider search by asking your local authority’s children’s services department.
Or search for your nearest Family Information Service on the Daycare Trust website, which should be able to tell you about what's available in your area.
Plus you can check on these official websites:
In England. Go to the Ofsted website or call 0300 123 1231
In Wales. Check the Care and Social Services Inspectorate website
In Scotland. Go to the Care Inspectorate website or call 0845 600 9527
In Northern Ireland. Check the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety website or call 028 9052 0500
Those whose relatives look after a child in the child's own home won't be eligible to receive the vouchers. Yet vouchers can be claimed for carers that are registered childminders looking after a child in their own home.
Further help with childcare costs
There are other schemes in place to help with childcare costs, including tax credits, holiday provision, and at least 15 hours' free childcare each week (to be spread over at least three days) for all three and four-year-olds before they reach school starting age (term-time only). Read the Childcare Costs guide for more info.
Where to get vouchers from?
Any parent, or those with parental responsibility for a child living with them, is eligible for the vouchers. Yet sadly, to get them, your employer must run a scheme. Follow these steps:
Ask your employer if it runs a childcare voucher scheme.
Check with your human resources or personnel department to see if yours does. Most big employers, includng Lloyds, Barclays and Sony, offer the schemes. Many NHS trusts and Ministry of Defence departments do too while teachers can also use the scheme.
If you're a sole trader, you're not eligible as you're not classed as an employer.
What if your employer doesn't offer a scheme?
Providing childcare vouchers shouldn't cost your employer any money. In fact, as they don't pay national insurance on the vouchers, it actually makes them serious profit - £100s per employee! So try to persuade them. You could chat to other parents and go as a group to request the facility, even printing out this guide to show them.
Firms can offer voucher schemes in one of two ways, either by operating the scheme themselves or by using one of the many voucher companies to do all the admin for them. The fee for this should be less than the firm gains in national insurance, so they'll still profit.
Can my childless friend get vouchers for me through his work scheme?
You can only get childcare vouchers if you've parental responsibility for a child (you either need to be a parent or guardian). You'll sign a declaration you understand this when you apply for the childcare vouchers scheme.
So you're not allowed to get your childless friend to enter his employer's scheme and buy the vouchers off him. It breaches the voucher scheme's terms and conditions, and HMRC regards it as potential tax evasion.
Warning! Vouchers can cost you
While many people can save by using vouchers, there's one little and one big warning.
Technically you earn less...
If you need to sacrifice some of your salary to get vouchers, this can have an impact on other elements of your finances that depend on how much you earn - such as pension contributions, maternity pay and more.
This is only likely to be a minor issue for most and easily overcome by the gain from vouchers, but it's worth being aware of.
The impact on childcare tax credits...
Though the name’s confusing, tax credits are simply a type of benefit you get put into your bank account.
Yet it can be a massive amount of cash. The average payout is about £60 a week - over £3,000 a year, so this isn’t small potatoes (see Childcare Tax Credits guide for whether you're eligible).
But for a number of people with kids (depending on how many) getting childcare vouchers reduces your eligibility for tax credits, potentially leaving you out of pocket.
This is because the amount of tax credit you get depends on how much you pay IN CASH (ie, not vouchers) for childcare. Here’s a simplified example...
The Joneses are entitled to 70% of their childcare costs in tax credits.
Pay £100 in cash a week - they get £70 of tax credits.
Pay £50 in cash and £50 in vouchers (which they had to buy) and they’re only entitled to 70% of £50 paid in cash, which is £35 of tax credits.
This means using childcare vouchers can hit your tax credits, which means some people are better off not getting vouchers at all.
Should you go for childcare vouchers or not?
If you're eligible for tax credits for childcare (see the Childcare Tax Credit guide if you're not sure) then you're likely to be better off sticking with ONLY tax credits and not getting vouchers.
There are a few circumstances in which you could still gain getting vouchers. For example, if your childcare costs are above £175 a week for one child or £300 for two or more children.
If you can't claim tax credits, then you'll ALWAYS be better off using vouchers to pay for childcare.
Use the special childcare voucher calculator. There's a special calculator on the HM Revenue & Customs site which will calculate if you're better or worse off taking the vouchers.