How to Save on Babysitting Without Ending Up on the Local News


A recent survey by online childcare matchmaker found that the average parent pays $14 per hour in my area — San Francisco — for care for just one child.

My husband and I have three children.

Combine these two facts and you might be able to guess that we haven't been out on a date in months. (See also: From $5 to $30+, Date Ideas for Every Budget)

When we do pay for childcare, we don't turn to a website to hire a sitter, because, as UrbanSitter pointed out in its own survey, it's too expensive. We're cheapskates. Still, childcare is not one of those things where I can just try the cheapest thing I can think of. I can't go down to the local day labor lineup and pick up a sitter or give my 8-year-old the password to the Netflix account and hope for the best. If I don't want to end up on the news — and staying off the news is my minimum goal for each parenting day — I need to get quality childcare for my meager funds.

These are some ways I've managed to do that.

Parent Co-Ops

Whether it's a highly organized network with a thick rulebook and mandatory fingerprinting or a loose understanding among the parents on your block, a parent co-op can be a lifesaver to financially pressured moms and dads.

In a co-op, you babysit for other families' kids to accrue points that you use to pay other parents to watch your kids. We have belonged to three co-ops: one spread over the entire North Side of Chicago, one that involved only four families who could practically shout to one another from our front porches, and one of intermediate size. I've used the services of other parents in order to get work done, to get to appointments, and yes, for date nights.

A few years ago I wrote about how to start a babysitting co-op on Parenting Squad. Even if you don't belong to a formal parent co-op, trading off play dates with the families of your children's friends can be great, too.

Pros: You know other parents are experienced at taking care of kids. It's free.

Cons: If you're busy, it might be hard to find time to babysit other peoples' kids. Many co-ops don't do background checks, and you may not know all the families.

Nanny Sharing

When you have only one child, it's kind of a waste to hire a babysitter to come to your home just to watch over him or her. Most caregivers are perfectly capable of taking care of several kids at a time.

Ask around or check with local parent groups to find families willing to share a nanny. I use a nanny share once a week for my preschooler, so I can get a few extra hours of work in while the older kids are at school.

Pros: Hourly rate is usually at least 30% less than hiring a babysitter on your own. Your kid will probably have more fun with playmates around. If the other families have already found a great nanny, you're spared the vetting process.

Cons: Less flexibility due to other families' needs. More administration needed to coordinate schedules. If the other child or children get sick or drop out you may end up paying the sitter's whole fee on your own.

The Gym Childcare

This sounds cheesy, but I have joined gyms before almost entirely because membership included two hours of childcare per day. Plans vary, of course, but if you are a stay-at-home parent who needs a daily break, or a part-time entrepreneur who needs an hour each day to answer emails, the amount of care you can get with a gym membership may really work for you. You might even find time to work out once in awhile, too.

Pros: Some are quite affordable since they are supplemented by dues from all those members who never show up at the gym. It's flexible.

Cons: Quality varies widely. You might catch a few glares from other parents if the childcare is busy and they notice you spent your whole visit using your laptop.

Parks and Rec

Many cities offer low-cost classes, playgroups, and even preschools for small children through their parks departments. Some early childhood programs require the parents to stay, but others don't. You may not actually care if your little one learns gymnastics or painting — but for $5-$10 per hour, they are out of your hair for awhile and not watching TV. Really awesome park systems offer such classes on school holidays to help working parents out of the childcare-gap pinch.

Pros: Affordable and often nearby.

Cons: Some cities will have waiting lists. Quality varies.

"Mother's Helpers"

I started babysitting at age 11, but nowadays most parents don't consider it safe or responsible to leave such a young child in charge. Which is too bad, because 11- and 12-year-olds have really great rates.

Luckily, I work from home, so I am sometimes able hire an under-aged "mother's helper" in the neighborhood to play with my kids and keep them from bursting into my office while I conduct a phone interview. Many kids this age are anxious to get started babysitting and can be a real help.

Pros: Cheap. Small kids love playing with older kids. You can train a neighborhood kid for several years until he or she is old enough to become a real babysitter.

Cons: Kids this young may have trouble enforcing rules with smaller children. They tend to let the kids make a big mess. Between school, sports, and activities, many 'tweens are available for limited hours.

Grandma and Grandpa

I so envy those families whose retired parents care for their kids full time. That has never been the case for us, but we still engage the ultimate free babysitters every chance we get.

No, Grandma and Grandpa don't do things our way, and they don't follow instructions to the letter the way a paid sitter might, but they love our kids, and that is so important that I am willing to overlook even the fact that the kids ate nothing but hot dogs and chocolate eclaires all weekend. Getting the grandparents to babysit has involved hours of car and even air travel for us, but it's always worth it.

Pros: Free (for most people). Family love, precious memories for the kids.

Cons: They don't do things your way. Travel may be involved.

No-Childcare Alternatives

The other way I've saved on childcare over the years is simply by avoiding using any. No, I'm not talking about leaving the kids alone — remember, the goal here is to stay off the nightly news. Instead, I'm talking about optimizing time, making schedules that work, and prioritizing what really needs to get done.

Split the Shift

You get home from work, kiss your spouse, and he heads out the door for the evening shift. It's not easy on a marriage, but millions of families make it work. Both my mother and my husband's mother are nurses, and this is how things worked when we were little. On the upside, with this arrangement, both parents get experience parenting independently, which can be really good for their relationship with the kids.

Bring the Kids

Most jobs nowadays don't allow for kids in tow, although a few do — babysitter, newspaper deliverer, for example. But you can try to bring kids on errands when possible to minimize needed childcare time. It's much harder to grocery shop or go to doctors' appointments or exercise with kids along, but it is actually good for the kids to learn to behave in these situations, and it allows you to get more done in the day.

A Little TV Won't Kill Them

I'm not a big fan of screen time for the kids, but I view it as the parenting equivalent of your emergency savings account. You shouldn't use it every day because you want to save it for when you really need it. So yes, when I have a deadline and I'm not done working by the time they get home from school, there might be an after-school video session now and then.

If you're too good a parent to let the TV (or iPad) be your babysitter, then make a busy box or busy bag — a stash of self-service activities to keep the kids quietly occupied when you're too busy to entertain them.

Obviously, use your parental judgment to determine how much supervision your children need while distracted by such activities.

Outsource It or Do It From Home

If you are hiring a sitter so you can do something other than work — shop, clean house, do yardwork, walk the dog — ask yourself if the task is really worth the babysitting costs. After all, in many places you can order groceries online for a small fee, so even if you don't want to take the kids to the store, there is still a cheaper way. Or, check out TaskRabbit to see if you can hire someone to run your errand for less than the cost of a sitter.

You can't outsource your date night, of course, but there are ways to have a fun night in after the littles are tucked in their beds. At our house, setting aside an evening to watch a movie, accompanied by a special snack and cocktail, has replaced a lot of expensive nights out. And if you have friends with kids, combining a get-together for the parents with a sleep-over for the kids can be fun for all.

How have you saved on childcare while keeping out of sight of the news choppers?

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Guest's picture

My parents and my wife's parents are both local. They're both willing and happy to take the kids when we need to go somewhere without them, so we have yet to pay babysitting costs. Which is totally awesome, I must say :)

Carrie Kirby's picture

Lucky you!

Guest's picture

I love the babysitting co-op! I belonged to a mom's group, where we tried to start one, but one woman wanted to use it, and not watch anyone else's kids. It could have been great, since we (for the most part) had similar parenting styles, but it didn't work out.

I have recently met a mom whose oldest is the same age as my youngest. My oldest loves her youngest, so all 4 of them are actually very easy to watch. We swap all the time, keep a very informal watch over hours, and since we both have similar parenting styles, neither of us worry about our kids when they are with the other mom. We would happily add another mom or two into the group, but are very happy to keep it small, too.

The mother's helper is also a great idea, especially in the summer. We are moving, and when it comes time to pack up the house, I will be hiring the girl down the street to come play with my girls while I pack like a madwoman.

Thanks for some great ideas!

Guest's picture

A less drastic situation than working two separate shifts is to try and stagger your shifts. When my kids were little and in an in-home daycare (another great cost saver, basically more organized nanny share). I would leave for work at 8. My husband would drop the kids off around 9. I would pick up the kids at 5. My husband came home at 6. That way we weren't paying for childcare during our commute times. Saving 2 hours a day/3 days a week (I worked part time) was a big help.

Guest's picture

We're definitely employing several of these options since I work from home (4 hours a week). We have the grandparents one day per week and are hoping to do Daddy's (not Mommy's) helper in some afternoons, especially in the summer when the older kids in the neighborhood are out on break.

Guest's picture

Grandma is helping out right now, but we will need some help once she goes home. Parent co-op or preschool co-op sound great. I need to find one that's close by.
Baby sitting would be ok too, but not too many babysitter around here.

Guest's picture

Lovely article! I'm putting together a childcare guide for my parenting site and most of these suggestions are included... along with a few more (I'm also featuring alternatives and not just low-budget options). I've had so many issues with childcare over the years and have tried pretty much all of the above, apart from joining a gym hehe.

I've relied on the babysitting/playdate trade-off many times but can't imagine how a co-op would work consistently for parents having larger numbers of kids to care for. My friends with one child sometimes shy away from looking after my 2, and I know that I'd think twice about taking on some of my friends' 4 kids at once!

One idea to consider over a longer period is a temporary au pair who could live-in for say 3 months over summer and help out with the kids at a fraction of nanny or regular babysitting costs!

Guest's picture

I created an app — uSit iSit Babysitting Co-op Swap — to automate all the administrative headaches of a babysitting co-op: scheduling, points tracking, communications.

And, it ensures that you exchange sitting ONLY with trusted friends; never a stranger.

Plus, it's free.

Guest's picture

I created an app, uSit iSit Babysitting Co-op Swap, that automates all the administrative headaches of a co-op — scheduling, points tracking, communications — while you're on the go.

And, it also ensures that you swap ONLY with trusted friends, never the possibility of a stranger. Plus, it's free.