Why hire a babysitter when you can get child care for free?
That's Christine Shakespeare's logic. After landing tickets to the Flight of the Conchords Vancouver show a few weeks ago, the Coquitlam, B.C., mother of two dropped her kids off for the evening at her sister-in-law's, with one string attached: She has to return the favour.
Feeling a little strain on their purse strings, the two women have struck up a formal child-care swapping deal: Instead of paying for care, they'll be each other's cash-free babysitters.
Ms. Shakespeare takes five-year-old Diego and 16-month-old Nico to her sister-in-law's for sleepovers and play dates. In exchange, Ms. Shakespeare, 35, picks up her sister-in-law's kids, aged 10 and 7, from school and takes them to piano lessons or art classes.
"It was kind of a money-saving thing for us, something we decided together just so we didn't have to pay for babysitting," she says.
It also spares them the hassles of finding reliable teenage sitters. The upshot: freedom from frantic cellphone calls during dinner, or having to drive a babysitter home at the end of the night.
Babysitter pooling, co-ops and child-care swaps are gaining momentum as the recession spurs parents to seek child care on the cheap. They've posted pleas on sites such as Craigslist and Kijiji, struck up arrangements with family and friends, and flooded sites like Babysitterexchange.com.
This is no surprise, says Erica Ehm founder and publisher of Yummymummyclub.ca. The downturn has forced parents to think creatively about cutting costs, she says. "[Parents are]being especially cautious on how they spend their money. They're networking with their friends and finding out what they're doing and then perhaps they're sharing in the experience."
She's seen an increase in nanny-sharing at her child's local school. And mommy groups such as hers have made way for babysitter co-ops, in which parents share babysitting duties on a token system - pay a token to get a sitter, get a token when you sit. Not a dime changes hands.
As a newcomer to the No Name Babysitting Co-op in Toronto's Leaside neighbourhood, Kennis Kim40, says she's saved $50 a week on babysitters in May alone. That's a huge saving for a mother of four, she says. "If we didn't have a co-op, we probably wouldn't be using a babysitter," she says. "Some of the [teenage babysitters]these days are asking for $10 an hour."
Made up of 15 neighbourhood moms, the No Name Babysitting Co-op meets once every six weeks during the school year at members' homes, calendars in tow, says Sharon Krieger, who says she has saved $40 to $60 a month by being part of the co-op.
"Sometimes the kids even request certain families because they enjoy having play dates or [have]friends of the same age. And sometimes little subgroups form because the kids get to know each other and their moms."
After the recession squeezed her family's entertainment budget, Toronto mom Racheal McCaig says she saves on sitters by inviting couples and their kids over for an evening in. They don't just save cash on child care, but also on fancy meals and alcohol.
"The couples we enjoy, if we were going to go out to a restaurant and have a bottle of wine [with them] we can have that same bottle of wine at home for half the price," she says. And if they want a night out on their own, the couples will arrange play-date sleepovers.
It also puts her at ease to leave her children, three-year-old Fergus and six-year-old Molly, with other parents she knows and likes. Plus, she says, the teenage babysitters in her area don't come cheap. She guesses she's saving several hundred dollars a month.
"Child care is such an important thing, but it's also very, very expensive. Trying to balance in this kind of economy is tough because you want to make sure you're getting the best for your children," she says.
News of babysitter pools and exchanges often spreads by word of mouth in the school yard, at playgroups or between friends. Online parenting communities have proven indispensable to parents hunting for child-care swaps. Websites like Babysitterexchange.com, a searchable directory for local babysitter co-ops in the United States and Canada, have also helped many parents find affordable care.
But money-free child care isn't all sunshine and rainbows.
Anna Cooper, who has been swapping child-care services with neighbours in her East Vancouver community since her nine-year-old son was 2, says reliability sometimes becomes an issue since there's no financial transaction.
"People don't want to commit because commitment feels like work," she says. Lack of communication can be a problem too. If she paid the babysitter, there'd be more accountability, she says, "and you won't let your emotions get in."
While child-care swaps look appealing, some parents are having trouble finding others in equal need.
Suzanne Ratcliffe, a mother of three in St. Albert, Alta. posted an ad on Kijiji two weeks ago. "I got two moms that responded, one that was a little further out for me," she says. "She had five kids under 5 and no vehicle. So I'm not sure that would've worked."
A part-time nurse, Ms. Ratcliffe sometimes finds herself staying up 24 hours early in the week to take care of the kids while her husband is at work. Doing a child-care swap would give her time to run errands and get some sleep, and the cash savings wouldn't hurt.
"It would be nice to not always have to pay $10 an hour."
Rules for the No Name Baby Sitting Co-op, a collaborative group based on a token system (sitters are paid one token per child per hour):
Each new member will receive 15 hours worth of tokens - 10 white ones worth an hour each and 10 red or blue ones worth half an hour. Any member who loses the tokens will not receive new ones; he or she must make them up by babysitting.
Parents must leave emergency numbers with the sitter - one for where they can be reached and another for a friend or relative.
Both parties should agree upon an approximate time of return. Five minutes grace are allowed - anything over will be rounded up to the next half-hour.
If you cancel the sitter at the last minute, you must give them a token for one hour. If the sitter needs to cancel at the last minute, they must find a replacement.
The co-op meetings, held every six to eight weeks, are to be attended by all members. Missing two consecutive meetings without good reason will result in review of membership.