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In today's economy, we're all looking for ways to trim our budgets and save a little money. But it’s never easy to cut back when it comes to care for your children or your pets—no one wants to compromise on quality of care even if it means saving money. There's good news, though. You can trim the budget and keep your little ones safe and happy at the same time.
Many families have turned to babysitter co-ops as a way to save. A sitter co-op is a group of parents who take turns watching each other's kids for free. Instead of paying a babysitter, participants earn points by watching another family's kids and then cash in those points when they need a sitter. Pet sitting co-ops work the same way—if you're planning vacations, just trade off weekends with another pet owner.
Not only are sitting co-ops major money-savers, they're also great ways to set up regular playdates for your kids or find other pals for your pets. They give parents and pet owners peace of mind—you know your little ones are in good hands when another mom or animal lover is the one watching them.
Here are a few tips for finding, choosing, or starting a care swap or co-op in your neighborhood:
What are care co-ops?
Child care co-ops can comprise as few as three families or as many as 30, but most co-ops have about 10 households participating on average. That way, the kids get used to playing together and all the parents get to know each other. If a co-op is too small, you may have trouble finding a sitter when you need one, and if it's too large, you lose the feeling of community.
For the pet co-ops, it's easier to just keep things small—you don't want to get stuck watching more than three or four pets at a time. Since you're probably looking for pet sitting relief less frequently, you only need to find two or three other pet owners who want to trade off on pet sitting, walks, or visits. If you're starting a dog sitting co-op, just make sure all the pooches get along at the park beforehand!
How do you "pay" for sitting in a co-op?
Some large co-ops use a designated secretary to keep track of a point system. Other co-ops use an honor system, where each parent keeps track of their own points. Many of these groups use point cards or fake currency to keep track—you'll "pay" the sitter at the end of the day with co-op points.
If you're setting up your own one-on-one care swap, it's important to set up an "exchange currency" before you start sharing care. That way, you know what you’re getting into from the beginning and exchanging care doesn’t become a one-sided chore. A successful exchange has to be beneficial for both sides—that's the whole point of sharing, right?
What are the rules in a care co-op?
When exchanging child care or pet care, all parents and pet owners should draw up a list of rules. It can be informal, but it's important to have the discussion in advance to avoid conflict. In addition to establishing a point system, the care exchange also needs to adopt an acceptance policy. Will you add new families? How? Will the co-op be open or closed to new members? Parents should also agree on basic sitter policies, including plans for discipline, and have shared, up-to-date emergency contacts for everyone involved.
How do I find a care co-op?
It sounds simple, but make sure you ask your family, friends, and neighbors first—you might know someone who wants to exchange child or pet care and not even know it! If that fails, social networking sites can be great ways to find like-minded parents and pet owners. Also, my company, Care.com, recently set up a service called Care Exchange as a way for members to meet each other and find one-on-one babysitter and pet sitting co-ops. Care swaps and co-ops are again growing in popularity and are a sign of the times, but are also a great way to save money while building your local community.