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11 Ways to Save on Babysitting & Child Care Costs

As much as we may love our kids and can’t imagine anyone taking care of them better than we can, there comes a time for all parents when it’s necessary to enlist the help of others with child care.

Whether it’s for a coveted date night out, running errands, or even just a few precious moments of “me time,” calling in a babysitter is something nearly every parent faces. In fact, according to UrbanSitter’s 2018 survey, 71% of parents use a babysitter at least once a month.

As normal as the need for an extra hand with child care may be, it can also be one of childhood’s top expenses.

What Babysitting Costs

UrbanSitter surveyed more than 20,000 families around the country for its annual survey, which found that the average cost of babysitting as of 2018 was $16.43 per hour for one child. The most common reason parents cited for hiring a babysitter was for date night coverage. Assuming the average date night runs about four hours, hiring a babysitter could set a parent back $65 for one night out.

That $65, however, doesn’t include the extras many parents throw in; 55% of parents surveyed tip their babysitter, and 83% offer perks like on-demand movies, food delivery, and even museum and amusement park passes.

Costs also rise with the number of children. Rates go up to $18.86 per hour for two kids ($75 for one date night) and $20.56 per hour for three ($82 for one date night).

Nor does this amount count the cost of an actual date itself. The survey found that the top three most common date night activities were going to dinner, taking in a concert or show, and seeing a movie. Assuming a date night includes both dinner ($50) and a movie ($25), it could easily end up costing parents $140. That’s enough to make most parents want to stay home.

Date night isn’t the only reason parents hire sitters, though. Parents also hire extra help for reasons such as running errands or going to appointments, covering before- and after-school care, and even just to have a few moments of hard-won “me time.”

And sometimes the reasons themselves can alter the cost. Parents often pay more for sitters who come before or after school – as much as $2 per hour extra. And many parents would pay more for a babysitter who had safety training, an early education degree, or a child care certification.

The cost of babysitting can also vary by location, with San Francisco coming in as the most expensive city to hire a babysitter at $17.43 per hour for one child and Phoenix the cheapest at $11.83 per hour. To find the exact rate for your area, you can use the rate calculator at Care.com.

Why We Need the Extra Help

Babysitting is expensive, and many parents struggle to afford it, choosing instead to forgo date nights and much-needed alone time. And while it may seem like these are minor casualties to help the family budget, they may be more significant than you think.

When spouses prioritize their marriage through regular date nights, research by the Marriage Foundation shows, they are significantly less prone to divorce. The National Marriage Project’s “Date Night Opportunity” report also shows that stress is a leading threat to marriage stability, as it can make people irritable, withdrawn, and even violent.

Marriage aside, research by Happify shows that in order to be more resilient in response to the constant demands of parenthood – more present, happy, and patient with our children – we need some time spent in solitude.

That’s easier said than done. A 2018 survey by meal delivery service Munchery found that parents on average get only 32 minutes of “me time” a day. Finding a way to sneak out for a spa day once in a blue moon, which UrbanSitter found is the “me time” activity parents want most, might help at least a little.

Ways to Save on the Cost of Babysitting

The cost of babysitting is what it is, and paying for a good sitter is well worth it – so worth it that many parents are willing to pay extra for caretakers with child care and safety certifications. After all, we’re talking about trusting someone else with our children for a few hours.

So, while we never want to jeopardize the safety and welfare of our kids, for busy and cash-strapped parents, there are some alternatives to paying for traditional babysitting that can help ease the financial burden without sacrificing the quality of care.

1. Enlist a Family Member to Babysit

Babysitting Aunt Painting Sun Laughing

If you live near family, asking them to watch the kids every once in a while is one of the best possible solutions to the babysitting dilemma. Your kids get to interact with people they already know and love, and so does your family. And even if your dad or mother-in-law takes care of your kids in a way you wouldn’t, family comes with the added level of trust when it comes to the welfare of your child.

What stops many parents from asking relatives to babysit, though, is the fear of being a burden. After all, Grandma or Grandpa is volunteering their time for free. I used to feel this way myself, as we live near my dad and he is our go-to babysitter for date nights. One weekend, out of guilt, I made other arrangements, and when I told Dad, he was seriously bummed. He’d been looking forward to spending time with his grandson.

So don’t let the fear of being a burden to your family make you hesitate to use their help. Chances are, especially if it’s Grandma or Grandpa, your family might actually welcome the opportunity to visit. As long as you’re not abusing the privilege, there’s no need to feel guilty.

2. Split the Cost With a Friend

Babysitter With Four Children Multiple Kids

If you’re double-dating or even separate dating on the same night, see if you can split the cost with a friend by hiring one babysitter to watch both sets of kids. UrbanSitter’s study shows that even though sitters may charge more for more kids, the price is only slightly higher; for instance, watching two kids costs more than watching one, but it doesn’t cost double.

For example, if you decided to hire a sitter for your one child and your friends decided to hire a different sitter for their two children, you would end up paying $65 and $75 respectively, for a total of $140 for four hours of babysitting. But if your sitter agreed to watch all three kids for the average hourly wage of $20.56, the total would come to approximately $82. Split with your friend, the final bill would be slightly over $27 for your one child and just over $54 for their two, a significant difference from the cost of hiring two babysitters.

Be sure to clear it with your babysitter, of course, and be careful not to overload them with too many children. Even if they agree to more, three or four is probably all a single babysitter is realistically able to manage, especially if they’re younger children.

3. Swap Babysitting With a Friend

Play Date Friends Mother Babysitting

If you have a trusted friend who also has kids around the same age as yours, consider swapping babysitting services. For example, this week, you take their kids, and next week, they take yours. You both get the benefit of going on a regular date, and you get a babysitter for free. Plus, your kids get their very own regular play dates with kids they probably already know well. It’s a win-win-win.

4. Start a Babysitting Co-Op

Kids Playing Indoors Balls Happy Playroom

If you have more than one friend who’s interested in swapping, you can start a babysitting co-op where you all get together and rotate. With four to five families in on the action, you can end up with three to four date nights, complete with free babysitting, in exchange for only one night of craziness with a whole bunch of kids.

Keep in mind, though, that you could potentially be dealing with eight to 10 kids or more at a time, so make sure it’s all-hands-on-deck with your spouse. That many children is more than a one-person job.

Recommended child-to-adult ratios for trained caregivers are:

  • Kids Under 2 Years Old: 3 to 4 infants or toddlers per adult
  • 2-Year-Olds: 4 to 6 kids per adult
  • 3- to 5-Year-Olds: 6 to 10 kids per adult

5. Hire a Pre-Teen

Young Babysitters Playing With Baby Art Paint Pencil

It’s difficult to pinpoint a universal age when a child is old enough to babysit younger children. Many states have no specific age requirements for babysitting, but many specify how old a child must be to be left home alone – often 12 to 13. Make sure to check with your own state for applicable laws.

The American Red Cross babysitting course requires a minimum age of 11, and I remember taking on babysitting as a first job at that age. Yet many parents are reluctant to hire a sitter so young, and probably for good reason. Maturity levels can vary widely, and many 11-year-olds aren’t likely ready for that kind of responsibility.

So, if there’s no real “correct” age, it really comes down to the individual. If you’re contemplating hiring a younger babysitter – aged 12 to 14 – take some time to consider the babysitter’s maturity level and whether or not they’ve taken any babysitting or safety courses, and then compare that against the ages of your own children and the level of care required.

You might also want to look into hiring a pre-teen you already know through your friend circle, church, work, or other organization. Having some familiarity with the pre-teen can help you better determine if they’d be a good fit.

If, after you’ve thought about all the factors, you’ve decided you feel comfortable hiring a pre-teen to babysit your kids, it could save you some money. Many pre-teens offer to work for a lower hourly rate than older sitters to land that first job and gain some experience.

Of course, you shouldn’t skimp on paying your babysitter or attempt to cheat them out of fair wages, but it would be perfectly fine to negotiate an “entry-level” pay for a first job. After your babysitter has proven themselves, built some experience, and if you like them and want to hang on to them – competition for sitters can get fierce – you might want to consider giving your sitter a raise.

6. Trade Services

Grandma Babysitting Granddaughter Knitting Teaching Learning

This one can be tricky because you don’t want to trade services with just anyone; you want to find someone you trust to watch your kids. But trading services can work especially well if you have, for example, an elderly neighbor you’re friendly with who might need help cutting their lawn and, in exchange, is perfectly happy to watch your kids for a few hours.

I have a friend whose job prevented her from getting home in time to see her son off the bus, so her neighbor, a senior woman, did that for her, as well as watching her son for an hour or two until she got home from work. In exchange, my friend helped her out with odd jobs around her house.

Just be sure, if you’re going to barter services, that you trust the caregiver, and be clear about expectations. If, for instance, they want you to do 10 hours’ worth of housework in exchange for two hours of babysitting, the trade won’t be worth it.

7. Take Advantage of School, Daycare & Organization Programs

Daycare Classroom Cubbies Crafts Toys

This is a method my husband and I have used frequently. Our son’s preschool offers monthly “Parents’ Night Outs.” For $20 – significantly less than the cost of traditional babysitting – he gets to participate in some planned games and activities, eat dinner, watch a movie, and hang out with his friends from school, all while Mom and Dad get their own night out.

He loves it, so I don’t have to feel guilty about leaving him in the school’s care. Because his preschool provides the care, I know I can trust them as they’re fully licensed and certified. And the Parent’s Night Out continues right after the school day, which means that in theory, we could have an all-day date from 7am until 10pm.

Many other preschools, daycares, churches, and community organizations host parents’ night outs. So, if you don’t already belong to a daycare or organization that hosts this kind of event, try checking newspapers, social media sites, or school or church bulletin boards. I’ve even seen some children’s class centers, such as dance or gymnastics centers, offer parents’ nights outs.

Though rates and times can vary, on average, these events are typically $20 for one child for three to four hours of babysitting, and special pricing is usually offered for more than one child, such as $35 for two.

8. Look Into Play Cafés

Play Cafes Children Toy Playdates

Play cafés are a new trend popping up in communities everywhere. They’re essentially indoor playgrounds, and though what’s actually offered for kids to play on – everything from playhouses to indoor jungle gyms to tricycles and giant foam blocks – varies from one play café to another, the general idea is to provide a safe place kids can go wild while Mom, Dad, or another responsible adult watches from afar while checking their email and sipping a latte.

Although play cafés generally require adults to stay on the premises, they often host drop-off events where, for a fee, parents can leave their kids to play for a few hours while they enjoy some adults-only time. Prices vary from one play café to another, but most I’ve seen are roughly comparable to a parents’ night out – from $20 to $35 for three hours.

9. Check Out Drop-Off Child Care Centers

Baby Boy Finger Painting Day Care Class

A drop-off child care center is like a daycare, complete with certifications and state licensing, but with flexible hours. At a typical daycare, you sign up for a specific schedule and pay monthly tuition. At a drop-off child care center, you can pay just for those few hours your child is at the center.

Drop-off child care centers are open all day if you just want to drop off your kids for a few hours while you get that deep tissue massage. Many are also open late in anticipation of parents using them specifically for date night babysitting. We have a drop-off daycare center in our metro area with branches in several suburbs. It stays open until 10pm and charges $9.50 per hour for one child.

Because drop-off child care centers are required to maintain state licensing, just like any daycare, leaving your child in their care means having the added layer of trust that licenses and certifications provide. Licensing requirements also limit the child-to-student ratio allowed. So even though it may be possible to simply drop off your kids, always call ahead to make sure there’s availability; most centers will allow you to make a reservation.

10. Try a Date Day

Couple Day Date Coffee Outdoors Cafe

According to UrbanSitter’s survey, 46% of parents date during the day, and another 28% say they would try it. If your child attends school or daycare, dating during the day means taking full advantage of the built-in child care you already have at a net cost of zero. Though you may be shelling out quite a bit for daycare or private schooling, you’ve already paid for it, and if your child is attending public school, it’s well and truly free.

My husband works a non-traditional schedule with Fridays off, and as a college instructor, though I usually maintain a full schedule of classes, I like to schedule them all in the morning, giving me afternoons and evenings off to write. That means we’re both home Friday afternoons while our son is in preschool. We’ve taken advantage of this situation many times to take in a matinée – a cheap date with no added cost for babysitting.

While our situation isn’t typical, a once-in-a-while “date day” rather than a date night might be a nice change of pace complete with “free” babysitting. Since it’s a rare, special treat, you can take advantage of your saved-up vacation time, which might be sitting around unused, anyway.

Project Time Off’s 2016 State of American Vacation report found that 55% of Americans didn’t use their vacation time, a trend that has been steadily worsening over the years. In many cases, these days can’t be rolled over, paid out, or otherwise used for any benefit; you simply lose them. So why not use your vacation days for your and your family’s benefit by taking the time to relax, unwind, have some fun, and connect with your spouse?

11. Have a Date Night In

Date Night Watching Netflix Movie

The ultimate answer to a lack of funds for a babysitter is, of course, to not go out at all. If you find yourself in this situation, it doesn’t have to mean you don’t get a date night. There are a variety of things you can do at home, unique and special activities that allow you to focus on just the two of you after you put the kids to bed.

Regular at-home date nights can be a great way for couples to focus on their relationship while saving on the cost of babysitting, with the added benefit that they don’t have to require a lot of extra energy for already-exhausted parents.

In fact, what ends up working best for your family may be striking a balance – perhaps a date night out once a month where you go all out, and the rest of the month, you stay in and relax with some Netflix.

Final Word

Managing our finances, just like managing our family time, often comes down to a balancing act that involves meeting our values and goals with the money and resources we have at our disposal to create the best possible options for ourselves and our families.

Sometimes, that will mean finding and hiring the best babysitter our money can provide. Other times, it will mean figuring out ways to get necessary child care coverage that honor our tight budgets or help us meet our financial goals while still caring for our little ones in the best ways we know how.

Do you find that babysitting has become a significant expense for your family? What are some ways you’ve found to help mitigate the costs?

Sarah Graves
Sarah Graves, Ph.D. is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance, parenting, education, and creative entrepreneurship. She's also a college instructor of English and humanities. When not busy writing or teaching her students the proper use of a semicolon, you can find her hanging out with her awesome husband and adorable son watching way too many superhero movies.

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