Frugal Family challenge: Bartering trims child care costs

Cliff and Kara Petty learned that sometimes you can spend less — and gain much more.

USA TODAY and Good Morning America Weekend selected the Pettys of Sunrise, Fla., for the final Frugal Family Challenge, a 30-day exercise in saving money. During the past 10 months, the Challenge has helped 10 families reduce their spending on everything from energy bills to groceries by hooking them up with financial advisers.

The Pettys' challenge: cut their child care costs, which averaged about $1,000 a month for after-school care, day care and babysitting for their sons Aiden, 6, and Landon, 2.

Cliff, a firefighter, often works 24-hour shifts. Kara, interim director for Miami Gardens Parks and Recreation, works full time and sometimes has late-night meetings.

It was not unusual for the couple to hire a sitter up to three times a week to come to their house and watch their children.

The Frugal Family Challenge matched the Pettys with Sheila Marcelo, CEO of Care.com, which helps people find caretakers for children and pets. She suggested that the Pettys barter with friends and relatives for babysitting services instead of paying a private sitter, and return the favor by babysitting their children on another date.

Cliff and Kara took her advice — recruiting not only Kara's sister, Angie Gonzalez, who lives about 4 miles away, but also friends, Cliff's brother and sister, and his parents.

Now, Landon and Aiden are more likely to be found splashing around with four cousins in their aunt's pool than with a sitter. Kara says for her sons, going to her sister's house is "like a big field trip."

And she has the assurance of quality child care that she can trust.

"It worked out for all of us," Kara says.

Cliff says bartering for child care made a big difference for him. "I didn't want to be that guy who's putting their kids on people," Cliff says. There's no guilt, he says. "They were open to it because sometimes they need a break, too."

When bartering time is not an option, Marcelo suggested that the Pettys have a sitter watch more kids than just their own — and share cost with other parents. .

Over the month, the Pettys shaved about 20%, or $200, off their child care expenses. "It feels good," Cliff says, adding that they'll save the money or take a vacation.

Financial adviser Dave Moran, chairman of the Financial Planning Association of Miami-Dade, suggests they put that money toward retirement savings.

Marcelo notes that the Pettys "far exceeded their goal" of cutting their costs 10%. Next, she says, the Pettys should create a more formal way of tracking their time swaps, and, as an "insurance policy," line up substitute caregivers who have been vetted.

"It's those unplanned crises that result in high spending on child care," she says.

Kara and Cliff say they will follow up on the advice. But for now, they're thrilled they created lasting savings in a short time period.

"I couldn't be more happy; I think we balanced it right on the head," Cliff says.

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