When Kristen Hagen’s son was 2, a friend who also had a 2-year-old asked if she’d be interested in doing a child-care co-op.
“She said that she’d keep my son for a few hours on Mondays and Wednesdays if I’d keep her daughter for a few hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” says Hagen, a west Nashville mom of three. “The benefits were immediately obvious: Time to run errands, clean house, grocery shop and everything else I had to do; and NO COST!
I jumped at the chance and wondered why more people didn’t do things like that,” she continues. From babysitting exchanges and carpools to seed swaps and cooking co-ops, the act of fair trade is making a return, and it’s building stronger ties between families and individuals in communities everywhere.
Barter is the process of trading goods or services without money changing hands. It’s a great way to save time and money, and it provides an opportunity to form new relationships with other parents, families and neighbors. “I’ve met some of my closest friends in my carpooling circle,” says La Vergne mother of two Christy Davis. “We met through soccer, and after we realized we all live pretty close, we just started carpooling. Now we’re friends as well as carpool partners,” she adds.
To get started in a barter relationship, make two lists. First, list the services or goods you can offer that others may need. Maybe you’re available at certain times to offer babysitting or after-school supervision to a few neighborhood kids. Perhaps you’re a math or science whiz and can provide tutoring.
Second, make a list of goods or services that you need that others may be able to provide. Have you been wanting to plant some perennials or bulbs around your house but don’t want to spend a fortune at the garden center? Maybe you’re happy to cook meals in bulk on weekends, but would love to have dinner for your family prepared by someone else one or two nights a week. Or perhaps you just need a way to get your daughter to her weekly piano lessons while you’re still at work.
After thinking about what you have to offer and what you want, talk with other parents and explore their needs and talents. You may find that several of you have similar needs and can work out an arrangement for getting those needs met, such as a babysitting co-op or carpool. Or you might find that someone else has something you need that they’d be willing to trade for a service you provide to them.
Setting the Guidelines
Whether you’re trading with just one person or a larger group, a few basic ground rules will bring success. As a general rule, it’s best to barter with people who share similar values, tastes, lifestyles and morals.
Once you agree to trade, discuss these specifics with your group:
- Should group size be limited to keep things manageable?
- Be clear about the terms of all trades or exchanges. Who will do what for whom? When? Where?
- Set time limits or due dates by which each party will fulfill their end of the exchange
- Discuss and agree on the relative value of what each person is bringing to the exchange so that people feel what they’ve gotten is roughly similar in value to what they’ve given
- Do you need a record-keeping system to track members’ contributions (credits) and utilization of services (debits)?
- Sometimes, even with these basic ground rules in place, you won’t get what was promised by the other party even though you’ve fulfilled your end of the bargain. Try talking it out with the other person. If you’re still unsatisfied, it’s probably time to cut that bartering tie.
Carpools – Carpooling can be as simple as saying to another parent, “I’ll drop the kids off at soccer on Thursday if you can pick them up.” However, it’s wise to make sure all parents involved in the carpool are very clear on who is covering each drop off or pick up, whose children are being transported, and from where to where. Discuss whether parents are willing to have a teen babysitter or older sibling of a child in the carpool cover any of the carpool driving duties. “I would never let my children ride with an older teen brother or sister,” admits Davis. “Not that I don’t trust them, but these are my kids – I want someone with experience on the road.” Once you have a group of carpool companions, exchange phone numbers and email addresses so everyone is in the loop of any last minute changes.
Swaps – Clothing, toy or book swaps are a terrific way to clear the closets of outgrown, gently used items and get things your child needs at a bargain price. Get a group of parents together, decide on a location, date and time, and agree on what items will be included in the swap. Depending on the preferences of swap participants, you may want to count how many items each person brings so each can take home a similar number. Rules about such counting or valuing of goods given and taken should be established in advance to avoid any conflict or misunderstandings on the day of the swap.
On the day of the swap, set up tables for various categories of items – size, gender or age group. Set aside time before the swap begins for everyone to put their items on the appropriate tables.
Babysitting Co-ops – While carpools and clothing, book or toy swaps are relatively simple to set up, babysitting co-ops can be more tricky. Since you’re entrusting others with your children, the most important thing is to be sure you only exchange babysitting services with other parents you know well, who share your values about child rearing and with whom you feel comfortable leaving your child.
Other critical decisions include the minimum and maximum number of families that will be part of the group and the process for recruiting and accepting new families into the group. Many babysitting co-ops rely on a system of sponsorships, where new members may join only if recommended by a current member. Many groups also ask for and check references for any new members.
Next, decide on rules and a process for members to get and give babysitting services. Some co-ops use a ticket system, where co-op members are given a set number of tickets per child to start with. Members spend tickets to get babysitting services from other members (typically one ticket per hour per child; half a ticket per child for a meal served during babysitting). Members earn tickets by babysitting other members’ children.
Rules might include whether members need to live within a certain area to minimize transportation issues, whether parents can transport children they’re babysitting, where sitting will occur (child’s home or sitter’s home) and how much advance notice members should give to request or cancel babysitting services.
Provide everyone with contact information for all members plus emergency information for each child. Regular meetings with all members can be used to discuss progress and address issues. Some groups also schedule regular family activities to build stronger relationships among members and introduce new members.
The Babysitter Exchange Web site (babysitterexchange.com) helps groups keep track of points issued and used by each member, and facilitates communications and scheduling.
Once you get the hang of bartering, swapping or co-oping, the possibilities are nearly endless. Here are a few more to consider:
- Magazine swap: Participants split the cost of several magazine subscriptions, then read and circulate them.
- Homeschoolers swap: Curriculum materials, books and equipment.
- Tutoring co-op: Older kids in the neighborhood can serve as reading tutors to younger ones. Or parents with specific subject expertise can tutor kids who need help in that subject.
- Cookie swap: Popular during the holidays, participants each bring several dozen of their favorite homemade cookies and an empty platter. Then each person fills their platter with a half dozen of each type of cookie, giving them a terrific assortment for the holidays.
- Cooking co-ops: Once a week, each family prepares dinner for the other families and delivers the homemade meal in ready-to-serve or ready-to-heat containers. Since it is usually just as easy to cook a particular dish in bulk as it is to prepare in smaller quantities, cooking co-ops minimize time in the kitchen for everyone. For instance, with four families in the group, each family could be assigned one weeknight, Monday through Thursday, to prepare dinner for the others. Some groups collectively purchase a set of containers for delivering meals to each family. Groups often meet monthly or every six weeks to plan schedules and menus. For how-to’s, see Homemade To Go: The Complete Guide to Co-op Cooking (Purrfect; $14.95) by Dee Sarton Bower and Mary Eileen Wells.
- Food co-ops: Enables members to get bulk pricing from grocery, produce or natural foods wholesalers. Members volunteer time on a rotating basis to handle ordering and bookkeeping, while all members work together to sort and distribute the shipments. Bulk pricing usually requires ordering each item by the case – so it’s best to band together with people with similar food preferences and needs.
- Seed/garden plant/bulb swap: In the spring or fall, participants bring seeds, bulbs, seedlings, cuttings and plants from their gardens to trade.
- Community gardens: Orchards, compost piles or recycling centers are another way neighbors can band together to provide something for everyone.
Regardless of the types of cooperative arrangements you may engage in with others, the benefits can go way beyond just saving time and money. Cooperating with others helps everyone get what they need while building strong families and strong communities. So come on, what are you waiting for? Wanna trade?
Melanie G. Snyder is a freelance writer.