A night out used to mean dinner, a show or sporting event, and of course, a nice glass of wine. Now that I'm a parent, date night is more likely to include my couch, Netflix and take-out. Why? I'm too cheap to hire a baby sitter.
The question of what to pay a decent sitter comes up frequently on moms' websites.
It confounds parents of all experience levels. Should you pay one rate no matter how many kids you have? What if they'll be asleep most of the time you're away? And what's the base rate for your area?
Not pretty: Tricia Seabolt, a 30-year-old mother of two in Chesterfield Township, Mich., searched online last month at Care.com and found the most common answer.
"Everyone on there wants between $10 to $20 an hour," Seabolt said. "I don't know if that's per kid, but it doesn't seem worth it."
It does, however, seem accurate. According to Care.com's rate calculator, stories from parents and insight from an expert, $10 an hour is an average rate — even for only one child.
It used to be the only way to find a sitter was through word-of-mouth. Now, with a competitive marketplace of online sites vying for parents' frazzled attention, there are more — and pricier — options.
Leslie Toth, a 39-year-old mother of two in South Lyon, Mich., said in her neighborhood, getting a word-of-mouth recommendation isn't an option.
"I found people wouldn't give us names, because if they had a good one, they'd hold onto them," Toth said. "People were basically hoarding baby-sitters."
That's why earlier this year Toth opened the Detroit area's first Seekingsitters.com franchise, which matches sitters with job requests. Parents pay a one-time fee of $39.99. Then it's either $10 for a single use or $9.99 monthly for unlimited requests.
Toth said she makes things easy on the parents by connecting them quickly with qualified, certified sitters and arranging the payment upfront. Her users pay $11.50 for one child and $12.25 an hour for two. Toth said her service offers peace of mind.
"We check their credit, their driving record, we do a criminal check, we check the sexual predator list, we check who they live with," said Toth, who said most sitters who apply do not pass her screening.
"My own personal standards for baby sitters are very high," Toth said. "I make sure my sitters are people dedicating their lives to working with kids, whether they've worked in day care, worked as a nanny, they're in school to be teacher or studying early childhood education."
Other subscription sites such as Care.com and Sittercity.com allow you to search personal ads that sitters create. Most sites show the sitter's photos, bios, rates and child care philosophy for free. But you must pay to communicate with them.
And it's somewhat overwhelming. When I searched one site for a sitter in Royal Oak, Mich., it turned up more than 8,000 options. But with a free site like Craigslist.com, you just don't know whom you'll get.
Seabolt, who works part-time as a home care occupational therapist, looked on Craigslist last month when she briefly considered moving to a full-time position. She posted an ad for a sitter and got several replies, none promising.
"One lady who replied was very persistent — almost annoyingly so," Seabolt said. "She e-mailed me in all caps, told me how much she charges. My husband and I were still talking about it, and three hours later, she wrote back saying, 'Are you still interested? I'll take wonderful care of your angel babies.' That's when I thought, 'You know, I don't know these people.' "
You can, of course, always ask a favor of someone you do know. Seabolt used a generous neighbor; I have both sets of grandparents on speed dial. Because sometimes another night on the couch just won't cut it.
Hiring a sitter
Questions to ask:
* Have you taken the Red Cross baby-sitter class, which teaches basic skills?
* Do you have CPR or first aid certification?
* Have you taken any classes in early childhood education or development?
* What are your general discipline and child care philosophies?
* What is included in the rate? Will you make my child dinner? Do dishes and other light housework? Will you pick them up or drop them off?
* If your sitter has worked in a day-care setting, ask about his or her certification. Even those operating out of their homes must register with the state and meet many state regulations.
Ways to save:
* Hire a younger sitter. You can probably find a tween or young teen who charges $7 to $8 an hour.
* Negotiate to pay one rate for hours when your child is awake and another after they go to bed.
* Start a baby-sitting co-op with friends. Each family in the co-op could agree to baby-sit another family's kids for one night a month and get one night a month out.
* Go out with friends and leave the kids at one home and jointly hire a baby sitter.
* Find a sitter working out of his or her home; it might cost less if you are willing to take your children to them.
Where to look:
* Call nearby day-care centers and ask whether any of their teachers baby-sit.
* If your place of worship has a youth group or nursery program, ask there.
* Try subscription sites like Care.com, Sittercity.com, Seekingsitters.com, Sittters.com, Elitesitters.com.