Your friends and neighbors are worth more than you think. By teaming up with them and pooling your resources, you can cut many of your baby-rearing expenses in half. Consider these five ways -- both small and large -- to share the mounting costs of a new baby with other families:
? Form a babysitting co-op. When Ann and John VerKuilen of South Pasadena, California, grew tired of paying $10 an hour every time they went out on a date, they formed a babysitting co-op with six other couples. The group rotates weekend nights of free babysitting, so that each couple gets a turn at having a night out by themselves. "It's great," says Ann. "We figure we're saving about $80 a month, plus getting childcare we trust."
To start your own co-op, gather a few friends who live nearby and are willing to trade babysitting. Establish some guidelines, such as what hours everyone is available and how many children can be accommodated at one time. You'll also need to figure out a way to account for babysitting hours. One method is to give everyone a certain amount of poker chips, each worth one hour of daycare. Members earn or lose chips depending on how much babysitting they give or get. Get more info and download a free co-op start-up kit at www.babysittingcoop.com.
? Double up on your reading. Find a friend with similar interests and split the cost of one or two magazine subscriptions with her. You'll spend half as much as you would buying the magazines on your own each month.
? Rotate toys. Babies and toddlers get bored easily playing with the same old playthings. Solve this problem without spending a dime by exchanging toys with friends who also have babies, recommends Ann Douglas, author of The Mother of All Baby Books. After a month, trade back. Your child's old puzzles and trucks will seem new and interesting again! Just be sure that everyone in the group abides by strict safety standards: Toys that are broken or have removable small parts, sharp edges, cords, or strings should not be used. Print a toy safety brochure from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and distribute it to all participating parents.
? Buy as a group. "Go in together on a big-ticket item, such as a climbing structure or ride-on toy," suggests Douglas. Each family can keep it for a week or month, then pass it along. Or, if one family's yard is better suited for a large piece of equipment such as a jungle gym, it can stay there permanently; the other families have "visiting rights." Print out the CPSC's Home Playground Safety Checklist to ensure safe playing.
? Throw a hand-me-down party. Ask friends to bring over a few pieces of clean, undamaged clothing that their kids have outgrown. Put the clothes in separate piles according to age, and let each person choose two or three items that fit their child. Voilà -- you've cleared out your closet, freshened your baby's wardrobe, and caught up with friends!