Personal Finance

How to manage kids' summer without breaking the bank

For many working parents, the summer months are no vacation. It can be a costly child-care shuffle, with kids rotating between relatives, babysitters and pricey organized programs.

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The growth of women in the workforce — in 46 percent of American households, both parents work full time, up from 31 percent in 1970, according to a recent Pew Research Center report — means that more than ever, parents are relying on some sort of child-care arrangement.

Juggling care and work has always been a huge issue, says Kimberly Palmer, author of "Smart Mom, Rich Mom: How to Build Wealth While Raising a Family."

"It's more expensive today than ever to pay for child care, so working parents must come up with creative ways to juggle vacation," she says, reflecting on her own experience as a mother of two children, ages 3 and 6.

Her solution? Vacation-sharing. "We share our cars and we share our houses, so why not share our babysitters?" says Palmer.

I was thinking, How am I going to occupy my kids while I'm at work?
Shari Lyons
logistics manager

This child-care business model is yet another example of America's shift toward the sharing economy, where people collaborate with one another in new ways, sharing goods and services rather than owning and paying for them individually.

"Vacations can be much more affordable for working parents when they apply the lessons of the sharing economy to babysitters," Palmer says.

"I had two weeks this summer I hadn't figured out for my daughter, so with another family, we hired a nanny to share. Her name is Hannah, so we are calling it Camp Hannah, and together with other parents, we plan their days. They will go to museums and do all sorts of fun things."

Four moms team up

Palmer suggests finding an experienced sitter and then inviting another family to share the caregiving costs and services. Your child might even have more fun with a friend, especially if the kids take turns "hosting."

That's just what four working moms from northern New Jersey did last April to occupy their 13-year-old daughters during spring break.

"I was thinking, How am I going to occupy my kids while I'm at work?" says Shari Lyons, a logistics manager for a health- and beauty-aids wholesaler. "At 13, my daughter still needs some parent supervision, but she doesn't necessarily want to be with me all day. She wants to be with her friends."

So about two weeks before break, Lyons and three other working moms made a plan: Each day, one mom would take all four girls out for a day of fun.

"Vacation-sharing made it more interesting because everyone had different ideas," says Lyons. "Each day was a new surprise, and since you were in charge for only one day, it was much more cost-effective and you only had to take one day off from work," she says. "It was a break for everyone."

Shari Lyons (center) enjoys fondue with the girls at Max Brenner, a chocolate shop.

That week, among other things, the girls spent an overnight at the Jersey shore, enjoyed mani-pedis, lunched at several restaurants, went on a bike tour of Central Park and visited an indoor amusement center.

For other ideas, Palmer suggests visiting a farmers' market, trying out recipes, doing arts and crafts and visiting local museums. "There's so much to explore right in your own backyard," she says. "Whether you have a shared sitter or team up with other parents to take turns hosting play dates, plan those days out like you're running a camp."

Lyons agrees that "staycations" with friends are a great alternative when a family trip somewhere exotic is just simply out of the question. "My daughter had a great time with her friends, and I had peace of mind that she was happy — and safe — while I was at work," she says. "Sharing offers the best of both worlds."