For Leah Golden and her husband, a dinner date is going to drain their bank account by about $150.
The baby sitter makes up about one-third of that.
"It costs us $150 minimum to go out for an evening, if you include a sitter and dinner," Golden says. "We pay our sitters $11 an hour and are usually gone for four to five hours, and that's just for a moderate dinner with a couple of drinks."
Calling herself the "guru of sitters" because of her lengthy list of reliable sitters, complete with rankings about who's the best, she says finding someone to sit for a night isn't usually a problem.
"In this economy, people really want the extra work," says Golden, who lives in Chattanooga. "If someone can't sit one night, we just move down the list. ... I use sitters a few times a week and can always find someone."
But don't ask her for the list; that's privileged information.
"No, I'm not sharing my list," she says.
For some couples, finding and paying a baby sitter can be a major ordeal when scheduling a night out. Even without including the cost of dinner or movie tickets, hourly baby sitting rates range from $7 to $15, depending on where you live, the number of children being watched and the age of the baby sitter, among other factors. And that doesn't include tipping, which some baby sitting-savvy families do to make sure they keep a favorite sitter coming back.
All those expenses can make a date more than some families can afford, at least on any kind of a regular basis.
"We rarely get sitters because of the cost," says Tami Chamberlain, of Signal Mountain, the mother of three. "Typically for a parents' night out, we ask grandparents to hang out."
Chattanoogan Lindsay Williams, mother of three including a newborn, says she simply can't afford a baby sitter. Ever.
"I am having a couple of close friends watch the baby while I go to class," she says, noting that the friends are sitting for free. "Typically if I need a sitter, we work it out with my mom, sister or best friend."
For Julia Patterson, mother to a 4-, 12- and 14-year-old, just finding a baby sitter near her home in Valley Head, Ala., has been difficult. In fact, she hasn't located one yet who isn't a family member.
"It has been a problem at times," she says. "I've had to cancel plans and even missed a high school reunion a couple of years ago when a family member fell through."
She doesn't really know what sitters in the area charge because she hasn't found one to ask.
Jamie Pitman, a photographer in Cleveland, Tenn., was lucky enough to find a high school senior to watch her three children, ages 14 months, 3 and 6 years. She pays the teen $10 an hour to watch all three and has recommended her to other parents.
"I found her through the church we both attend. She's my last-minute girl, too," Pitman says. "I can call her 20 minutes before a shoot and she will show up. I guess I'm pretty blessed."
Beyond the cost, good sitters are in heavy demand, often booked up and hard to schedule. SO for those who use baby sitters on a regular basis, keeping them happy is a must, and that can include tipping above their hourly rate.
While they tip their sitters, Golden says, "we don't have a set rule about a percentage to add on."
"Honestly, we've never lost any sitters due to not paying enough," she says.
Regan Potter, a computer science major at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, is a part-time baby sitter who says she gets more than enough work by advertising her services on the "Sitters on Signal" Facebook page.
"When I post on the page with my availability, I usually get a response before the end of the day," says the 21-year-old, who's also interning in the IT department at TVA. "I have three families I baby sit for regularly that found me on the page over two years ago."
Her sitting rates vary from around $10 to $15 an hour, based on the day, time and chores of the job, she says. "I mostly baby sit on Signal, but I do baby sit for a few families in Red Bank, North Chattanooga and Hixson," she says.
The going rate is less expensive for younger sitters. Sydney Davis, 14, of Collegedale, charges $7 an hour for up to two children, and $10 for three or more.
"I did a little research when we were trying to find out what she should charge and, based on age, it varies," says her mom, Candace Davis. "In Collegedale, the high school students make about $7 and college kids between $8 and $10." The charges vary based on whether or not the baby sitter takes the child to music lessons or sports activities, she says.
Sydney says most parents who hire her aren't concerned about her age. They do, however, ask for references, she says, and they want sitters who are good with kids, reliable and responsible.
"If you have a feeling they are not going to be responsible, don't hire them," Sydney advises. "Look for a good attitude. Ask for references so you can see how they treat other people's children."
Chamberlain says responsibility is one of the key elements she looks for in a sitter when she and her husband, Bo, do spring for a night out.
"I'm picky when looking for someone to watch the kids," she says. "The most important things are reliability and ethics. You want someone you can trust with the most important aspects of your life -- the safety and well-being of your kids and the reliability to be able to make it to work."
Still, there are families who hire sitters on a regular basis, whether it's for a work-related event or a night out.
"We hire baby sitters a lot," says Molly Cooper, of Brainerd, the mother of two. "For events and on occasion when (husband) Scott and I need a night out. We have an amazing group of ladies from the girls' previous day care whom we call on often.
"My pay varies. I usually pay $12 when the girls are awake and $10 for when they are asleep."
And there are some parents who prefer just one sitter, including Lesley Greenfield of North Chattanooga.
"I like my kids to get used to the same consistent person," she says. "I look for someone referred by someone I trust. I also look for someone with experience with children my kids' ages and who has an educational path with children. My nanny is getting her master's degree in special education. It wasn't easy to find someone that met all my needs."
The interview process was thorough, she says.
"I took the time to talk to a lot of people and I've been lucky with having two great nannies over the years. In my circle of friends, the average cost is $10 an hour. If the nanny is younger than college age, the cost is $6 to $8 an hour," she says.
Staff writer Barry Courter contributed to this report.
Contact staff writer Karen Nazor Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6396.