Co-ops allow friends to save money and time on shopping, cooking, babysitting, and more. No wonder they’re catching on.

By Jessica Thomas
Updated January 18, 2019
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Abbey Lossing

Creative director Alex Davis was at book club 12 years ago in Boise, Idaho, when she overheard two members discussing a meal share they belonged to: “I was nursing a newborn and had a toddler at home, and I was like, Wait, what? There’s a way that you would cook me something and bring it to my house? I turned to my friends and said, ‘Guys, we have to try this.’” Before long, a group of three families had formed their own dinner co-op. Once a week, they each cooked enough for the whole group, divided it into family-size portions, and walked the freshly made food to one another’s houses. Just like that, everyone’s meal planning, cooking, and the bulk of the kitchen cleanup were done.

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The benefits were immediate: Their reliance on spendy takeout plummeted, food waste dropped, and dining quality improved. Instead of having to shop for multiple meals in a week, “you take one recipe and you go for it,” Davis says. Some members loved the money savings these efforts brought to their bottom line, but for Davis, it was the quality of the meals she received and the care and preparation she was able to devote to the recipes she contributed that were most valuable. “With the money I saved in not wasting food, I could get better ingredients,” she says.

A cooperative is an organization that is owned and run by its members, who share the profits or benefits generated. Natural-food stores, financial credit unions, and even some large retailers like REI are familiar examples of co-ops that share profits with their membership. But co-ops can also be run by small groups of individuals like Davis and her friends.

At the least, co-ops afford an opportunity for financial savings. At the most, they can lead to stronger communities for the cost of just a few hours of cooking, housekeeping, or keeping an eye on the kids. Use these four tips to identify where to start and how to succeed at co-op living.

1

Life is full of responsibilities that would be great to simplify or optimize. The challenge is identifying tasks that have a high probability for success under a co-op model.

It’s best to find a frustration you share with others near you. For Trent Hamm, founder of personal-finance website the Simple Dollar, it was the challenges of being a retail club member. “A couple that lived near us was having some of the same bulk-buying issues that we were,” Hamm says. “Buying 36 rolls of toilet paper at once might save you money per roll, but where do you keep all of them?” So Hamm organized a bulk-buying co-op. “Our food and household spending went down about 15 percent from the previous year,” says Hamm.

Opening a dialogue with neighbors and friends can quickly identify common needs that would be easily managed together. “If you alone can’t execute the life you want, you have two choices: Lower your standards, or team up and do some time shifting,” says Davis, who suggests that nearly every corner of life provides opportunities to save money, time, and often both: buying clothing or decor, carpooling, housecleaning, doing laundry.

2

Co-ops operate on trust, so identifying reliable and honest members is important. Hamm’s group worked among friends, so there was a “high cost for breaking trust.”

You might look around for co-op members at volunteer organizations, places of worship, or school groups, which can attract selfless, organized people. Or consider book clubs, parenting groups, and other meet-ups of like-minded people who may have similar needs. The ideal co-op size depends on how many committed members you can gather, but know that, as in any group activity, the more people there are in a co-op, the more organizing you’ll need. Start small.

Davis recommends doing a compatibility survey, and she provides one in her book, Dinner at Your Door ($5; amazon.com), a resource for running a successful dinner co-op, which she coauthored with two other members of her group, Diana Ellis and Andy Remeis. The survey allows you and your co-op members to set baselines for, say, the kinds of food you can provide and what you expect from others’ cooking. This idea extends to any sort of sharing you might be interested in: Meeting with other prospective members to clarify expectations in writing at the outset will help avoid conflict and disappointment in the future.

3

Methods for tracking co-op tasks and activities are as varied as the types of co-oping one can do. Everything from colored note cards with individualized stamps to Excel spreadsheets have been used to track the hours members contribute. Some co-ops rely on annotated church directories or Facebook groups. But new digital tools are making it a little easier to get organized.

“There’s an app for everything, but there are moms who are swapping Popsicle sticks to keep track of their co-op?” recalls Audrey Wallace of her and her friend Amy Husted’s efforts to keep track of their childcare co-op. “That’s ridiculous!” Though members of their 10-person babysitting co-op did 165 sits in their first year and saved about $10,000 total, running it was a logistical headache. So in February 2017, the Akron, Ohio, women launched Komae, an app that allows users to swap sits among a trusted group and easily keep track of hours.

Now Komae is being used for more than just watching kids. “We saw a sit request come through where the person added a note about their ‘child’ that instructed the potential sitter to ‘give kibble, take on walk, and scratch ears,’” says Wallace. “We thought, ‘That’s not a child!’ We’ve had people add their house and ask for house-sitting and cleaning.” Keeping track of members’ contributions and withdrawals is a common stumbling block for co-ops, but apps like Komae prove it’s one that can be overcome.

4

Most people involved in co-oping join for the money savings but stay for reasons that can’t be quantified, like enjoying being part of a group, helping others, or feeling more creative. Take time to reflect on them.

“When co-ops are run properly, not only do you give, but you get a multiplier back in the process,” says Ari Meisel, a productivity expert in New York City and the author of The Art of Less Doing ($11; amazon.com). “There should be benefits above time and money for a person to feel invested in this type of shared activity.”

For Davis, being part of her dinner co-op in Boise has brought new opportunity in the form of writing a cookbook, but it also helped her feel more inspired in the kitchen and at the market. “Making dinners this way really did change my life,” Davis says. “It brought creativity and fun back.”