Janet Patton: How to save money on a very big-ticket item: your first baby

Herald-Leader business writerJuly 5, 2014 

Christia Spears Brown, associate professor of psychology at UK, has written a book on how to avoid gender stereotyping of children.

When you're having a baby, the last things you might want to think about are practicalities like diapering and saving money.

Which is why my traditional shower gift is a basket of goodies including my favorite diaper rash cream (Boudreaux's Butt Paste), stain remover (I like OxiClean), and a book that covers every item you will ever need and many you won't: Baby Bargains by Denise and Alan Fields.

Since 1994, Baby Bargains has helped expectant parents figure out which car seat to buy, which cribs are safest, and how to save a ton of money on basics like diapers and baby food. Editors research each product and use feedback from real parents to rate items by price, safety and utility. And they give recommendations for a variety of price ranges.

It's sort of like a specialized Consumer Reports magazine meets a Zagat's restaurant guide.

So how can you enjoy your baby without having an anxiety attack every time you go in Babies R Us?

Indulge yourself

My suggestion: Indulge. Just a little bit. You've seen the racks of adorable baby outfits. Buy one, maybe two. And a stuffed animal. Maybe some books.

Then stop.

The rest will come to you, I swear, in shower gifts and in hand-me-downs. Once you let the world know you are having a baby, you might be amazed at the stuff — good stuff, hardly worn stuff — that people are looking to give you, just to get it out of their closets.

"One of the things that frustrates parents is they overspend on clothing for babies," Alan Fields said. "They end up with a couple of drawers of clothes that the child grows out of."

First-time parents, in particular, aren't sure what they need, so they overbuy, he said.

So embrace the tumbleweed of children's clothing, and then when you're done, pass it on. Someone else will be just as grateful as you were to see it coming.

Super stroller? No, thanks

Your friends might want to go in together on a group baby gift, which is great for you — but steer them clear of the "super stroller."

"First-time parents think they have to have the SUV stroller, the 'travel system,'" Fields said. Those are the full-size strollers with all the bells and whistles.

Not only are they expensive — $200 to $400 — they are also big and heavy.

"Sometimes they weigh 30 pounds empty," Fields said. "That huge stroller is hard to bring in and out of the car, especially if you just had a C-section, and hard to set up and use."

Second-time parents go for a lightweight stroller, he said. Maybe a stroller frame that holds an infant seat. You just don't really need that many bells and whistles.

For cribs: simple and safe

Another big ticket item, one that grandparents often want to buy, is the crib.

As nice as that is, you might want to avoid the "convertible" crib, which is sold as one that can be made into a full- or queen-size bed later.

"The convertible crib can be a money trap," Fields said. "They are expensive. ... And then you have to have the conversion kit, which is another $100 to $200."

Many people don't have room in their second bedroom for a big crib, let alone a full-size bed.

Go basic: Ikea, which has a store outside Cincinnati, has super-simple, safe cribs for very reasonable prices, including the unpainted Sniglar model for $69.99. That's hard to beat.

If you want great ideas on how to spiff up that plain crib, or save big on decorating in general, Apartmenttherapy.com has lots of ideas for small spaces and small budgets.

Decorate on a budget

Decorating the nursery doesn't have to cost a fortune. That's another classic trap for first-time parents, Fields said: "the matchy-matchy thing.

Baby stores often display coordinating gear, but you don't have to do that."

Look for a stroller in last year's fabric. No one will know or notice that it doesn't match your car seat, and you might get a bargain.

If the grandparents or other relatives really want to give a "big gift," then think about the car seat, which can run to hundreds of dollars. A great online source for gear is Albee Baby, which has good sales and discounts, and offers free shipping for orders over $49. It's at Albeebaby.com.

You'll need lots of diapers

One thing you're almost certainly going to need plenty of: diapers. If you want to try going without, take a look at Diaper Free: The Gentle Wisdom of Natural Infant Hygiene by Ingrid Bauer. But for most people, the practical option is diapers.

According to Fields, the average parent changes 2,400 diapers in the first year.

Let that sink in. That's more than six per day, and early on, it's likely to be more than that.

"You can go through close to $4,000 by the time your kid ages out of diapers," he said. "You're talking about a lot of diapers."

How do you cut down on that cost?

One way is cloth diapers, which can be laundered at home. They are cheaper, especially if you can find a deal on gently worn diapers.

But fewer than 10 percent of parents end up going this route, Fields said.

That's for two reasons, he said: It's a tremendous amount of labor and effort. And if you are going to put your child in day care, they probably won't let you use cloth diapers.

Some people turn to diaper delivery services to make things easier, but that ends up being roughly a wash in terms of cost compared to disposable diapers, Fields said.

"So even though cloth diapers are kind of trendy, the vast majority of parents use disposable diapers," he said.

If you are buying disposables, buy in bulk, Fields said.

(Babies grow so fast that it is really easy to end up with too many tiny diapers. But odds are you know someone who can use them, so sell them or donate to a day care.)

Does brand matter? Not really, Fields said.

"The sort of store brand in Wal-Mart, Costco or Sam's are just as good, based on parent feedback and diaper testing in day care centers," Fields said. "Even Babies R Us' store brands are pretty good. We suggest buying the cheapest diaper you can find. Buying in bulk is typically the cheapest way to go, because you're using so many."

Even factoring in the membership cost, buying at warehouse clubs is usually 20 to 25 percent cheaper than buying at a grocery store (the most expensive place to buy diapers), even if you have a coupon, he said.

Online, sign up for scheduled deliveries of diapers at pretty good savings. Well-regarded sources are Drugstore.com and Amazon.com, which also offers its "Amazon Mom" loyalty club discounts.

If you do use a name brand like Pampers or Huggies, check out their rewards programs, which will let you earn toys, books and more with points you rack up from codes inside the packages.

How will you feed?

At the other end of the baby flow chart is food. There are many factors parents weigh when deciding breastfeeding versus formula that have little directly to do with cost, such as health and work. But you must put those into the equation.

Breastfeeding, for all its wonderful benefits, isn't truly free. A mother's time is worth something, right? But if you can pump at work, it sure seems cheaper than buying formula.

If you do want to breastfeed, then check out your health insurance policy. The federal Affordable Care Act means insurers must offer some coverage for breast pumps, which will be necessary if Mom is going back to her job.

"But there's an asterisk," Fields said. "It's not like you can just waltz into Babies R Us, buy a $300 Medela breast pump and be reimbursed for it. Each insurance company and plan has their own benefit. And sometimes the pumps have to be ordered through a medical equipment company. Sometimes companies only pay for a very basic $50 pump."

Lactation consultant services might also be covered, so it makes sense to ask what your plan offers.

One thing new moms might think they need but probably don't: nursing tops. Nursing bras, yes; clothing with special slits, no.

For good nursing/working mom support, check out The Milk Memos: How Real Moms Learned to Mix Business with Babies — and How You Can, Too by Cate Colburn-Smith and Andrea Serrette.

If you decide to use baby formula, take advantage of all the freebies offered by the companies. Register with the brand your baby likes, and you will get coupons, many of them quite valuable. Then pay attention to sales and stock up. Again, a subscription service or warehouse membership can save money.

Once Baby is a little older, there are lots of pretty easy options for making mushy baby food that you can freeze. Super Baby Food by Ruth Yaron is a good resource.

Child care is expensive

One expense that catches a surprising number of first-time parents off guard is child care.

Brace yourself: good quality day care can easily top $10,000 a year. In urban areas, expect to pay double that.

Check with your employer about setting aside pre-tax money for dependent care in a flexible spending account. Putting in the full amount could save you $1,000 a year.

If you are looking at in-home care, Baby Bargains has a chapter on this, too, including weighing the pros and cons of a nanny or an au pair.

"An au pair is affordable, but it's set up like a cultural exchange, where you're hosting a 19- or 20-year-old from another country who will take care of your child," Fields said. "It can work out really well, but it has its downsides. You have to provide room and board. And sometimes the au pairs need some emotional support to adjust to surroundings."

Even though child care is a nearly universal issue for parents, there is no magic bullet answer, Fields said.

"There is no child-care Costco," he said.

One thing to think about: Where do you plan to send your child to kindergarten?

For some private schools, including church-based ones, you have a better shot of getting in kindergarten if your child is in their preschool program. Churches often have some of the most affordable day-care programs, particularly if you are a member of the church.

"You might need to think about day-care strategically," Fields said. "While you're pregnant, start doing the research."

This month's homework

We'll keep it simple, because when you are expecting or have a newborn, you have enough on your hands.

Get Baby Bargains, and tackle one category at a time. Save even more money by buying a copy at a used-book store or check it out at the library.

Its safety ratings are easy to follow, and the price categories (from basic all the way up to "if the grandparents are buying") will simplify things.

Also, take a deep breath.

There are many items you don't really need. And what your baby needs most you probably already have in spades: love.

Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl

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