Can I Afford a Baby?

Your complete guide to planning for the expenses of a new family member.

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While shopping for cribs, strollers, and car seats, parents-to-be often ask themselves: Just how much is this bundle of joy going to end up costing me? The answer, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is $12,000 for the first year alone (for middle-income couples earning between $56,700 and $98,000). And despite the recent recession, the baby products industry continues to grow at a steady clip: Market research firm Mintel estimates it's now a $9.8 billion industry.

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But there's a lot parents can do to minimize these costs without sacrificing safety or comfort. Here's your guide to affording a baby:

Factors to consider:

All babies (and parents) are different, so it's hard to predict what you will need. That's why experts say the best strategy is to minimize your purchases while pregnant—no need to buy a high chair for a newborn, for example.

"For the beginning, you need diapers, a few outfits and blankets, and a safe place to lay down the baby. If you'll be driving the baby home from the hospital in a car, you also need a car seat. It's nice to have a nursery set up ahead of time, but it's not necessary," says Rachel Meeks, creator of SmallNotebook.org, a blog about simpler living.

Hidden costs:

Buying unnecessary items. Parents-to-be often find themselves faced with multiple bed options, from cribs to co-sleepers to Moses baskets, and buy them all. "You don't need everything on the list," says Ali Wing, founder of Giggle, an upscale baby products store. Babies need a safe place to sleep, she says, but they don't need five of them. She often recommends that parents buy a crib that converts to a toddler bed for extra value.

Buying used, only to find that new is better. Most experts say that even though you can find second-hand cribs, car seats, and breast pumps for sale, you're better off buying new ones because safety standards are always changing. Drop-side cribs, for example, are no longer considered safe. Car seats can be invisibly damaged in accidents, and breast pumps can contain milk remnants.

Common mistakes:

Picking the lowest-cost option. This might sound like a good idea, but it can end up costing you more in the long run, says Wing. If you buy a relatively inexpensive high chair, for example, it will probably just last a year and a half, at most. But if you pay more for one that converts to a booster seat and then a desk chair, you'll spend less in the long run, she says.

Meagan Francis, mom of five and creator of the blog thehappiestmom.com, says that while she always used to roll her eyes at expensive strollers, she changed her mind after trying one out. "I just didn't understand how something so simple could be worth the money when my sturdy, old, under-$100 model seemed to work just fine. Then I tried a Maclaren and was blown away by how different it was," she says. The more expensive stroller was easier to maneuver and seemed more comfortable for the baby.

Buying too much, too soon. It's tempting to load up on tiny diapers, newborn outfits, and toys before the baby even arrives, but doing so almost always guarantees waste. Infants grow quickly, which means they might be onto the next size up in clothes and diapers before you make a dent in your stash. Also, it's hard to predict what you'll need. A mom who plans to breastfeed and buys a pump and nursing supplies may discover that nursing doesn't work out, or a family that plans to use a co-sleeper might find that their baby sleeps better in his own room. Family and friends often give baby clothes as gifts, says Alan Fields, co-author of Baby Bargains, which is why many first-time parents end up with too many tiny outfits.

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"Sometimes, parents feel they're going to be under house arrest when they have a child, and they'll never get out shopping again," says Fields. While you might stick close to home the first week, it's easy enough to shop after a few weeks, especially online. "If you forget the diaper rash cream, you can go get it," he says.