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.
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.
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.
"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.
Even something as basic as a changing table is optional, says Vicki Iovine, author of The Girlfriends' Guide to Baby Gear. "You don't need a changing table until your back starts to hurt from changing them on the bed or the floor or the sofa, which is usually when they start moving a lot and get heavier," she says.
Buying a giant stroller. "Parents sometimes buy a giant, SUV-type stroller, thinking they need all the bells and whistles. It's a classic first-time parent mistake," says Fields. The problem is that tricked-out strollers can weigh upwards of 30 pounds empty, which makes it hard to move them in and out of the car trunk, especially if you're holding the baby in your other arm. Instead, Fields recommends lighter-weight strollers (under 20 pounds) that can be folded and unfolded with one hand.
Copying the layout of a store's nursery. The plush cribs filled with soft bumpers and blankets look appealing, but according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, they pose a suffocation risk. That government body recommends against placing anything soft in the crib with babies, yet catalogues and stores often feature these items in displays. Many parents buy these products only to discover that not only are they unnecessary, they pose a safety hazard.
Likewise, the government recommends against the use of sleep positioners, but they are still sold online and elsewhere. "Parents often think that because a product is on a shelf at a store, it is therefore safe to use and it passed some sort of government safety standard. That's not true," says Fields.
Feeling overwhelmed by all the new products. Just because you can buy a device to keep infant socks on or a bathtub that continuously expels dirty water doesn't mean you need those items. Some people will love them, while others will find them utterly unnecessary. "There are a lot of 'mompreneurs' out there, and as a result, there's all this new stuff, which is both good and bad," says Fields. On one hand, more products for working moms, such as car adapters for breast pumps, can make life easier. But on the other, parents can easily feel bombarded by all the choices. "Do you need wipes warmers? No. These are convenience items," says Fields.
Consider your parenting style. Cribs versus co-sleepers, slings versus strollers, breastfeeding versus formula—many purchasing choices relate to what kind of parent you want to be. Carley Roney, editor of TheBump.com, says parenting styles often follow your own lifestyle choices, so consider whether you tend toward more of a Type A outlook, in which case you might prefer video monitors and other extra safety precautions, or more of a relaxed approach, in which you might skip the crib purchase altogether and plan on extended bed-sharing. "Type As are the ones who tend to buy everything in advance and will probably end up spending more overall and the souped-up versions of things," says Roney, adding that other parents take a wait-and-see approach and delay most of their purchases.
Wait to stock up. Even a personal shopper can't always select the perfect items before the baby arrives, says Wing. That's because babies' mouths differ, so they prefer different bottles, or their bodies differ in shape enough to make different styles of onesies more comfortable. "You can make an educated decision, but don't stock up on extras until you meet your baby," she says.
"People buy too many clothes, especially for baby girls," says Meeks. One week's worth of clothes is plenty, she adds. Also, you might be able to skip some gear altogether. If you have a kitchen sink, perhaps you don't need a baby bath tub. If you have a quilt, you may not need to buy a special play mat, she says.
Make your own list. Retailers such as Buy Buy Baby and Babies 'R Us create lists of "must-have" items to help guide parents-to-be. Instead of following their lead, make your own list after chatting with experienced friends and family members.
Pick the travel version. Instead of buying the deluxe version of bouncers that come with sounds, lights, and attached teething toys, Meeks suggests looking for the smaller, simpler travel versions.
Make the most of people's generosity. "You want to register for as many gifts as possible, or you'll get lots of pink or green outfits and baby shoes," says Roney. She suggests focusing on big, essential items, such as the car seat, stroller, and slings, while skipping clothes and toys, because you'll get plenty of those items anyway, and gift-givers often prefer to select their own. Also, be sure to register at a store with a generous return policy, in case you end up with multiple sets of the same thing.
Don't skip the boring stuff. Thinking about your budget and health insurance isn't exactly a fun activity, but Regina Leeds, author of One Year to an Organized Life with Baby, says it's an important one. "Once you start making purchases, you really have to make sure it's in your budget," she says, adding that doctors often offer pregnant women more tests than what might be covered under their insurance plan, and you want to be able to make an informed decision before racking up the bills.
Recycle and reuse. "Moms love to give their stuff away to other moms," says Leeds. To connect with parents who might be ready to pass on their goods, join local pregnancy groups or moms' circles, she suggests.
Meeks applied this strategy when she bought a used swing off of Craigslist for her six-week-old baby for $25. When her baby outgrew it a few months later, she sold it on Craigslist for $40. She also found a stroller, baby carrier, and bassinet on Craigslist. (When it comes to certain items—especially cribs and car seats—most experts recommend buying new to ensure they meet current safety standards.)
The bottom line: Parents can do a lot to trim some of their baby costs, and as with any big purchase, advance planning and saving can make for more enjoyable transition to this new life stage. A recent survey on USNews.com that asked readers to share their best money tip for new parents revealed one common response: Save. Readers suggested putting money away regularly even before birth to pay for daily needs such as food and clothing as well as longer-term costs such as college tuition, which respondents labeled their biggest source of money stress.
Parents, what baby costs surprised you the most? What's your best money advice for parents-to-be?
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