Fighting Back Against The Baby Industrial Complex
Expecting a baby, we’ve discovered, is an experience rife with the expectation of consumption. And not just any consumption–the newest, shiniest, safest, cutest, most top-of-the-line consumption. There’s a perception in our culture that babies are expensive as a rule and that new parents will shell out hundreds if not thousands in order to adequately prepare for bringing a life into this world. And wouldn’t any worthy parent spend any sum to ensure that their child is happy, healthy, and protected? Of course we would! But we don’t need to.
As extreme frugality enthusiasts who structure our lives to avoid the spending that’s so ingrained and accepted in our culture, it’s fascinating to sit in the marketing hot seat for the mother of all product lines: baby paraphernalia. Mr. Frugalwoods and I are a little over halfway through pregnancy with our baby girl (I’m 22 weeks along) and we’re navigating an entirely different path to parenthood–one that involves almost no spending at all.
Babies = Buying?
Mr. Frugalwoods and I are the recipients of a literal deluge of ads, advice, must-buy lists, and encouragement to spend, spend, spend from sources as diverse as the parenting books we’re voraciously reading (checked out from the library, of course), well-meaning friends and family, the internet, and anyone else on earth who learns we’re expecting.
Since neither Mr. Frugalwoods nor I feels even the slightest tug to buy anything new (for Babywoods or otherwise), we have an eye-opening front-row view of how our culture inundates with the clarion call to spend.
As someone in the unique position of receiving all of this advice to buy, but not buying into any of it, I’ve been reflecting on why it is that our consumer culture hounds parents so mercilessly with advertising that’s often tantamount to threats. The undercurrent is that if you don’t purchase this device for your kiddo, they’re going to be left out, behind, not as smart, and not as safe.
It’s A Life Event, Better Spend Money!!
Momentous life events and special occasions are a marketer’s dream. And it seems that a new baby is the true golden goose. Vendors of baby goods prey on new parents’ insecurities, hopes, and fears about their upcoming bundle-o-joy. And, interestingly, it seems to be fear that they target most acutely.
Sure, Mr. FW and I have a healthy dose of fear and anticipation over bringing a new life into this world–what rational person wouldn’t?! However, we know we can’t allay those fears through buying. But that doesn’t stop marketers from touting that their $240 infant swing is the most likely to make our baby a physicist by age three. It sounds outrageous, but marketers play to expectant parents’ basest fears: that they won’t be able to adequately care for their children.
Mr. FW and I are still novices in charting the waters of frugal parenting, but what we’ve discovered thus far in our nascent journey is that babies aren’t nearly as expensive as the baby industrial complex would have us believe. At least, the preparation for them isn’t. I certainly can’t speak to the actual parenting of Babywoods yet (all she does these days is eat and kick me 🙂 ), but equipping a nursery the frugal way is an entirely feasible undertaking.
A Very Frugal Nursery
Since babies do obviously need some stuff (though far less than the standard American idealized version of a nursery crammed with devices intended to do everything from genie your diapers to transform your baby into Einstein), we’ve gotten frugally creative in our baby gear acquisition.
Thus far, we’ve spent a whopping $20 on baby accessories: $10 for a charming baby swing from a garage sale (see photo below) and $10 for a bag of 53 baby outfits, 3 hats, and 2 blankets from another garage sale (see photo above). Everything else in Babywoods’ retinue is a used hand-me-down.
Although we don’t have a cluttered home and Mr. FW and I own less than the typical American couple, I’m not a minimalist and I don’t try to be. Instead, I take a pared down, organized, tidy approach to our possessions.
And that’s the same outlook we’re applying to baby trappings. While I fully realize we could bring Babywoods home from the hospital with little more than a few onesies, diapers, and a car-seat, that level of minimal baby-rearin’ just isn’t for us (props to anyone who can do this–I give you mad respect!).
One of the main reasons I don’t like skating too close to the minimalist line is that I don’t like being caught off guard and finding myself in desperate need of something. Desperation always = spending more. When I plan ahead and slowly acquire items over time, I’m able to secure the best deals and truly feel prepared for what’s ahead. And slowly is the operative word in how Babywoods’ nursery came together.
The Long, Patient Game Of Hand-Me-Downs
Mr. FW and I actually began the process of accruing baby items 17 months ago–which, for anyone skilled at math or baby gestation lengths–was long before we conceived our little girl. Why did we start so early? Because a friend of mine was getting rid of her son’s crib and changing table and she mentioned to me that she was probably going to set them out by the side of the road. She’d ordered her son’s big boy bed and wanted the baby effects gone. The other hitch for her? She and her husband weren’t looking forward to disassembling everything and carrying it down their winding, Victorian staircase. Enter two frugal weirdos with an eye for opportunity.
I shared with her that Mr. FW and I hoped to have a baby and that we’d be thrilled to come disassemble and remove the furniture for her. She was ecstatic; we were ecstatic. It was a match made in frugal heaven. So, without even the slightest inkling of when we’d actually conceive (turns out, it was a whopping 12 months later), we trekked over to her home one Sunday and Mr. FW spent the afternoon disassembling the furniture, much to the delight of her two sons who called him a “real tool man.” If that’s not a compliment, I don’t know what is.
While Mr. FW worked, my sweet friend rummaged around and threw together a bunch of other baby items for us to take–a carrier, monitors, a sling, a potty, a high-chair seat, the changing table pad, blankets, the crib mattress and sheets, a pack-n-play, clothes, and myriad other accouterments. She kept asking me, “Are you sure you want all this junk? It’s so old and its been through two boys already!” I reassured her that we’d gladly take anything she didn’t want and so she kept filling up bags. After thanking my friend profusely, we carted our treasures home and stuck them in a spare bedroom, not knowing when, if ever, we’d be able to use them. But, we knew that if we didn’t end up using them, someone else would and we’d pass them along.
And that, my frugal friends, is the genesis story for how Babywoods has an entirely hand-me-down/used nursery and layette.Our gratitude to our friend for giving us all of these things is profound and what’s interesting is that she’s grateful to us in return for taking them off her hands. What I gleaned from that first experience is that people are often desperate to clear baby objects out of their basements and attics. What I also learned is that baby products often expire, are recalled, or otherwise deemed “old” after a mere few years. And often, they’re still perfectly fine!
My Thoughts On Recalled Baby Goods (aka use common sense)
The crib my friend thoughtfully gave us is technically “recalled” since it’s a drop-side crib. However, it’s equipped with a conversion kit to prevent the drop-side from operating. Hence, problem fixed! But the issue for drop-side crib owners is that it’s illegal to sell a recalled baby product, even on the used wilds of Craigslist.
Thus, scores of utterly fine cribs are left out for the garbage truck while parents-to-be bolt to the store to buy the newest upgrade of crib, which–as manufacturers are wont to do–will probably be recalled for another reason at a future date. I’m certainly not condoning unsafe practices when it comes to babies, I’m merely advocating for common sense measures.
Another note I’ll add is that it’s only wise to take a used car-seat from a trusted friend or family member who can vouch for the fact that its never been in an accident. Once a car-seat is in an accident, its not considered safe since it could’ve sustained imperceptible damage. Best to procure either a new car-seat or one from a known source.
Furthermore, Goodwill (at least in our area) won’t accept donations of any baby items that are classified as “containment devices.” This rules out anything that holds baby, such as: cribs, car-seats, high chairs, swings, jumperoos, and the like. That’s a whole lotta gear that suddenly has nowhere to go. And in most cases, there’s absolutely nothing inherently wrong or unsafe about these products. Solution? Enter: the Buy Nothing Project.
The Buy Nothing Project: The Greatest Frugal Idea Ever
I’ve touted the merits of the Buy Nothing Project before, but I can’t laud them enough. It’s an international organization with hyper-local branches that facilitate giving away things for free to one’s neighbors (check to see if there’s one in your area, and if not, consider starting your own). I joined my local Buy Nothing Project earlier this year and am blown away by the generosity and benevolence of the members. I’ve received many items and I’ve also given away a bunch of stuff we no longer need.
It’s a brilliant system and no money ever exchanges hands. From their website: “The Buy Nothing Project is about setting the scarcity model of our cash economy aside in favor of creatively and collaboratively sharing the abundance around us.” Wow. Now that’s what I’m talking about!
The Buy Nothing Project is such a perfect articulation of the frugal, reusing, community-building life Mr. FW and I advocate for that I can’t believe I didn’t come up with the idea! But I didn’t and I’m indebted to whoever did.
Through Buy Nothing, we’ve received a staggering amount of baby hand-me-downs: clothes, blankets, bottles, pacifiers, a bassinet, a jumperoo (gotta love that name), toys, diapers, books, maternity clothes, nursing bras, a baby thermometer, a nursery mobile, and more. I’m thankful to all of the parents who’ve given me their old baby things and I’m overjoyed that a community exists where nothing goes to waste. Sure, the stuff is used and sometimes stained or a bit chewed on, but it doesn’t matter. It’s all perfectly usable and functional for Babywoods to add her own chew marks and stains. This is a drooling, sticky, gooey, adorable baby we’re talking about after all :). Let’s be honest, her stuff is going to get dirty.
Sidenote: There are other sources of free goods beyond the Buy Nothing Project, and you might find that one of these (or another source entirely) is more active in your local community: the free section of Craigslist, Freecycle, and a free section at the town dump.
The White Whale Of Baby Goods
One contraption I was almost certain Mr. FW and I would have to bite the bullet and pay for (used on Craigslist, of course) was a stroller. Unlike just about everything else for babies, strollers don’t seem to lose their value quite as precipitously. Plus, many people use them for years–if not a decade–depending on the age spread between their kids. And short of some sort of stroller catastrophe, they last for the long haul. Thus, we were resigned to shelling out the dough for one. I know that many folks get by sans stroller entirely, but as city dwellers, we walk around town all the time and knew we wanted a stroller as an option for baby-totin’.
But how wrong I was to doubt the generosity of Buy Nothing. I casually posted on the group the other day that if anyone happened to have a stroller they were giving away, I’d be most appreciative. I didn’t expect anyone to respond, but I figured it was worth a shot before we got down to the business of used stroller shopping. Lo and behold, someone replied. And now, we are the recipients of a Bugaboo stroller, which we wheeled home from a few blocks away, completely free of charge.
This stroller is six years old (waaaaaay younger than our 19-year-old car) and probably worth more than our car (no offense, Frugalwoods-mobile). Little did I know until after we got the thing home and began searching online for an instruction manual: this brand of stroller retails new for circa $1,149. Oh you read that right, I didn’t accidentally add a digit.
Needless to say, our frugal eyes nearly popped right out when we saw that figure. I don’t think Mr. FW and I have ever spent that much on any single item–even our new king-sized mattress was only $279. What shocked me the most is that this charitable person just gave us this unbelievably expensive stroller when she could’ve sold it on Craigslist for likely upwards of $300. I was stunned.
And I had a profound revelation: people are caring and altruistic. The family that gave us this stroller doesn’t know us, isn’t related to us, doesn’t have a vested interest in us “owing” them anything–in fact, we’ll probably never see them again. Yet they were willing to give us this apparatus that they no longer need and that we can use. Wow. Talk about a lesson in humanity and good will. This selfless act makes me reflect on what else I can give away, what I can do to pay it forward, as it were. While I don’t own anything that expensive to give away, I certainly have useful things I can pass on to others.
After we assembled the Bugaboo in its infant bassinet configuration (it also converts to hold a car-seat and then to a toddler seat), Mr. FW and I stood back and gaped.
This stroller is beautiful and, after I washed it up, it looks brand new. We both agreed we’re almost embarrassed to use it. Good thing we don’t care what people think about us. And, good thing I mentioned last month that I’ve stopped myself from judging people with high-end strollers. You never know how a possession came into someone’s life and I, for one, will never judge an expensive stroller owner again!
Put The Word Out
That you’re open for hand-me-downs! Just as I did for our stroller, if you’re interested in receiving people’s give-aways, let it be known. As soon as we shared with the world that we were expecting Babywoods, I put the word out that we were willing and delighted to take any and all hand-me-downs of baby paraphernalia. Sometimes people are surprised that I actually want hand-me-downs since there’s a common misconception that new parents only want brand new supplies for their brand new baby. But once I let them know my true feelings, they start bringing me bags of recycled baby clothes.
Hand-me-downs are certainly the most glorious trappings of the frugal weirdo’s lifestyle. I’ve shared with you my penchant for finding free stuff by the side of the road, purchasing clothes from thrift stores (or just not buying them at all), shopping used on Craigslist and at garage sales, but nothing quite tops the wonder of a genuine hand-me-down. In the array of second-hand furnishings that comprise the Frugalwoods home, I think nothing is quite so revered. And they’ve never been more apropos for us than they are now.
Despite the fact that no one in my office knows I’m Mrs. Frugalwoods, they do know that I’m frugal and appreciate reusing things. I have no shame about my frugality–it’s an aspect of my personality.
This is a fabulous side benefit of being outwardly frugal–my friends, colleagues, and family members all realize that instead of throwing something out, they can give it to me or to another frugal person. And since there are quite a few young parents in my office, they’ve been a marvelously generous source of hand-me-downs and parenting advice
Keeping things from the landfill is a personal crusade of mine. We live in such a disposable culture and we take everything we own for granted. I’m guilty of this too, but I’m on a mission to reuse more and waste less.
In addition to friends, colleagues, and the venerable Buy Nothing Project, I am deeply grateful to my sister (a fellow frugalista), who in collaboration with my mom (the original frugalista), mailed me all of her three kids’ baby clothes. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to not only have these items, but to know that my daughter will be sharing these early memories with her cousins. And, some of the clothes actually date back as far as my sister, my brother, and myself! Plus, many of these clothes were second-hand when my sister’s kids wore them, which makes this their third, fourth or fifth baby–now that’s reducing, reusing, and recycling!
And my family members aren’t the only ones mailing me hand-me-downs. Last week, I was thrilled to receive a box of goodies from my friend Cat over at Budget Blonde, who sent me an awesome maternity skirt (see photo at right) she wore during her pregnancy among other hand-me-downs. Another dear friend, L, whose own baby is only six months old, mailed me yet another box of books, clothes, and a maternity dress.
This incredible outpouring of kindness and generosity makes me feel so loved and so welcomed into the fellowship of parents. I honestly appreciate hand-me-downs and other used gifts just as much as new gifts.
To me, they’re all expressions of love, whether the giver paid money for them or not. I don’t put much store into how much something costs–I truly do believe it’s always the thought that counts. It means a great deal to me that my friends and family are all helping Mr. FW and I prepare for our darling Babywoods. It’s amazing how loved she is already!
Another tenet I follow is to write thank-you notes for hand-me-downs. Since I consider them just as valuable as a new gift and since I appreciate them to the same degree, I make it a practice to write a note to all of my hand-me-down givers. I think graciously and gratefully accepting second-hand items is an important component of the virtuous cycle.
The Imperfect Joy Of Hand-Me-Downs
Our aforementioned stroller is admittedly an aberration. Most of the items we’ve been fortunate enough to receive are pretty well loved, and they show it. But we don’t care. Perfection and choice are luxury goods with a hefty price tag. Sure, I could browse Amazon Baby for hours and design “the perfect” nursery for Babywoods replete with the cutest little crib and the most precious mobile, and the trendiest pink bebe outfits, but to what end? So that we could drop thousands of bucks on material goods that she’ll outgrow, spit up in, and teeth on? No thank you!
I prefer our assorted panoply of used goods that are blue for boys, worn, outdated, and perhaps not my very favorite style. Because I’d much rather save that money for something that matters–namely, our ability to retire early and both be stay-at-home parents for Babywoods and her potential future siblings. Not to mention for her education and enrichment. The ability to nurture and teach her on a daily basis is a gift that Mr. FW and I want to give our daughter–not a brand new, high-end nursery.
Yes, she’ll probably wear used clothes her entire childhood, just as Mr. FW and I do, but she’ll be loved and paid attention to. Knowing what we value in parenting is critical for us in avoiding the endless train of expensive baby temptations. It’s easy not to spend when you’re working towards a goal of lifelong family togetherness out on a homestead. The latest baby bouncer/musical instrument combo doesn’t even hold a candle.