While expecting my first child, I made a big mistake. I typed “cloth diapers” into a search engine, and thus unwittingly entered an emotionally charged feud between Cloth and Disposables. Apparently how I chose to separate my baby’s bum from his onesie was supposed to reveal my adequacy as a parent. So much seemed at stake: would my infant be poisoned by hidden toxins lurking in disposables? Would this simultaneously and permanently lower his immunity and his IQ? And would Earth reach an untimely end if I sent too many dirties to the dump?
Howdy! While Mr. Frugalwoods and I enjoy/attempt to survive our first few months as parents to our daughter, Babywoods, I have a delightful slate of guest posts from my friends lined up for your reading pleasure. Today, please welcome the delightful Kalie from Pretend to Be Poor!
I still can’t fathom how methods of containing baby excrement became so controversial and polarizing. Rather than defining myself according to the logistical minutia of baby care, I decided to select the best of all camps, based on our family’s needs in different settings.
But I wanted to do this parenting thing frugally, which inevitably launched me back into the fray of my search results. Turns out there exist about 1,467 styles of cloth diapers, and not having been in nappies for quite some time myself, how was I to decipher which type makes the best B.M. barrier? There were pockets, prefolds, flats, all-in-ones, diaper covers, inserts, liners, fasteners… and the list continued. I nervously checked my countdown till due date and commenced research.
Here I’ve streamlined the information, coupled it with my four years of experience, and divorced it from the debate, judgment, jargon, and advertising that clutter other content. I’ve saved over $1,300 by using cloth diapers (hello, college fund!), and I’ve also appreciated the convenience of disposables at times. I don’t draw lines over diaper decisions. But since dealing with the derrière is a potentially expensive facet of family life, here are the dirty details of comparative diaper costs.
Is Cloth Really Cheaper?
A mythology circulates, even amongst some frugal folk, that cloth diapers aren’t less expensive than disposables. After all, the initial investment for cloth can reach as high as $500, and there’s the hidden cost of reviving dirties via laundry. Yet my calculations confirm that if cloth diapers aren’t saving you money, you’re doing them wrong.
Like just about anything, there are multiple price points for cloth diapers. Let’s break it down with a cost-comparison table. But first, my assumptions: we’re all frugal people here, so I’m citing competitive prices. You certainly could pay more for any of these options, but you won’t need to after you apply the discounted diaper acquisition pointers below.
I won’t overwhelm you with the number of diaper changes you’ll perform before potty-training, but I’ve assumed an average of eight disposable diapers per day (it’ll be more at first). I figure for 24 cloth diapers since this is the quantity I recommend purchasing for full-time cloth use.
|Diaper Type||Description||Price Per Diaper||Price Over 2 Years||Savings Over 2 years vs. Store Brand Disposables|
|Disposable, Name Brand||$0.25||$1,460||-$584|
|Disposable, Store Brand||$0.15||$876|
(also called flats or prefolds)
Price includes 24 diapers, 3 rubber fasteners, and 8 covers
|A rectangle that’s secured with a reusable rubber fastener or safety pins. Covers serve as a moisture barrier.||$2.92||$70||$806|
|Cloth, Pocket or
All-in-one, Full Price
Price for pocket includes 2 inserts
|Shaped like a disposable diaper, with built-in fasteners & cover. Pocket diapers have an opening for one or more absorbent inserts; these are built into all-in-ones.||$18||$432||$444|
|Cloth, Pocket, Discounted
Price includes 2 inserts
|Same as above.||$7||$168||$708|
The upfront cost of cloth diapers appears daunting next to disposables. Just how long does it take to get a return on your investment? Because laundry costs are so variable I exclude them in the following table, but I address this expense below in detail.
Return on Investment Time
|Name Brand Disposables||
Store Brand Disposables
|Old-fashioned Style||Less than 2 months||2 months
|Name Brand Pocket or All-in-One||7 months||12 months
|Discounted Pocket or All-in-One||3 months||5 months
Frugal & Flexible
The obvious extreme-frugality choice are the old-fashioned cloth diapers, the type your grandmother or mother may have used. These must be folded, secured with a fastener, and sheathed with a cover. Despite being a no-brainer from a financial standpoint, they’ve declined in popularity due to being less user-friendly.
I’m abysmally unskilled at all things crafty, so as soon I spotted the phrase “origami fold” alongside this option, I was out. Now I realize I was over-reacting. After all, people of all crafting abilities have used flat pieces of cloth to diaper their babies for millennia.
For me, discounted pocket diapers offered the perfect balance of frugality and ease-of-use. They were convenient for grandparents, babysitters, and my husband (though I’m certain they could all out-origami me any day). I spent $110 on cloth pocket diapers, making my ROI time only three months.
My hybrid approach entailed: disposable diapers for the first six weeks of newborn chaos, replaced by cloth for day and a disposable at night. After 18 months I was pregnant again, gagging as I scraped toddler feces into the toilet, and had enough of carting around dirty diapers and changing my son twice as often as his disposable-wearing comrades. So I switched to disposables, hoped he’d potty train soon (it was another year), and stored the cloth nappies for Baby #2. They gave an additional six months’ service before the inserts bit the dust and I returned to disposables.
I share my experience not to recommend any particular approach (or gross anyone out), but to highlight the benefits of adopting a flexible yet frugal stance for diapering. My hybrid was not optimally thrifty, but I saved a considerable sum while maintaining the freedom to make changes as our family grew. Sometimes as parents we need to balance our ideals with our sanity.
What About Laundry Costs?
The myth of a dismal return on investment for cloth diapers centers largely on the water and energy used to wash them. The short answer is: laundry costs won’t ruin your cloth diaper savings. The long answer is: if you wash in cold with homemade detergent and line-dry, you’ll pay around 25 cents per load. With 24 diapers you’ll wash a load about every other day (be sure to leave yourself some diapers to use while they’re drying). Line-drying is recommended for reducing wear and tear, and for the sun’s sanitizing and bleaching effects.
But say you’re like me, sleep-deprived and behind on laundry, and wash with store-bought soap and run the dryer. This costs about 60 cents. Even at your laziest, least frugal moments, the cost to wash (and reuse) 24 diapers is equal to buying 4 disposables. You can calculate your laundry costs using this calculator.
A diaper service, on the other hand, can ruin cloth savings. BabyCenter estimates you’ll pay more than $50 per month for this dirty job. When using full-time disposables, I’ve spent no more than $35 per month on diapers.
Discounted Cloth Diaper Acquisition Tips
Old-fashioned diapers are so inexpensive that they can be purchased just about anywhere. Simple plastic covers are the thriftiest option, followed by discounted wrap-style covers or pocket diaper covers (without inserts).
Buying name-brand pocket or all-in-one cloth diapers is a big investment, especially if you’re a new parent who’s not sure if you’ll like using them. Purchase one to trial before dropping $500 on diapers. But there are many less expensive ways to procure cloth diapers. An increasing number of lower-cost brands are available on Amazon, Ebay, and other domestic and international web sites.
Other sources to check include forums like DiaperSwappers.com, local second-hand stores, Facebook Buy/Sell/Trade pages, Craigslist, or online parenting forums. You’ll find both new and used nappies for sale. Before you wretch at the thought of buying pre-pooped diapers—read the listing. Parents sometimes purchase cloth diapers only to find they are not the right fit for their family. Checking the description may reveal that the pre-owned diapers are in pristine condition.
Those more crafty than me may wish to sew their own. Diapers are not a terribly complicated shape and fabrics like cotton, microfiber, and fleece can create inexpensive custom diapers.
What If I Don’t Want to Wash Baby Poop?
Then don’t! No parent can escape all contact with human waste. However, cloth diapering is not for everyone, and if you’re not sold on it, it isn’t economical to waste money on cloth diapers you won’t use. Or you may have a day care or shared laundry situation that isn’t conducive to cloth. If you plan to use any disposables, I highly recommend signing up for Amazon Mom to get 20% off already-competitive diaper prices. Amazon Mom is free for a trial period. The service remains free for up to a year if you spend $25 per month in the baby department. You’ll spend this without trying if you have a diaper subscription (please be sure to read the fine print when signing up).
To get the best diaper prices, find the type you want. Check for “coupons” to clip on the product page. Then use the Subscribe & Save option on the right side of the screen:
Shipping is free and diapers will automatically be delivered to your doorstep. You can cancel or change the frequency at any time before the order ships (you’ll be notified ahead of time by email). Plan ahead a couple weeks, as the shipping schedule is monthly and two-day shipping does not apply. And remember to change sizes as your baby grows.
My favorite aspect of Amazon Mom is that it sets my shopping on frugal autopilot, meaning no last-minute diaper runs to retailers where I’m tempted to browse for stuff I don’t need on my way to the baby aisle. So I save on diapers and gas while reducing unwelcome outings and impulse buys. Quadruple win!
More Discounted Disposable Acquisition Tips
Diaper raffle: A friend of mine was fully stocked for her baby’s first year through a diaper raffle. If you’re having a baby shower or sprinkle (for subsequent children), consider requesting a diaper raffle. Any guest who brings a package of disposable diapers is entered to win a prize, such as a $25 gift card. Your shower host may be willing to provide the gift card, but even if you purchase it, you’re sure to receive more than $25 worth of diapers.
Hospital diapers: The hospital will supply your baby with diapers during your stay. Any left in the hospital bassinet drawers are yours to keep.
Discontinued diapers: Check stores that sell close-outs for discontinued diapers. Occasionally the big brands change minor design details such as the characters printed on the diapers, and older styles are sold cheaply at close-out retailers.
Second-hand stores: Children’s resale shops often sell disposable diapers. When children outgrow a size or become potty-trained before finishing a box of diapers, their parents may sell them to these stores.
Gift cards: Buy second-hand or borrow other baby gear so you can use gift cards or money gifts you receive to purchase diapers.
Try store brands: Every baby is different. Just because your friend’s child blew out of X brand doesn’t mean yours will. Conversely, just because your friend’s child doesn’t leak out of less expensive diapers, doesn’t mean yours won’t. Yet another reason it makes no sense to judge others’ diapering choices! This is why I’ve compared to both price points in the tables above. I’ve had success with Luvs, a mid-level brand that costs less than many store brands when purchased through an Amazon Mom subscription.
What About Wipes?
Thankfully, wipes are much easier to figure out than diapers! Using cloth wipes requires no additional effort once you’re washing cloth diapers. Buy or register for a couple packs of baby-size washcloths (about $5 each) or cut up old t-shirts. There are many homemade wipes solution recipes, but I just used a little water from the tap to moisten them, which seems safest for sensitive skin. For disposable wipes, try store brands as these are cheaper even than wipes via Amazon Mom discounts.
Tips & Tricks from the Field
- Breastfed-only infants’ diapers do not need to be rinsed before putting them in the washer. Once babies start eating “solids” (the rather ill-suited name for mushy baby food), the byproducts must be removed from diapers before washing. Many people install sprayers onto their toilets, but there is a risk of the tool leaking.
- Snaps hold up longer than Velcro on cloth diapers.
- Prefolds are thicker in the center while flats are equally thick throughout. There’s no right answer about which one to use; it’s mainly a matter of preference, and how much your baby pees.
- Use pocket diapers without inserts for swim diapers. It would be worth purchasing two to three pocket diapers for swimming, even if you don’t plan to use cloth otherwise. Disposable swim diapers cost 50 cents or more each, and all they do is hold in poop; they don’t absorb urine (I apologize if this information has ruined public swimming pools for you). Regular pockets work just as well as cloth diapers marketed especially for swimming.
- Cloth diapers can also double as training diapers while potty-training. The margin for savings increases since training disposables are quite expensive.
Parenting With Perspective
Old-fashioned diapers are by far the most frugal, but there are thrifty strategies for obtaining all types of diapers. I found flexibility along with ample savings by blending both cloth and disposable. Consider your values, family needs, and financial situation to ascertain the approach that suits you. Whatever choice you make, keep it in perspective. Your precious one will be potty-trained soon enough and you’ll have more transcendent parenting concerns to ponder. Turns out, diapers are actually the easy part of child-rearing.
Kalie is the author of a new personal finance blog with an odd title: Pretend to Be Poor. Her site highlights the adventure, humor, and generosity that can result from a financially flexible lifestyle. When she isn’t blogging, she is raising two kids and volunteering with her church.