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Penny-Pinching for New Parents

Babies are adorable, drooly, fun, smelly, and... expensive. The U.S. government estimates that it will cost $160,000 to raise a kid born in 1999 to adulthood, and that doesn't include the opportunity cost of that money not being invested. But babies are an investment, one with immense dividends, and no matter how expensive it gets to raise a child, most of us decide it's one of the most worthwhile ways to spend our hard-earned money.

But does it have to cost so much to raise a baby? That's what Elizabeth Brokamp (TMF Zuzu) and Robert Brokamp (TMF Bro) have been investigating ever since the birth of their son, Lukas Dashiell, this past Labor Day. Below are some of the cost-saving strategies and tips they've gathered in the blissful months since, beginning with some general points and then moving to more specific money-saving ideas.

  • Do it in stages. Babies don't need everything immediately. For most major purchases, you'll have plenty of time to comparison shop, to wait for sales, and to see if your friends have hand-me-downs they'd like to pass your way.
  • Know when not to skimp. For us, this means buying higher-priced diapers because they don't leak, and we can undo the Velcro-like tabs without Lukas waking up. More importantly, we don't skimp on issues of safety. For example, we bought higher-priced crib sheets from The Company Store because the cheaper ones can come off of the mattress and present a strangulation hazard.
  • Make sure you comparison-shop. This doesn't have to be tedious since much of it can be done over the Internet. MySimon.com compares the prices for baby items, and most major retailers -- including Babies R Us and Baby Depot -- have websites.
  • Every baby has a different personality. Don't spend a lot of money on optional things that your baby may not like. Our baby doesn't much care for his vibrating chair, unlike the babies of many of our friends. This item was on many must-have lists that we saw.
  • Try out things before you buy them. We have a stroller that Robert has to push from the side because it doesn't accommodate his long legs. We would have discovered this before taking it home had we taken the time to do a thorough test-drive.
  • Decide what you think is important, and what you're willing to give up. We originally viewed a changing table as optional since you can change your baby on the bed or the floor. But after a few months of aching backs, we tried one out at a relative's house and loved it. When we returned home, we comparison-shopped over the Internet, then searched around at local thrift stores where we found a nice changing table for just $30 (some stores charge as much as $240 for their tables).

Specific Ways to Save...

On feeding

O Canada! We were able to buy a Medela Pump-in-Style breast pump from Kidalog in Canada for significantly less than it retails in the United States. In addition, the customer service was outstanding.

Secondly, make your own baby food. If you think this sounds like a big pain, don't despair. Try making big batches of pureed veggies and fruits, then freezing them in small portions. Bargain Buys for Baby's First Year suggests freezing the portions in ice cube trays, then bagging the cubes in freezer bags for easy portions.

On the nursery

You can go hog-wild on nursery decorations and furniture, especially if you get sucked into the "Why would you want anything less than the best for your baby" mentality that gets perpetuated at the baby super-stores. Decked-out nurseries are something for parents and friends; babies couldn't care less. They like black and white, pictures of other babies, and photos of mom and dad, and aren't particularly picky about whether the crib bumper matches the diaper stacker. Why do you need a diaper stacker anyway?

We were less than crazy about some of the nursery decorations available because of quality and the exorbitant prices. We turned to Demco.com, a library site where we were able to purchase posters of such classics as Charlotte's Web and Where the Wild Things Are (for just under $10 each). We've added to the decor with framed artwork from Jocelyn, Lukas' nine-year-old sister.

Finally, we bought nursery lamps from our local Lowe's hardware store since they were much cheaper there than in any of the baby stores or catalogs.

On baby gear

There are so many big-ticket items you may need to buy for your baby, including strollers, car seats, and cribs. If you need or want to buy retail, try not to buy at retail prices.

In addition to checking yard sales and consignment shops, another place to look for bargains is at manufacturers' websites, such as this one for COMBI. You may save up to 50% on past models of various items.

A word of caution: No bargain is worth compromising your child's safety. If you are going to use "pre-owned" equipment -- such as strollers, cribs, or high chairs -- make sure you do a thorough inspection. Know the safety specifications for baby supplies, and check companies' websites for recalls. Some police stations will perform a safety check on car seats. You can also get safety information from many books about parenting on the cheap, as well as on the Internet. Two Fools sent in these sites as good resources: The National Safe Kids Campaign has plenty of general safety information, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a website with recall information on car seats.

On clothing

We've spent less than $50 on clothing for Lukas since he was born. How?  

  • We've been given so many gifts and hand-me-downs from friends who aren't planning to have more children.
  • We've gotten great bargains at thrift stores, consignment stores, and garage sales.

If you feel funny about your baby wearing used clothes, remember this: babies have absolutely no idea what they're wearing. Lukas prefers to be naked, but if he has to wear clothes, he is just as happy in the gently worn, clean items we've been given as he is in the clothes we bought at the store. Not only that, but he and all other babies grow an inch an hour, which means the clothes are often almost new anyway.

On toys

Babies don't need a lot of fancy toys to be happy. Lukas thinks we're the cat's meow, and we didn't cost him anything.

As a result, you can:

  • Rely on gifts.
  • Make your own baby fun (wooden spoons, Tupperware containers, and squares of textured fabric are great options).
  • Try garage sales. If you feel a little iffy about your baby gnawing on used toys, try this recipe for toy cleaner (found in Bargain Buys for Baby's First Year):

3/4 cup of bleach
1 tablespoon of powdered laundry detergent
1 gallon of warm water.

Mix the solution and submerge the toy in it for 10 minutes, then rinse it thoroughly with clean water and dry.

Other resources 

Some of the best money-saving advice we've received has come from a couple of helpful books, and the discussion boards right here at The Motley Fool.

One book we've definitely enjoyed is Baby Bargains: Secrets to Saving 20% to 50% on Baby Furniture, Equipment, Toys, Maternity Wear, and Much, Much More! The fourth edition of this book will be available in early April. If you're in a hurry, you can purchase the third edition now.

Another excellent book that we've been referring to in this article is Bargain Buys for Baby's First Year.

Finally, if you've got your own great tips to share, or would like to pick up some more, head over to our Discussion Boards here at the Fool, specifically: Parents and Expecting Parents and Living Below Your Means. Also check out iVillage's Parent Soup area. On all these boards, you can gather ideas from other parents, get coupon codes and deal alerts, and pose questions like, "Where can I get the best deals on nursing bras?", which is probably not a question you'd want to ask elsewhere.

Good luck!

New parents Robert and Elizabeth Brokamp have been too busy catching up on sleep to worry much about the market. They own shares of Home Depot but shop weekly at Lowe's -- go figure. Their investments -- other than their baby -- can be seenonline, as can the Fool's disclosure policy.


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