Cloth Diapering: A Real-World Analysis

Several readers wanted a real-world analysis of the costs and benefits of cloth diapering. Luckily, my wife’s closest friend, Carrie, is cloth diapering her daughter Elizabeth and has contributed this lengthy analysis of cloth diapering. Carrie writes some notes about parenting and art at her personal blog, Dangerous Crayon. I have some notes in response to this that appear in th first comment. Take it away, Carrie!

Recently, when The Simple Dollar told readers to ask him anything they want, there were several commentors who asked for a cost benefit for cloth diapering. While there are lots of resources out there to analyze this, I thought I’d take a shot at figuring out in my own situation what the cost of cloth diapering has been over Elizabeth’s first year of life.

My methodology is a little hazy, but hopefully it’s decent enough to give a realistic analysis. If you have suggestions for other ways to provide a better view of the cost, please advise me, and I will report back!

The Background

All of our appliances are electric. I wash diapers approximately 3 times a week. My wash routine for the majority of the year has been: 1 cold wash and rinse, no extra rinse, no detergent; 1 warm wash and rinse, extra rinse with detergent, 1 cold wash and rinse, no extra rinse, no detergent, typically followed by 2 – 45 minute dryer cycles. I found this to be most effective for me. Some people do fine with a cold rinse, warm wash with 1 extra rinse, which could potentially reduce the amount of water and electricity used by almost half.

Currently, I change diapers about 7 times a day, making for about 50 diapers a week. Even though diapers were changed more frequently in early months, I figure this is a reasonable number to use, so that makes for about 2,600 diaper changes per year. On a side note, if it takes about 1 minute to change a diaper (ha, right!) then that means I’ve spent in the neighborhood of 44 hours changing diapers – that almost 2 full days of diaper changes!

My diaper stash is a mix of inexpensive (prefolds, pins, and cheap covers) and the pricey (pocket diapers). The way I figure it, I have about 53 diapers – 30 infant prefolds or fitteds that were used up to about 14 lbs, 12 premium prefolds we’re using now, and about 11 one size diapers that we’ve used all along. Over the course of the past year, we’ve purchased some disposable diapers, and we were give some as gifts. I figure we used about 360 disposable diapers – usually when we were gone on vacation somewhere, which, with all of our family and church activities, was in the neighborhood of 6 weeks. We also used them occasionally when diapers weren’t washed in a timely fashion.

The Numbers

The total value of my cloth diaper stash is $705.53 *
Detergents – $51.00
Utilities (water and electric) $173.55**
Total cost for cloth diapering in Year 1 (2007) – $930.08

If one assumes that 50 diaper changes a week is a reasonable yearly average, then, if we cloth diapered exclusively, that would work out to 2600 diaper changes in 2007. Considering that we know we did about 360 changes less than that average, we will use 2240 as out number of diaper changes in 2007. That works out to about $ 0.42 per washed diaper in Year 1.($930.08/2240)

* This number includes ALL diapering items – prefolds, covers, snappis (replaces diaper pins) onesize pocket diapers, reusable cloth wipes, diaper pail and reusable liners, a diaper sprayer to remove solids from diapers, and a few other miscellaneous diaper accessories.

** To calculate utilities, I made a basic assumption that the increase in cost between 2006 and 2007 is all diaper related. The reality is that utility rates have increased, there was additional baby-related laundry, and we used the air conditioners more in the summer of 2007 than we had in previous years. I believe the actual cost related to cloth diapers would be noticeably lower. We used less water in 2007 than in 2006 because of changes in the number of people living in our home (1 adult was replaced by one infant) But, for grins, and because we had changes in people and fixed several plumbing leaks in 2007, I’ll go ahead and include a cost for water. In electricity, we used about 1732 kWh more in 2007 than in 2006.

Less than $1000 doesn’t seem to bad, but it doesn’t seem too far from what you might expect to spend on disposable diapers. However, one must consider that these diapers should last us another year, so the only additional expense in Year 2 should be utilities and laundry detergent. If we assume that the prices on those items will remain constant, then over the course of 2 years, the cost would be more like this:

Year 2
The total value of my cloth diaper stash – $0 – bought it all last year
Detergents – $51.00
Utilities (water and electric) $173.55
Total for Year 2 in cloth – $224.55

Not too bad. I think I can scrounge around and find that in pocket change over the course of a year!

Total for 2 years in cloth: $1154.63

If we assume 2240 diaper changes in Year 1, and lets assume that there will be fewer diaper changes in Year 2 (we’ll say on average 5 changes per day – 1825/year) then we would say that over the course of Year 1 and Year 2, there will be 4,065 diaper changes. That gives us a cost of$.28 per diaper change.

Comparing to Disposables

Since I haven’t used disposable diapers exclusively, I will have to estimate the cost for Year 1 and Year 2 diapers, based on the same changing habits. I went to my local big-blue-box store, and priced out diapers in the lower range – the White Cloud store brand. I priced at purchasing in bulk when possible, and since in real life we can only buy whole packages of diapers, I “bought” however many packages I needed to cover the number of changes, even if I ended up with extras. Since the cost per diaper of disposables varies depending on size, I reviewed Elizabeth’s growth chart to guess the number of weeks that she would have been in a given size, still using the 50 changes per week. (This, I think, is under-estimating since there are more diaper changes in the first few months.) I’m also assuming 2.5 wipes per change because my experience is that I’ll use one wipe for some changes, and 6 or 7 for the messier changes.

Year 1
NB – 100 changes, 3 pkgs (40/$6.97) – $20.91
Sz 1 – 100 changes, 1 jumbo( 88/$12.74), 1 regular pkg (44/$6.97) – $19.71
Sz 2 – 400 changes, 5 pkgs (80/$12.74)- $63.70
Sz 3 – 2000 changes, 24 pkgs (84/$13.98) – $335.52

Wipes (at 2.5 wipes per change) 6500 – 11 pkgs at (648/$11.82) – 130.02

And, just for fun – Diaper Genie 2 – $29.96 and 15 refills – $89.10

Once we figure sales tax in, this comes up to about $858.83 for Year 1, or about $.33 per diaper change (yes this is a little fuzzy, because it does not account for the extra diapers purchased in each size.)

Year 2

Assuming that children use fewer diapers on average per day as they get older, I’m pretending that Elizabeth would have about 5 diaper changes per day, for a total of 1,825 changes in a year. If that were split evenly between the next 2 sizes, then it would look like this:

Sz 3 – 913 changes, (84/$13.98) – $153.78
Sz 4 – 913 changes, (72/13.98) – $181.74
Wipes (at 2.5 wipes per change) 4680 – at (648/$11.82) – $94.56
11 diaper genie 2 refills – $65.34
Total cost in Year 2 after sales tax – $495.42, or about $.27 per diaper change.

Total cost to use disposable diapers for 2 years – $1354.25
Assuming 4,065 diaper changes over the course of 2 years, that gives us a cost of $.33 per diaper change.

If you were inclined to use more expensive brands – I priced out Pampers’ Swaddlers and Babydry style diapers – then you could expect to add about $90 in the first year, and about $100 in the second year, for a total of $1601.83 to diaper for 2 years in a more expensive disposable.


Year 1, Cloth – $930.08
Year 1, Disposables – $858.83

Year 2, Cloth – $1154.63
Year 2, Disposables – $1354.25

If I had opted out of a larger stash, and some accessories, I believe that the cost in Year 1 of cloth diapering would be on par with the cost of disposables.

Since most children are not potty trained by one year, I would say that cloth is cheaper, even when you have some of the more expensive diapers. Actually, for the money that I “save” by using cloth – $199.62 – I could have added more than 8 pocket diapers to my stash, and still come out on top.

Factors That Make Disposable Diapers More Expensive Than Calculated

The brand As I indicated above, if you go for a more expensive brand, it will cost you more. One of the reasons I opted for cloth is that I think there are health benefits to avoiding disposables. If I use disposables, my preference is brands like 7th Generation, which have fewer dioxins, and hopefully, are healthier for babies. Those brands are even more expensive than brands like Pampers.

The size of the package Some parents are cautious about buying in bulk, since it means you could be stuck with lots of diapers in the wrong size. Some parents don’t have the upfront cash to buy diapers in bulk, so they end up spending more per diaper when they buy smaller packages.

Frequency of changes While I used a 50 change per week average, the truth is, diapers should be changed more frequently for health. We shouldn’t be letting the disposables fill until they are falling off the bottoms of the babies. More diaper changes mean a noticeable increase in expense with disposables, while with cloth, more changes do not significantly impact the number of washes. More changes mean the cost per washed diaper keeps dropping.

The leaks The times that I used disposables, I found that they tended to leak more, which sometimes rendered clothing stained beyond public wear.

The garbage Although I haven’t personal experience with this, some people have reported to me that their garbage service charges more, because they set more bags/barrels of trash out on the curb.

Factors That Affect Your Personal Cost to Cloth Diaper

Your stash If you go with the cheapest end of cloth diapering – all prefolds, inexpensive covers, inexpensive detergents, then you will see a greater benefit. If you use the most expensive options – all-in-one diapers or pocket diapers, then your cost recovery will be much slower. If you buy a large stash, the diapers individually will last longer, but of course, the cash outlay for 48 pocket diapers is substantially more than that for just 24.

Your routine If you wash more often, or have more rinses, etc., then you’ll see greater utility costs.

The number of children The more children you have who will wear the same cloth diapers, the greater your savings.

And, if you’re not convinced that cloth is less expensive (aside from the potential health and environmental benefits), check out these sites:
Punkin-butt: Diaper Dollar
Cloth Diapers: Can I afford to cloth diaper?
Nicki’s Diapers: How much money can you really save?
Pinstripes and Polka Dots: how much will cloth diapers cost?

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.