My niece had her first child a few months ago and seeing that little baby has reminded Sarah and I of our own experience with having babies around the house. Our children are long past the baby stage, but for almost an entire decade, we were in a constant cycle of having at least a toddler, a baby, and/or a pregnant mom at home. We have baby experience, in other words.
Seeing this new little one pop into our extended family has made Sarah and I reminisce a little and talk about some of the routines and other things we used to have with our own children when they were babies. We tried lots of different things for different purposes, like trying to make sure our children had a good healthy start in their physical and mental development, making sure they were safe, and also making sure that the things we did weren’t overly expensive.
We tried a lot of frugal strategies with our kids during the first couple years of life. Some of them were big money savers and some weren’t. Some ended up requiring huge time investments, while others did not.
From the vantage point of today, I find myself thinking about one question: Which of those strategies actually provided a lot of savings for the time investment? In other words, which of those strategies would I actually recommend to my niece?
I went back through some of my old posts and notes from that era in my life, along with my own reflections, and ran some things through a calculation or two to make sure that my perception of the savings actually matched reality.
Here are the 12 biggest things I found in terms of saving money with a baby/toddler during the first couple years of life that don’t involve large time investments. (For example, Sarah and I used cloth diapers and it saved a tremendous amount of money, but there was a significant time investment in doing that beyond using paper diapers, so I didn’t include that here.)
Tip #1 – Give Breastfeeding a Chance
I am absolutely not a breastfeeding zealot. The choice of whether or not to breastfeed is based on a lot of factors, many of which are far outside the control of the mother, and simply judging someone on whether or not they choose to breastfeed is a gross oversimplification of a complex decision.
Having said that, unless there are real, tangible reasons standing in your way, strongly consider breastfeeding your baby. Breastfeeding is an incredibly cost effective way to get your baby the nutrients he or she needs in order to grow, as compared to formula. Any opportunity you have to feed your baby this way is not only healthy, but it’s going to be less expensive (unless there are unusual extenuating factors).
What about pumping? My wife used a pump with all three children and we got incredible value from that. Our calculations were that the pump – a rather high-quality device from Medela – paid for itself around the eight-month mark for our first child and she continued to use it for all three children. Not only did it produce milk that we were able to use later with our baby, it also helped her continue to flow. If you are willing to commit to pumping, especially over the course of multiple children, then a breast pump will pay for itself easily. (Having said that, I suggest renting one to try it first for a short period; many hospitals and other services will rent them out at a low cost.)
Tip #2 – Make Your Own Baby Food
Making a large quantity of baby food is far cheaper than buying the equivalent amount of Gerber or store brand baby food containers. It does require a bit of up-front effort, but it’s not bad at all.
Our process was easy. We’d simply take some fresh vegetables (like carrots or green beans) from our garden or from sales in the produce section) and cook them all day long in the slow cooker while we were at work (filling up the slow cooker if possible). When we got home and those vegetables were super-soft, we’d simply put them in a blender and puree them, adding some water when they were younger to make it thinner but slowly adding less and less water as they got older. We then poured the puree into ice cube trays and froze them. After they were frozen, we put the puree cubes into gallon-sized Ziploc baggies and labeled the bags clearly with the contents.
Whenever we needed baby food, we’d pull out a couple of cubes, microwave them gently until melted but not hot, and feed them to our baby, or if we were planning ahead, we’d put a couple in a small sealed container and let them thaw in the refrigerator or even on the countertop.
(We’d follow the same process with fresh fruits, except without the cooking part.)
This enabled us to turn low-cost on-sale produce into large quantities of baby food, and that food became the consistent food that our babies ate from about four months to a little over a year (when they began to transition to our table meals). Most of the time, the cost of our homemade purees was a fraction of the cost of buying baby food packets and it really didn’t cost us much time, either.
Tip #3 – Buy Used Clothes
Most babies outgrow their clothes incredibly quickly, leaving parents with quite a few outfits that have been worn only a couple of times. However, those outfits are still used, even if they basically look new.
So, what can a new parent do about this? They can buy clothes for their babies used, picking up outfits that have only been worn a couple of times for a fraction of the price of new clothes.
There are a lot of ways of doing this. Yard sales and garage sales are a good place to start, as are Goodwill stores and secondhand shops. You can often find baby clothes on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace for local pickup, too.
In general, the price you pay for used clothes is a tiny fraction of their cost when buying new. If you buy all used clothes and are selective, you’ll have an entire wardrobe of clothes that appear new but cost you very little, and then you can then sell those items when your baby outgrows them for most of what you paid for them (or save them for your next child).
(Another tip: don’t sweat “gender colors” much at all. Babies don’t draw conclusions about their gender based on the color of pastel onesie that they’re wearing, and no one should care about the gender conclusions that a random person on the street draws.)
Tip #4 – Buy Used Toys (But You Don’t Need Many)
I won’t delve into the child development debates regarding toys and other “educational” items for babies other than to say that much of what I said about clothes above is true: most baby toys are scarcely played with and are sold in practically new condition at used prices if you shop around at places like yard sales, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and so on.
There is really very little need to buy new toys for babies, toddlers, and young children. Their development is so fast that they’ll play with a toy for a very short period before they’ve outgrown it and moved on to other items. Buying a new toy just to have it played with a few times and then sold at a huge loss used doesn’t make much sense when you compare it to buying a toy that’s only been played with a few times at a used price, having your baby play with it a few more times, and then selling it at a used price, probably breaking even on it or losing just a small fraction of the sticker price.
Another approach – one that we used with our own kids – is to look for items that you already had on hand that are baby-friendly and toddler-friendly and just allow your little one to play with them. Our kids would play the “drums” using a wooden spoon on pots and pans. They would play lots of “peekaboo” with a drying towel. They would roll around a well-sealed coffee can or a plastic container with some pocket change in it. They’d play endlessly with cardboard boxes and things of that nature when they were a bit older.
Tip #5 – Find a Trusted Babysitting Partner (or Two)
For most families, one of the biggest costs associated with a baby is child care. If both parents need to work, someone has to take care of that child during overlapping working hours.
One solution to this problem that works well for many families (and worked well for us) is to find a trusted babysitting partner – another parent who has a child close to the same age as yours who lives near you and may be in a similar situation. You can often meet such parents at prenatal classes at your hospital or by being involved in your local neighborhood or in community groups.
If you can identify a working schedule that includes times where you can simply swap babysitting rather than taking a child to child care, you’re drastically reducing the cost of child care.
For example, let’s say you need to return to work, but you can work ten hour days four days a week – say, Monday through Thursday. You find a babysitting partner who works five days a week, but only three of those days overlaps with you and one of the other two overlaps with that person’s partner – say, Tuesday through Saturday, with that person’s partner having Saturday off. Make a proposal – you watch that person’s child on Fridays and that person watches your child on Mondays. That way, you both only have to spring for child care three days a week, which is much cheaper than four days a week.
In other words, simply look for nearby parents with differing schedules than your own and swap babysitting sessions. You can also do this in the evening, giving each of you one free evening a week while the other family watches your child. This can completely eliminate the cost of babysitting.
Tip #6 – Live Close to Trusted Family Members
Another strategy – one employed very successfully by my older brother and his wife – is to simply live very close to trusted family members who may be able to occasionally babysit, provide child care, or handle emergencies.
Every family is different, with different levels of trust and different relationships and different arrangements, but there is almost always significant value in living near family because of those types of benefits.
Perhaps your mother or father can watch your children for an afternoon once a month, enabling you to get a bunch of tasks done so that you’re less stressed out. Maybe you have a sibling who would be happy to watch your baby for you for a day every once in a while. Perhaps you might live near a cousin with a child a bit older than yours and receive a constant gravy train of hand-me-downs. Maybe your parents will have a family dinner once a week, saving you the hassle of preparing a meal that night.
Simply living close to family members you trust can provide value in ways you can’t possibly expect.
Tip #7 – Stage Your Own Photo Shoots
It is often tempting to take your child to a portrait studio or to a photographer for some great pictures. That might be wonderful, but you often find yourself paying $50 or more for just a few prints and probably even more to have the digital negatives.
The truth is that most people take amazing pictures already with their smartphones and a bit of planning. Such pictures might not be technically perfect, but they’re often far more personal as the picture can incorporate tons of personal detail, like the baby’s favorite blanket or stuffed animal, or be staged in a favorite park.
Instead of using a studio, try taking your own portraits using some thought, your smartphone camera, and some nice staging. You’ll end up with some beautiful digital negatives, full of personal elements that have real meaning, and you can then do with them as you wish – printing exact quantities you need or sharing the digital negative with friends.
Tip #8 – Use the Local Library
Local libraries are abundant with resources for all ages, and babies are no different.
For starters, libraries are known for books, right? Libraries tend to have enormous collections of board books and picture books perfect for reading with your baby. You can constantly cycle through them and find some “perfect” ones to own, rather than taking a shot in the dark at a bookstore.
Many libraries also have a “story time” for babies and toddlers, where someone reads aloud a story. These sessions also often provide social time for newer parents, which can be wonderful.
Many libraries also facilitate support groups for new parents, enabling parents to find ways to meet each other and build friendships while also sharing advice on the challenges of new parenting.
The best part is that all of these resources are typically completely free. All you have to do is stop in and see what’s available.
Tip #9 – Keep a “Baby Emergency” Bag in Each Car
I can’t even tell you the number of times in which a simple trip across town to a grocery store or a fifteen minute drive to an event or a trip to the grandparents turned into a logistical nightmare, sometimes even resulting in turning around and going home. Babies blow out their diapers and outfits. Babies spit up all over the place. Babies cry endlessly from teething. It goes on and on and on.
Our best solution for this was to have a “baby emergency” bag in each vehicle for the first few years of life. This wasn’t just the ordinary diaper bag – it included at least two full outfits appropriate for the season and the baby’s current size, several backup meals, snacks, teething rings, cleaning supplies, and countless other items that one might need in a pinch. We’d update these bags once a month or so, but they’d usually just reside in the trunk of the car.
These bags were tapped during logistical emergencies. Having that bag along saved us from simply turning around and going home many times. It salvaged long road trips. It saved us hours upon hours over the years. The fuel savings alone added up to a lot.
It also saved us money on the supplies themselves. Without some preparation, an unexpected event can result in an emergency run to Target where you’re buying overpriced items in a rush. If you have a prepared bag for almost all emergencies, then you can buy those supplies at reasonable prices or make them yourself so that you’re not buying things in an emergency.
Tip #10 – Ask for Product Samples at the Pediatrician’s Office
The offices of most pediatricians are deluged with samples for things like formula and other baby health care products. These products are often distributed to new parents fairly haphazardly, but the reality is that many parents will get much more in terms of samples if they simply ask. So, ask.
Quite often, a simple request for samples of formula to help you figure out what’s best for your baby will result in an armload of options which you can then use to figure out which one’s right for your baby without additional cost. That way, you don’t have to try out several formulas out of pocket to find the one that works for you and your baby.
Our pediatrician was pretty friendly with samples of all kinds of products, but you could always get even more if you simply asked for them. It was a great way to try out different products to see if they worked well with our babies without having to actually buy them.
Tip #11 – Do Phone Consultations for Minor Issues Before Scheduling a Pediatrician Appointment
It can be tempting – especially at first – to immediately schedule an appointment at the pediatrician or to run for the emergency room whenever there’s a minor problem with your baby. It’s often not clear what you should be doing and what’s actually a cause for alarm, so parents often respond with maximum caution – and that’s a good thing.
However, it’s also an expensive thing, and given that many such matters are completely normal situations without any need for special care, it can add up to a lot of unnecessary expense, especially if you don’t have world class insurance.
The best solution is to talk to your child’s primary pediatrician and ask about the availability of a nurse consultation service for minor medical issues. Many doctors, particularly those in larger clinics, have a 24 hour nurse service line that people can call if they are patients of that clinic to ask basic medical questions without a cost.
Such calls can help you quickly figure out if that rash is something to really worry about or if it’s normal, and if it’s normal, how you can easily treat it. It beats trusting your interpretation of a website by a long shot and it can really help you figure out whether you need to actually make an appointment or go to the ER or you can just handle the situation at home with much less expense and time commitment.
Tip #12 – Sign Up for Coupons
If you find yourself settling into a routine of using a particular product for your baby, such as a particular brand of formula or a particular brand of diaper (which is usually a good idea for consistency’s sake once you find something that works), sign up for coupons for that item. Go to the manufacturer’s website and see if they offer coupons.
Quite often, you’ll find that such sites will send you coupons both in your email and in the snail mail quite regularly, usually more often than you’ll actually use them. If you’ve settled into using a particular product, those coupons basically equal cash, and they’re often coupons with a nice face value attached, such as $1 or $2 off a large can of formula or $4 off a jumbo pack of diapers.
I looked at these coupons as basically being free money for new parents, so I was happy to receive them. Sure, you sometimes got coupons for items you didn’t really want or need, but the value of the worthwhile coupons was immense.
One tip: if you haven’t already done this, create an email address just for coupons and promotional offers. Gmail allows you to easily do this. Then, sign up for coupons using this new email address alone and then just check it whenever you need to buy coupons. This keeps your main email from receiving any additional spam.
There are lots and lots of different strategies one can use to save money with a baby at home, but these tips were the ones that really provided a lot of value for us during the baby years. They provided a ton of value for very little additional effort on our part, which was great because new parents are almost overwhelmed with things to do with the sudden addition of a baby to care for in their lives.
Good luck to you and the new baby in your life!