A toddler has control of nearly $1,500 of our household budget this year. Yes, you read that right: how our family will spend more than a thousand dollars depends on the whims of a child who throws a tantrum when he’s told he can’t have any more chocolate pudding. We could use that money to buy a plasma-screen television or increase a college savings fund, but until my little boy stops resisting our attempts at potty training, that $1,500 is literally disposable income.
When I was pregnant, I failed to seriously consider the alternative of cloth diapers, a decision I am starting to regret. Every time I see my son disappear into a corner to fill his diaper, I imagine more of that cash slipping away. Our toddler is big for his age. He has worn a Size 6 diaper for nearly a year, having quickly outgrown the smaller, less expensive sizes. Of course, the most expensive brand (Pampers Cruisers) is the only one that doesn’t regularly leak on him. The lowest per-diaper price we can find on Size 6 Cruisers is $34.99 for a box of 100 at BJ’s. (With coupons, we usually pay $33.00.) He averages a dozen dirty diapers a day, so we spend about $4.00 per day on diapers, or $1,460 over twelve months. If he refuses to use the potty much longer, we will have to upgrade to Size 7 Cruisers, which sell for $15.00 for 28 diapers, and add about $2.00 a day to our diaper costs.
A week before my son was born, my friend Julie also gave birth to a boy. She had taken the time to research cloth diapers and chose to use them. Now, while we have daily battles over the potty, her son is almost completely potty trained. With the ability to actually feel a wet bottom (disposable diapers do their job far too well), he took initiative in using the bathroom.
I recently talked with Julie about what she has spent on diapers. She bought about 48 diapers total, two dozen in each of two sizes. Her son is small for his age, so other children might go through three sizes. It’s also possible to buy all the diapers in a large size and fold them to fit smaller babies, thereby reducing the total number of diapers needed to 24. Julie recommended buying six- or eight-ply diapers rather than the less absorbent kind, which sometimes require double-diapering. Her favorites are prefold diapers, which run about $2.25 a piece. Multiplying 48 diapers by $2.25 brings the price of cloth diapers for the baby and toddler years to $108. Cloth diapers also require the purchase of diaper covers. Julie needed about six diaper covers at a time and avoided the lowest-priced rubber pants because they tore easily and needed to be replaced often. The purchase of six new mid-priced diaper covers every three months adds $120 per year to cloth diaper costs.
A major objection to using cloth diapers is the need to launder them. Pre-baby, I thought I would hate having to wash soiled diapers, but I quickly learned that using disposable diapers has not exempted me from cleaning up disgusting messes. When my niece was born 25 years ago, my sister had a diaper service that whisked away her dirty cloth diapers and replaced them with clean ones. Now, disposable diapers have become so common that such services are rare (and are nonexistent in our area).
In the beginning, my friend Julie washed dirty diapers every other day. Now that her son is nearly potty trained, she washes them once a week. Allowing $0.40 per-load laundering costs (based on the defaults in the laundry calculator at http://www.csgnetwork.com/laundrycostcalc.html) and keeping a consistent interval of two days between loads, I added in $219 for laundry costs over three years.
If you’re still following me, you may already have figured that the cost of keeping a child in cloth diapers for three years (longer than many will actually be in diapers) would be about $687, less than we spend on disposable diapers for six months. Julie has probably spent significantly less than the $687, as she looks for additional ways to keep the costs even lower. She buys secondhand diaper supplies at yard sales and online, and she washes the diapers in warm water, using only a half a cup of laundry detergent, which she says is plenty. She did splurge on one “diaper luxury” – a clip to replace diaper pins, which make the diapering task much quicker and easier, particularly for squirmy children. The cost of a diaper clip is less than $5.00, and she needed only one.
Though I’m tempted to switch to cloth diapers, the thought of learning a new way to change diapers right when we’re trying to eliminate them completely has discouraged me. (I might tell you otherwise if I need to start buying those Size 7 Cruisers.) Plus, my husband, who shares the diaper-changing duty, is squeamish about using cloth diapers. However, if you are expecting a baby, I urge you not to dismiss the idea of cloth diapers before seriously considering it. If you don’t mind doing a little extra laundry (you’ll be doing more than you used to, anyway), cloth diapers will let you save a bundle on your new little bundle of joy.