How to Trim Down Your Family's Expenses
Right after I gave birth to my first daughter, a funny thing happened: Virtually every dollar I owned seemed to sprout wings. Then one by one, they flew away—to the pediatrician, the drugstore, and any chain that sold cute kids' clothes. Sure, I'd known that a baby would bring new financial pressures. But when I saw my first postpartum credit-card bill, I totally freaked out.
If you have a newborn, you're probably panicked too. No wonder: Depending on your spending habits and child-care needs, you'll likely shell out $7,000 to $14,600 annually between now and your little one's second birthday. But there's hope. Through trial and error, I learned a lot about raising a daughter on a budget. Now that my second girl is here, I've gotten even savvier. Here are ways you, too, can cut your baby expenses by half—or even more.
- Say no to add-ons. Pass up a private room if there's a charge. Fees can vary wildly, from about $30 a day in Alabama all the way up to a $500 daily charge where I gave birth, in Manhattan. By opting for a two-person room for my second hospital stay, when a C-section required me to remain five days, I saved $2,500. With nurses popping in every hour, I would have had no privacy anyway.
- Don't turn on the TV. Some hospitals (like mine) also charge patients about $8 a day for television privileges. But you're there to rest, not watch a Three's Company marathon. Relish the time with your newborn and the fact that there's an army of nurses to watch her while you recuperate. It's a luxury you won't have at home.
- Ask for coupons and samples. Manufacturers often lavish maternity wards with freebies, but the hospital staff is sometimes too busy to remember to dole them out. I got tubes of lotion and diaper ointment, coupons for stuff like baby wash and baby portraits, plus a surprisingly chic black diaper bag to hold it all—but only because I asked a nurse whether there were any samples around.
- Take the toiletries. You can often keep some goodies from your hospital stay—namely the baby-care items stored in the cabinet beneath your little one's rolling bassinet (ask permission). Look inside, and you'll probably find diapers, swaddling cloths, alcohol swabs, a nasal aspirator, disposable nipples for bottles, a thermometer, and more. Leave them behind and you'll just have to shell out $30 to $40 later at the drugstore.
- Nurse if you possibly can. Not only is it healthy, but you'll also save at least $1,400 in your child's first year.
- Borrow a breast pump. An electric pump can be expensive (about $150 to $800), and it's just the plastic attachments that shouldn't be shared. You can buy a starter kit of those for less than $45.
- Find out in advance where you can get free breastfeeding advice. When you need help, you need it fast, which can limit your options. With my first daughter, I paid a lactation consultant $200 before recalling that my hospital had a free nursing hotline. Local breastfeeding organizations may offer home visits or phone consultations at no charge.
- Don't rush to buy a breastfeeding wardrobe. My mom bought me three $18 nursing tees shortly after I left the hospital. I spent another $36 on special bras. Total wasted when I had to give up breastfeeding ten days later: $90. Since you'll spend most of your baby's first two weeks indoors anyway, wait at least that long and make sure you're committed to breastfeeding before you buy clothes for nursing in public.
- Don't buy baby clothes far in advance. Newborns can have sudden growth spurts, as my friend Heather learned the hard way. Last year she bought her infant son a winter coat in September, only to find he'd outgrown it by the time the cold weather actually arrived.
- Scrimp on all-in-ones. You'll mostly layer them under other clothes. I once spotted several packs of slightly irregular name-brand all-in-ones marked down 70 percent at a Value City near my in-laws' house. You'd never notice the defects, and after a baby spits up on something, it doesn't look regular anyway. By the way, when it comes to staples like undershirts, all-in-ones, and socks, buy them in plain white. If (ha! when) they get dirty, you can bleach them for pennies instead of spot-treating stains with a $3.50 bottle of laundry spray.
- Choose unisex shades and styles. I snapped up one pink dress after another when my older daughter was born. It never even crossed my mind that my next child might be a boy and those hand-me-downs would all be useless. (Genie turned out to be a girl. Whew!)
- Lose the shoes. You can spend about $30 on leather footwear for your infant. But babies will learn to walk faster if they're barefoot when they're indoors. Use soft booties (I got ours for $1.99 at a closeout store) to keep feet warm when you're outside.
- Buy secondhand special-occasion clothes. Visit your local consignment shop, and pick up a princess dress or a tiny suit for a fraction of its retail cost. Chances are its previous owner wore it just once or twice.
Gear Up for Less
- Look for furniture and accessories that do double duty. I'm talking about stuff like Wal-Mart's Ameriwood Changing Table/Dresser Combo ($90) and the One Step Ahead Euro II Highchair With Cushion ($100), which can be converted into a booster seat and then a regular chair. Many cribs can be transformed into toddler beds later on too.
- Return unwanted gifts promptly. Merchants often put time limits on returns and exchanges; you don't want to miss your chance. Incidentally, this is a great task to delegate. Really, why expect yourself—a new mom who's more edgy and disoriented than any character in the cast of Lost—to stand in line at the Baby Gap to return a sweater?
- Don't buy crib pillows. They're cute but useless, and you've got to remove them whenever your child is in the crib, since they can be a SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) hazard.
- Buy just one or two bottles before your baby is born. I got a dozen of a certain brand because everyone raved about them, only to find that my daughter wouldn't take them. She liked a different (less expensive!) kind.
- Set up a photo Website. You can post your baby pics online for free at some sites (try snapfish.com or kodakgallery.com). Friends and relatives can then print out their own copies (for a fee).
- When it comes to diapers, think big. Lugging home one of those 228-count cartons from the wholesale club is worth it—you'll save about $170 a year.
- Test-drive a stroller before you buy it. My best friend had an enormous, $350 model. So I bought it also—then discovered I couldn't steer it. When I told my friend I hated the $%^! thing, she laughed and said, "Me too—you should have asked."
- Turn to your local library for classes and games. I spent $270 on a music class for my first daughter when she was 6 months old. With my second, I decided to see what our library offered. To my delight, it has mom-and-baby yoga classes and weekly storytime for pre-walkers, all free. The library also has wooden puzzles and other toys we can play with while we're there.
- Keep a baby-care bag in your car. Make sure it contains three diapers, a tube of ointment, a travel pack of wipes, an extra outfit, and, if your child eats solid foods, a small snack (like a teething biscuit or some vegetable puffs). When you forget your diaper bag on an outing—and you will—you won't end up buying one (or all!) of these items on an expensive, a la carte basis.
Rx for Healthcare Savings
- Ask your pediatrician for free product samples. At almost every checkup, my older daughter's doctor slipped me a can of her costly formula or a vial of eczema cream.
- Call your pediatrician to talk over a problem before setting up an appointment. A very experienced doc may be able to diagnose an illness right over the phone. I saved several $20 co-pays once I realized this.
- Don't buy an ear thermometer. Most doctors recommend digital oral or rectal ones, which cost only about a third as much, for accuracy.
Food for Thought
Hold on to free formula samples and coupons. Nursing deserves every chance. But more than 85 percent of moms stop nursing exclusively by the time their baby is 6 months old—which means that most of us end up spending hundreds of dollars on formula at some point. So don't be so fast to throw away special offers, and do sign up for formula companies' newsletters on their Websites (try welcomeaddition.com, enfamil.com, and brightbeginnings.com). Consider generic formulas too. By law, they must meet the same quality and nutrition standards as the big names. And if you need a special formula blend, find out whether your flexible health-care spending account will cover the difference. Mine did.
Sign up for baby-food company newsletters and coupon offers. Visit gerber.com, beechnut.com, earthsbest.com, and stonyfield.com. Then do your shopping at a store that has a baby club: At my local supermarket, I get $10 off my next purchase after I've spent $100 on eligible items (including diapers, wipes, and some baby accessories). I saved $40 on groceries that way last year.
Make some baby food. It's no biggie to mash steamed zucchini or a ripe banana. Make one serving and save another and you've kept a buck or so in your pocket. Check out our free baby-food recipes
Package crunchy toddler snacks in individual airtight containers as soon as you buy them. Cheerios and arrowroot biscuits go stale faster than a J. Lo wedding announcement.
Copyright © 2005. Reprinted with permission from the June 2005 issue of Parents magazine.