A child costs the average family more than $15,000 per year. Before you freak, read these simple ways to slash your expenses.
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Buy unisex clothing.
If you plan to have more than one child, stay away from stereotypical pink or blue outfits, suggests Jonathan Pond, author of Grow Your Money. Many T-shirts, shorts, and pants can be worn by both boys and girls through preschool, so it makes financial sense to maximize your hand-me-down potential.
Why drop $800 on a fancy ride when you can pick up a good one for $200? "It's not like a designer model has antilock brakes or air bags," says Alan Fields, coauthor of Baby Bargains.
Avoid pricey hotels.
For your family vacay, rent a house instead of a hotel room. You'll save a bundle and get a kitchen to trim restaurant bills. Try craigslist.com, vrbo.com, or homeaway.com for listings.
Turn your home into a preschool.
Many pre-K programs now accept 2-year-olds. But holding off for a year or two will save you thousands in tuition fees. "You can easily create a stimulating environment at home and provide lots of opportunities for playdates with friends to help prepare children for kindergarten," says Barbara Willer, spokeswoman for the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Cut your kids' hair.
A salon visit can set you back $25 or more, but you can easily trim your child's locks yourself. You need a spray bottle, sharp scissors or clippers, and a comb to clear loose hairs from the face and neck. For step-by-step directions, go to parents.com/haircut.
Shift your hours.
For two-income families, paying for day care or a babysitter probably takes the single biggest chunk out of your budget. Instead, see whether your employers allow for flexible hours. Some couples eliminate child-care expenses by arranging for one spouse to work evenings while the other toils during the day.
Pick "pre-owned" clothing and gear.
Shopping clearance racks can save money, but you'll need to guess what your child's size will be by next season. A better bet: Look for bargains at consignment stores and garage sales, host a clothing-swap party, or trade with moms across the country via thredup.com (you send items that no longer fit in exchange for ones you want) or swapmamas.com (the site lets you give, receive, or both). Just don't buy or donate a used car seat or crib, as these may not meet current safety standards.
Mother's milk isn't just better for your baby. It's a lot cheaper than formula too. Nursing a child isn't exactly free, of course: You'll probably need two nursing bras, breast pads, and a breast pump (a good electric model starts at $200). But you'll still save around $100 per month in the end.
Be a mom of the cloth.
If you won't do it to limit landfill trash, switch to cotton diapers to preserve your bottom line. You can buy two dozen cloth ones with six covers for about $100 (organic fabrics and designer covers will run about three times that amount). Advocates estimate that washing them yourself will cost another $450 (for detergent and utilities), but you'll still likely save more than 50 percent compared with disposables. Plus, you can reuse them on your next child.
Make your baby food by hand.
Tired of paying $1 a jar for mashed carrots? Get the Sunbeam 2 Quart Food Mill ($25 at amazon.com) and puree fruits or veggies yourself. Your baby can eat most of what you do, as long as you wait four to six months to start her on solids.
Know the first rule of baby shopping.
Buy big-ticket nursery items, such as a crib, a dresser, or a rocker, at a general-purpose or discount furniture store, not at one that sells gear for little ones exclusively. You'll often save 20 to 30 percent by doing so, according to Fields.
Brush away dental bills.
A single filling costs up to $300, according to Beverly A. Largent, D.M.D., past president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. But you can help prevent cavities by brushing your child's teeth twice a day until she has the dexterity to do it on her own, usually around age 7. Begin flossing as soon as her teeth touch. And book your first dentist visit before she turns 1. (Have her come back twice yearly after that.)
Give meaningful gifts.
When your friend has a baby, get her something she can really use: a home-cooked meal. Deliver a pan of lasagna and a salad to her door one night. You can also offer to babysit so she can catch a movie. She'll love you for it -- and you'll love saving money on a present.
Buy in bulk.
Reduce your disposable diaper bills by purchasing mega-size packages at warehouse clubs or at amazon.com (which has free shipping and one- or two-day delivery when you join Amazon Mom).
Find free entertainment.
Forget pricey kids' classes; visit a police or fire station. Libraries and bookstores have regular story hours. Many parks host fairs and concerts, and some museums have only a suggested donation. Don't feel bad about paying next to nothing for a visit. You've got kids; they'll understand.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Parents magazine.