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The Frugal First Year

February 2, 2019

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“Kids are so expensive!”

It’s a common refrain. But do they really have to be? A frugal first year means aiming for the best possible quality of life for parents and baby, at a reasonable cost.

The Baby Industrial Complex

By a certain age, you find yourself surrounded by pregnant friends, newborns, and toddlers. Perusing gifts on registries and evaluating baby products for your own child, you become acquainted with the Baby Industrial Complex. The B.I.C. is an advertising machine which bombards new parents and those around them with messages to buy products to solve any impending baby related problem. As Brandon, our friend and father of a spirited 3-year-old put it, this marketing attempts to capitalize on our insecurities as parents.

Peer pressure

Another factor pushing us to spend on little people is the want to keep up with other parents, real or imagined through advertisements. Internal and external pressures tell us,

“This is what I work for.”

“You can afford it.”

“My kid deserves the best.”

Those things may be true, but it doesn’t mean you need to drain your resources outfitting baby’s first year. Your kid deserves to have parents who minimize financial stress by living below their means. (S)he deserves to learn about reusing things, and that possessions have value, even if they don’t come fresh out of packaging. These values are often overshadowed by the noisy Baby Industrial Complex.


Busy professionals who become parents may be attracted to the quickest way to fulfill a need, thereby consuming products on the fly. This often means paying more. With one-click buying and rapid shipping available from online stores, we can purchase things without even thinking twice about whether the items are necessary.  

Save here, spend there

Being mindful about spending in some areas helped us to find money for other things of value, like a family trip abroad, and excellent, flexible childcare. This made it a more relaxed, enjoyable first year for all involved.

A word about cooties.

Our culture urges us to buy new things.  Having a new baby, many assume, requires new gear. For some, getting used baby stuff is not socially acceptable. Some people fear other children’s germs and body fluids, making them eschew used things. But baby items are often designed to be washed and sanitized, given the messy nature of the first year. If your child attends daycare, there will be far more cooties to contend with. So if it’s possible to get something used, consider it. You could save a ton of money.

A warning: some things should NOT be acquired used.  

Anything from the home of a smoker should be avoided. Compounds in cigarette smoke increase the risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). I found a crib I was interested in buying used, but was disappointed when I arrived at a dwelling that smelled of smoke. Used mattresses are also a no-no, as they can harbor mildew and likewise increase the risk of SIDS.  

Used car seats must come from a reputable source, without any history of accidents. Being in an accident can affect the safety of the seat. Did you know car seats have an expiration date? The date helps to ensure the integrity of the materials, as well as the age of the safety technology used. Finally, be sure to check for recalls on any used baby items.  

Let an abundance of baby things flow through the household

It is bittersweet fun to pass on a marshmallow-like Merlin Magic sleep suit, or a tiny giraffe print bathrobe, each outgrown, and still in good condition. Since we don’t spend a lot on baby stuff, there is no sense of guilt or clinging to items once they have served their purpose. This allows baby stuff to flow freely through the household.

Get baby stuff for free  

As soon-to-be parents, we were open to used baby gear, and found ourselves in the right place at the right time. I was visiting some friends in Joshua Tree for dinner, and they casually mentioned their 18 month-old had grown out of some things. They gave us an infant car seat, a giant pregnancy pillow, a baby bathtub, a Bumbo seat, and a Rockaroo. We received two baby carriers, a Baby K’tan, and a Baby Beco carrier. They gave us an unworn pair of Toms shoes printed with multicolored cars. Acquiring this treasure trove of baby stuff saved us hundreds of dollars, and brainpower I would have otherwise used to shop for these items new. Our friends’ generosity was incredible, and we followed their example by doing the same, once Wesley started to outgrow things. An Amazon gift card was a convenient way to thank our giving friends.

If you add up the cost of these items, we saved $650, or nearly $700, if you add the sales tax we would have paid buying new.

Hand-me-down clothing is awesome

Another friend has a 3-year-old boy. She had several bags of baby clothes in her walk-in closet, waiting to be donated, when I expressed interest in them. With the wardrobe she provided, Wes has pants, collared shirts, cable knit sweaters, jackets, shoes, and a warm hat. Along with some gifts from friends and family, we have bought almost no clothing for him. I’m guessing we saved at least $200 here.

What’s taking up space in your friend’s garage?

As our baby began to crawl, another friend’s toddler outgrew her gated play area. The gate was graciously lent to us. I purchased a foam play mat from Amazon, so instead of the play area costing $160, it cost $70. We saved $90.

You don’t need all the baby gear at once.

Some gear is not appropriate until 6-12 months, when baby has developed head control. Then, he or she is ready for activities like riding in a bike trailer or jogging stroller. I struggled with the urge to buy these things prematurely. Since we have a modest ranch with little storage, I forced myself to wait. By biding our time, we could wait for sales, and intermittently check resale sites like Ebay, Craigslist, and Letgo for the best deal.   

The chariot: a big-ticket item

My husband looked up Consumer Reports to find the highest rated car seat/ stroller combo. He chose the Chicco Bravo Trio travel system, which retails for $380, and was compatible with the car seat given to us by our friends. I purchased it with a $100 coupon at Buy Buy Baby. High end strollers, which can be “maneuvered with a single finger while you holding a latte in the other hand,” run $500-$1200 and up. We were happy enough with our Chicco rig, that we didn’t feel the need to spend more on a high-end model. We saved $200-$900 with this choice.

When we were preparing to travel around Europe for 2 weeks as a family, Bob found a McClaren travel umbrella stroller on Craigslist. Used for 3 children, it had a faded, worn-in look. But it was still in good condition, and fully functional. We paid $35 for it. New, it retails for $165; therefore, we saved $130.

Jogging stroller time

When Baby was nearing 12 months, our friends were expecting. We decided to give them our Chicco travel system, and graduate to a jogging stroller. I dreamed of the Bob Revolution stroller, and was ready to “invest” in a new one, for $449.99, when I found a used one in excellent condition for $150. The 1 hour 20 minute drive was spent listening to an audiobook. Therefore, the trip turned into “mom time,” while my husband was home with the boy. The seller, a stay-at-home-dad of four girls, gave me a full demo, let me run it around the block, and threw in a wooly insert for cold days. We saved $300.

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Beyond 30 pounds: the toddler car seat

The Max Cosi car seat was recommended by our friends whose toddler approved, after rejecting her first seat by crying every. single. time. she was put in it.  Some retailers offer different prices just for choosing a different color. In this case, a black seat was $250 and a navy blue seat was $180. I couldn’t believe we saved $70 based on color choice alone!

Figure out what you don’t need to buy  

It’s unnecessary to buy toys, as your child will likely receive them as gifts. If I purchased toys, not only would it have been a waste of time and money, but we’d be buried in them. It’s helpful to have an idea in mind, for when someone asks what they can buy your child. My boy had no building blocks, for example, so when his birthday rolled around, it was a good suggestion for a friend attending his party. Board books can be suggested instead of birthday cards.  

As Baby’s first birthday approached, I planned a cake smash photo session, until my husband objected. We have pictures of Bob at that age, with a party hat on, eating and making a joyful mess of a huge slice of watermelon. He said, “Give Wes a slice of watermelon, we’ll save money.” I considered his point, and decided to host our own cake smash in the backyard. Instead of being in a studio by himself, it became a sweet memory to share with friends. We ended up with many cute group photos which wouldn’t have happened if we had done the professional session. We saved $300.


I scored Wesley’s high chair on Craigslist. The Anka by Svan High chair has a modern wooden design. When I found the post on Craigslist, I did my research, and found the chair was discontinued, but not recalled. I bought it for $45 from a kindly set of grandparents. They had used it for visiting grandchildren. It was spotless. The chair previously retailed for $199.99 on Albee Baby. I saved $155!

I enjoy hiking, and admired an Osprey hiking carrier owned by our Joshua Tree buddies. Tricked-out with a secure baby cockpit, a canopy, and ample storage, it listed for $249.95 on Amazon, or $290 at REI. Fishing on Craigslist again, I found a used one, in great condition. The seller used it a handful of times for his two children. We met at a gas station for a safe, public exchange. I paid $140. It was a good deal for him, and a great deal for me. I saved $110.

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Breastfeeding is frugal  

I breastfed and pumped at work for 12 months. If it’s possible for mom and baby, breastfeeding has many benefits. A large benefit of breastfeeding is financial. As baby got bigger, my supply wasn’t adequate to keep up with his needs, and we supplemented with formula (purchased with coupons). The stuff is expensive!  

According to Trent Hamm, a dad who tabulated his family’s cost for formula feeding for, the average price of formula is nineteen cents per ounce. He estimated the yearly cost of formula for an average baby at $1733.75. Breast milk, on the other hand, is free, apart from pumping accessories one buys, and of course, mom’s time. By using primarily breast milk for the first 12 months, I estimate we saved $1600.  

Frugal Diapering

I found the idea of producing of a huge mass of diapers in a landfill repellant. On the other hand, disposables are so convenient, and super absorbent. In order to reduce the amount of waste we produce, we use a combination of cloth and disposable diapers.  

Modern cloth diapers are far more user-friendly than in the past. They reduce waste, and can even encourage earlier potty training. In addition to these benefits, they can save you money. A detailed cost comparison was written by Elizabeth Thames, in her blog post, The Ultimate Guide to Frugal Diapering. Check it out. 

For night-time and trips out of the house, we use disposable diapers. Amazon produces a reliable diaper, and we use Prime delivery for convenience.  

Costs of cloth:

We received a pack of Nora’s Nursery cloth diapers as a gift. I bought an additional 10 diapers ($150), liners ($20), extra detergent pods ($40), and dedicated dry bags for wet diapers ($10). Extra washing and drying cost about $92, figuring 25 cents per wash and one extra load of laundry per day. I guesstimate that by using cloth, we saved 8 disposable diapers a day, at 25 cents each, for 365 days. This comes to $730 in disposable diaper savings. Subtracting what we spent on cloth diapers and extra laundering, about $310, we saved about $420 diapering this way.

Baby food, the frugal way

We make most of our own baby food. It is fun and experimental to make your own. We buy some packaged food for convenience, but since the ultra-pasteurized, gelatinized stuff tastes and feels different, we want him to get used to the tastes and textures of homemade stuff too.     

Baby food is made in large batches, and frozen in ice-cube trays. We store frozen cubes in labelled gallon freezer bags. Cubes can be microwaved quickly whenever baby needs a meal. Some of the tools we use to make baby’s food include:

a steamer insert 

a food smasher

food processor

Homemade baby mush is cost-effective.

For example, sweet potato, one of his favorite foods, costs one to two dollars per pound, depending on whether you buy organic.  Say $2.50 buys enough to make 12 servings of about 2.5 oz each: that’s 21 cents per serving. Lentils are likewise cheap and nutritious, providing complex carbohydrates. Avocado mixed with banana is a meal loaded with healthy fat, and costs about a dollar per serving, depending on the season. Whole milk yogurt is well received with fruit, or on its own. We purée frozen mango cubes from Trader Joe’s, and add it to a variety of foods. Organic applesauce with no added sugar can also be used to thin food or add flavor. Applesauce is a common ingredient in pouches, but you will pay a lot more for it in that form.  

Canned wild caught salmon from Trader Joe’s costs $4 per can. Run through the food processor, it is baby food. It will make your kid smell like cat food, but it’s a great source of omega 3 fatty acids, which are good for brain development, and calcium, for healthy bones. If nutrients can be obtained from food sources, it’s better than chasing nutritional requirements with supplements. At this point, Wes obliges by eating it all. When he doesn’t like something, we add some banana or applesauce, and down it goes. 

After getting used to making baby food at home, I found myself balking at the price at the store. Pouches were nearly two dollars each. By my estimation, making food at home yields a savings of about $1 per meal x 3 meals per day x 180 days of solids. That’s $540 savings in the first year, for nutritionally superior food!

~$5,000 saved

With these moves, I estimate we saved about $4850 over the course of the year.

I hope that gives you some ideas for a frugal first year.  Please share your frugal moves for raising little ones by leaving a comment!  

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