Diapers are perhaps the worst thing about parenting. They are gross, kids jam their hands in their poop as soon as you remove it, and they are expensive, even if you use cloth. There is certainly ways to save money on them though.
First, I am going to talk about cloth. I do use cloth diapers for all my biological kids. I love them. I was able to diaper all 3 kids using about $1000 total (including buying disposables during travel, illnesses, and when my dryer was on the fritz).
Using cloth isn’t guaranteed to save money though. First of all, there are collectible prints that some go crazy over and end up buying 90 diapers at $20 each. That’s overkill. Then there is water, detergent, wet bags, and power. How do you know if cloth is going to save you money?
What to Know Before You Buy the First Diaper
First, you need to gather some information. Go to a local pet store with a sample of your water FROM INSIDE YOUR WASHER. Don’t take it out of the faucet as it probably will skew with the results. Ask the pet store for a hardness test.
Hard water has minerals like calcium or iron dissolved in it. While these minerals are delicious, they can leave stains on tubs (iron laced water stains red), clog thin lines, and build up in your diapers causing stink and repelling.
This score is important because if your water is moderately or very hard, you will have to add a water softener (like borax, washing soda (NOT Baking soda), or Calgon) in order to properly clean them. While these additives aren’t expensive, they can strain a budget.
For mildly hard water, you will be limited to either powdered detergents (which contain softeners) or adding softeners with liquid detergents.
Second, you need to evaluate your detergent choice. For those wanting to make their own soap (this is a bad idea— leave me a comment if you are interested in knowing why), your diapers just won’t come clean and will have build up quickly.
Commercial detergents are required to clean diapers. Weak detergents like Sun require much more detergent than strong ones like Gain or Tide.
If you still think cloth is a good choice (which it is for many families), next you need to decide how often you want to wash. To properly clean diapers, you must wash them twice. A short prewash to remove any debris and flatten the cloth to facilitate movement of water and detergent all the way through the cloth. This wash needs detergent. The second wash is long and needs up to 3x the recommended amount of detergent. I recommend washing twice every week making for a total of 4 wash cycles and 2 dryer cycles.
Here is why this is important: washing less often keeps the water and electricity bills from going up but requires more up front investment in diapers. Washing everyday, as some people do, can make a difference on those bills, depending on how much energy and water costs in your area. It can also increase detergent costs.
By washing 2x per week, only buying diapers I need, and using a strong detergent, I have barely spent anything on diapers and have seen no increase in my water or electricity bills. By my estimates, I would have spent $4,500 on diapers by now, but cloth saved me $3,500!
Cloth diapering is right for my family, but it really depends on the family. It can add one more stress on a family already in the middle of a huge transition. So there are good ways to save money on disposables, too.
First, brand matters. I have used disposables during travel, illnesses, etc, and have used brand name and off brand including the cheapest of the cheap. Some like LUVS I will never buy again. Seriously, LUVS did not work for my oldest bio son at all. I have also used Best Choice ($2/package of 27 newborn) and was I surprised! They were cute, sturdy, and absorbent. So, my advice is experiment with brands and see which you like.
When you find it, and it’s brand name, don’t panic.
Some cultures skip or greatly reduce the need for diapering all together. Wow. I know. I had much the same reaction. So it's pretty common in Asia and Africa to watch your baby, get to know their cues, and hold them over a toilet or bucket while the go. Kids are taught a signal to release like a whistle or snap. While I personally didn’t choose this for my family, I love the idea, but it does require a lot of work in the beginning. This practice is becoming so popular that there even clothing companies springing up around the idea of making it easier for babies to eliminate. Please shoot me a message if you want to hear more about elimination communication, and I can put together an informative resource page!