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Cloth vs. Disposable Diapers for Frugal Parents

Updated on January 23, 2017

Which Diapers are the Most Cost Effective?

There are a lot of different types of cloth diapering systems out there, and it's not that you can't find affordable all-in-ones, all-in-twos, fitted, or pocket diapers. It's just that these systems do cost more overall. Each system has pros and cons and none are a one-size-fits-all solution to diapering. Although from the perspective of frugality and function, I have found the best option are flats and prefolds combined with covers. These are square pieces of absorbent fabric that you fold and fasten into place on your baby. You then add a protective cover to prevent leaks and, voila, you have adorable, affordable baby bottoms!

Below is a comparison of how much it costs to diaper using disposables vs. cloth options. The table compares the same amount of diapers used in a day, and assumes that your baby will go through two sizes of cloth options (newborn and one-size). It's also assumed that the amount of reusable diapers purchased is enough that laundry is done every other day. Obviously, initial costs of cloth systems increase if you want to do laundry less frequently as you have to buy more diapers. It also assumes that you are doing this laundry at a laundromat so that thrifty parents who don't yet own their own home can get an accurate idea of real costs associate with these diapering systems. You will spend much less if you have an in-home washer/dryer.

Cost Analysis of Cloth vs Disposable Diapers

Diapering System
Initial Costs
Daily Cost
Weekly Cost
Annual Cost
Disposable
N/A ($0.22 each)
$2.64
$18.48
$960.96
Flat/Prefold
$184
$0.00
$8.25
$275.00
All-In-One
$816
$0.00
$8.25
$275.00
This table assumes you use 12 diapers each day and that all products are of moderate pricing. Cost of wipes is not considered. NO in-home washer/dryer exists (weekly costs are laundromat prices).

Even with the more expensive all-in-one cloth diapering system, you start to see the savings after the first year. Think of the annual costs in terms of how many years you plan on having children in diapers. Only having one kid? You might spend between two and three years paying for diapers. Assuming each child spends a full three years in diapers and you have two children, that's $1,834 for flats/prefolds, $2,466 for all-in-one systems, or over $5,700 for disposables! Yes, you may need to buy a few new items between children, but a vast majority of your initial purchases will last you two children.

Step One: Cloth Diapers

Just because we're being frugal doesn't mean we sacrifice quality or convenience. Just like everything else you shop for, there are many brands of cloth diapers. OsoCozy makes a great prefold diaper that fits snuggly into covers with little fuss. This is the only brand I have used and haven't seen a need to try another, although there are many comparable products out there. They can be folded with or without fastening devices like a Snappi.

Gerber birdseye flat and prefolds are possibly the most commonly available as they are sold at Wal-Mart, Target, and specialty baby stores. They are cotton and have a wider weave than some diapers, so they work well as they absorb liquids quickly, but are rectangular and require a little more folding as they don't fit perfectly into a cover. They are truly great to have on hand for spit-up and other changing table messes, but not the easiest to actually diaper with.

Other than brand, you can also choose what type of material your cloth diapers are made of. Cotton is traditional and quite absorbent, but bamboo and hemp are gaining popularity for their eco-friendliness and greater absorbency.

How Many Cloth Diapers Do I Need?

Think about how many times your baby will eat in a day. Newborns are fed between 8 - 12 times a day, so plan on at least that many dirty diapers. Sometimes, you change a baby three times in one sitting because he immediately pees, then poos in two clean diapers. You might use your diapers at burp rags or to clean up other baby related messes, so it's nice to include extra in your daily count.

Now think about how frequently you want to do diaper laundry. I consider every other to every three days reasonable if you want to be thrifty. I bought four dozen of OsoCozy infant prefolds (48 diapers) and am comfortable with how frequent I do the laundry, which is every three to four days. I use Gerber prefolds for burp rags and messes. This size is good for babies up to 16lbs, so another three dozen in the next size (14 - 30lbs) should get us mostly there, and more again for the last size up to 45 lbs.

Yes, the up-front cost of cloth diapering is expensive compared to a pack of Huggies, but you will NOT have to buy diapers every week as if you were using disposables exclusively. It's cheaper in the long run. If you have to space out your purchase, I recommend getting at least all your infant size diapers right from the start. You can delay the other sizes for a while, but if you don't get all the diapers you need to use the system properly, you won't stick with it and you will have wasted money.

The biggest mistake parents make is not getting enough diapers because they are afraid of the investment. They get a few to "try it out," but end up getting annoyed because they will be juggling two sets of diapering systems, cloth and disposable, and be unable to transition due to limited resources and the resulting sloppy routine. These parents complain that cloth diapering is too inconvenient because they can't develop the good habits that make cloth easy.

Convenience: How Easy Is Cloth?

Step Two: Diaper Covers

Here's where you can spend more than necessary. There are some super cute designer covers out there and it's easy to want them all. Stick to the basics and seek out solid colors. Not only are solids cheaper, but they are more easily gender neutral if you plan on making your cloth diapering system last through more than one child. Look for covers with good reviews with ease of use in mind rather than fancy patterns.

Another consideration is how diaper covers fasten, by Velcro or snap. Both styles may have snaps in the front to size its length to your baby's bottom, but they differ in how they fasten at the waste - Velcro (hook and loop) or snap. Velcro fastens similar to a disposable diaper and might be easier for other family members to use, but it wears out faster. If you plan on more than one baby, snaps may be a more sensible option as they will last longer. A brand called Rumparooz gets good reviews, mine included, and makes both styles.

How Many Covers Do I Need?

You might go through as many as two covers a day if your baby has a couple nasty ones. You'll use one cover all day, wiping it out each change unless there were any leaks. I think a stash of four to six covers gets you through a week easily. You can always hand wash these in the sink and hang them to dry. I've never had to wash more than one in a day and it only takes a minute. If you choose a brand that doesn't have a one-size option, then three of each size is comfortable.

For my covers, I bought three newborn sized Rumparooz and six one-size covers for when my baby outgrows them. My son ended up being a little early and was just over five pounds the day he came home. I was very glad to have the newborn sized covers, but wished I would have gotten one or two premie sizes. Three covers worked fine for me, but there were days I wish I had that fourth one. Any additional covers are just convenient. I only got six of the larger ones because there was a good price for the lot.

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