On the surface, cloth diapering appears pretty straight forward: buy diapers, put on baby, reuse. However, like with disposable diapers, there are other costs involved. You won’t want a diaper genie, but you’ll need pail liners instead. You’ll never need a diaper sprayer with disposable diapers, but your trash bill may go up and those diaper-sausage bags don’t grow on trees.
I’m working on a comprehensive explanation and price comparison for the major types of cloth diapers (check out my explanation of covers here which is still under construction). You can use that to get a feel for the basic start up costs associated with each type of diaper. I’ve tried to include a low- and high-end estimate for each diaper as a jumping off point for budgets. Any costs, like snappis or inserts, specifically associated with that method of diapers is included in each diapers explanation. I have omitted items like diaper cream, changing pads, and diaper bags that are consistent between disposables and cloth. Below are the extra, general costs that can often be overlooked or misunderstood by first time cloth buyers.
So, what are the extra costs associated with cloth diapering, and is it still worth it? Read on, friend.
- Water and Washing – $32 and up (see full explanation).
“But how do you clean them?”, asks everyone when they find out we cloth diaper. I’ll address wash routines in another post, but to explain simply, EBF (exclusively breast fed) poop can go straight into the washer; poop from a baby who has started solids needs to be flushed. After that, it’s two Heavy Duty cycles in the washer and then either cycle in the dryer or line dry. That’s it. It’s that simple.
A completely unscientific study of my own water bill indicated that our water bill only went up $8 a quarter since Charlotte was born. We have an HE washer; if you have an older non-HE washer, that number could be up to twice as much. That’s $32-$64 a year to wash diapers, sheets, burp cloths, and clothes. If you don’t have an washer and dryer on site or use a pay machine, this can get much more costly and become a bigger deterrent to cloth diapering. My local laundry mat charges $3.29 per large wash load (you’ll need to do this twice, so that’s $6.58) and $5.26 for a dryer load. I’d probably take my wet diapers home and line dry them instead, because that’s highway robbery. (Actually, I’d say more cloth diaper owners line dry than machine dry even when they’re washing at home because some people think it helps prolong the life of the diaper.) You can also cut costs drastically by doing a pre-wash at home using this awesome bucket and plunger method for $11 (and get buff arms in the process).
2. Detergent – $0.88 to $2.16 a load (see explanation) – or $114.40 to $280.80 for two and a half years of cloth diapering washing once per week.
This is one of the biggest hidden costs. (My Math: A 150 oz. bottle of Tide at Target is currently $17.99. A load of diapers uses 9 to 18 ounces of detergent (a lot, I know, but you’re washing poop and pee so you want them clean). $17.99 for detergent divided by 150 ounces is $0.1199 an ounce multiplied by 18 ounces per load is $2.1588.)
I’ve chosen Tide because it is one of the more popular detergents for cloth diapers: it’s a powerful detergent that’s easy to find and popular enough to have frequent sales and coupons. For example, Target currently has a special in when you can get $10 off two bottles of Tide which would help your bottom line a lot. If you’re washing diapers twice a week, that means your price is $5.32 a week. For the budget conscious, Foca detergent is very popular. It’s a great cleaner and breaks down to about $0.05 / ounce, less than half the price as Tide. As a mitigating factor, babies require a lot of laundry, and this costs covers all the burp clothes, clothes, bibs, and washcloths you’d be washing anyway (you’ll want to wash bulky items like sheets, blankets, and towels separately). Considering that, cloth diapering only uses 10 extra ounces of detergent per load, a price tag of $1.20. Choose a discount (but still powerful) detergent like Kirkland’s Ultra ($16.99 for 195 ounces) and you’ll bring your cost per load down to $0.88 to $1.58 per load. If you have an older, non-HE machine, you’ll find you need less detergent because you have a stronger agitator and use more water to rinse.
I strongly suggest using the Fluff Love and CD Science Detergent Index to make sure you have a strong enough detergent. My cousin used a trendy “gentle” laundry soap and ended up with problems. Use a strong detergent (not soap which lacks “surfactants” needed to scrub the excess soil from diapers) and you should be good to go. (I’ve gone down the math rabbit hole a little here. I’m going to ask Jason to make a macro calculator to figure out the cost of detergent per load – look for that in the future.)
3. Diaper Sprayer – $20 – $40 plus 30 minutes of labor for installation.
You do not need a diaper sprayer…but it’s nice. First, exclusively breastfed baby poo is water soluble, so you can throw it right into your washer without any fuss. (Charlotte was slow to take to solids so we didn’t have to start spraying diapers until she was about 9 months!) So if all the start up costs are a little daunting, remember that you don’t need one of these for at least four to six months, if at all. (I’m going to put a little disclosure here, too, that BMs should only ever go down a toilet drain. Not sinks or showers because they do not have large enough pipes to handle solid waste and not your back yard. Carnivores expel a variety of bacteria in their stool and you don’t want that bacteria in your poop in your water supply).
If you flush a diaper right after you change it, you’ll probably be fine “dunking and swishing”. However, sprayers are nice if you let BM diapers pile up until diaper day (that’s a little shout out to my husband), or when baby is on antibiotics. We have this SmaterFresh one ($39.99, Amazon) but there are cheaper ones available and I’ve read some handy-husbands making their own from some hosing and a kitchen sprayer. If your shower is close enough to your toilet, you could even use a removable shower head. Regardless, invest in some Bleach Wipes or disinfecting cleaner and rags to wipe everything down with later. I’d also suggest a shield like this Spray Pal ($25, Amazon) to spray in and help eliminate water going everywhere.
4. Liners – $10 and up plus about an hour of your time and a pair of scissors.
Speaking of poopy diapers, liners help make clean up a breeze. Reusable liners are made of fleece and serve three purposes: allow pee to flow through and keep a dry layer next to baby’s skin; repel poop, allowing BMs to easily fall off and into the toilet; keep your diapers relatively stain free. Liners are made out of microfleece which can easily be purchased at fabric stores and cut by hand. Fleece doesn’t unravel, so you can just cut them out and you’re set! I found a summer sale on my fleece at JoAnn’s and cut a week’s worth of liners from 2 yards of fabric I paid about $3 / yard for. (Pro tip: Don’t use dark or “funky” colors for your liners, like camo, or you’ll have occasional heart attacks when you check your baby’s diaper and see purple. Just sayin’.) You can also buy pre-made reusable liners (which I’ve found harder to find online lately but are available at cloth diaper stores) or disposable ones that get flushed with the poo. I sent in a package of Grovia BioLiners to day care this fall ($14.99 for 200 on Amazon, link unavailable, $.075 per liner). They’re a great compliment to an otherwise reusable stash for when you’re going out or when baby is sick or on antibiotics.
5. Pail Liners – $18.
Just like a disposable diaper, you’ll need somewhere to put soiled diapers. Instead of a Diaper Genie, you’ll use a pail liner! I registered for an expensive purpose built pail that I quickly realized I didn’t like. Instead, I found a white plastic trash can in the basement and have been using it ever since. Inside is a PUL lined bag called a Pail Liner. (PUL is a water repellent lining.) I recently bought these Teamoy liners for a friend ($17.99 for two, Amazon). I own two from Planet Wise ($10.94 a piece, Amazon), a well-known company in CD circles, but I liked the Teamoy bags because they have two tabs to hold them up by. Two is a great number so you always have a clean one for diaper changes while the dirty one is in the wash.
6. Wet Bags – $10.
Eventually, you will need to leave your house. What do you do with dirty diapers when you’re out? That’s what a wet bag is for! A small, PUL lined bag with zipper, these easily stuff into a diaper bag. I have these Alva Baby bags ($9.99 for two, Amazon) and have gifted them to many new moms, cloth diapering or not. Two to three is probably plenty for most families, but you’ll find you end up with more. Some diapers companies (Fuzzy Bunny and Grovia) will occasional give branded bags away with purchase. I re-purposed an old Vera Bradley bag I had (see below, $28, Amazon) to use next to my diaper changing area to separate BM diapers that needed to be sprayed later. I keep a separate one in the bathroom to throw sprayed diapers in so I don’t have to carry them down the hall to the big pail next o the changing table. I use my wet bags for everything now: wet swimsuits from the pool, stinky clothes after the gym, or transporting toiletries.
Additional Costs = approximately $300 for two and a half years.
The biggest expenses, like detergent and water/access to washing machines, are also the biggest variable costs. We recently switched from Tide Free and Gentle to the Kirkland’s Free and Sensitive because of the considerable cost savings. This is when it pays to take the time and calculate cost per ounce in the laundry isle. On the other hand, you may not have any control over your access to a washing machine. Regardless, please keep reading, because it’s not all bad news!
I just killed you with all the costs, but there are significant savings unique to cloth diapers.
- Wipes – $140.
Some people who cloth diaper use disposable wipes. I did for a while, but found I got frustrated that I had to separate them from the diaper to throw in the trash. (Several disposable wipes made it thorough the laundry before I made the
switch. Pro Tip: Don’t try and reuse a disposable wipe, it repels water.) I ordered a fifteen pack of wipes to try and never turned back. These OsoCozy wipes work out to $0.63 a wipe, which isn’t bad. For the rest of my stash, my mom and I bought some cute flannel at JoAnns. We had a few different prototypes, but eventually found that a single 8×8 layer worked best. We (my mom) cut to size and mom serge the corners to prevent fraying. (Pro tip: round the corners when you cut so you can serge in one continuous motion.) We (again, my mom, she had a coupon) bought the flannel for about $5 a yard and got about 16 wipes per yard which works out to $0.31 per wipe. Because we wash only once a week, we (my mom) made about 80 wipes out of 5 yards of flannel for about $20. Compare this to disposable wipes. The cheapest wipe I could found worked out to $0.02 per wipe. Disposable wipes would pay for themselves in about 4 months. Assuming you use about 10 wipes a day, that’s a savings of nearly $140 for the life of your cloth diapering.
2. Reusablity – $500 to $3000.
Yeah, you understand that cloth diapers are reusable, but I’m talking about reusing them ON DIFFERENT KIDS! Invest in all of these diapers, liners, wetbags, pail liners, and wipes with your first baby, and keep using them for each subsequent kid. Sometimes I see people with four children and literally day dream about how much money they could have saved with cloth diapers (probably about $3000 to $5000). I’m not even talking about reusing them on one’s own children. Cloth diapers can be passed around to family, friends, and the community. My newborn diapers have been used by 2 other moms besides me; in other words, two of my friends cloth diapered their kids for 2 – 3 months for free. FOR FREE. I had a friend give me six extra pocket diapers she was no longer using – that’s an entire day of diaper every week.
3. Resale – 0 – $250.
If you take care of your stash, you can resell your diapers when you’re done with them. There are active cloth diaper BST sites on Facebook, Craigslist, eBay, and local stores. Newborn diapers usually have the highest resell value because they’re used so briefly, but even gently loved diapers can be resold. Elastics are usually the first thing to go on diapers, so take care of your elastics. This is another added benefit of using a liner: to help prevent poo stains. (Lemon juice and sun are also nature’s bleach so take advantage of the summer and sun out stains.)
Higher-end diapers (like Blueberries and Grovias) sell for about 50% of the original cost depending on the condition and print (don’t be put off if a potential buyer asks for close up pictures of the PUL); entry-level diapers like Alva Babies sell for less than 50%, and you may have a hard time finding buyers since Alvas are cheaper to begin with. If you have a small stash and wash your diapers several times a week or your diapers have been used by multiple different kids, they’ll probably be too worn to sell. Alternately, if you’re like me and too lazy to list your diapers for sale, you can always donate them to the Rebecca Foundation, a 503(c) corporation, which helps provide cloth (and disposable when necessary) diapers to families in need. (1 in 3 families in the US do not have the money to buy adequate diapers for their babies.) You’ll be able to deduct a fraction of the original price from your taxes as a charitable donation.
The Bottom Line?
Let’s estimate a stash cost of $500
Add in “Hidden Costs” $300
Total Estimated Costs =$800
Minus Wipe Savings =$660
There are many intangible costs that I cannot account for. For our sensitive-skin family, the fact we went an entire year without diaper rash was priceless. For others, buying, selling, and trading cloth means a smaller environmental impact and may be more important to them than monetary considerations.
On the other hand, one-third of American families do not have enough money to change their children’s diapers as often as needed. For some families, a $500 start up cost might be insurmountable. Even a $140 budge option might be a deal breaker.
It’s easy to say “save money and cloth diaper”; it’s hard to make that a reality when you don’t have running water in your home or reliable access to washing facilities. Imagine having to take a wet bag of dirty diapers to a laundry mat on the bus or subway in the summer? Some rural residents may not have access to a laundry mat or washing facilities on a weekly basis. Cloth diapering may not be so easy then.
I can get pretty caught up in my enthusiasm for cloth diapering, but all families have different needs. The truth is, that cloth diapering is often most affordable and feasible for middle-class families who have the means to buy and wash diapers. Many working class families make cloth diapering work for long term gains. But families living at or below the poverty line, who could most benefit from the long term savings, are those lest able to afford it. Kelly’s Closet is a well-known and reliable online cloth diaper seller that has great programs and ideas for cloth diapering on tight budgets. Alternatively, apply to the Rebecca Foundation for help affording cloth and disposable diapers.