Bringing up Baby: Year One Costs

How much does raising a child cost in the first year? Would you believe me if I said all the baby stuff you need for the first year doesn’t cost that much? We had no idea what expenses to expect as we started our child-rearing experiment, but being numbers and spreadsheet nerds, we documented everything along the way and can share our experience. Good news: there wasn’t that much expensive stuff to buy, less than $600 in purchases. Not as good news: expenses add up once you include delivery charges, childcare, and lost income. 

The idea that having a baby means you need to buy a lot of expensive stuff is bullshit exaggerated: babies are small, don’t know enough to need or want anything, and the few things you may want to get are all available for free, cheap, and/or used. Our strategy was to get the “basics” that we were fairly certain we’d need (e.g., diapers, car-seat, newborn clothes) ahead of time, then pick up anything else as we needed it, or came across a good deal.

Love-Stuff-IndexCard

Source: Indexed

Our total cost for baby related purchases in the first year came in at ~$580, and that’s with us being relatively wasteful spenders: we got more stuff then we or the baby needed; bought some things new when used would have done fine; and weren’t able to rely much on gifts or hand-me-downs as we don’t have family or know people with kids nearby. (The upside of this is that nobody tried to throw us a baby shower, I’m kind of glad we dodged that bullet).

We’ll compare our real costs to this scary estimate of expected first year costs. Babies are expensive, but not as bad as that article would make it seem. Your mileage will vary, but here’s how it all broke down for us.

Supplies (Scary Estimate: $6,500; Actual Cost: $580)

Formula & Food

Scary Estimate: $1,000 –  $2,000
Actual Cost: $50

Luckily, The Little Man breastfed without a problem and pumping and bottle feeding went relatively smoothly so formula costs were minimal. (US health plans cover the cost of a breast-pump by law). Additional supplementation needs were met by the formula samples manufacturers occasionally sent us, complemented by a bulk formula purchase ($20) when the Little Man started daycare (Costco: where you can buy cheap dehydrated food for babies and dogs).

Baby food seems ridiculously expensive according to that article; we avoided this after stumbling on a concept called baby led weaning. It’s a fancy name for a simple concept: give a baby reasonable sized pieces of table scraps food, and they’ll figure out how to eat it (once again, similar to feeding a dog). Our Little Man has been a good eater and we’ve had no problem with this approach. You may have to deal with overbearing concerned relatives asking “won’t she choke“, but other then that, we had no problems. We bought baby food once ($3) to take with us on our almost-free tropical getaway, he never ate it and instead helped himself to the free food at the resort along with us (he skipped the booze). I don’t blame him, rice & beans with chunks of meat and cheese sound a lot more appetizing than strained peas. The no-mush experiment was a success and cheap.

We should probably count some of our grocery spending as an expense in this category; however, I have no easy way of figuring out how to allocate the baby consumed portion of the bill, and grocery spending decreased during our first year with baby (there was more waste in our food spending that could be cut than was consumed by an additional tiny human).

We bought food related baby accessories that we could have done without. i.e., baby specific bowls and spoons ($9); they were cheap and worked fine, but we could have just fed baby from our regular bowls with teaspoons just as easily, he wouldn’t have noticed the difference. On a similar vein, I picked up a gimmicky suction bowl/plate at a consignment sale because it was cheap ($2) and I like fun gadgets; this was fine used and almost free, but I don’t recommend paying full (or maybe any price) for that. Finally, it feels like we got the world’s smallest and cutest tupperware ($20) to send food with him when he started daycare; we could probably just have used containers we already had. (Either way, it worked out cheaper than buying jars of mush).

TL;DR: Our son was a good nurser and eater, so food costs were negligible, we still managed to buy some plastic crap we didn’t need.

Nursery Setup

Scary Estimate: $2,000
Actual Costs: $30

As far as I can guess, this estimate is straight up trolling: $2,000 for baby furniture?!? All the adult size furniture in our house didn’t cost over $2,000, so I’m not sure how you could spend that much on smaller stuff that is just going to get peed, drooled, and chewed on.. it would be like spending $2,000 on dog furniture.

Craigslist was our go-to source. For sleeping, the Little Man graduated from a portable co-sleeper ($8), to a bassinet ($15), to a “Montessori Floor Bed” (a.k.a. mattress we happened to already have plopped on the floor). We already had a dresser in the room from when it was a guestroom/Airbnb experiment. (We did a get a glider from Freecycle, but we found it a waste of space and then got rid of it).

Going back to finding fancy names for simple ideas: the concept of a kid sleeping on a mattress and not needing a crib probably shouldn’t be mind-blowing, but the thought would not have crossed my mind until reading about “floor beds” and how they are used in the Montessori Method and Montessori Nursery:

The idea behind a Montessori floor bed is in line with the general principles of the Montessori Method: a child should have freedom of movement, and should be able to move independently around his (carefully childproofed!) room.

The sleeping situation sounds more fancy and official when you put it that way, instead of saying we simply plopped a mattress on the ground. This setup has worked great for us, combined with a baby gate ($5) at the door.

TL;DR: Can’t figure out how one would spend $2000 on baby furniture. Someone please fill me in.

Baby Gear 

Scary Estimate: $425-$2,770
Actual Costs: $150

This category appears to be the catch-all for miscellaneous baby crap stuff, and there can be a lot of it if you aren’t careful. We ended up with a car seat and couple others things free (Freecycle), and the rest from Craigslist and consignment sales.

The most useful purchase(s) by far were the variety of baby carriers. We started with a BabyBjorn ($9) and graduated to an ErgoBaby ($20), with a couple of sling type carriers thrown in for good measure. If we hadn’t found good used carriers, this is something we would have gladly paid full price for. Baby wearing worked great for transportation, soothing, carrying him while being able to do simple errands, letting us take hikes, etc. If you’re curious to learn more, check out Baby Wearing International (yes that sounds made up, but it’s not).

Given how useful we found the baby carriers, we’d probably skip the stroller ($10) if we did it again. We used the stroller maybe three times maximum and it was slow, big, and awkward compared to just carrying or wearing the baby, but that’s just us.

We did buy some things new: pacifiers ($10) were cheap and indispensable, teething toys ($25) were more expensive and perhaps not as essential (he enjoyed chewing on everything else much more).

Other things we bought and liked included: a fancy portable high chair ($20) which took up no room and looked space age, and a few potty-ing materials ($13) which I’m sure you don’t want to know the details of.

We did buy some things that weren’t as useful. A good example of this was a nursing cover ($10) since a blanket would have done the job just fine. We have $25 of expenses labeled miscellaneous from a consignment sale, I can only guess that it also falls under this category of baby gear that we didn’t really need.

TL;DR: We bought a lot of miscellaneous baby crap, the carriers and the pacifiers were worth their weight in gold.

Diapers & Supplies

Scary Estimate: $1,000
Actual Costs: $200

We used predominantly cloth diapers the majority of the first year. We decided to try cloth diapers mainly because we were concerned about the waste generated by disposable diapers. Looking at the costs, it seems it worked out as a much cheaper choice as well.

We went a bit overboard and bought all the different kinds of cloth diapers we came across on Craigslist and at consignment sales to figure out which ones we liked best. We spent $150 on cloth diapers, which might be on the higher end of costs when you are buying used. The good part about having more diapers than we needed was that we could go longer periods of time between laundry loads. Assuming we don’t destroy them, cloth diapers can be resold when we are done with them, which will make the costs look even better. We’ve had a great experience with the diapers (well as much as you can with diapers) and it seems better than tossing a quarter or two in the trash every-time baby relieves himself.

The rest of the diapering cost were related to buying a diaper pail ($5), 2 washable liner bags ($10), and occasional disposable diapers and wipes for travel and backup use ($35).

TL;DR: When it literally comes to baby crap, cloth diapers are an economical and ecological win.

Side benefit of cloth diapering is you get to spend time outside in the sun hanging it to dry

Side benefit of cloth diapering is you get to spend time outside in the sun hanging them to dry

Clothes

Scary Estimate: $1,000
Actual Costs: $150

Learn from our mistakes: we spent a lot more on tiny baby clothes than we needed to, especially when free baby clothes are abundant.

We are still well under the scary estimate. I’m going to sound like a broken record here, but Freecycle, Craigslist, and consignment sales go a long way. Baby’s outgrow crap fast, and there are enough onsies and other baby type clothing floating around in the world that you don’t need to buy brand new ones. I’m not really sure I could be a party to helping bring the six trillionth brand new piece of clothing into the world that’s emblazoned “Mommy’s Little _______” (really.. they all say some variation of that for some reason.. it gets old fast).

Other/Hidden Expenses (Scary Estimate: a lot ; Actual Cost: a lot)

This is the point where I start to agree with the scary estimates in the article: it’s not the baby stuff that’s expensive, it’s delivering and caring for the baby. I won’t bore you with our details here, as everyone’s insurance and work situation is different. However, there are some costs you can estimate or at least put a ceiling on:

Medical Costs

Maximum ~$7,000 – $27,000

Before the baby can start using any of that fancy stuff you bought for her, you are going to have to undergo a lot of medical visits, procedures, and associated expenses (assuming you aren’t DIYing the whole thing).

In the US, assuming you have conforming insurance, in the worst case, the most you can expect to pay out of pocket in one year is either $6,850, if you have an individual insurance plan, or $13,700 for a family plan. BUT nothing guarantees that the nine months you are pregnant (and post delivery follow up) will be contained entirely within one plan year (not necessarily the same as calendar year). You could possibly be on the hook for two years worth of out of pocket maximums, for a total of $13,700 on an individual plan, or $27,400 on a family plan. Our personal expenses were on the lower end compared to that. The pregnancy fell entirely within one plan year, and we had a slightly lower out of pocket maximum. In the end, we incurred about $5,500 in total medical costs. This is all starting to make the price of baby stuff sound very cheap in comparison.

It helps to understand your insurance coverage in detail. On a related note, this is not the most romantic or possibly even practical advice, but if you are really keen and like to plan, you might want to know when your health plan year starts and schedule accordingly… I’m not sure what else to suggest, short of moving to another country, or finding generous employer provided insurance with low premiums and low out of pocket maximums. That DIY delivery is sounding better and better.

Parental Leave and Child Care

If you are smart, you might first retire, then have kids, in which case you can skip this section completely. However, if you are poor planners like us, you might still be working when you have kids. In this scenario, you might end up taking time off from work unpaid or partially paid to spend time with your newborn, and then paying for childcare when you go back to work.

We totally recommend taking off as long a period of time as you are entitled to (or longer) after the birth of a child. We’ve written before about our time off as a preview of early retirement, and each of us really enjoyed that period of bonding with our son. That being said, depending on your salary and leave policies, the lost income could represent a large chunk of change.

As far as parental leaves in the US go, we were fairly lucky. Between the two of us, we were able to take eight months of leave while only losing ~9 weeks of income. (This is considered a long leave by US standards, I think in some parts of Europe they call this a short vacation.. I kid..). We overlapped leaves for the first two weeks immediately following our son’s birth, after that we were strategic about staggering our leaves. This worked out well as a reasonable compromise to spend time together, getting into a routine and getting to know our son, while pushing off child care (and costs) for as long as possible.

Full disclaimer, for all I said about taking as much leave as you can, after taking two paid months off, I didn’t take the further three months of unpaid leave I would have been eligible for under FMLA. Spending time with a newborn is a good idea and all that, but at a certain point you don’t want to be giving up fun work and perfectly good income to get stuck with a screaming, teething infant, right? 🙂

This brings up everyone’s favorite cost, childcare. The longer leave you take, the more lost income you may have, but lower child care costs. Take a shorter leave, and you may not lose income, but have to deal with finding and paying for childcare. It’s not a fun balance. We have generally been happy with our child care situation (it’s in walking distance of home, that could make up for anything else) and it is relatively cheap, by child care standards: $300/ week. That still adds up fast and cost us $4,500 for the quarter of the year that one of us wasn’t on leave. That whole retiring first and then having kids thing is sounding better and better isn’t it? If you are starting to consider that option, make sure you weigh The Pros and Cons of Waiting to Have Children.

Summary

So are kids expensive in the first year? It depends.. the baby stuff doesn’t add up to be that expensive. When you consider the other costs, it definitely is not cheap. However, you can’t put a price tag on a child’s smile, a socially sanctioned reason to take time off work, or being able to pay someone else to take care of your kids.

Priceless...but also kind of expensive.

Priceless…but also kind of expensive.

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2 Responses

  1. Mr. PTM says:

    This is absolutely fascinating – thanks for sharing. Ms. PTM and I don’t have any kids yet (beyond the dogs which is a whole other topic) so this is really informative and being a keen planner, I appreciate the point about trying to “execute” this within a plan year.

    • The MC says:

      It’s nice from an insurance perspective when it all falls in one plan year; nice to know I’m not the only geeky one who might think that would be a good idea. (The dogs can be just as much fun, and not as expensive :))

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