Feb 17 2010

Is it cost-effective to use cloth diapers if you pay per wash?

In my last post, pregnant Laura commented that she’d love to see the numbers on the cost-effectiveness of using coin-op machines to wash cloth diapers vs. just using disposables.

OK! If your wash is $1 each and you do two cycles to get your diapers clean, and you wash them twice per week, that’s $4/week to wash diapers. Two years in diapers (I’m being generous — it might be longer than that) — is $208/year or $416 for two years of machine washing alone. You could hang dry all diapers on racks to save money. If that’s not feasible, then hang-dry the covers and machine-dry the diapers.

Two loads through the dryer per week at $1/load is$104 in annually.

I use Country Save laundry detergent because it’s supposed to be safe for cloth diapers. Oh, and there’s free shipping! On a 40-lb. package! This detergent comes as four $15.54/boxes. The box says you should get 80 loads for a regular machine ($0.19/load) or 160 for a high-efficiency front-loader (like mine) so about $0.10/load.

HOWEVER. I have found that I can use half the recommended soap and still get clothes that are just as clean. If I use the full recommended amount, the soap doesn’t fully rinse out by the end of the cycle. So I’m looking at oh, a nickel per load.

Say you buy the Flip diaper system and use it from birth to potty-training. Let’s pretend you buy four of their “2 covers, 6 organic inserts” packages, for a total of $240. You also buy four dozen Indian prefolds of various sizes (let’s call that $100 even though it’ll probably be closer to $75 or less).

So …

  • $208/year of coin-washes
  • I’ll be generous and say your detergent costs $0.19/load. That’s $21.28/year in detergent costs. Remember, the second cycle would be to rinse only, so you wouldn’t add more soap.
  • $104/year for the dryer
  • $340 for diaper covers, prefolds, and organic cotton inserts
  • $40 for diaper sprayer
  • $8 for a roll of flushable diaper liners
  • $20 for an over-the-doorknob diaper pail (or any type of pail, that’s just the kind I have)
  • $10 for some flannel wipes (you could create your own from old fabric you already have)
  • $15 for a wetbag for your diaper bag
  • $15 for 4 oz. tea tree oil

Total first year costs: $781.28

Add on an additional $208 for a second year of washes plus $21.28 more in soap and $104 in the dryer, and your two-year total comes to $1,114.56. That breaks down to $46.44 per month.

Now, let’s look at the cost of disposables.

  • $20 for a diaper pail (or trash can, or whatever)
  • $15 for a wetbag — even if you’re not carting home dirty diapers, you still might cart home a blown-out onesie so I’m including it on this list
  • Wipes $96/year
  • Premium Diapers $728.82/year

First year total: $859.82

For 24-months of diapering: $1,684.64 or an average of $70.19 per month.

A big box of size 1 Swaddlers on Diapers.com is selling for $40.49 for a box of 216. That’s enough for 7.2 diapers per day if you wanted to stretch the whole box for a month. Good luck with that, at this age! I think this is more like a three-week supply of diapers.

This price is $0.187 per diaper. As your baby goes up in size, they’ll hopefully require fewer diapers per day. The cost per pack is the same though, no matter the size — they just include fewer diapers.

So for the sake of just keeping things simple, let’s say you go through an “extra large case” of diapers every three weeks. That’s a little more than 17 cases per year (let’s go with 18 cases) so $728.82 per year for disposable diapers. Maybe.

Of course, you could also work the drugstore deals like mad and get a big stash of diapers for much cheaper than that. I paid about $100 for about five months of diapers (well, from about age 1.5 months – 6.5 months). My son was in size NB for the first 6 weeks or so (I didn’t expect such a tiny baby!) and so bleary-eyed me went out and paid close to full-price on those sizes. I think we spent around $75 for six weeks worth of diapers, but I could be wrong about that figure.

It takes work to get a deal, and you have to determine that the cost savings is worth your time. You could also go with generics. We’ve had some ok experiences with a few generic brands, depending on the stage my son was in.

Disposable wipes shouldn’t cost more than $0.02 — even for the good quality ones. Let’s say you use 20 wipes per day in the early months. That’s $0.40/day in wipes, or $12 for the first month. And let’s say your baby requires that many wipes per day for the first four months — so $48 total. After that, let’s bump it down to 10 wipes a day on average. That’s $6/month and then $48 to finish the year.

Who wins?

By my rough cost estimates, it looks like cloth wins by about $24/month or $576 for the course of two years. Keep in mind, these are just my best estimates — you may find a ton of cheap diapers at the drugstores, find that generics work perfectly fine for your child, and that your baby needs fewer changes per day. Or it could be the opposite, and your baby requires Pampers and lots of ’em!

Further, you have to look at that rough $24/month and determine if the savings is worth your time dealing with extra laundry. If you’re running up and down the stairs with a load of laundry in your arms and a baby strapped to your back, it might be more of a workout than you’d prefer.

However — cloth wins big time if you have a second child and are able to use most of your supplies a second time. Your diaper sprayer, wet bag, wipes, and diaper pail still ought to be fine. You might have a few diapers and covers that are too worn to make it another 24 months with another child, but many of them will probably survive. The quality prefolds really seem to last forever, and once they lose their usefulness as a diaper, you can use them in other ways.

Cloth also wins by even more if your baby needs more frequent changes, or if he needs diapers beyond 24 months.

Finally, you can resell your cloth diapering supplies. Can you resell a used disposable diaper?

Ways to save

You wouldn’t have to buy the entire Flip system complete with organic inserts. You could just buy the covers a la carte ($13.95 each, or $111.60 for eight) and a big stack of prefolds. And don’t forget about that diapers.com deal I mentioned earlier.

You could go with another, even cheaper diaper system called Econobum. I haven’t tried this one. Hard saying if this cover would last for all of your baby’s diapering days. It hasn’t been around long enough for anyone to say with certainty. (Same goes for the Flip, since it has only been around for a few months.)

Ask for diapers and diapering accessories as baby shower gifts. If you’re going the disposable route, ask for dipes and ask that they include a receipt so you can easily swap out sizes as you need. Cloth diapers make nice shower gifts, but be sure you get the exact kind the mama wants.

Bottom line

Laura, you’ll have to plug in your actual estimated costs. How much does each wash and each dry cost? How much do you want to spend on diapers? Which is more important to you — saving money or doing less laundry? Also, you probably could squeak by with doing diaper laundry a little less frequently if you use prefolds and handwash covers.

I think it’s an individual choice. But, I do think that cloth diapers can be cheaper than disposables, depending on the types of diapers you select.

Readers — are my cost estimates off? Help me out!

16 Responses to “Is it cost-effective to use cloth diapers if you pay per wash?”

  1. Wow! This is amazing! My only comment is that every coin machine I’ve ever used is $1.50 a wash, and it usually costs about $1.50 to run the dryer sufficiently to dry a load (sometimes more if I was drying heavy items).

  2. OK — at $1.50/load and for the same amount of washing it’s $312/per year. That kicks up the two-year cloth total to $1,322, or cheaper than disposables by $362 total.

    If your machine usage cost $0.50 or $1 each as Laura mentioned hers was, your savings will be pretty good. Obviously, as the machine price creeps up, the cloth option becomes less cost-effective.

  3. Kacie – all I have to say is YOU ARE AMAZING! I’ve put off running these numbers just because it was so overwhelming – I didn’t know how to calculate how many cloth diapers and supplies I’d need to buy or how to calculate how many disposables the average child goes through – so this is BEYOND helpful!

    We do have a ghetto laundromat near us that I can wash for $.50/load and usually get things dry with $1.00 per load – but I will have to think about the cost of going to the laundromat with a baby twice a week. Our apartment laundry room is $1.25/wash and $1.00/dry so not as much of a savings – but a little more convenient as I can do other things in my apt. while they wash is running.

    Thanks so much for your awesome blog!
    .-= Laura´s last blog ..Baby Names =-.

  4. Great post, Kacie!! Thankfully we have a washer and dryer so we don’t have to worry about that. Something else I would like to suggest to your readers is the health aspect. A lot of people are very concerned about the high levels of chemicals in many disposables and that possibly leading to health problems later on. Just imagine your daughter sitting in a chemical laden diaper for over two years. No thank you!! So I would compare the cost of cloth diapering to the cost of buying chemical-free disposables because obviously cloth won’t have any chemicals in them. Of course, if you’re strictly concerned only with cost I guess you can compare cloth to regular disposables. But if you’re trying to live a healthy, chemical-free life, regular disposables are not the way to go.
    That would also come into play with using coin machines because of everyone using different types of soap. I’ve had some issues with our soap and I think I’ve finally got a good one now. But you have no idea what everyone else has used in those machines.
    I have used both, but I vastly prefer my cloth system to using regular disposables. I know I can feel a lot better about what I’m putting on my baby’s skin when I use a cloth diaper.
    So far I’ve spent about $250 on cloth diapering and that is from 0-18 months and should last for several children. I love the pre-folds system but I have some AIO Bum Genius 3.0’s that were gifts and those are handy to have.
    Thanks for breaking down the numbers!! I’m horrible at getting good deals and I think whenever we just use disposables I end up spending around $40/month for sz. 3 dipes for my 13 month old.
    Hope this helps!!
    .-= Stacy´s last blog ..This and that =-.

  5. I just want to say… It could be Savannah’s age, or maybe I don’t have enough diapers, but I definitely have to do laundry every other day. (So, 3-4 times a week.)

    And way to go for running the numbers! I am surprised it is still cheaper to do cloth. I wouldn’t have expected that. I am curious how much using a public machine would hurt the diapers (with all sorts of detergents being used). I think that would be the only other big thing. (That, and the convenience factor!)

    Did you ever price diaper services?
    .-= ashley @ twentysixcats´s last blog ..baby stuff I like =-.

  6. I actually looked into diaper service this morning and if I can get away with doing wash only twice a week – then it’s about double the cost to use a diaper service.

    Here’s two links I found:

    .-= Laura´s last blog ..Baby Names =-.

  7. Who uses 20 wipes a day!?!?! We MIGHT use 2-3. At most. Maybe we’re just lucky. Boy lets us know when he needs to be changed and we probably change more often than most because I have gotten so many great deals on diapers with coupons. I refuse to use cloth for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the yuck factor. But time is an issue for me too since I’m working full time, studying for a new career, and still trying to make jewelry (I think I’m certifiably insane!).

    If it weren’t so gross to me, and if I didn’t have so much going on, I would give cloth a chance though. But not if I didn’t have my own W/D.
    .-= megscole64´s last blog ..How Long Could It Take? =-.

  8. That is a good point about doing more wash with a little one, anyway! When they are very small, they are usually spitting up on their clothes and blankets or having blow-outs, making it necessary to run the wash, anyway. We had tons of poopy blow-outs with disposables. I’m hoping that’s not the case with cloth for this new little one I’m having in June, but I also think it may just be part of having a very small baby with liqui-poo…

  9. We honestly went through about 20/day in the beginning. My son had explosive diapers several times per day, and just a few wipes couldn’t cut it! We’re now down to about 1 per change, though sometimes 2-3 per change for the messy ones. Thank goodness it isn’t that much anymore!

  10. Supposedly cloth can help contain breastfed blowouts a little better than disposables. I don’t have experience in that regard.

    Oh, and Megs — I think diapers are gross no matter what. To me, the extra added steps to cloth isn’t that gross, especially since I plop the stools in the toilet anyway.

  11. thanks Kacie! wow, you sure did a lot of work- it’s helpful to see the detailed break-down. (i think you had something similar in your 2007 post, which is what impressed me so much, initially- i could tell you had really done your research!) yes, it is definitely cheaper for us, by a large margin, even though we are paying for laundry. using pre-folds helps and we’re getting a lot of that stuff up front from family/ friends- so we don’t have the initial start up cost of expensive diapers.

    so, ladies, if you can- register for diapers if you’re using cloth! :)

    ashley, i have heard that washing pocket diapers in a machine where ppl use harsh detergents really affects the diapers. i actually came across one woman who had such bad experiences that she almost refused to sell me some pocket (PUL) diapers if she thought i was using a shared machine. she said she had many difficult experiences with diapers “clogging” because of being washed in a shared washer. that is part of the reason we’re doing pre-folds. i think it’s less of an issue and they can take more than pockets or AIO’s.

  12. I use disposables. I have a washer and dryer, but would rather not run them that much. Using sales, coupons, and buying in bulk, including wipes, I spend $50-55/mo. I don’t have a diaper pail. I put the diapers in plastic grocery sacks and drop them in our regular garbage pail. I buy wipes in bulk and have even cut them in half to make them last longer– hubbie didn’t like that. I think the cost is similar enough that its worth it for us.
    .-= Rachel´s last blog ..Taking a Break… =-.

  13. I have only used disposables – just my personal choice and preference. I am so glad that I did b/c I was doing SOOOO much extra laundry since both of my boys spit up A LOT for the first 8 months of their lives (and they were breastfed – just s heredity thing). When my oldest was born 4 years ago, I decided to budget $50/month for diapers and wipes. I initially shopped at BJ’s for my supplies and only bought Pampers. When my second came along 2 years ago, I bumped up my budget to $70/month and that was plenty. Now, I have one in diapers and my oldest still wears a Pull-Up at night and I have bumped it down to $40/month…I usually have some left over each month! I do purchase my diapers at Rite Aid and now use either Huggies or Pampers – whichever has a single check rebate. So, for me it is just as cost effective to use disposables over cloth…and it gives me a little relief in the laundry area!

    Last year I saved a lot of money signing up to do diaper trials with the company Arquest – it seems like size 4 is probably the most popular size that trials are done in. Anyway, when they have a trial that opens up, they will call you and set you up in it. Then they will ship you diapers for free. You have to be the only one to change these diapers, fill out a survery and then read your survey over the phone. After you complete the whole trial, they will send you $10! I probably completed about 7 trials last year! I let them know after each survery that I was interested in future surverys, and they would either sign me up right away or call me later! I just started a new trial with my younger son – I received 3 packs of diapers (total of 69 FREE diapers). I am not sure what all of the brands are, but I have used ones with Clifford on them, Huggies, Pampers and other generic ones. I have been very thankful for this additional help too!

    I am just passing this info along (I get no kickback!). If you are interested in participating in any diaper trials, call 1-888-DIAPER2 ext 634 (boys) and ext 646 for girls. Many of my friends have participated!
    .-= Promises Fulfilled´s last blog ..Snow! =-.

  14. My 28-month-old has been almost exclusively in Happy Heinys pocket diapers for 27 months. They weren’t cheap up front, But high quality, and easy for others to change.
    I’d add a few extra expenses to the disposables list. Because of the lack of chemicals in the cloth diapers and their superior ability to wick acidic liquid away from baby’s bottom, we’re still using the 1 tube of diaper rash cream I was given at my baby shower. From what I hear, babies in disposables have much more frequent diaper rashes, so they would need to purchase additional creams.
    The few times we were traveling and had to use disposables we went through almost twice as many name-brand disposables as cloth diapers. So, I wouldn’t assume a 1-to-1 ratio when calculating the number of diapers used per day. That would increase the cost of disposables.
    Even when we did use twice as many disposable diapers, I had several incidents where my son’s clothes, and sometimes mine had to be changed because of leaks. We have also only had a handful of diaper “blowouts” ever. Even those never got past my son’s clothes onto linens, carseats, or slings. If you’re using coin-operated machines, disposable users need to factor in more loads of regular clothes over the course of 2 years to accomodate these events.
    I wash diapers 3 times a week, and have only had to replace a couple diapers thus far. I’ve been able to replace the elastic on my own after about a year of use. If you’re only going to wash 2 times per week, I’d recommend using 2 separate pails, one for the prefolds and one for the covers, to prolong the life of the elastic.
    We’re expecting baby #2 next month, and I’m “investing” in a newborn stash for the first month or so. But other than that, I don’t think we’d spend more than $200 total in additional diapering supplies for baby #2, and that will be spread out as our large diaper covers start to be phased out after 2-3 years of hard work. That’s a ton of money saved to put in her college fund instead of on her bum!

  15. I’m an avid cloth diaper user/lover, so no need to convince me; however, I’ve been out of the diaper-buying loop for a while. Had never seen the Flip system. Have you used it? (did I miss that post?) or do you know anyone who has? I’d be interested to hear more!
    ps-and yes, my website issues were fixed in seconds by my lovely designer…phew!
    .-= Amy @ Raising Arrows´s last blog ..I’m Pregnant and Huge – A Diastasis Recti Story =-.

  16. Oops, I should have mentioned that yep, we do use Flip diapers! Amy, I sent you an email with more info about ’em.

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Hey! I'm Kacie, wife to Shane and mother to Jonathan (7), Vivienne (5) and Amelia (2) . I write about my family's finance: how we save money, improve our spending, and plan for the future.

I hope I can inspire and encourage you to improve your situation. See disclosure.

I'm adopting a much slower-paced posting schedule, and treating this as a hobby blog now.

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