Feb 17 2010

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

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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!


Feb 15 2010

Using cloth diapers without your own washer/dryer

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I’ve heard from readers wanting to know if I tried using cloth diapers while living in an apartment without an in-unit washer/dryer.

Here’s a more current post on the topic (and here’s my old post). Oh dear, this is going to be long. I hope it’s helpful to some of you.

To the point, no, I did not try cloth diapers for my son when we lived without our own washer/dryer. Keeping up with the regular laundry was enough of a challenge, and that I didn’t want to use cloth badly enough to make it work.

Instead, I took  advantage of drugstore deals to collect six months + worth of diapers. When Johnny was 6 months, we moved to an apartment with its own washer/dryer and I bought cloth diapers soon after. For awhile, Johnny was wearing cloth all the time. He’s now back in disposables at night because the only leak-proof cloth diaper I’ve been able to use for him is ginormous and uncomfortable for him. I’m going to test one other cloth option for nights.

Looking back, I’m glad I cut myself a break. Using cloth would have been too much for me to handle. However, if you’re really determined to make cloth work for your family, it can be done.

Baby diaper phases:

– – – I am told that stools from 100% breastfed babies are different than stools from a baby who has had formula. Supposedly, you can put a soiled diaper in your pail without doing anything else to it, and the mess will come out in the wash. This is just what I’ve heard — my son was eating solids when we started cloth so I haven’t seen this first-hand.

However, I have had plenty of diaper blow-outs during that phase, which required me to rinse his clothes/sheets/whatever by hand in the sink. The mess really did come out, and I used Oxyclean to remove lingering stains. Laying items in the sunlight is supposed to bleach stains out naturally, but if you’re in an apartment you may not have a place to do this. I don’t.

– – – During this 0-6 month no-solids/no-formula phase, you’re going to go through a lot of diaper changes per day if your baby’s bowel is anything like my son’s was. We’re talking 10-15 changes in a 24-hour period, easily.

– – – Once you introduce solids, your baby’s stools will change. They’ll no longer be fairly unoffensive. No no, they’ll be sticky, mucky and smelly. You WILL need a diaper sprayer and possibly a scraper/spatula to remove the muck. For this phase, I strongly suggest using flushable diaper liners. You lay a liner over a diaper and once dirty, you can peel it off the diaper and plop it into the toilet.

With Johnny, this disgusting phase lasted 3-4 months. It would have been shorter if he ate more solids. I think.

– – – Once your baby gets beyond the mucky phase, using cloth diapers will be substantially easier. You hold the diaper over the toilet, give a little shake, and it just plops! There’s a little skid mark, sure, but it’s not terrible. I even do the “plop” when he’s in a disposable because that just seems less gross to me.

THIS is the phase that would be easiest on the cloth-diapering-sans-washer mama. Your baby will be using fewer diapers per day. Johnny uses oh, 4-6 in a 24-hour period at 13 months of age. Fewer diapers + ploppable poops makes it all-around easier.

If you do want to give cloth diapering a try from the beginning, I would suggest trying a diaper sprayer on all dirty diapers, even if you don’t have to.

Other things:

  • Plan on doing at least two wash loads per cycle. Coin-op machines are a pain since there usually isn’t a “rinse-only” or soak setting. You’ll probably have to do two (or maybe three?) cycles to get them clean.
  • Your neighbors may not appreciate knowing your baby’s dirty diapers swirled around in the communal machines. Yes, they’re clean now, but they may not like the “ick” factor.
  • Look into a portable washing machine that hooks up to your sink. This wasn’t allowed at my old apartment, but if you can get one, this’ll save you a lot of hassle!
  • You’ll use diaper-approved washing detergent of course, but your neighbors probably won’t. Their Tide or whatever could create a residue inside the machine, which in turn has the potential for latching onto your diapers. Soap in diapers = stink issues and absorbency problems. I run a “sanitize” cycle on my machine at home using bleach and hot water (it does have a setting for this purpose) and I still see suds — and I use Country Save in all my loads!
  • Unless you’re doing laundry only when both parents (or a helper) is home to stay with your baby, you’ll need a good sling to keep your arms free for laundry-doing.
  • Hang diaper covers to dry to prolong their life. Prefolds and inserts can also be hung to dry, but they might be crunchy.
  • Depending on the diapering system you use, you can add bleach to sanitize your diapers. Generally, this would be a prefold-only load. Also, for any type of diaper, consider adding a few drops of tea tree oil, as this is a natural antiseptic.
  • In theory, you could get by with washing diapers once or twice per week IF you have enough, and IF you use a prefold + cover system and hand-wash your covers in between machine washes. If you wait more than three days, it’s going to smell really foul.

Which type of diaper to try?

Go with a prefold + cover system. It’s cheaper than pockets or all-in-ones and washing them ought to be easier. This is the type of system diaper services typically use, and for good reason. Diaper services wash those diapers once per week. I don’t know how many times they’re washed or how they’re processed, but they make it work!

Contrast that with a pocket or AIO. Those things need to be washed every two days (possibly stretching to three days) or you’ll encounter more challenges. The ammonia from pee can start to break down diaper elastic (I think) if you give it enough time to fester. With a pocket, you’ll use one outer + one (or more) insert per change. You’ll probably want two dozen or more of those types to get you through two days of use. That’s a larger-sized load, thus could take longer to get clean.

Circling back to a prefold + cover, you can get two dozen prefolds or more per size, plus 2-3 covers per day. You’ll probably go through more covers during the explosive newborn stool phase. If some poop gets on the cover, you gotta wash it. Realize, though, that you can hand wash it and hang it to dry and it would take just a few minutes.

Indian Prefolds cost $1 for premie size all the way through $2 each for “premium” on Cotton Babies. Absolutely get the high-quality Chinese or Indian prefolds from a diaper company such as this one. You can use the thinner Gerber ones you’ll find at Walmart or Babies R Us (we have some of those too) but they aren’t as absorbant and wear out faster.

You can use a Snappi to secure the prefold around your baby if you want. We don’t. It was just too much work for us. Plus, I caught one of the Snappi’s teeth on my finger once and it hurt! Instead, we do a “newspaper” fold and lay it inside the diaper cover. It’s easy and the diaper stays reasonably together.

I made a video to show you how we do it.

We have tried two types of diaper covers: Thirsties Duos and Flip. The Duos are a two-size option — size 1 is for 6-18 lbs. and size 2 is 18 – 40 lbs. We have size two only. This cover is nice, but sadly I’ve had quality issues with three of them. Velcro came unstitched, a snap separated from the fabric, and one had a spot wear out so it was no longer waterproof. The first two problems happened within the first 90 days of purchase so I received a replacement at no cost.

You might have better luck with yours. My general advice for it now is to read others’ reviews and form your own conclusions.

A few weeks ago, I purchased one Flip diaper cover. This system came out after we started cloth. It’s a one-size cover and appears to be well-made. The “stay dry” insert that comes with it is soft and nice but it can easily get bunched to the side (and cause a leak). We have been happy using prefolds inside of this cover, though the stay dry insert isn’t bad. I would like to get their organic cotton insert and combine that with a hemp doubler to see how that holds up overnight.

Flips also have disposable inserts for sale. We have some but haven’t tried them yet. It’s probably cheaper to use a regular disposable instead.

You can get this diaper (and others) for a great price on Diapers.com — $25 off $50 with free shipping. Check out this post to find out how.

Of course, there are plenty of other diaper covers and diapering systems out there. Have your cloth diapering friends show you theirs and read reviews to figure out what might work for you.

Finally, you may love prefolds just fine, but I like to use pocket diapers if we’re out running errands. I’d suggest a pocket over an all-in-one for you mamas-without-washers because they ought to be easier for you to get clean and dry.

Bottom line advice:

  • Don’t make parenting a newborn harder on yourself than it needs to be. There’s no shame in using disposables.
  • If you try cloth at first and it’s too much work, switch to disposables until your baby reaches a new poop phase. If it’s still too much work, sell ’em off and pat yourself on the back for trying.
  • You probably can make it work!

Cloth-diapering parents of all washing situations — what would you like to add?  And more on the topic: Trent says the cost savings of cloth go way down if you have to pay per wash. I disagree — I think you’ll have to run the numbers yourself on this one.



Hey! I'm Kacie, wife and mother of 3. 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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