How Much Do Cloth Diapers Really Cost?

by Emily Guy Birken · 14 comments

When I mentioned to a colleague that my husband and I planned to diaper our son in cloth, she looked at me as if I were crazy and wished me the best of luck. I shouldn’t have been surprised by her reaction—there really is no contest in terms of convenience when you compare cloth with disposables, but I was thinking about other factors than convenience. Environmentally, I felt more comfortable with reusing something over and over. Health wise, I liked the idea of diapering my son in something natural—cotton—rather than something chemical. And I thought that cloth was the better financial choice.  However, after an initial investment of nearly $200 for 10 Fuzzi Bunz diapers, I wasn’t so sure about the money part, so I decided to give this some more thought. Here are the financial facts about cloth vs. disposable diapers:

Cloth

With a hefty initial investment, cloth diapers are difficult to justify on the front end. However, the 10 diapers I purchased (plus the additional eight or so we received as gifts) are one-size diapers, meaning they will fit my peanut from birth to potty-training (at about age three.) In addition, these diapers should be good to go for any future peanuts we have, so theoretically I could get even more years of use out of them. Many of the modern cloth diaper companies offer warranties on their products, so if a snap breaks or elastic fails, you can receive a replacement.

However, once you’re using cloth diapers, you will also need to launder them. Unlike in the olden days, diaper services are harder to come by, but it is still possible to send your diapers out for someone else to clean. These services generally cost anywhere from $20 to $60 per week. Multiply that out to three years, and it will possibly cost as much as $9000 (!!!) to have someone else clean your diapers.

Even though I launder our diapers on the hottest wash setting, the cost per load is relatively cheap. (This website can help you determine how much each load of laundry costs you.) According to the site, each load costs my family approximately $0.65. Add in the fact that I line dry the diapers in warm weather (which both helps with stains and smells, and guarantees that my neighbors will be able to embarrass my son when he’s a teenager), and it brings down the cost per diaper change a great deal.

Disposable

I was pleasantly surprised at how little a package of disposable diapers cost when I first bought some for the peanut. I was able to get 50 newborn size diapers for under $8. (Full disclosure: I almost never buy name brand. This was a store brand package that was at least $2 less than the similar Huggies, Pampers, etc.) However, a newborn goes through 10-12 diapers a day, and that 50 pack will only last a portion of a week. As babies grow, they need fewer diaper changes, but you’ll notice that the number of diapers in the packages goes down, too, so you’re still spending about the same amount. Ultimately, it will cost anywhere from $50 to $80 per month to diaper your child exclusively in disposables. After three years, you could spend up to $3000 on diapers alone.

However, disposables do have one cost advantage that cloth diapers do not. Coupons! If you are squeamish or living without your own washer, you can still feel fiscally responsible with your choice of disposable diapers. Clipping Sunday coupons and signing up for coupons with the major diaper manufacturers can help you to never pay full price for a package of Luvs. In addition, you can buy in bulk and scope out the internet for diaper promotions. There’s generally no need for brand loyalty—most kids don’t notice what they’ve got on.

For us, it was important enough environmentally to commit to cloth diapers, no matter the financial difference. Luckily, cloth diapers do tend to have a slight financial edge over disposables, provided you are willing and able to launder them yourself. But you can’t beat disposables for convenience, and we certainly couldn’t travel, take our son to the babysitter, or even have a long day out, without disposables.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

KM April 14, 2011 at 7:08 am

I want to switch to cloth diapers (well, I had some before, but they became too small), but I can’t find the right diapers. There are so many choices, but when I started looking at them, none seemed right for me. I want ones absorbent enough, but without any inserts – kind of like a normal underwear, but thicker so it absorbs. My 6mo doesn’t poop in the diaper anymore, so all I have to worry about is the wetness and for that, I can even hand wash cloth diapers in between regular washings. Maybe now I will try to look harder to find something, or at least settle.

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Lynn April 14, 2011 at 7:10 am

Look into all-in-ones, if you haven’t already. :) They take a little longer to dry since the inserts are already inside the diaper but they are REALLY easy to use. If I did more than prefolds, I’d probably invest in AIOs.

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KM April 16, 2011 at 11:24 am

Thanks. I will try that.

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Lynn April 14, 2011 at 7:09 am

I loved cloth diapering but I’m undecided what we’ll do for the next one. Maybe prefolds at home and disposables while out. I don’t know that I could manage much more than that this time around…

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marci April 14, 2011 at 9:54 am

Raised 3 kids in cloth diapers… drop any solids in the toilet, throw the diapers in the wash machines, throw in the dryer, pull out, throw in the clean basket, and done… Prefolds. Can be picked up for as little as $2/dozen at garage sales, in great shape.
There are patterns free on the internet also if you want to sew your own form fitted prefolds.

There really are no hassles with them – the wash machine does all the work.
For on the go, carry a plastic bread sack to stick the used ones in, and empty into the wash machine when you get home.

very very easy. (as long as you have a washer and dryer )

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marci April 14, 2011 at 9:55 am

and yes I was a working mom….. threw the diapers in the wash when I got home from work, into the dryer after dinner was done… no extra hassle :)

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Karen@danielcreations.com April 14, 2011 at 5:25 pm

I’m glad you’ve found a system for your family, that can be the most challenging part. The cost between cloth and disposable is highly variable and upfront costs can be a big deterrent for many families. To manage the cost aspect, starting out part-time with just a couple diapers and adding to the stash as finances allow is a great way to get started.

Many families also avoid disposables to avoid additional chemical exposure. When you think about how many hours your child spends in diapers, that can be a big factor. I love working with families to get them a perfect solution for their exact situation – taking all the benefits of different systems or styles and making a custom made stash that meets all of their needs.

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crystal_b April 23, 2011 at 7:43 pm

I just wanted to chime in that it is possible to travel, have babysitters, and even go long days out with only cloth diapers. My daughter is 11 months old, and after the first month in disposables, we’ve only ever used cloth. She’s good in a pocket diaper 12 hours overnight — let alone a long car ride — and even the blondest babysitter can figure out a pocket diaper with velcro closing. Get yourself a good wetbag and stay with friends or at hotels that have a do-it-yourself washer and dryer and you’ll have cloth diapers on the go :)

Basically, I’m too stubborn to use disposables, and buying packs here and there really eats into your diaper savings.

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Carlos April 24, 2011 at 11:39 pm

I think cloth diapers should be the only choice, can you just imagine how much trash disposable diapers produce (the packaging, the diapers, all the materials the manufacturer discards, etc, etc, etc.). Where do you think all that garbage goes? Diaper cleaning service is more expensive than using disposables but a lot better for your baby and for the environment. When it comes to your baby you should not worry about money, you should ask yourself “what would be best for my little darling?”
When my baby was born I asked myself “What would be best for my little princess?” and I still ask myself that same question when I go to the grocery store and pick up all organic fresh food. If you think it’s too expensive to cloth your baby in natural cotton and feed them fresh food then start by cutting your cable subscription, trade your new model car for a used car and give up any addictions that drain your wallet.
Wish you all the best and always think about what is best for the baby before you think about price.

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Batya May 19, 2011 at 11:01 am

If you have your own washing machine, some vinegar, and a toilet in which to scrape solid waste, then there isn’t much reason to use disposables. Babies with cloth diapers (I’m speaking from personal experience, as well as from studies that I have read) potty train sooner. The “dry” feeling one gets with a plastic diaper does nothing to encourage potty training. Moreover, “dry” does not mean “clean” or sanitary. Moreover, thinking that one’s child is “dry” and thus “comfortable” does nothing to encourage parents to change the child’s diaper as soon as possible. If you don’t use paper plates and cups for every meal, then why would you use disposable diapers? This whole mentality of using something once and then throwing it away is very troublesome. I can understand using disposables once in a while if you are, say travelling far from home, but if you are just out for the afternoon, then it’s really not a big deal to just put a soiled nappy in a plastic bag, tote it around until you get home, and then clean it. The chemicals and energy that go into producing and transporting disposable diapers is not justifiable. And then they just sit somewhere for who knows how long–a few hundred years? If you are working and a single mom and are really crunched for time, I can understand disposables. But these moms who are dressed sharply and are not working outside of the home, what’s their excuse?

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Nancy December 26, 2013 at 8:09 am

Batya: You are so right about cloth diaper wearers potty training earlier. I was attending college and going through a divorce when my son was in diapers. The little guy could not wear paper ones. Too rough for his skin. He was potty trained by the time he was 15 months. It only took a week ( still had an accident on a few nights). I had planned to diaper him through the nights, but he shouted “HOT” whenever I tried to put a diaper on him after the start of potty training. He had learned no diapers was cooler, drier, and easier to move. I was following my Grandma’s sage advice to start potty training the summer after a child’s first birthday. They tend to stay outside in the fresh air that summer.

Another reason for cloth diapers: they make excellent car wax and buffer cloths after they are no longer needed. Pride is a little boy handing over some of his old cloth diapers to the next door college student neighbor to care for his new pickup truck.

My cousin’s girl, who was only 8 months older than my son, was 3 1/2 years old AND still wearing her disposies. Don’t know when she stopped wearing them. Hopefully before her wedding a couple of years ago.

My Grandma always said the reason it was taking too long to potty train children now was due to the ease of using and the dry feel of disposies.

Also, who spends $200 for 10 diapers. Just get a couple dozen of the cheaper prefolds (various sizes) and a few plastic/latex/etc. pants.

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Pearl June 17, 2011 at 9:07 am

Just visited my sister who is using cloth diapers for her child. She is using the old style no snap-no insert-used to be safety pinned diapers. There is a little three way clip that fastens the diaper together and then she puts a waterproof cover over it and wallah! all done. She has a diaper bag that is just for the diapers. Keeps the covers, cloths, and wipes in one pocket and the other pocket is water proofed (and seemed to be odor proof) with a zip to keep the dirtied diapers in. She’s got no washing machine but has a little washer that sits on the counter and a spin drier that gets out most of the water. Then she hangs the diapers to dry. The whole thing takes less than an hour. I’d imagine it would be even more convenient if her washer and dryer were not miniatures. :) It didn’t take long for me to learn the process and it was convenient enough that I’ve decided I’ll be cloth diapering when I has a little one.

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Kathryn January 7, 2012 at 12:41 pm

Just wanted to say that even if you use disposable diapers exclusively, everyone should have at least 12 cloth diapers with at least two washable elastic-leg “panty” covers, also. Cloth diapering is not difficult, and if you run out of disposables, you can always use the cloth ones as a back-up. (I volunteer at a food bank, and many, many, young moms show up just asking for diapers; if they had cloth diapers, at least the babies wouldn’t stay wet because of lack of funds!) Also, if there is any kind of emergency in which you wouldn’t be able to get to the store, they would come in handy.

I used exclusively cloth diapers (ages ago) from newborn up to when she was completely potty-trained and never had a problem.

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Sam July 4, 2012 at 2:15 pm

One thing that I notice people always leave out when calculating the ‘real’ cost of cloth diapering is the cost of their own labor. I personally don’t value myself at $0/hr.

Let’s assume you made an average of $40K/year or $20/hr. Maybe you made less at a day job, but I consider time taken away from my kids and from things I really want to do as even more valuable. Hence I value my time at $20/hr.

Let’s look at one load of laundry:
- Sorting/gathering the load, putting it in the washer: 5mins.
- Transfer from washer to dryer: 2mins.
- Unload dryer and fold the load and put it away: 13mins.
TOTAL: 20mins.

20 minutes of work at $20/hr is $6.67.

My times are very conservative, you have to be working pretty efficiently to make that time b/c it is not considering the lead in and lead out time of the tasks you were interrupting in order to do the load. So with electricity you’re looking at more like $7/load.

So, after the initial cost of the diapers… the ongoing cost of washing them is about $7/load or about $21/week.

This may not be a cash cost, but your time is worth something. If you don’t have the cash, it might be good for your family to trade your personal time for cash savings, and an environmental benefit. But know that that’s what you’re doing.

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