How we saved money with reusable cloth diapers

We saved a bundle by switching to reusable cloth diapers. Here’s how we did it.

cloth diaper bubble butt

What’s not to like about a cloth diaper bubble butt?

This post is going to talk a lot about feces. If you don’t have a baby already or in your future or if you just don’t want to read about how to restrain the mud bunnies, you might want to explore another corner of the internet for awhile.

That’s because there’s a lot of hell’s candy involved with babies. If you’re one of those people who gets squeamish at the site of chimp chunks you might want to just be sure your birth control situation is locked down because there is no escape from the butt brie once the baby arrives.

Now when you have a baby, one of the first decisions you’ll have to make is what kind of diapers you’re going to use. We knew we weren’t going to be purist about it so we accepted that some disposable diapers were in our future. At the same time, the image of how many diapers our baby would use before being potty trained was disturbing. A typical baby will go through some 3,800 diapers in its lifetime.

Our strategy was to minimize the use of disposables as much as was reasonable. We decided to go with a local diaper service company. At $100/month, the price was comparable to what we’d likely be paying in diapers given how many he was going through in the early stages. More importantly, the convenience and waste reduction made it worth it to us.

The service would deliver a nice, fresh packet of diapers to our doorstep each week and take away the bag of diapers soaked with pee and pocket pesto. Pretired Baby really seemed to like the diapers and they were very easy for tired new parents to deal with as well.

All the pieces for using reusable cloth diapers

All the pieces you’ll need to contain the poop

But once he started sleeping blissfully through the night at three months in, our minds cleared and we began to re-evaluate our diaper strategy. Eventually we settled on washable cloth diapers. We canceled the diaper service and purchased used GroVia diapers from DiaperSwappers.com.

These diapers, along with similar versions, consist of a cloth insert that snaps to a waterproof cover (or “wrap”). We bought about a dozen wraps (you can use them a few times before they need to be washed) and more than 30 diaper inserts. In retrospect, we could easily have gotten by with a few less of each. The trick to how many you need is to estimate how many diapers you need in a day, decide how long you want (or can stand) to go between washing and do the math. (You can always buy what you think you need and buy a few more later if you find you’re running too low before you do laundry.) We bought all our diapers and wraps used and paid about $400 for everything. That seems like a lot (even considering we broke even in four months), but keep in mind we’ll also be able to sell these again when we’re done, hopefully at a minimal loss.

We’ve been using these diapers for about a year now and really have no problems to report. Right now we’re still using one disposable at nighttime as our one attempt at an overnight cloth diaper resulted in soaked sheets.

How to use reusable cloth diapers

OK, so we’ve established that we no longer just pull off the diaper covered in butt butter and just drop it into the bin to be left out for the diaper service company. Now we were up to our elbows in squishy baby gravy — what are we supposed to do with it all? There are a number of subtleties to using these diapers you’ll need to know about if you’re planning to go this route. Nothing is terribly difficult once you get in the routine, but expect a little trial and error as you get started.

Reusable cloth diapers ready to install

Assembled and ready to install

Now if you do any amount of research on these reusable cloth diapers, you’ll sooner or later come across someone touting the use of a “poop spatula.” The idea is that you keep an old spatula next to your toilet that is clearly marked “POOP”, or “MUD”, “DEUCE” or whatever you like. (The labeling is so you don’t accidentally end up mixing this spatula up with your cooking supplies.) We read about this concept and said, “Um, no.”

Fortunately there’s a better way to get the paydirt off your fancy new cloth diapers. It’s called a BioLiner and it acts as a handy barrier between the black banana and the diaper you’ll be tossing into your washing machine.

So proper assembly involves the outer wrap into which you’ll snap the cloth diaper, then you’ll add on a single BioLiner. Snap the kiddo up and you’re on your way.

Adding a booster to reusable cloth diapers

For naps and other long stretches, you’ll need to add in a booster for extra pee storage to make sure the reusable cloth diaper can handle the volume.

But, wait, you say! Does that little strip of cloth really hold all that pee? Doesn’t it leak out? Well for normal, daily usage when you’re able to do a diaper change frequently, it can easily hold it. But for longer stretches, such as a nap, it’s not typically enough. The solution for that is something called a “booster.” It’s an additional strip of material that you add to the mix to hold the extra liquid. For boys you’ll want to fold it in half and place it right in the front.

How to wash the reusable cloth diapers

So say your crumb cruncher suddenly goes quiet and with a focused look begins grunting and straining. You know what lies in store. “Are you poopin‘?” you ask softly.

Sure enough, you pull back the diaper to reveal a fresh new set of moon rocks! Here’s what to do: Get your next diaper all prepped. Take off the offending diaper and carefully set it aside. Clean up the perpetrator and put him or her somewhere safe.

Next take the whole smelly mess to the bathroom and shake off the stink brick, kerplunk! right into the toilet. Now the BioLiner is supposedly “flushable” but that doesn’t mean it should be flushed. These “flushable” products are notorious for clogging up your home’s plumbing and are hated by utility companies who must contend with sewage systems that aren’t geared up for products that don’t break down in water. That said, there’s been two or three times when the chocolate surprise was so squished into the liner that it ended up going down the drain. You could alternatively bag it up and send it out with the trash, though. But generally I just hold the BioLiner by a clean corner and give the whole thing a little shake and the stinky pie drops into the water. Sometimes a little number 2 gets on the cover or the diaper where the BioLiner wasn’t covering well enough. That can be rinsed off or wiped off with some toilet paper.

So that gets rid of the nut log, but you still have the diaper to contend with. Unsnap it from the cover, pull out the booster if you had one in there, and drop the whole thing into your airtight diaper container. You’ll want to have two reusable diaper pail liners so that you can rotate them as you do your laundry.

Before you have kids, you imagine the nonstop supply of Wendy’s Frosties being the worst part of the diaper experience. It turns out it’s actually the eye-watering urine smell. It really builds up after a few days of urine-soaked cloth diapers sitting in a diaper pail. So I generally end up washing smaller loads twice a week instead of one big load once a week.

Washing reusable cloth diapers

Rinse then wash. Then rinse again.

So here’s how to wash your cloth diapers. Hold your breath and quickly open the diaper pail and pull out the pail liner, closing it quickly. Once at your washing machine, hold your breath again and dump it in, making sure to spread them around. Then turn the liner inside-out and put it in there as well. We generally just wash the covers with the regular laundry but if some of them get a little butt hail on them, they can be washed with the diapers as well.

Don’t add any soap! First, you’ll run a rinse cycle on warm to get off any nuggets that have managed to escape the system so far. Once the rinse cycle completes, you’ll add the soap — and yes, you need special soap. We use Country Save Laundry Detergent and it seems to work great. Toss in a scoop, run the wash cycle on warm and add another rinse cycle at the end.

It doesn’t seem like that’d be enough to keep them clean, but they actually do come out perfectly clean on the other end. Unfortunately there’s one last step. Remove any covers and the liner bag, which can’t be put in the dryer. Hang those up to dry. Then turn each and every diaper inside-out so that it can dry completely. Run the dryer on medium heat and for as long as a cycle as your dryer has.

That’s it — put them away and they’re ready to catch another load of poo stew.

Just a couple other tips:

  • Don’t use any Vaseline or waterproof diaper cream because those will ruin the absorbency of the diapers.
  • Skip the dryer sheets. They leave a waxy (chemical) film on the material, reducing the absorbency. You’ll want to pick up a set of these dryer sheet alternatives instead.
  • Over time they can start to smell a little woofy. Not like a sewer, but more like a wet dog. When that happens, or if they lose some absorbency, they need to be “stripped.” There are several ways to do it, which you can do your own research on, but we just washed ours a couple times in hot water and it seemed to do the trick.
  • These diapers can get a little stained over time. When that happens, you can lay them out in the sun for a few hours (we have to wait until there’s some sun here in Seattle, which could be awhile). That should whiten them up enough to be tolerable.

OK, I think that’s everything I’ve learned about using reusable cloth diapers. What do the savings look like? Well, we were spending $100/month on the diaper service before and now we only buy one pack of disposables from Costco every few months. Obviously our utility costs have gone up a bit, although it’s been subtle enough I haven’t even noticed it, and it’s impossibly hard to measure. But I’d estimate we’ve easily saved at least $50/month and maybe as much as $75. That’s not too shabby. But the best part is all the disposables we’re not using. Having a baby is one of the worst things you can do for the environment, but hopefully we’ve eased that burden at least a little bit by using reusable cloth diapers.

Here’s your shopping list if you want to go this route. Remember to buy used whenever possible!

 

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33 Thoughts on “How we saved money with reusable cloth diapers

  1. Thanks for the great post Nick. You even taught me a few new fecal references. My wife and I were going to go this route anyway, but I really appreciate the resources. I’ll email you questions as they come up. Have a great day.
    -Bryan
    Fast Weekly recently posted…Why I’m Starting a Consulting BusinessMy Profile

    • Pretired Nick on December 16, 2013 at 7:23 am said:

      Thanks, Bryan! I forgot to mention that you were the reason I finally got around to finishing up this post! Hope it helps!

  2. I considered the cloth diaper route, but just don’t think we can do it. The disposable ones seem to be much less work. Especially since we live in an apartment where the laundry room is in the first floor, it costs $1.25 to do a load, and sometimes you have to wait for a free machine.
    P.S: I don’t know if I can Confirm I am a Seahawks fan after how they destroyed my Giants yesterday…but Giants season was over anyway…oh well.
    Andrew@LivingRichCheaply recently posted…Do You Judge Someone’s Financial Worth By The “Cover”?My Profile

    • Pretired Nick on December 16, 2013 at 7:24 am said:

      Yeah, I don’t think it’s very realistic for an apartment, unfortunately. That was certainly an epic beat-down, but I don’t think your Giants really had their hearts in it. We’ll take the W though!

      • We live in a condo and other people probably wouldn’t like poop in the washing machine… We considered it briefly, but went with disposable.
        Hey, you should think about toilet training now. Just quit cold turkey around 2-2.5. Life is SO MUCH easier after that.
        Joe recently posted…Is Early Retirement a Good Example for Your Kids?My Profile

        • Pretired Nick on December 16, 2013 at 10:15 am said:

          Wow, I didn’t realize you had shared laundry at your condo. I can’t imagine that would go over so good in a shared laundry.
          We have another year to go until he’s 2 1/2 so we have awhile to go still we considered doing EC, but it took a little more deep involvement than we were ready for. Hopefully he’ll be past diapers before he’s 3 so we can put this era behind us.

  3. Ruh roh we are going to environmental purgatory. Still using disposables. Although we spend relatively little on them. $90 gets me 8 cases of the supermegajumbo diapers from Dollar General online. I’m not sure how long they last us, but I have placed 2 orders since spring, and still have 4-5 cases from the last order.

    On the environmental side, I’m not really sure how much worse our choice is. There’s extra landfill waste we are creating. But we avoid the water usage (and expense) from washing the diapers (rinse + wash) and the negative impacts of detergent going into the waste water stream. And we don’t have to use our electric dryer to dry the clean cloth diapers. Do you have any estimates on what it costs in water/gas/electric to do a load of cloth diapers? Just curious how much extra we are spending on disposables.
    Justin @ RootofGood recently posted…11 Tips to Finish the Year StrongMy Profile

    • Pretired Nick on December 16, 2013 at 10:20 am said:

      Everyone has to make their own choices. I’m sure the environmental impacts are less but no one should assume it’s zero. The only way to be a perfect environmentalist is to kill yourself and even that would make a terrible mess. To me, it’s about balance and we just do the best we can. It’s sure been nice not shelling out the extra bucks, though!

  4. I feel like I’m missing something with the diaper liners. The ones you linked cost 8 cents each, which is a significant fraction of the cost of a full disposable diaper (18 to 24 cents or so?). The laundry costs for cloth diapering are non-negligible though I agree, hard to calculate. Though in my house, we always washed in hot water, but didn’t use special soap. Overall, cloth diapering is not a huge win, unless perhaps you use them for multiple children and/or resell the lot once you’re done having kids. Using an 8-cents-a-poop-pop liner would be more than enough to tip the numbers the other way.

    If you can’t handle a spooptula, they do make diaper sprayers that you can attach to your toilet, enabling water-powered poop removal.

    • Pretired Nick on December 16, 2013 at 12:35 pm said:

      Good point, Steve! We got out liners in bulk so they were a little cheaper and we don’t necessarily use a liner all the time (like, if we know there’s no more poop coming). We will be selling our cloth diapers again when we’re done and I expect to come close to breaking even.
      That said, my main comparison point is against the diaper service since we wanted to use as few disposables as we could so anyway you slice that, we should come out at least $50 ahead each month.
      We thought about the water sprayer but that had its own issues so we tried these liners and we’re pretty happy with them so far.
      Smart comment — thanks!

  5. I’m on the fence with this one. $75 a month is nothing to sneeze at, but I might look at other areas of the budget to try to get those savings first.
    Done by Forty recently posted…One Case of HomelessnessMy Profile

  6. We went all cloth diapers with Daughter Person – she’s been in disposables exactly one week of her life (when she was in the NICU). We even use cloth overnight and when traveling. For overnight use, try 2-3 liners/boosters. Makes the diaper a lot thicker, but absorbs everything. We had to move to charcoal bamboo liners at night: two charcoal bamboo liners and one hemp one. She most definitely has a bubble-butt at night. We’re going to try night training after the madness of the holidays are over though. We also skipped the “special” soap. plain ol’ Tide (the original/classic scent) works just fine on cloth. We haven’t had to strip them in the almost 3 years we’ve been using them.

    Glad you’re doing what you can for the environment!
    Mom @ Three is Plenty recently posted…Holiday Spending 2013 at the Three is Plenty HouseholdMy Profile

    • Pretired Nick on December 16, 2013 at 7:19 pm said:

      Wow, you’re hard-core, Mom! I’m not sure we could stuff enough into his diaper to hold everything, but maybe I’ll give it another go. I hear legend that at some point they go through the night without peeing so we’d definitely use our cloth ones at night again if that were the case.

      • Yeah – there are rumors that they eventually get to that point… :) We’re not there yet, but we’ve found that if there’s a diaper available, she uses it, so as long as we’re putting her in diapers for bed, she’s not going to make the extra effort to get out and use the potty. I’m not ready to deal with the middle of the night sheet changing that is inevitable at first until we’ve made it through the holidays!
        Mom @ Three is Plenty recently posted…Holiday Spending 2013 at the Three is Plenty HouseholdMy Profile

  7. So your baby started sleeping through the night at three months? Ours is at five and the best he gives us is five hours in a row.

    Back to the topic, we didn’t really consider cloth diapers. Disposables are extremely cheap here in Romania (I don’t have the exact numbers, but we spend around $30 per month) and we considered them the easy way out. Plus, we share our washing machine with my mom so that would’ve made things even more difficult. Add to that the fact that my stomach still hasn’t managed to get used with the smell (I have to wrap scarves over my face when I remove the dirty work) and it would’ve been really difficult for us. So we’ll have to stick with the disposables for now.
    C. the Romanian recently posted…Which Mortgage Is Best – 10 Year, 15 Year or 30 Year?My Profile

    • Pretired Nick on December 18, 2013 at 1:57 pm said:

      Yeah, he’s always been an awesome sleeper so I guess we’re lucky! Nice you don’t have to spend much there. Pretty hard with a shared laundry situation to justify dropping a bunch of crap into the appliance. But we’re pretty happy with our choice still.

  8. My wife and I were just talking about this the other day. Cloth diapers totally make sense to me, and we plan on using them when we have our first kid. It’s like paper towels- I don’t get spending money on something to be used once or twice, when dish or hand towels will do the same things, and there is only the one time capital outlay.

    • Pretired Nick on December 18, 2013 at 1:59 pm said:

      Good for you! Anytime you can avoid something that’s a one-time usage you’re doing something smart. Since you haven’t had your kid yet, if you follow my guidelines (and even start stocking up on used diapers before the kid arrives), you could end up spending very little on diapers throughout those first few years.

  9. Wow, what a thorough overview! We’ve never ventured into this world ourselves, though there’s definitely some value there if you can do it right. I think it’s mostly fear and laziness that’s held us back.

    By the way, my favorite poop name here was “chimp chunks”. Good stuff!
    Matt Becker recently posted…How a Single Mother Can Gain Financial ControlMy Profile

    • Pretired Nick on December 19, 2013 at 7:59 am said:

      Heh, glad you liked that. Butt brie was my personal fave.
      Depending on how long you’d be in diapers it can make a lot of sense. But if you’re nearly done, you might as well push through to the finish.

  10. Nick,
    My wife read about cloth diapers for months before making the move. She wanted to for the lower perceived environmental impact. I admit I was against the whole thing because I didn’t want to install a sprayer on our toilet, and didn’t want to clean them. She finally went ahead and bought some diapers, and all the absorbent accessories. She bought some on Craig’s list which sounds gross but they were cheap and we cleaned them thoroughly.

    I haven’t done a complete analysis on the cost of cloth verses disposable. I think when it comes to buying the special detergent, the hot water used, initial cost outlay and the hassle of cloth diapers, it ultimately isn’t worth it. Not for me personally for sure. We are going through A LOT of diapers right now with a 22 month and a 3 month old. We use a combination of both cloth an disposable. When we buy disposables, we use coupons and Target frequently gives big refunds when you buy them. My son tends to get a rash from the cloth too, so that doesn’t help.
    -RBD
    Retire Before Dad recently posted…Investment Income Update – Dec 15th 2013My Profile

    • Pretired Nick on December 19, 2013 at 8:01 am said:

      Good for you for trying it, RBD! We’re pretty happy with our choice still, but everyone has to find their own right choice.

  11. Nice little round up. I thought I would throw my two cents in as well. We have been using cloth diapers for our baby and it has worked out very well. As one other poster recommended, we actually got our diapers off craiglist and we purchased about 100 diapers of different sizes for $75 (great deal, lady just wanted them out of her closet). We did the sprayer install on the toilet for ease. We actually expect to be able to sell the diapers on craigslist for about $200 when all of our kids are grown. They hold up remarkably well (we do some line drying/rack). We started off with them so it just seems completely normal. We went with simple prefolds and covers. We have 40+ all in ones but we never use them.
    Stephen recently posted…The Great Detox Challenge for 2014My Profile

    • Pretired Nick on December 19, 2013 at 3:10 pm said:

      Baby as profit center, I like it! Great job on finding a good deal on the used diapers. It’s pretty incredible how these things hold their value.

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  13. Very funny, cool, and an awesome idea.
    I never thought of doing this, but it does remind me of what people would do to save money.
    Thanks for the insight!
    David
    David recently posted…The Solution To ExpensesMy Profile

    • Pretired Nick on December 24, 2013 at 9:22 am said:

      Thanks, David! Wasn’t a big deal once we got going, but I’ll admit at first the idea of dealing with a bunch of poopy cloth was pretty intimidating. Hopefully we only have another year or so of diapers!

  14. I have never used cloth diapers, mostly because my kids go to daycare. I could use them at home (and probably should) but never have. Glad you saved a bundle!

    • Pretired Nick on January 2, 2014 at 3:05 pm said:

      Yeah, if your kids are in daycare and you’d only need a few for home use, I don’t think it’d make sense for you. In general, it probably mostly makes sense when there’s a caregiver at home.

  15. Great money saving tip!
    We saved a ton, buying second hand diapers (and $6 diapers from sunbaby -shipped right to us.) Diaper sprayer used too, so we never bought liners.
    We will sell them once we decide whether we’re having more kids, and I’ve been able to sell some for what they cost, so the utilities and soap have been the only expense. Add to that – I convinced daycare to use them there, and we hung them out to dry (or in baby’s room in winter) when we could. We also potty trained at 2, and although it was a nightmare the first 4 days (christmas break, we were all home) it caught on quickly. By 2.5 kiddo was dry at night. Bottom line was that where possible, potty training was also a great money-saving task – and the bonus is that pants were good for another 8 months with the added length from the missing diaper!

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