Do Cloth Diapers Really Save Money?

Do cloth diapers really save money? Not for everyone, but it depends on the size of the family water bill and other factors. At least in one case study (me) cloth diapers ended up costing about the same as disposables. The added stress and mess of dealing with them doesn’t speak highly in their favor either.

I should kick this off by admitting I’m biased. I don’t like cloth diapers. I don’t like the whole idea of them. I’m not talking about working to promote a better environment. Of course I want that. What I’m against is lip service without data. Possibly even lip service in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Specifically, I’m irked that technology has produced a sanitary, convenient, efficient, comfortable way of dealing with the problem of baby poop, and we’re expected to say, “Nah, we’re not gonna use that.”

But some of my bias is rooted in common sense. At a time when a baby’s immune system isn’t up to speed, does it really make sense to have the parents’ hands touching poop a lot more than necessary?

Cloth Diaper Cost Comparison

Digging Into Diaper Cost

Now let’s move beyond bias. Ever since our awesome little guy was born on Christmas Eve in 2014, I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that my wife and I are spending more on cloth diapers than we would on disposables. Without data a suspicion is nothing but hot air, so I decided to take a look into the numbers.

I should caution that my data won’t work for everyone. This is a very specific case study based on a specific set of measurements. While it shows the truth for my wife and I, each family’s case will depend on variables that need to be tracked. Those include the cost of water in your area, the number of times each day you change your baby and the way you go about cleaning cloth diapers. Parents who spend less for water than we do might come to a very different conclusion. Likewise, parents who clean their cloth diapers differently might find real cost savings. We haven’t.

As a counterpoint, the blogger in the video below points out that when parents have more than one child, cloth diapers do save money. The reason is hand-me-downs. Whether that’s a “huge” savings is up for debate.

Also see: 19 Unexpected Money Tips from Moms

Enough hedging. On to the data.

Look to Your Water Bill

Do cloth diapers save money? Ask your water company.

Here’s a snapshot of our water usage both before and after cloth diapers. The graph shows hundreds of gallons used per month. The bars on the left are measurements of water use before the baby came home. The bars on the right show post-baby water use. All in all, post-baby, our water use was boosted by 41%.

Do Cloth Diapers Save MoneyNot all that extra water use can be laid at the feet of our cloth diaper habit. My wife was breast feeding and so probably drinking more water. We’ve had to wash all the baby’s bottles and toys. We have to wash the baby’s clothes. Then there are nightly baths. Although I don’t have hard data to back up this claim, just on my observations, I’d say those things only account for about 25% of our extra water use. The cloth diapers are probably responsible the rest, or 31% more water total. In other words, cloth accounts for 75% of the 41% total increase. That’s 31% from cloth.

The next stop for the “Do cloth diapers save money” train is the cost of all that water. 31% more water used, for us, is $30 extra every month. We have a relatively high cost-per-gallon of water, and a high cost-per-gallon on our sewer bill to match. Not every parent will have this issue. Some readers have pointed out that they have well water or a low cost-per gallon water bill. For them, cloth diapers really do save big money. But a bigger water bill isn’t the only cost associated with cloth diapers.

Cloth Diaper CostCloth Diaper Cost

Cloth diapers are expensive. Most parents shrug the cost off because, after all, they’re reusable too. But there is a cost. Each parent will buy differently. As a benchmark, here’s what my wife and I shelled out. We ended up buying 10 Bum Genius (the best, at least before a baby turns to solid food) 10 covers, 20 inserts, 20 fleece covers (homemade by my wife) and 10 Alva. Granted, the Alvas were a gift, but if we hadn’t been doing cloth diapers we probably would have got disposables as gifts, so I’m not counting that.

The Bum Genius cost about $17 each for a total of $170. Some moms have pointed out that they got their Bum Genius on sale for less money. I’m not factoring sale prices in because there are ways to save money on disposables as well.

Our covers totaled about $50 and so on. The table below shows our total layout for cloth diapers. We reached equilibrium at 20 Bum Genius / Alva type diapers and 20 inserts because that amount seemed to keep us in clean diapers without running out too fast.

How Much Do Cloth Diapers Cost?

10 bum genius$170
10 covers$50
20 inserts$60
20 fleece covers$10
10 Alva$100

Also see: 5 Ways to Save Big Money on a Baby

That’s a total of $390. A lot of parents might make the mistake of comparing that to the cost of disposables for two years and think they’re saving $1,000 or more. If so, they’re not looking at the whole story.

Real Cost of Cloth Diapers

The Real Cost of Cloth Diapers

Whether or not cloth diapers really save money depends heavily on adding up the total expenses of both methods. Below is my estimate of how much cloth diapers will really end up costing us by the time our 11-month old boy proudly graduates potty training.

Extra electricity per month (2 washer and dryer loads per week)$6
Monthly cloth diaper cost ($390 spent on diapers / 36 months)$11
Monthly water bill increase from cloth diapers$30
Monthly cloth diaper liner cost$16
Total monthly cost of cloth diapers$63
Total months in diapers36
Total cost of cloth diapers (2 years)$2,268

It’s important to note that the costs listed above might not be the same for every family. Will our boy really be out of diapers by 3 years old? We hope, but it’s hard to say. Will other families have as big a cost-per-gallon water bill as us? Will they use as much extra water for cloth diapers as we do? Again, it’s hard to say.

Cloth diapers vs disposables cost

Also see: How Much Does a Baby Cost in America?

Cloth Diaper Cost Compared to Disposables

Now let’s look at disposable diapers. A box of 112 Huggies costs $17.80 on Amazon. That’s 16 cents per diaper. We change our son about every two hours. We change him less these days because he’s sleeping through the night. But let’s be generous and say it’s 12 times daily. By that math, the cost of disposable diapers is $1.91 per day, $13.35 per week or $53.40 per month. Over a full two year period, that comes to $1,388 for diaper cost.

Box of 112 Huggies on Amazon$17.80
Cost per diaper$0.16
Diaper cost per day$1.91
Diaper cost per week$13.35
# of weeks in diapers (3 years total)156
Total cost of disposable diapers (2 years)$2,083

Cloth Diaper Cost vs Disposable Diaper Cost

Now here’s the bottom line. In our case, cloth diapers will cost us an estimated $2,268 in a two year period. Disposables would have cost us $2,083. Cloth diapers will cost us $185 more by the time our little guy is in Underoos. That’s 9% more for the privilege of sticking our hands in the toilet on a daily basis for two years. Not to mention the fun of all those extra loads of laundry and diapers hanging in the bathroom every time we want to take a shower. All of this is without even factoring in the extra electricity cost from running the dryer more.

Cloth diaper water bill cost

Why Do Cloth Diapers Cost More?

To badly paraphrase James Carville, it’s the water bill, stupid. Since our baby made the switch to solid food, every time he poops, we take his diaper off and rinse it in the toilet. This often means three flushes per event. Then each laundry load of cloth diapers has to be power rinsed, then washed in soap. Periodically, to keep the ammonia from building up and causing diaper rash, the diapers have to be “stripped.” That’s just a quick word for another washing process. All in all, it’s a hell of a lot of water. In our case, it turns out all that extra flushing and rinsing and washing and stripping pushes the cost of cloth diapers past the point where they make financial sense.

Diaper liners cut down on the flushing a lot, but they cost money too. $16 at Amazon buys a roll of 100, which should last about a month.

Cloth Diapers questionBut Don’t Cloth Diapers Save the Planet?

This is a personal finance site, but of course we don’t want to waste precious resources and clutter landfills. We do need to balance the cost and waste of disposable diapers against the cost and waste of 30% more water. Which one saves the planet more? Tossing out 13,140 disposables in three years or dumping 27,000 gallons of extra water down the drain? That might be the subject of another article.

What about dioxin? Many moms say cost aside, they don’t want dioxin close to their baby’s skin. According to a 2002 study, exposure to dioxins in breast milk is 30,000 to 2 million times more than exposure from diapers. Even in breast milk, the exposure is at a low level. Since dioxin exists in very small trace amounts in paper, the likelihood is that your baby is getting a lot more dioxin every time she or he chews a book than from wearing disposable diapers. That’s outside the scope of this article a bit, but the cost of cancer later in life should certainly factor in.

Will We Stop Using Cloth Diapers?

In spite of the high cost of cloth diapers, my wife and I will probably keep using them. We’ve already spent the $390 on the initial investment, which means we’ve got the diapers anyway. Another mitigating factor in all this is that we can sell the diapers once we’re done with them. I wouldn’t estimate their selling price to be too high, but I’d say we can probably get $104 for the set. That means we’ll come out about $140 ahead after three years. In other words, we’ll just about break even. Was it worth it? Yes, I loved every single time I had to swirl my hand around in the toilet. In case you were recently hit on the head or have just found out your mother is marrying a circus performer, I’m being sarcastic.

For extra money saving tips for parents, check out the PennyWiseMama blog.