When my daughter was 11 months old, I brought her to a shoe store, had her feet measured and purchased a pair of $40 Stride Rite sneakers for her. It was a momentous occasion, not only because she had recently taken her first steps and would finally wear shoes for their intended purpose but also because I had spent money on baby attire for the first time. Yes, really.
So how did I manage to make it nearly a year without shelling out a dime for baby stuff? First, admittedly, by having generous family and friends who gifted us with many essentials at my baby shower. But also, I am very, very thrifty (some may even say cheap). My husband and I live in one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in one of America’s most expensive cities (Park Slope, Brooklyn) and earn a solid middle-class living—and I was determined to not go broke after giving birth. I invite you to steal my frugality hacks for your baby’s first year.
Find your local community parents listserv or social media group and search the classifieds. From the Ergobaby carrier and breastfeeding pillow to the Rock ’n Play and crib, all of our baby gear came as hand-me-downs, free or deeply discounted, courtesy of those classified ads (that’s how I scored the majority of my maternity clothes, too). Then I paid it forward and passed along the same stuff to the next expecting neighbour.
I’m lucky that my local parents group organizes biannual swaps of baby clothes. Before I became a mom, I planned similar swaps among my friends for adult clothing. The key is to include parents of different-aged kids so that those with one-year-olds can pass along their six- to nine-month attire to you, while you can pass along your zero- to three-month items to parents-to-be. Except for the aforementioned Stride Rite sneakers, my daughter’s entire wardrobe came from these swaps, from snowsuits and winter boots to pyjamas and party dresses. Bonus: Hand-me-downs cut down on environmental waste, too.
My friend and I gave birth the same week, and we’ve been leaning on each other for date-night child care since then. After our babies are in bed, I’ll head over to her place to sit around, read or watch TV while she and her husband get a few hours to themselves. A couple of weeks later, my friend will return the favour, with no money changing hands.
There are about one million baby activities within a 10-block radius of my home: sing-alongs, storytimes, mommy-and-me swims, tot gyms and even an infant art classes. Their cost can rival college tuition, but every single one of them offers a free trial class. We just make the rounds, hitting up one trial class after another. We do the same when we’re visiting other cities. Even if you don’t live in a babycentric neighbourhood, a quick search will likely turn up a baby music class or two. They may not officially offer a free first class, but it’s worth asking anyway—I’ve done this with a 100 percent success rate.
We take advantage of free-admission days at nearby cultural institutions, such as children’s museums, art and science museums, botanical gardens and zoos. We also hit up free public pools in the summer. Of course, playgrounds and parks are always free!
This is one area where I don’t rely on hand-me-downs (ew!). But I have discovered that store-brand diapers (from Walmart, Costco and the like) cost half as much as name brands. No, they don’t feature adorable patterns or cute animals like the boutique varieties, but the quality is basically the same.
Turns out, the cliché is true that babies are often more interested in the box that a toy comes in than the toy itself. So, why even buy the toy? Here are some examples of “toys” that captivated my infant daughter: cardboard boxes, bowls of uncooked rice and beans, ribbons, mixing bowls and metal spoons, crinkly wrapping paper, a mirror, and helium balloons ($1 at the corner store) tied to her ankles as she kicked her heart out. Bonus: None of these “toys” sings obnoxious earworms that will play in your head on repeat at 3 a.m.
Borrow classics like The Happiest Baby on the Block for parenting advice and head to the children’s nook for enough board books to entertain your babies until they’re teenagers.
Do you own a backpack? Then you already have a diaper bag! A plain old knapsack won’t have bells and whistles like insulated pouches and pacifier clips, but I found that it did the trick to cart around diapers and a change of clothes.
Do you have food in your home? Then you already have baby food. When my daughter began eating solids, we skipped the pricey pouches and purée jars and simply fed her bits of whatever we were eating. This approach isn’t the right one for every family, but it worked for us.
Of course, that’s true of all these tips. I know plenty of parents who would never feel comfortable using second-hand baby gear. And perhaps to you, it seems like more trouble than it’s worth to speed-date your way through baby entertainment options just to get some free passes. That’s cool—you do you. In the meantime, you’ll catch me over at the yard sale rifling through the one-dollar bin of toddler apparel.
Lindsey J. Palmer is the author of three novels. Her newest, Otherwise Engaged, is out now. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and one-year-old daughter.