Disposable vs. Reusable Diapers: How to Save

Father changing diapersThe time a parent needs to wash cloth diapers, and how much that time is worth, may push them to skip cleaning the soiled diapers and use more costly disposable ones.

Including the cost of water and electricity to run a washing machine, and assuming a child will be out of diapers by age 2-1/2, cloth diapers can range in cost from an average of 6 cents per diaper ($381 total) to 23 cents per diaper ($1,677.66), according to the website Diaper Decisions. Disposable diapers cost an average of 36 cents per diaper, or $2,577.35 before the child is out of diapers.There are issues to both diapers that go beyond costs. After talking with some parents who have used both, WalletPop found that helping the environment tops the list of reasons they chose reusable diapers. But there are plenty of fans of disposables, too.

Here are some of the diaper options available, along with estimated savings that various families found.

Reusable Diapers

Eric W. Brown was so interested in the cost savings of reusable diapers that he co-authored a white paper on the issue and has saved more than $1,000 with reusable diapers for his first child. Brown says his family saved so much because of an Energy Star-rated washing machine, the diapers are air-dried instead of machine dried for about five months a year, and got most of their reusable diapers as gifts.

Brown's co-author, Nhung T. Pham, was so interested in the topic that she created a cloth diaper and has a patent pending on it. The diapers she created, called Nhung's Notions, are $17 to $25 and have a breathable waterproof layer and a six-layer cotton insert.

Since doctors recommend eight to 10 diaper changes per day for newborns, Pham estimates that parents would need 25 diapers to last until potty training, costing $425. Calculating energy and water use to clean the diapers, she estimates it will cost $300 to clean those diapers through potty training.

The total cost for her reusable diapers would be $400 to $725, compared to $1,600 to $2,500 for disposables. The savings would be $1,200 to $2,100 for three years, or $400 to $700 per year.

In their study, Brown and Pham found that cloth diapers also saved local governments money because less waste is contributed to landfills. A baby can produce up to 1 ton of trash from disposable diapers per year, they found. That equates to a municipal savings of $100 to $180 per ton to dispose of them.

Stephen Smith, who works in public relations, and his wife used bumGenius cloth diapers because one size fits all with Velcro across the front to tighten or loosen, and buttons from front to back to make them longer or shorter. Smith estimates they've spent $350 on diapers for their 13-month-old, saving $100 in the first year by buying two dozen diapers and doing a load of laundry every five days.

Chicago parent Maureen Smithe says she spent about $500 upfront on cloth diapers and related supplies to clean them, and is saving so much from the estimated $3,000 she would have spent on disposable diapers that her family might take a vacation with the money saved. Her cost per diaper is dropping because her daughter was potty trained at age 2 -- a year earlier than expected -- because kids feel wet and dirty in a cloth diaper and are willing to potty train sooner than their peers in absorbent disposables. Smithe's son is using the same cloth diaper her daughter used, saving the family more money.

Lori Harasem discovered the savings of cloth diapers after using only disposables on her oldest two children, and only cloth on her youngest, who is now 3 years old. Harasem estimates she spent up to $1,000 on cloth diapers during the two years her daughter wore them, compared with spending just as much on disposables during the first 10 months that her sons wore disposables.

Her sons were potty trained at age 3, costing her $2,600 more in disposable diapers each than if she had used cloth diapers.

Disposable Diapers

Andrea Metcalf had cloth diapers for her first two children because she wanted to help the environment. But by her third child she became a fan of disposables after figuring out there was zero difference in cost after factoring in energy costs, driving for delivery, water consumption and other costs that go into a diaper service.

Cherise Cartwright tried reusables and disposables with her son, but is now happy with disposables because while they are three times more expensive, she didn't find reusables to be mom-friendly and was overwhelmed with piles of dirty diapers. Cartwright says she plans to again try reusables because they're more pocketbook friendly, but she was tired of spending 30 minutes a night cleaning diapers.


Samantha Van Vleet switched her son to diapers that she sewed together herself after discovering he was allergic to disposable diapers. She looked into buying reusable cloth diapers, but didn't have the $250 to $500 in upfront expenses. Van Vleet started sewing diapers from old T-shirts, and eventually sold some and started making them out of waterproof materials. She estimates she spends less than $10 a month cleaning them at home.

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Read Full Story