Diapers Prices Rising

My youngest sister, the last of our large family clan to have children, is pregnant with her first baby and is due this summer. But I worry about her: Her preschool teacher's job offers no health benefits nor maternity leave, and every day, it costs more to fill up her car. And now, it seems diapers are headed in that direction, too!

After Kimberly-Clark released first quarter earnings Monday that were lower than the same quarter last year (despite sales growth), diaper analysts (yes, there is such a job) warned of higher prices to come.

In earnings report-speak: Positive financial "factors were more than offset by input cost inflation." As diaper analyst Andrew Urban told Public Radio's Marketplace, "The absorbency in a diaper is really due to super absorbent polymer, which is a petroleum-based derivative."That's right: The same reason my sister is struggling to fill her tank is why diaper prices are going up. Wood pulp -- the fluffy stuff -- is a major component of diapers (along with a couple of other -ylenes that are also oil-derived plastics). According to oil products expert Ian Butler, Pampers, Luvs and Huggies are all expected to go up "a couple of dollars a box" in price this year.

With 90% of American parents wrapping their babies' bottoms in disposables, this could be one of the most enormous consequences of rising gas prices. Diaper manufacturers are roundly expected to pass all the cost increases along to consumers.

Procter & Gamble, maker of Pampers, has already increased prices by an average of 7%; Kimberly-Clark said its diapers are going up, too. This could mean your "few hundred dollars a year" that higher gas prices are supposed to cost you, according to one well-regarded pundit, may have just multiplied by the number of disposable-diapered children in your household.

So what's a self-respecting frugal parent to do? Well, I can tell you what my sister, who doesn't have that extra few hundred dollars a year (nor the base cost of about $1,000 annually to diaper a baby in brand-name disposables), will do. She'll buy a few hundred dollars' worth of cloth diapers and the associated paraphernalia, good enough to last through the two or three years of diapering she has before her.

While wood products analyst Steven Chercover pompously says, "Assuming you love your kid, you're just not going to skimp on that," we here at WalletPop can see things with a few more shades of grey. There are a host of things that can show love better than diapering your child in disposables: financial responsibility (mommy will have enough money to avoid being kicked out of her home, for starters), environmental consciousness, and the concerns about the toxicity of plastics everyone is raising these days.

Who knows? Maybe love can be shown in far better ways than through the use of brand-name diapers that cost $1,000 or $1,200 a year or whatever the price ends up once the oil costs and fluffy wood pulp prices sort themselves out.

And don't get me started on the paper towels, also up in price by 5% so far this year. (Actually, for me, that's not such a big problem these days. That's because I -- an avowed paper towel holdout in 2008 -- managed to give them up and have been living happily with $20 worth of cotton kitchen towels during the past three years.

I hope a lot more than 10% of parents will see this as the encouragement they need to take the cloth diaper plunge. Two of my sisters and many of my closest friends have even managed to integrate cloth diapers with full-time work.

And if you can't go there yet? (I know it's hard -- I've been there too.) At the very least, go generic. Brand-name diapers are neither status symbol nor token of deep parental love -- especially not when it comes to your wallet.
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