Baby on a Budget: What Do You Really Need?

Mother holding newborn baby

When you are on a budget, that list of stuff you just have to buy before your baby arrives can be overwhelming. If you haven’t had a baby before, you aren’t really sure what you need. Let me help you learn from my mistakes.

Before my first baby was born, I read a lot of books, all of which listed stuff I needed. I bought a lot of it. It gave me a feeling that I was preparing well for my baby.

It turned out that I didn’t even use a lot of the essential baby stuff I was encouraged to buy. I probably should have know better, but I didn’t.

Thinking about what you really need for baby, for pregnancy, and for childbirth takes a complete rethink away from hard-sell you get in most situations. If you are ready to rock the foundations, read The Business of Baby by Jennifer Margulis. She is a journalist who goes into depth to help you understand how selling you stuff and services you don’t need has become big business. You CAN resist.

What Do You Really Need for Your Newborn?

Start by understanding that what you need are tools that will fit your lifestyle. Not everyone lives the same way, so you might need something didn’t and I might have used and loved something you won’t. With this in mind, I’m including only the essentials in the top list. You might also need a few items on the second list, but you probably won’t need them right away.

You may also be able to find some items used at a consignment store. Babies grow fast, so a lot of parents will be getting rid of clothes and other stuff their baby has grown out of. Do you have a friend with a baby 6-12 months older than yours? Make a deal to take all of the old stuff off her hands.

Diapers – Your baby will pee and poop—often. Some newborns can eliminate every hour, and, in order to avoid discomfort and rash for your baby, you should be changing the diaper every time it is wet or soiled. Don’t even consider disposable diapers if you are thinking of your budget. You can save big by choosing your cloth diapers carefully. Compare about $750 for disposables & accessories to about $250 for cloth diapers & accessories. (See comparison below.) If you are going to wash every day, you can start with 18 diapers. I know it may seem like a lot of wash, but babies slow down with their dirty diapers, so soon you will be washing less. You could double the number of diapers and wash every other day, but I’m thinking of budget. If you buy 24 prefolds or flat diapers and 4 one-size covers, you could be set. No more diapers to buy. That is my favorite budget cloth diaper set up.

Or, go diaper free with infant pottying. Even if you go diaper free, though, you will want a few diapers.

Compare prices

  • Disposable diapers – 3000 diaper changes x $.20-25 each = $690 ($.23 x 3000)
  • Cloth diapers – 12 organic cotton Infant prefolds $44.96 + 12 organic cotton Premium prefolds $59.98 + 3 + 4 one-size diaper covers $71.92 (4 x $17.98) = $176.86

Diaper Changing Pad – Most of the time, I used a big diaper under my babies as a changing pad. Sure, it wasn’t waterproof, but that was usually fine. You could use a wool pad or some other useful waterproof mat without resorting to plastic, but you don’t need one of those thick foam pads. Use something you have on hand already.

T-shirts – If it’s summer, your baby can wear a diaper and a T-shirt most of the time. Even under other clothes, a T-shirt is an insulating layer. Buy just a few and wash them often so you won’t feel so bad when you have to buy a new size in a month.

Pajamas – Most babies spend most of their time in pajamas. Sure, you could buy a full hipster wardrobe, replaceable in every size every month, but why? It would be for you not for your baby. Your baby will be fine with 3-6 one-piece pajamas. Stick with simple clothes as long as you can.

Hat & Socks – Newborns lose heat easily. A soft, cotton hat and socks are essentials, but you just need two of each—one on baby and one in the wash.

Car Seat – It’s one of the most expensive must-have items you need on your list. Research for a balance of safety and cost. Don’t buy used.

Blanket – A lightweight cotton blanket is convenient when you are holding your baby. For sleeping, though, babies often throw the blanket off. A sleep bag will do the job better, but you may not need this if your baby doesn’t move around a lot or if it just isn’t cold enough to justify a warm sleeper.

Soft Baby Carrier – A sling or baby wrap carrier isn’t absolutely essential, because you could just hold your baby on your hip all day. Your baby will want to be close to you, and a baby carrier gives you and your baby closeness without you losing your freedom to move around and get things done. This was essential to me. I bought a baby sling on a whim, and I’m so glad I did. It opened up a whole world of babywearing to me. The best choice is a versatile carrier that works from baby to toddler. We’ll go into detail on this next week.

Breastfeeding / Nursing Bra – This is low on the list, because I know a lot of people get by without a bra made specifically for breastfeeding. Your breasts may be very heavy with milk. Without proper support, you can experience back pain as well as skin stretching. Plus, it’s very convenient to be able to unhook your bra rather than trying to work around a non-breastfeeding bra. Maybe just start out with one nursing bra and see if it works well for you before you buy one in every color and every style.

Nail Clippers – Babies scratch themselves. Do you need to buy baby size? Probably not. Use your own carefully, but make sure you have clippers.

What You Don’t Need—Probably

Even if you do need some of these items, you can wait until that need show up to be sure. You don’t need to buy these things before your baby is born.

A Nursery – Your baby doesn’t want to be away from you. You don’t need a separate room. If you have a few clothes and diapers, those can often fit in 1-2 drawers.

A Crib – If your baby is going to sleep in the family bed or in a co-sleeper (a sort of half bed that sits next to your bed), you don’t need a crib. I bought a crib, and my baby slept in it as a crib exactly zero times. When she was a baby, I used the crib to hold all of the baby stuff I didn’t use. The bed was convertible into a toddler bed, though, and she did sleep in it for a while when she chose from about 3 years to 5 years old.

Changing Table – I had one. I used it, but I didn’t need it. Most diaper changes happened on the bed. That changing table was convertible, and my kids now use it as a chest of drawers, so it was a good purchase for us, but it wasn’t essential.

Wipes Warmer – Yes, cold water will shock your baby during a diaper change, but it won’t hurt. Warm it with your hands first, if you are concerned. An electric, plastic box that warms baby wipes all day long is just not necessary.

Diaper Bag – Maybe. A go-bag dedicated to carrying your baby stuff is convenient, but you don’t necessarily need to buy a specific bag made for babies. You probably already have a bag that would work.

Breastfeeding Clothes – Most of the time, you can just lift your shirt or pull down your nightgown. I thought I needed a whole new wardrobe, so I ended up with a bunch of ugly, bulky clothes that I hated to wear because they were just dumpy. When you do buy breastfeeding clothing, buy a few essential pieces that let you convert the wardrobe you already have.

Breast Pump – I did actually use a hand pump for the few times I left my baby, but I would not have used an electric pump. I didn’t need it because we weren’t separated much. If you are separated from you baby—working all day, for example—taking an electric breast pump with you can be very helpful. This one depends completely on your needs.

Baby Bath – The sink usually gives you a close enough space to bathe your baby safely, since you probably will be holding the baby in your arm the whole time.

Baby Shoes – Since babies don’t walk, they don’t need to protect their feet with shoes. Think about it. Socks are enough for a newborn.

Snowsuit or Swimsuit – Birth season, your local weather, and your family’s activities should guide you. It is nice to have one of each for the right season.

A Stroller – If you shop a lot, you might want a stroller to hold your bags, but a baby carrier takes the place of a stroller. Once I had a toddler and a newborn, I sometimes put my toddler in a stroller when we were travelling fast, but I only had a lightweight, fold-up stroller. Not necessary for a baby.

Burp Cloths – Use a diaper. Simple.

Baby Monitor – You can monitor your baby without the use of a speaker system.

Toys – Newborns don’t even know yet that they have hands. Once they find them, their hands are toys enough for a while. You won’t need toys for a while, and, when you do, simple toys are best. Something to shake (a rattle) and something to squeeze (a soft doll) will do it.

I haven’t come close to addressing everything you might find on a list of baby essentials. You don’t need anything new that makes it easier for you to ignore your baby (like a mechanical arm that gives your baby a bottle—and, no, I’m not joking. I saw this at a baby trade show last year).

For most of the baby extras, wait until the need pushes you to seek a solution, then see if you can meet your need without buying. Buy new stuff and gadgets as a last resort.

What were your genuine essentials? What did I miss? I’m happy to add to the list.

More Baby on a Budget

Image © Gabriel Blaj |

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5 thoughts on “Baby on a Budget: What Do You Really Need?”

  1. This all makes so much sense! When you explain things like not needing a crib, at first it sounds crazy but then I see what you mean. Cribs are so expensive and this list will definitely save me money. Thanks!

    • Carol, I love hearing that this helped you. I wish I had been able to avoid some of the junk I bought for my first baby. I just wasn’t equipped to question those huge shopping lists, but I’m ready to help others avoid my mistakes now.

  2. I would add that it would be wise not to buy too much before you receive many gifts from friends and family. It’s even more true if it’s the first baby of the family. Chances are you will receive many clothes and toys.

  3. I totally agree with the baby sling/wrap – it was my number-one piece of baby kit. Used it pretty much every single day for the first 4 months or so, and still use it all the time now that he’s 9 months.


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