Are Cloth Diapers Cheaper Than Disposables?

With cloth diapering companies boasting substantial savings over disposables, many parents are giving cloth diapers a second look. But is cloth diapering really cheaper? The short answer is, maybe. The potential savings largely depend on the user. Here is a step-by-step guide, including an example scenario and easy-to-reference equations, to see if cloth diapering is the cheaper option for you.

Step One: Cost of Disposable Diapers

Start with the easy part; calculate the cost of a single disposable diaper. To do this, look at the price for the diaper brand you intend to use and divide it by the number of diapers in the container. For our example, the total cost of the diaper package was $19.79 for eighty diapers. That brings the cost to about a quarter a piece.

Equation One: Cost of disposable diapers/number of disposable diapers = cost of a single disposable diaper

Step Two: Cloth Diaper Start-up Costs

Look at the start-up cost of the cloth diapering system you intend to use. Read the instructions carefully to make sure you do not miss any hidden costs. Some systems have inserts you must buy separately or require you to buy larger diapers as your baby grows instead of being one-size-fits-all. Be sure to research the diapers to see if the brand has special kits and deals that make the start-up cost more efficient.

For our example, the outer diaper costs $13 and the cloth insert is $3.82. However, the outer diaper does not have to be washed after each cloth insert is soiled. In fact, the outer diaper can be used two or three times before needing to be washed. This brings down the cost of the outer liner in terms of per diaper cost, by eliminating the need to have the same number of diapers as inserts.

In order to calculate the initial cost per diaper for your cloth diaper system, take the cost of the outer diaper and divide it by the number of times you can use it before washing it. Then add the cost of the cloth insert (if applicable). For our example, $13 is divided by three and $3.82 is added. This makes the initial cost of a diaper $8.15.

Equation Two: (outer diaper/number of uses per wash) + cost of cloth insert = initial start-up cost per cloth diaper.

Step Three: Cost of Washing Cloth Diapers

There are a number of factors contributing to the cost of washing a cloth diaper. The cost of electricity, the temperature on the water heater, and what type of washing machine you have all make a difference. Thankfully, Mr. Electricity, has made it easy! Simply go to his website (http://michaelbluejay.com/electricity/laundry.html) and plug in your washing machine information. For our example the Laundry Cost Calculator showed the average cost to wash is 29 cents and 32 cents to dry.

DiaperJungle.com recommends sending cloth diapers, two-dozen at a time, through two wash cycles in the washing machine. The first wash in cold water and the second in hot. Diapers should then either be line dried or put in the dryer depending on the diaper manufacturer’s recommendations. For our example, we will do the recommended two washes and one cycle through the dryer.

To find the true cost of washing the diapers, you must also figure out the cost of detergent. DiaperJungle recommends using a quarter of the amount normally used for the load size during the second cycle. If you are doing the recommend two-dozen diapers, this will be a quarter of the amount the detergent recommends for a small load of laundry. To calculate the cost of the detergent you are going to use, divide the overall cost of the detergent by four times the number of loads the bottle of detergent holds. In our example, the detergent cost $10.97 for 96 loads. This means there is eleven cents worth of detergent in a small load and three cents worth of detergent in a load of diapers. Since, the outer diapers and liners may be washed with clothes or thrown in during the second cycle of the cloth diaper inserts, their washing cost will not be determined.

Equation Three: Cost of the bottle of detergent/(4 x the number of loads stated by manufacturer) = cost of detergent per load of cloth diapers

Step Four: Calculating the Cost of a Single Cloth Diaper

Now that you know the cost of all the contributing factors, you can calculate the cost of a cloth diaper by adding together the cost of two wash cycles, one dry cycle (if you are not line drying) and the cost of the detergent per load. Divide this sum by the number of diaper inserts you will be washing in one cycle. For our example this means .58, .32 and .03 are added together and divided by 24, the recommended wash load. This means the cost is four cents per cloth diaper.

Equation Four: (cost of two washes + cost of one dry + cost of detergent)/number of diapers in wash load = cost per cloth diaper

Step Five: Calculating Number of Uses Needed to Reach Savings

While it appears that the cloth diaper is substantially cheaper than the disposable, the cloth diaper must make up for its initial investment. Cloth diapers do this through the difference in price per use. To calculate how many times you must use your inserts in order to break even, divide your start-up cost per cloth diaper by the difference between the cost of an individual disposable diaper and the cost of washing a cloth diaper. This means taking the result of Equation Two and dividing it by the difference between Equation One and Equation Four. For our example the start-up cost was $8.15. Dividing this by .21, the difference between the diapers, gives us 39.

Equation Five: Equation Two/(Equation One — Equation Four) = number of times cloth diapers need to be used to break even.

Our example cloth diapering system shows that once each cloth diaper is used 39 times, it will be save the user 21 cents per diaper. But how long will that take? Since babies go through an average of eight diapers a day, the savings, for the example, will start somewhere around seventeen weeks of use.

It takes dedication to make cloth diapers cheaper for you. If you purchase a cloth system that allows you to stay with the same diapers as your child grows or if you plan on using the diapers on more than one child, the savings can be substantial; using the example figures, the user will save around $600 the first year. However, if you cannot make the long-term commitment needed for cloth diapers to make up their initial investment, then it is cheaper for you to use disposables.