First-time parents are – generally speaking – clueless. It’s hardly their fault. They want to do the best for their children and are overcome with excitement and nerves – not to mention sleep deprivation. They are also constantly bombarded by messages about what they need to do and buy from long before their little darlings are brought kicking and screaming into the world.
One of the first victims of the befuddlement is budgets. Not even Pricewatch was immune. In the heady days of 2006 – when we were all being assured that the boom times would last forever – my first baby buggy came within weeks of buying my first car. The buggy cost nearly twice as much as the car – which was, admittedly, a clapped-out piece of junk – and came with a manual thicker than a phone book. At a cost of almost €1,300, it was just one more thing on a long list of hideously expensive items, some of which – like the powder-blue Lacoste dress bought in a moment of madness in BT2 for €70 – were barely used by a child happily oblivious to her dad’s stupidity.
Have things changed?
But have things changed for Irish parents since the credit dried up? Are people more canny?
It depends what you read. A survey carried ahead of the Pregnancy and Baby Fair, held in Cork and in Dublin earlier this month, claimed Irish parents spend up to €5,000 on getting their house – and life – in order ahead of their first child’s arrival.
The survey, carried out by SMA in conjunction with the event organisers, found that 62 per cent of those polled splashed out €2,000-€5,000 on their first child, with buggies and car seats making up the bulk of the spend.
Last week, Pricewatch put it to Twitter, and most respondents suggested these sums were about right. But it seems like an awful lot. Does the spend have to be so high?
A separate pricing survey, carried out by Mothercare, suggests it is possible to get all the essentials for significantly less. We totted up its figures and found that a baby can be kitted out with everything they need for no more than €1,300 – or the price of a boom-time buggy.
"Although times are tough, Ireland still has the highest birth rate in the EU, and just because parents want to spend less does not mean they need to compromise on safety or quality," says Mothercare's marketing director, Laura Ward. She says parents are getting more clued in, and are doing their own research, turning away from big-name, big-price brands in favour of own-brand alternatives.
"More and more parents are moving away from the designer pushchair and towards our own-brand travel systems, such as the Xpedior for €319.99. Any area where there's choice presents big decisions, even on items such as baby monitors, where parents can spend anywhere from €35 for a great digital monitor up to 10 times that for video, movement and sound monitoring," says Ward.
She adds a caveat about car seats. It is one area where popular brands retain an edge, although it’s still important to do your homework and not just splash out on the dearest model. “If a car does not have Isofix anchorage, then there is no use buying an Isofix car seat,” she says. “What’s the point in purchasing a branded pushchair if it doesn’t fit in your car boot or is too heavy to lift on or off the bus or is too wide for a narrow hallway?”
Health and safety first
Suzanne Gallagher is the editor of Pregnancy and Parenting magazine and the mother of a four-month-old. "There was a lot of stuff available to me and still I overspent," she says. "But I think expectant mothers are so savvy now and spend 90 per cent of their time researching on the internet." Even so, it is easy to get confused.
Health and safety come first. “Never buy car seats and mattresses second-hand or even accept them from friends and family,” she says. The incidence of cot deaths is higher among babies who sleep on pre-used mattresses, and second-hand car seats are problematic because you can never be sure they have not been involved in a crash. They may look perfect but even if they have been involved in a minor tip, they could have hairline cracks and be useless in the event of a second crash.
“The pushchair is the major thing, and for some people it is a fashion accessory like a handbag,” says Gallagher. “My general advice is have a budget and stick to it. You can buy secondhand but I think buying new makes sense because they are really high-wear items, and if you buy secondhand you have no protection and what you have comes with no guarantees.”
'You have to be selective'
Siobhán O'Neill runs the parenting forum mumstown.ie and has four children. By her reckoning, new parents can cover all the costs for €1,500.
“You don’t need to buy everything that people tell you you need, and you have to be selective. Even if you are, you will almost certainly still overspend on your first child, and it is very hard not to because it is a very exciting time. It is such a massive change, and there is this feeling that you have to be fully prepared and you have to have everything.”
She is a strong advocate of having a baby list, and says that while couples think nothing of drawing up wedding lists containing all the stuff they need and want ahead of their marriage, they baulk at doing the same for their first baby when, arguably, the need is much greater.
“People are going to want to get you stuff and they might buy really expensive clothes, especially for a first child, even though they only really wear babygros the first few months,” she says. “Some people mean very well but end up buying really stupid gifts like a big massive bear which takes up half the bedroom and terrifies the child.” In O’Neill’s case, one set of grandparents bought a car seat and the other bought the cot.
While she is a fan of the second-hand option, she is not a slave to it and reckons there are certain circumstances when buying new makes more sense. For example, she says, a Phil & Ted buggy, which costs about €600 new, can be picked up for about €250 second-hand.
“A lot of parents buy those buggies because they imagine they are going to be very active and go running with their child, but if it’s your first, that is not likely to happen, so the buggy just sits there and you end up buying a lighter one. The person who gets it second-hand, then, gets it for half the cost and it is like new.”
Pile 'em high
The other area of high spending is nappies. They can cost more than €500 a year if you pay full price. Alternatively you could buy cloth nappies – it has become much easier than it used to be. If you stick to disposables, make a point of piling your trolley high whenever they are on special offer and you will cut your bill in half.
While everyone knows that car seats, cots and buggies are essential kit, other less obvious things can also improve parents’ lives. O’Neill suggests a changing unit – “your back will be in bits if you rely on floors, beds and couches to change your baby” – and a Tommee Tippee Nappy Bin.
"It has to be one of the best inventions ever. I don't know how people do without them. They are about €18 on sale, and they are on sale all the time. It is one thing I always tell parents is to keep an eye out from early in the pregnancy."
COTS AND OTHER COSTS: A MOTHER-TO-BE'S STORY
Babies are expensive. Or at least, they are if you don't have a large network of family and friends on hand willing to donate equipment they no longer need. Within days of going public with the pregnancy, we were inundated with offers of cots, Moses baskets, high chairs and bottle sterilising systems.
We’ve been warned by those with experience against buying too many clothes, assured that you end up with more than you ever need, which has eased the financial pressure a little.
When we first found out that we were going to have a baby, the hours spent looking at baby furniture and associated bits and pieces were an eye-opener. Have you any idea how much you can spend on a buggy?
Then there’s the safety aspect. Will my child be safer in a €300 baby seat, or will one that’s half the price be just as good? Do I need to invest in a baby monitor that will alert me if the baby stops moving, or take the risk with the regular model?
We briefly toyed with the notion of a €600 cot that would “grow with the baby” – as long as you kept spending to add the extenders to turn it into a toddler bed, shell out for the new mattress (top of the range, does everything except rock the baby).
We’ve considered cloth nappies – more for environmental reasons than cost, but you can save quite a bit over disposables, even taking the upfront cost of buying them and the extra washing into account.
Of course, all this may change when we're presented with the reality of a demanding baby. Time will tell. Ciara O'Brien