From birth until the school years, parents can expect to spend a small fortune on baby gear and soothers, toys and clothing — every bit of which is absolutely essential, that is, until your child outgrows it in a matter of months.
No wonder every parent dreams of a reliable source of hand-me-downs.
But in an age when many of us live far from our children's older cousins, or haven't found a fairy godmother, we're left navigating a robust baby goods market.
Whether you shop at a big box store specializing in all things baby, or one of the Tampa Bay region's many consignment stores and sales, it's hard to know where to splurge and where to scrimp.
What should you buy new? What's fine used?
Here's what you need to know at different ages and where to find it:
Babies weigh next to nothing and live largely to sleep and cry. Yet they require insane amounts of stuff. Before you invest in all sorts of expensive items, consider that many could be life-savers for exactly two months before becoming totally useless.
But it does pay to buy some things new, says Christina Ruhlig, an organizer of the semiannual Just Between Friends consignment sale in North Tampa. She noted that new safety standards for cribs took effect in late June of this year. Companies no longer can sell traditional drop-side cribs in the United States, so she cautioned parents to beware of any used crib that didn't have to meet the latest, more rigorous standards.
She said many also advocate buying car seats new to meet the latest safety standards, or if you buy used, check that there haven't been recalls.
But for many other items, there's no shame in scouring the secondhand market for today's soft-vibrating, music-playing, light-blinking, transformer-like baby essentials. "They use it for such a short period of time, and it's so expensive," Ruhlig said.
Between consignment stores, newspaper classified ads and Craigslist, you'll likely find many secondhand items in mint condition. And you'll need the extra cash for diapers.
There's no avoiding an expensive mall trip for the holiday season's must-have whatever. But there's no need to empty the college fund to buy dozens of toys, DVDs and books destined to be loved briefly, then abandoned as oh-so-yesterday.
Not into waking up early for weekend yard sales? Check out a host of local consignment sales, like the Just Between Friends events in North Tampa and the Fancy Pants sale in St. Petersburg. These offer one-stop shopping and consigning for families who have outgrown one set of, well, everything and are ready to move onto the next. Typically, they accept only items in good condition — and the prices can't be beat.
Wherever you buy, check that the toy is clean or can be cleaned. Turn electronics on, and push all those buttons. If the toy comes in pieces, look to see that everything's there, or mostly there. And beware of rips or sharp edges that could harm a small child.
Before giving your child that new-to-her toy, give it a good rubdown with disinfectant wipes or a damp cloth and your favorite cleaning solution. And pat yourself on the back for all the money you didn't spend just to end up with a toy-strewn floor.
Don't despair about how quickly young children grow out of clothing. The upshot is you'll have no trouble finding deals, especially on baby and toddler items. With used clothing, consignment stores tend to carry better brands. But if you watch for sales, you often can buy new for the same money at retailers like Target, Kohl's and Walmart.
Before buying used clothing for two children, New Tampa mother Kyleia Malone always visits regular stores to see what's in style. And she shops one season in advance — purchasing winter clothes in the late summer, for example.
"Stay ahead of your child's growth spurt," she advised.
To make the most out of a sales rack, consider:
• Buying several seasons ahead. An end-of-summer sale is a good time to stock up on toddler clothing for your infant.
• Inspecting garments carefully. For example, when one of us was shopping for twins at a recent sale, finding two pair of overalls for a total of $8 seemed like a steal. But one pair was missing a hook. The garment had made its way past the clerk's inspection, onto the sales rack and eventually into our thrifty momma's shopping bag. Maybe you don't mind replacing a hook, a button or resewing a hem. But if you do, pass on less-than-perfect items. A deal's a nonstarter if your child can't wear the clothes.
• Bringing a piece of string cut to your child's measurements. Measure from your child's waist to her shoe. And trace her footprint on a poster board, which you can slip into shoes to check the fit.
• Start a hand-me-down circle. Even if you don't know anyone with similarly aged children now, there's no telling when you will befriend a family whose children are exactly the right age to swap with yours.
• When buying used baby gear and children's toys, check the recall announcements from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (cpsc.gov). You can look up items by brand name and by category.