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How to Design a Baby Nursery on a Budget
How to Design a Baby Nursery on a Budget

How to Design a Baby Nursery on a Budget

Whether you're an expecting first-time parent or you've been around the baby block a few times, the pressure to create an ideal nursery for your little one can be very real (and a bit hard to manage, if we're being honest). There are space, safety, and style concerns to address, not to mention the elephant in the room: how to budget and pay for all the things you'll need and want for your bundle of joy.

We tapped two experts to help navigate the challenge of creating the nursery of your dreams on a realistic budget: Naomi Coe, owner of Little Crown Interiors and author of Your Perfect Nursery, and Leslie Schrock, author of Bumpin': The Modern Guide to Pregnancy. Read on for a deep dive on must-have nursery products, what to skip and what to splurge on, how to save, and surprising costs that can catch new parents off guard.

Creating the Nursery of Your Dreams with Naomi Coe

How do you approach creating a nursery budget for first-time parents?
For first time parents, the key is setting expectations. First-timers often don’t know how much a nursery costs, or what they even buy. I start by creating a checklist of everything they will need for the space, and then figuring out which items they are willing to splurge on. There’s a copy of the checklist in my book, and a whole chapter about budget since this is something so many new parents need to know!

What about parents who don’t have a dedicated nursery space but will use a main bedroom or secondary space for their baby? 
I’ve done lots of nursery spaces for clients in this position. Sometimes we create a nursery “nook” in the main bedroom, or even put a bassinet or mini crib in the closet. (This is what my parents actually did for me!) The most important thing is a safe place to sleep. You can change the baby on any surface, even the floor, and you can use any chair or sofa to nurse.

What are the nursery essentials that every new parent will need, no matter the size of their space? 
I like to suggest a safe sleeping space—either a crib, mini crib or bassinet—that’s placed in a safe spot; an organic mattress; some type of storage for diapers, wipes, and small clothing; and a place to nurse and rock the baby to sleep. 

What’s your go-to item for making a nursery space feel special? 
I always love adding personal touches to a nursery to make it feel special. I always ask my clients if they have any hand-me-downs, family photos, or other sentimental items—even if it’s just a small trinket on a shelf.

What are the most overrated nursery items that budget-conscious parents should skip? 
The one that I probably get the most questions about is the changing tray (the tray topper that goes on top of the dresser). Changing trays look nice, but they are absolutely not necessary. In fact, I find that they sometimes take up more space on the surface of the dresser. It doesn’t have a dual-function either, so when you’re done with it, it pretty much just has to be given away or stored. The other item worth skipping is fancy crib bedding. Crib bumpers aren’t safe to use and crib skirts only work on some cribs, so all you really need are a few fitted crib sheets!

What’s a must-have splurge item you recommend for nursery setups?
An organic crib mattress. The good news is that there are so many options now, but they will always be pricier than a standard crib mattress. The baby spends a ton of time with their face down on the mattress, so it’s one of the most important items in the nursery and I always suggest splurging for organic and nontoxic!

What items do you recommend getting secondhand vs. new? 
I am always very careful about secondhand products in a nursery because of the safety issues they can have. I never suggest a secondhand crib, ever. A vintage dresser could work, but it would need to be carefully inspected for structural integrity and unsafe finishes.

What are some other smart ways to save money when it comes to sourcing nursery supplies? 
Build the nursery slowly. A lot of parents want the nursery to be 100% done by the time the baby comes, but that oftentimes means that there may be items purchased in advance that end up not working for the space or for your lifestyle. If saving money is a priority, get only the things you really need and fill in down the line as you understand how your nursery functions and how your family operates with a new baby.

What about for second/third/fourth time parents? What money-saving tips would you recommend for them? 
Purchase gender-neutral items the first time around and re-use as much as you can. That way, you can spend a little on each child for personalized decor to make the space special without having to get new furniture each time. Just make sure it’s still in good shape and safe!

What are your favorite sources of inspiration for nursery design? 
Instagram and Pinterest are goldmines! There are so many nursery photos out there. I would definitely suggest saving photos as you come across them, though, so you always have them when you need them. And of course, my book, Your Perfect Nursery, is also a great source of inspiration! There are tons of nursery photos and lots of tips for making the space perfect. 

Budgeting for Baby & Beyond with Leslie Schrock

On average, how much would you estimate most new parents spend on products, decor, accessories, etc, during the first year of a baby’s life? 
There is no limit to the amount you can spend on cute clothing, toys, “must-have” accessories, and other baby gear. Many first-time parents take a "more is better" approach, which I don’t recommend as babies have opinions all their own. Investing in too many things before you get to know them (or their sizes!) can lead to a lot of wasted money. Outside of clothes and furniture, diapers and formula are the most high-dollar recurring items. But here’s a secret: Newborns especially really don’t need that much. In Finland, all new parents take home a box of essentials for the first month from hospital—including a place for the baby to sleep—and the total cost is just over $150. And for financial and environmental reasons, I am a big advocate of borrowing and consignment.

What are some of the unexpected costs that new parents might not be thinking about before baby arrives?
The biggest unexpected costs are childcare and medical costs. While it’s not always possible to control the latter, you can change your insurance when your baby arrives, as it is a qualifying life event. And if you are planning to get pregnant, odds are that either planning for it or the pregnancy itself will fall into an open enrollment period, at which point you can change your plan, as well. 

Childcare costs come as a surprise to most parents. Daycare alone can be up to $3,500 per month in major cities, and a full-time nanny is even more. I encourage everyone to start thinking as early as possible (even before they're pregnant) about the childcare situation that will best suit their lives—and be prepared that things might feel different when the baby arrives. Some parents are ready to go back to work. Others find they have no desire to return at all, or that the costs exceed what they make. 

How would you recommend expecting parents approach creating a budget—both short-term for the first year of baby’s life, and long-term?
Less than half of people save for a family, and many do not understand their baseline of monthly expenses, so I’d absolutely start there. But so many people have asked me this question that I made a spreadsheet with costs plotted by month and links to my favorite baby items. It also includes a very simple basic budget tab so you can calculate that monthly burn.

Compound interest is a wondrous thing, and a tax-free 529 education savings plan is an excellent way to save, as it can be used for ​​tuition and fees at K-12 private schools and university, as well as room and board. If you’re looking for a simpler way to put money aside, open a savings account and set an automatic monthly deposit.

Do you have any tips for making a baby registry work harder in terms of stretching your budget?
When building a baby budget, focus first on the items you have to have, and then layer in those you will only use for a short period of time or that are less essential. Friends and family will absolutely buy you those cute onesies and fun items, but make sure you knock out the basics. My purchasing framework is to invest in items that you interact with every single day or for several years, especially if you plan to have more than one kid. This includes gender-neutral items like strollers, car seats, and high chairs. After testing a ton of products, I learned that expensive doesn’t always mean best. Choose those that you like and are easy to use. 

What are some of the big-ticket items parents might think they need or feel pressured to buy, but typically don’t?
It is very easy to spend a lot of money on baby clothes. But the newborn phase doesn’t last for that long, and babies grow very quickly out of everything. I also find a lot of new parents spend a ton on bouncers and gadgets that only work for a few months during a baby’s first year. For that reason, it’s best to look at the recommended ages and size limits before dropping a ton of money.

Do you have any tips for parents on handling the pressure to spend more on things that are buzzy, or were recommended by friends or family?
Borrow, rent, or buy used! But also every family and baby is different. What works for your friend or sister or colleague’s baby may not work for yours. Think about your lifestyle and what you’d like to do with your baby. If you walk a lot, invest in a great stroller. If you plan to have more than one child, invest in fewer toys that are high quality. Our family subscribes to Lovevery for this reason—their toys are beautiful and developmentally appropriate—and we have a big library of books, as my son loves to read. 

What’s the one thing every new parent buys that you think is a waste of money?
I am no fan of wipe warmers. It’s hard to power through those early days when your newborn hates being naked and getting a diaper change. But if you ever want to go anywhere, you’ll have to haul it around.

What’s the biggest bang-for-your-buck item that belongs on every registry?
I think for most parents—including myself—the best bang-for-your-buck item is the one that gets them through a tricky time. But a few of my favorites for first-time parents to have when they arrive home with a newborn are the Miracle Blanket swaddle (especially for escape artist babies); the Dr. Brown’s anti-colic newborn bottle set; and Aquaphor for everything from diaper rash prevention to cuts, dry skin, and parents' chapped lips.

What are some of your favorite ways/tips/hacks for new parents to save money?
Borrow, borrow, borrow! If you have friends or family who had children recently, ask if you can borrow or inherit items, especially clothes. Consignment is also amazing. All of my fancy outfit purchases come from The Real Real, as there is an amazing supply of baby and kid’s clothes that are usually barely or never worn. Markid is a more general marketplace for used kids stuff, and if you search, there is probably a local Facebook group where parents list and sell all of their gently used gear.

Are diaper and formula subscriptions a good way to save money, or overrated?
It all depends on your baby. If you find a formula or diaper brand that works, stick with it! But with formula, babies can go in phases of gassiness and fussiness, which may mean switching it up. Same can happen with diapers as your baby starts to crawl and walk and their bodies change shape. The biggest benefit isn’t really financial—it’s knowing each will arrive on a schedule so you never have to think about it.

Do you recommend that new parents create an “emergency fund” for baby expenses? If so, how much should they try to put away?
Money is the number one source of stress for couples before and after having children. I wouldn’t think about an emergency fund as baby expenses—think of it more as "family expenses," as things can happen to mom postpartum, too. What feels comfortable or enough is different for every family, so start early, and set aside what you can. Even $50 per month is a great start to an emergency fund. 

What about contributing to an FSA/HSA—what should parents know about these options?
Contributing to a tax-free account is great! And so many items that you don’t think about qualify: breastfeeding supplies, baby sunscreen, diaper rash creams, bathing, and first aid supplies, as well as general healthcare expenses for your whole family and postpartum items for mom. There is also a program called the dependent care FSA, which covers expenses like daycare, nannies, babysitting, and after-school programs. All of this money comes out of your paycheck pre-tax, and access is just dependent on whether your workplace offers it. Just one important caveat: These accounts are typically "use it or lose it," meaning you must use every dollar you set aside by the end of the year or it will go bye-bye. 

What are some other resources you’d recommend that budget-conscious parents bookmark or have handy as they prep for baby?
I’m a big fan of product reviews on Lucie’s List and Babylist. Both think through the practical aspects of product selection as well as the aesthetics, and separate options by budget. One of my favorite educational newsletters is from Lovevery, as it explains developmental milestones and cheap, creative ways to play with your baby using things you have around the house.