The one inevitable purchase when you have a baby is a car seat. It is possible to go without a crib, swaddle cloths, binkies, bottles, diapers—well…maybe not diapers. But you can’t go without a car seat unless you give birth at home and never intend on leaving the house, which is not realistic at all.
If you give birth at a hospital or birth center, they literally won’t let you take your child home if you don’t have a car seat installed. So essentially, you will need a car seat from the moment you or your wife goes into labor until your child is 8 years old (at a minimum!).
If you have been to Babies R Us, Toys R Us, Target, or Walmart lately and you are looking for a car seat, you know that these suckers are expensive and complicated. Each one has its own bells and whistles, installation system, safety claims, and price tag. I have put together a quick and frugal guide to buying a car seat to help you make this difficult decision with your lifestyle, your child’s safety, and your budget in mind.
Safety is #1
Safety is the whole reason you have a car seat to begin with, and it should therefore be the very first thing you consider when buying a car seat.
Get into the habit of second guessing every safety claim you read on product advertising. I have seen some truly ridiculous things—my favorite is for a new infant seat that I saw at Babies R Us. There was a huge poster claiming it was the only rollover tested baby seat. Great…but how did it do in the rollover test? See what I mean? Second guess the flashy claims, and really do your research on this.
Consumer reports is a great place to start, but it requires a subscription. However, they publish their “Top 5s” for a lot of different styles of car seats for free. If you spend some time looking, a lot of free online publications have great lists of the safest car seats according to consumer reports or IIHS.
The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, or IIHS, is the be all end all of safety testing in my opinion. I have been to their testing facilities in a previous life (with my job before becoming a stay-at-home mom), and I attended a biomechanics lecture and witnessed a vehicle crash test at their facilities. They test car seats and booster seats, but not infant car seats, so you will have to double check to make sure you have a great seat for every step in your child’s development. In the past, I have worked with only their “Best Bets” list to choose a car seat that works for our family.
When you are narrowing down your list of safest seats, be sure to check for recalls. IIHS includes these on their safe car seats listing. After you have purchased your seat, register it with NHTSA so that you can get an email notification in the event of a recall.
The down and dirty on cutting costs
Get past the sticker shock of buying a car seat by considering the cost per use of the seat in order to find the best value car seat.
For example, if you buy an infant car seat for $400, and you can only use it until your child is one or so—and let’s say you use it twice a day to go to and from day care—that works out to $.55 per use.
So in order to get that cost down, you should aim for getting the most use possible out of a single car seat. In the world of car seats, that means convertible seats and all-in-one seats. You want one that goes from baby seat to a toddler seat that faces backwards until age 2, then a forward seat, then a booster with a high back, then just a backless booster. If you find a great seat that lasts from birth to age 10, you have struck gold and it is worth the higher price tag.
To save even more money, look for sales and coupons and shop around.
RetailMeNot and Groupon frequently offer coupons and codes for a discount on baby gear, including car seats. I also highly recommend checking out what is on clearance at Toys R US. You never know, you could find the perfect car seat already on sale, and pair it with a coupon for maximum savings.
I find that many big box stores like Toys R Us drop the prices of car seats right before new models are due to come into stock. Call the store and ask when they expect new models, and then shop the week before. I saved $50 on my car seat this way!
You can also find used car seats at consignment stores and yard sales, but you need to do even more research with used car seats than you do for new ones. Not only do you need to check the safety rating and recalls, but you have the extra challenge of making sure the seat has never been in a crash. That’s right—car seats are good for only one crash. Honestly, I would only buy used from a trusted friend or family member and save myself the work and worry.
If you are expecting a baby, travel systems are a really great option to bundle a car seat purchase together with a stroller. It is frequently cheaper than buying them separately, and it comes with everything you need.
Something we really loved about our infant car seat is that we could buy extra car seat bases. We had one in each of our family cars, so it wasn’t a big deal to move the car seat from one car to the other. It seems like such a little thing, but as new parents it saved us a lot of hassle and is well worth considering.
Another thing to really take a look at with your car seat is installation. Does it have a latch system, use the car seat belts, or both? Using the latch for infants is awesome and easy, but it only works if your child is under 35 pounds, so if you want to buy a car seat to last, make sure it has both.
Remember, it is really, really important that you know how to install the car seat correctly. Go to your local fire station and ask them to teach you how to install it. Then teach your husband, your parents, and any of your child’s caretakers—just in case.
What we chose
I was really in love with the travel system because I could move the baby from the car to the stroller without waking him. Now that he has outgrown the car seat, we still use the stroller all the time. The Chicco Keyfit 30 has great safety ratings, is easy to install, has extra bases available for purchase, and it goes up to 30 pounds, so we could use it a lot longer than other comparable infant car seats. My only complaint is that this car seat is really heavy, but it is worth it for the safety features.
We just updated to this seat. This seat works from infants all the way up to 10 year olds, but we really wanted the travel system for when our baby was an infant. This seat is one of the Best Bets from IIHS, and it lets your child sit backwards until they are 40 pounds (which is really important to me because my son is a big boy, and I wanted to find something that lets him sit facing backwards until age 2 as recommended). Pros: It was on sale at Babies R US!!!
Whether you are a soon-to-be parent or you are just looking for a bigger car seat for your child, there are many things you need to consider. Researching the safety ratings, finding the cheapest price, and buying the right car seat for your lifestyle will ensure you don’t have buyer’s remorse or completely break the bank.