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New-Baby Money Traps

New and about-to-be parents are notoriously easy touches. Shopping at a highly emotional time in their lives, anxious to provide the best of everything for their child, they often end up spending hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for clothes, furniture, toys, and other items their baby will never use. "If you haven't had a child before, you have no frame of reference to decide which products are good or bad, or when a salesperson is trying to take you for a ride," says Janet Bodnar, author of Dollars & Sense for Kids.

To avoid spending unnecessarily, consider doing at least some of your shopping with an experienced parent who can help you figure out which things you'll actually need. Steel yourself against the pitches you'll hear from salespeople. "Remember, no matter how concerned and helpful the staff may be, baby stores are in business to make a profit," says Alan Fields, coauthor of Baby Bargains, a guide to juvenile products. A few traps to avoid:

NEWBORN-SIZE CLOTHING

Sure, those miniature outfits look impossibly cute. But what fits when the baby comes home from the hospital won't fit in 4 weeks, let alone 12. A few dozen T-shirts and onesies will see your baby through the early days in comfort. When it's time for some real clothes, buy 6-month sizes and roll up the sleeves and legs until your baby gets bigger.

Consider steering clear as well of costly infant-size footwear. In addition to being expensive, shoes are little more than decoration until a baby learns to walk. (Keep little toesies warm with socks or booties instead.)

CONVERTIBLE CRIBS

Juvenile-furniture merchants extol the cost-saving virtues of cribs you can convert to a youth bed (shorter and narrower than a standard-size bed) and later to a twin or a queen. For just $300 to $700, the pitch goes, you can buy a bed that will last from birth to college. What the salespeople don't tell you: By the time your child is ready for the "youth" size, he'll be able to sleep in a regular twin with no problem  -- there's no need for an intermediate step.

And to turn that youth bed into a twin or queen, you'll have to buy a conversion kit that will set you back anywhere from a bearable $30 to a jaw-dropping $200. And if you decide to have another baby, you'll have to buy a new crib because your older child will be using the old crib frame for his bed. All in all, you'll probably end up spending less money, with far less hassle, if you simply buy an ordinary crib now and a twin bed when your child is ready for one.

ELABORATE BEDDING

If you're truly looking to save money, pass up the $200 to $400 fancy crib-bedding sets that include items like a comforter or baby pillows. Coordinated bedding accessories make for a beautiful nursery, but as a practical matter these sets can be downright dangerous. Putting your baby to sleep in a crib with soft bedding increases the chances that he may inadvertently suffocate, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. So use only a fitted sheet with deep corner pockets ($10 to $20) until the child is 6 months old. If it's a cold night, put him in cozy pj's. If you do go for the matching Pooh pillows and fluffy quilt (which truly can be difficult to resist), remove them from the crib while the baby is sleeping.

SLEEP-SAFETY PRODUCTS

According to medical experts, no products now on the market have been shown to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Yet baby stores, catalogs, and Internet sites continue to sell a slew of "special" mattresses, crib sheets, sleep positioners, and nursery monitors  -- for as much as $200  -- all of which claim to lessen the chance that a baby will succumb to SIDS. These products not only do no good, they may also increase babies' risk.

The danger, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the nonprofit SIDS Alliance, is that parents may be lulled into believing they can safely put their babies to sleep on their stomachs  -- a position that more than doubles the likelihood of SIDS. The bottom line: The best defense against SIDS is the one that costs nothing at all  -- always put your baby to sleep on her back.

CHILDREN'S LIFE INSURANCE

The true purpose of life insurance is to replace the income of a family member who dies so that his or her dependents do not suffer financially. So for a baby, it makes zero sense. James Hunt, an insurance expert with the Consumer Federation of America, puts it bluntly: "I can't think of a single reason why life insurance for a baby would ever be a good idea."

Of course, your agent may say that a mere $50 to $150 a year is a small price to pay for the comfort of knowing you won't have to scramble to come up with cash for funeral expenses in the case of your child's untimely death. But, says Hunt, a healthy baby's chances of dying at a young age are too minuscule to warrant paying even a penny for such protection.

As for life insurance doubling as a college-savings vehicle, you'd be far better off putting the dollars you would have paid for insurance into a solid mutual fund or state-sponsored college-savings plan. If you manage to save just $500 a year, and earn an average of 11 percent annually (the average return on stocks for the past 74 years), you'll have nearly $30,000 to put toward college by the time your newborn turns 18. Now that's money well spent.

Contributing editor Diane Harris is coauthor of It Takes Money, Honey, a book on personal finance for women.

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