Fortunately, you needn't scrimp on necessities nor sacrifice quality to save serious money. With a little bit of footwork, professional shoppers say you can routinely save 25 to 50 percent on children's furniture, clothes, toys, and accessories, and sometimes as much as 90 percent or more. Although some of their techniques are well-known to experienced bargain hunters -- combing consignment shops, attending end-of-season sales, and frequenting discount department stores -- others are known only to a savvy few. Here, their secrets.
Go to the source
Eliminate the middleman in any sales transaction and you eliminate the markup he must charge to make a profit on the deal. That's why knowledgeable bargain hunters often zero in on manufacturers' showrooms and factory/warehouse outlets. "I've outfitted my daughter entirely from sample sales and factory outlets, from infancy through age 13. People think we're rich when all we are is smart," says Sue Robinson, publisher of Kid News, a national bimonthly sales and bargains guide ($27 per year).
Robinson suggests you head straight for sample sales held periodically at apparel-maker showrooms. Typically these showrooms are clustered in merchandise marts. There are 17 of these located in major metropolitan areas across the country; your local chamber of commerce can tell you if there's one close to you. If not, try calling the company that manufactures your favorite brand to find out whether it has a factory or warehouse outlet near you. In contrast with the modest discounts at the familiar outlet malls nationwide, these venues typically sell their inventory of overruns, slight irregulars, and discontinued merchandise at 60 to 95 percent off retail prices.
Eliminating the middleman can also yield big savings on travel and toys. Bypass travel agents and hotel reservation networks and call the hotel in the city to which you're traveling. Simply ask if the hotel is running any promotions for children, which may garner you such bounty as a second room for half-price. Then, too, many toy makers -- including Fisher-Price, Disney, Gund, and Mattel -- maintain outlet stores similar to those of clothing manufacturers. If there are none near you (call the manufacturer to find out) and you have a specific product in mind that you'd like to buy, call an out-of-town outlet directly to see if they'll accept phone orders.
Be an educated consumer
To save a bundle on big-ticket items, first determine which features are really worth paying for. Take furniture, for instance. If a salesperson waxes eloquent about the convenience of a crib with two drop sides -- typically $50 to $100 more than those with bars that slide up and down on just one side -- just say no. Since most parents prop the crib against a wall, one drop side is plenty. Similarly, think twice about a pricey model that converts to a toddler-size bed. By the time your baby has outgrown the crib, he'll probably be ready for a standard twin and you may have wasted $200 or more, says Alan Fields, coauthor of the book Baby Bargains, a shopping bible for parents.
Ask friends and relatives with children slightly older than yours what items they found particularly useful -- and, perhaps more important, what gear they found to be an absolute waste of money.
Be an armchair shopper
Bargains abound for consumers who shop by phone or over the Internet. For juvenile furniture, strollers, swings, and other accessories of baby life, for instance, it's hard to beat the deep discounts on top brands offered by iBaby.com and Baby Catalog of America ). These outfits offer especially good buys on their closeout sales and clearance listings, where discontinued models and overstocked items often sell for as much as 70 percent off retail prices.
You can often nab great deals on toys and clothes by periodically checking for blowout sales on sites like eToys.com , which carries most leading toy brands, and Lands' End . For a membership fee of $18 a year, Jeannie's Kids Club , a catalog company in Canton, OH, also discounts toys and assorted other children's items by some 10 to 40 percent.
Seek corporate largesse
Companies love repeat business and are often willing to go to great lengths to win your loyalty, so keep your eye out for opportunities. For instance, Sears has the equivalent of a frequent-flier plan: Under its KidVantage program, parents receive a coupon for 15 percent off their next children's purchase for every $100 that they spend on kids' clothes and shoes. The aforementioned Baby Catalog of America will take an additional 10 percent off all purchases for customers who join its Baby Club of America for $25 a year.
The Walt Disney Company similarly offers 10 percent off Disney store and catalog purchases as well as 10 to 20 percent off a variety of vacation resort accommodations for members of the Magic Kingdom Club Gold Card ($65 for two years; this is steep but will likely more than pay for itself in one trip to Disney World or Disneyland). Many health and auto insurers also offer rebates of $25 to $35 on car seats, so it pays to check with your carrier before you buy.
Set spending limits
Parents can save the most money by changing not where they shop, but how, says Elysa Lazar. The key is to set a budget for how much you'll spend on your children's clothes, toys, and the like, and make up your mind to really stick to it. "Anyone who goes through her checkbook and credit card receipts will discover she's spent two to three times as much as she thought she had in any particular category," says Lazar. "But if you say in advance, I have $500 to spend on the children's clothing this year, and you keep track as you go along, $500 is what you will spend."
To help yourself toe the line, she suggests asking yourself one simple question before every purchase: Does my child really need this now or can I wait for a better deal to come along? "When you make yourself conscious of your spending, you naturally make much smarter purchasing decisions," says Lazar, "and you'll be amazed at how much money you save."
Contributing editor Diane Harris is coauthor, with Georgette Mosbacher, of It Takes Money, Honey, a book on personal finance for women.