Hey, baby, this is how we can cut the costs

Three weeks from her due date, the expenses are already starting to mount up for Ruth Emery.Ruth Emery hopes to ease the cost of being a new mum, which typically tops £3,900 in the first six months.

From nappies to school uniforms and an endless amount of food, having children is expensive. But I didn’t realise the expenses would start rolling in before I even got to the maternity ward.

My husband Lawrence and I are expecting our first baby, due on my own birthday in less than three weeks. We have already spent a five-figure sum on baby paraphernalia, and on items we had previously put off upgrading — “It’s fine to drive an old three-door Toyota Yaris we’ve had since we graduated, but yes, we will buy a bigger, better car if we have a baby.”

While I may have saved some money by giving up booze for nine months, the shopping list just seems to grow and grow. From the 12-week pregnancy scan until the due date, it feels as if this is the most expensive six months of our lives.

Parents spend an average of £2,832 in this period, and a further £3,982 in the first six months after their baby is born, according to exclusive research for Money by Sainsbury’s Bank. A car is the most expensive item, followed by home upgrades such as decorating a nursery. The average spent on a pram is £286.

A free box of essential items — which babies can also sleep in — has been helping Finnish families since the 1930s, and the idea is coming to Scotland soon. Babies will receive a free box from New Year’s Day, the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announced last month.

But although there have been trials of giving out boxes in hospitals such as Queen Charlotte’s & Chelsea in west London, NHS England said there were no plans to roll them out south of the border.

Preparing for the arrival of your first baby can be an overwhelming time, so here are my top five tips for keeping the costs as low as possible.

Get an interest-free credit card
Lawrence and I often bemoan the dire interest rates on our savings as we try to rebuild a nest-egg after plundering it to buy our first home a few years ago. But the flip side is that borrowing money is extremely cheap. While I am not advocating racking up debt irresponsibly, careful planning can give you some breathing space by allowing you to stretch the baby shopping bills over a longer period.

In August I took out a credit card that offered 0% interest on purchases for 27 months. So in effect we have an interest-free loan that needs to be paid off two years and three months down the line. See our Best Buys on page 7 for current credit card deals.

Do not forget the date when the interest-free period runs out, and make sure you save some money to pay off the balance. For example, say your card has a £2,500 credit limit and you hit it straight away and then make just the minimum payment for 27 months — you will be left with a balance of £1,350, according to Sainsbury’s Bank. Or you could pay £92.59 every month, meaning your £2,500 balance would hit zero when you reach the end of the interest-free period.

Watch out, though: plastic is not always accepted. We wanted to buy our new car using savings and my credit card. After several trips to the Cargiant dealership, we settled on a 2013 Seat Leon and told the salesman how we intended to pay. But credit cards were not accepted; the options were to pay by cash (and pay a 1% fee) or debit card (no fee), or take their finance deal.

After some huffing and puffing by me, we paid the lot with our savings. Many car dealers do not accept credit cards, and the ones that do often levy a surcharge — perhaps 1.5% — or limit the amount you can pay on it. So do some research before you waddle around looking at cars when you are six months’ pregnant.

Enjoy the health benefits
The NHS offers some perks. The first one is the maternity exemption certificate, which entitles you to free prescriptions (they normally cost £8.40 per item, though nothing in Scotland) and dental treatment while you are pregnant and for 12 months after the due date. Ask your midwife or GP for an FW8 form and send it off quickly. The certificate, which is actually a card you can keep in your wallet, can take several weeks to arrive in the post.

Pharmacists and dentists do not always need to see the certificate; I found that stating your due date can be enough. So do not put off urgent dental treatment because you have not received your certificate.

You can also claim a refund for prescriptions and dental treatment, as long as the costs occur after the start date on the certificate. With prescriptions, ask for an FP57 receipt and refund claim form, and with dentist fees ask for form HC5(D).

Pregnant women on low incomes also qualify for free vitamins, under the government’s Healthy Start scheme. This offers free vitamins for breastfeeding women, too, and vitamin drops for children aged from six months to four years. Families qualify if they receive income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance, an employment and support allowance, or child tax credit. Some areas, such as the London borough of Haringey, where I live, offer free vitamins to all pregnant and breastfeeding women.

Subscribe to Which?
Expecting your first baby means a new language awaits: think “Isofix”, “concertina fold” versus “scissor fold”, and “cellular” blankets. A stroll into Mothercare will bamboozle you. Baby buying requires extensive research to learn the lingo, and to determine the best-value options.

We paid £1 to help us navigate this maze. This bought us a one-month trial subscription for Which? magazine, which reviews products such as the Baby Jogger City Versa (a pushchair, in case you were wondering).

Of course, we needed more information than we could get in one month, so we paid for a few full-price months, at £10.75 each, after our trial ended. You can cancel your subscription at any time by emailing or phoning Which?.

Don’t buy too much
Set a budget, write a “must have” shopping list and stick to both. Remember, you are likely to receive lots of hand-me-downs and gifts. And look out for second-hand sales: charity shops, online forums such as Netmums and the childbirth charity NCT can save you a fortune.

Last week, I did a stock take of all the clothes, toiletries and blankets that Lawrence and I have received from generous friends, family and colleagues. It turns out we have 13 long-sleeved babygrows for newborns — so no need to buy any more.

You will probably need a clear-out to accommodate everything. I sold CDs and DVDs (accumulated since my teens) on musicmagpie.co.uk, and a chest of drawers for £30 on Gumtree.

According to Which?, Aldi does the second-best disposable nappies, after Pampers. But, at 4.8p each, they are much cheaper than Pampers (about 16p from Boots).

Some councils offer an incentive to use reusable nappies. Haringey gives a £54.15 voucher to spend on reusables or laundry services. It says parents can save £600 by using real nappies instead of disposables. It sounds like a great saving . . . but let’s see how we feel when we are sleep-deprived and changing nappies at 4am on a cold winter’s morning.

Grab the freebies
A “baby on board” badge should be top of your list if you travel to work by public transport. It tells other passengers that you would very much like a seat so you can rest your swollen ankles or aching back.

A bundle of joy can cost a wad of cash, but there are savings to be made (ALAMY)

The free badges are offered by National Rail and train operators such as Southeastern and C2C. Londoners can apply at tfl.gov.uk/forms/23479.aspx or by ringing 0343 222 1234).

Like my maternity certificate, the badge took a while to arrive in the post, so I picked up one from the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden.

Some companies, such as Southeastern, Virgin and Greater Anglia, allow pregnant women to sit in first class – but only if there are no seats available in standard carriages. However, they must apply for a pass and carry it with them whenever they travel.

Your midwife or employer may hand you a free gift pack from the parenting websites Bounty or Emma’s Diary, or a form to obtain one. These contain magazines, vouchers and freebies such as nappies and wet wipes. The monetary value is low, but if you pick up several gift packs, you’ll have a few nappies to get you started. If no one hands you a form or pack, you can request one on the websites.

Signing up may land you with a flood of marketing emails, though. My inbox was inundated with emails from Bounty. I “unsubscribed” several times on the website but still they came.

If this happens to you, enlist the help of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which can fine companies that send unwanted marketing messages.

I threatened Bounty with the ICO, and a few days later the emails finally stopped.