Are We Overspending on Child Safety?

Britax Car Seat

This Britax car seat will run you $599.99 on

November is National Child Safety Month — an observance that I personally look on with great suspicion.

That is because I am one of the few parents out there who is willing to accept a level of “safe enough.”

I worry that things like National Child Safety Month is just another way to sell parents products to keep their children safe from obscure dangers.

Making such a confession in front of my local moms group would probably be enough to get me ostracized. After all, is there anything more important than the safety of our children?! With the cult of absolute safety in modern America, it seems as though convenience, parental sanity, and money (especially) are all no object in trying to protect our children.

But the thing is, the cost of all this safety can be enough to bankrupt average parents — let alone lower-income parents. Lenore Skenazy, author and blogger at Free Range Kids, is similarly fed up with the sense that we need to sacrifice everything just to make our kids safe:

“It’s as if only rich people can afford to make their children safe, while the rest of us have to put them at risk,” she said. “That’s ridiculous!”

It is entirely possible to raise safe, happy, and resilient kids without breaking the bank. Here are some ways to make sure you aren’t overspending on safety with only diminishing returns:

Some Things We Think of as Necessary Are Anything But

According to Skenazy, “there is no easier dollar extracted than money from a new parent.” Marketers and retailers know that parents can be cash cows. Between the fact that we are hardwired to love, protect and plan for our children, and the fact that our culture makes sure we know about all potential hazards, no matter how small, we are willing to make any purchase to help us feel better about our children’s safety.

But that’s neither sustainable nor necessary. For instance, you can find safety products that our grandparents would laugh at:

  • bathwater ducks that tell you if the water is too hot,
  • helmets for toddlers when they are learning to walk,
  • knee pads for new crawlers,

and my own personal favorite, shopping cart covers (as if there aren’t germs everywhere else the kid sits). All of these products are new in the last couple of decades, and parents buy them because marketers have convinced them their children are in danger without them.

To avoid the trap of unnecessary safety purchases, Skenazy suggests taking your oldest relative with you to Babies R Us and asking them which products they needed as babies. You’re likely to leave the store with much fewer purchases than what those helpful must-have lists—which are provided to you by the store itself—recommend.

There is a Base Level of Safety on Children’s Products

Earlier this year, my son outgrew his infant car seat and I had to buy him a new one. I was horrified at the $200+ price tag of Britax car seats, which are some of the best-reviewed seats on the market. But when I looked at a $40 car seat that could be purchased at our local K-Mart, I saw that it had the exact same five-point harness and LATCH system as the Britax.

Most importantly, however, I was reassured by the information provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA): “The right car seat or booster fits your child and your car, and is one you will use correctly every time you travel.” A good fit and using the seat correctly are much more important than pretty much any other aspect of a safety seat. That’s because the NHTSA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) both work the make certain that car seats and other children’s products all meet safety requirements—or else they’re not allowed on the market.

So I bought the $40 seat, and made triply sure that I installed it correctly — because that has much more to do with my son’s safety on the road than the price tag.

Buying Used is a Perfectly Safe Option

That was hardly the first time I’ve felt overwhelmed when purchasing a car seat. When I was pregnant with my son, my husband heard that a friend of his at work was selling his infant car seat. I put my foot down and insisted that we buy new: that was the only way we could be sure the car seat hadn’t been compromised in an accident.

Even though my husband is a mechanical engineer who has worked in the automotive industry for years, and even though he knew and trusted this friend to tell us if the car seat had ever been in an accident, I simply couldn’t imagine taking such a “risk.”

But the thing is, buying used really isn’t risky in most cases. If you know and trust the seller, then there is no need to worry about purchasing a compromised safety item. And as long as you double check that the item has not been recalled — the Consumer Product Safety Commission keeps a list online — you can rest easy that you are providing your child with a safe item without overspending.

The one caveat about purchasing used items is recognizing that some safety products do expire. In terms of car seats, they will generally have an expiration date because the Styrofoam that is used to pad them degrades after a period of time and will no longer adequately protect the user. If you are interested in purchasing a used car seat, check the manufacturer label for the expiration date, which is usually about six years after the date of manufacture.

The Bottom Line

In many cases, it seems smarter and easier to spend money than to take even the remotest chance with your child’s safety. But even in the cases of major recalls and bans—such as the 2011 decision by the CPSC to ban the sales of all drop-side cribs — the probability of anything bad happening to any particular child is remarkably low. As Lenore Skenazy put it, “being alive is a safety issue.” Chasing absolute safety for your child will be an expensive and ultimately useless proposition, considering how easily children find new and inventive ways to hurt themselves.

A better way to enjoy your kid’s childhood (and have some money left over to send her to college) is to recognize that there is a level of “safe enough” — and to just say no to overspending on safety.

What’s your take? Are we overspending on child safety?

Want My Free 31-Step Money Guide*?

Subscribe for free. Get my guide *31 Days to Improve Your Financial Life, welcome series, and regular Five Things digest. Join 30,000+ other followers.

Powered by ConvertKit

About Emily Guy Birken

Emily Guy Birken is an award-winning writer, author, money coach, and retirement expert. Her four books include The Five Years Before You Retire, Choose Your Retirement, Making Social Security Work For You, and End Financial Stress Now.


    Speak Your Mind


  1. Philip Taylor says

    Tom Wachowski I’ve been on flights where a lap baby belt was loaned to us by the airline. It seemed quite safe and effective. Not sure why all airlines don’t offer this. Likely liability issues.

  2. Tom Wachowski says

    You hit the nail on the head!  However, what are your thoughts on safety belt systems for kids (lap children) on planes?  -Tom

  3. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt is a powerful sales motivator.  Works like a charm!
    My comment isn’t exactly on child safety equipment but I must say we’re not too concerned about having everything our daughter touches clinically sterile.  Immune systems need exercise too, but if we’re constantly killing all of the bacteria in our environment, our immune systems will never see them, and will atrophy.

  4. Are we overspending on safety? I think that no matter how much is spent, my goal is to get my kid to college ALIVE and unharmed. So for that I don’t see how you can put a price on your child’s life. Sure, the instances of each thing that could happen to your child are low, but tell that to a parent who lost their child to some easily preventable cause. So providing the safest options for your child is your responsibility to them.
    This does not mean that my 5yr old daughter is not allowed to climb the rock-wall to the very top. Or climb a fireman pole up 10 feet without a harness. Or cross the “big kid” monkey bars where the distance to the ground from her feet is greater than she is tall. She is very adventurous and I encourage that. These are situations where the injury would be minimal or avoidable. However in a car traveling 80mph you do not have control over the other drivers, and total devastation is an outcome that happens every day. I think spending $200-$300 on a car seat is an investment in her future as much as a savings account. Sorry, while I do think most of the stuff at Babies R Us is unnecessary, I still feel that the risk outweighs the cost for a good quality car seat.
    On a side note- the driver and passenger seats of most cars are designed with lumbar support and ample seat cushions for a more comfortable ride. If your child will spend any time in their car seat, why wouldn’t you buy them a seat that is more comfortable for them? You wouldn’t sit in a plastic bucket with only 1/4in foam of cushion would you?

  5. Daughter of Timo says

    I agree with this article, but for one tiny little point. Sometimes, those toddler helmets *are* essential. My little brother, who’s now in his early twenties, learnt to crawl and walk in one weekend and the age of about 6 months. He hadn’t yet learnt to sit down, so when he got tired while walking, he just toppled over – straight backwards. My parents had to follow him around for that entire weekend to catch him when he toppled, and then rushed to buy him one of those helmets on the Monday: virtually no shops were open on Sundays where we lived at the time. Of course, it turned out the helmet was just a teensy bit too big, seeing as he was several months younger than other actually-toddling toddlers…

  6. Everything you say is right on.  When it comes to the car seat phenomenon, I am also fascinated by the fact that while the safest thing you can do for your kid in terms of cars is to DRIVE LESS (or — gasp! – not at all), that doesn’t even come up as a recommendation, or even a gentle reminder.  Obviously that’s more possible in cities with public transportation, but even so…we just live such a car-centric culture that no one can fathom it.

  7. I got one of those rubber duckies that check temperature (because I couldn’t find any other kind.) It didn’t even show my near-scalding bath as hot. Any parent relying on one of those is going to have baby soup.

  8. Thank you for this common-sense article. Bring on more like them!

  9. I don’t think this issue is as cut-and-dry as presented in this article.
    You are absolutely correct that the cheaper seats pass the same crash tests as the more expensive seats.  These are arbitrary numbers (i.e. front-impact at 30 mph, etc.) set by some governmental body.  However, most of the cheaper convertalbe seats (seats with 5-point harness capacity) are made for children who weight 41 lbs or less.  Parents who want to invest in a 5-point harness seat for children who weight more than 41 lbs will need to spend more money — this makes sense…it’s gong to be a bigger seat, more materials, etc.
    Again, supporting your point of view, the currently published Consumer Reports ratings of convertable car seats indicates that 6 out of the the top 10 convertable car seats *with harness capacity for children 41 lbs and lighter* are priced under $99.  However, 7 out of 10 of the top “Greater than 40 lb. harness capacity car seats,” are the expensive Britax brand, with the other 3 non-Britax seats priced between $155 and $200.
    Finally…did you know that the only car seat made in the U.S.A. is the Britax brand?

  10. What people pay for with more expensive car seats are often straps that are easy to use and hold up over time and a good warranty/service.  Our britax car seat (bought used for $3) has belts that resist twisting, while it was impossible to get the strap on our Graco infant seat to not wad up on my third child’s shoulders.  Adjustment as the kids grow is similarly easier with our Britax.  Lastly, Britax replaced a base that cracked on a plane ride without question right away.  Good luck getting that kind of service with a cheaper car seat.  One pays for long term durability, comfort and ease of use with a more expensive car seat: not necessarily increased safety.

    • Philip Taylor says

      @douglasnm I agree that there is definitely a comfort, quality, and (often) service difference between Britax and other brands (we use both). I also agree that most people are aware of the differences. But I think Emily’s focus is on the pressure (that I agree is real) to buy these products for safety reasons. Take a look at the Britax homepage and look at their marketing towards being a more advanced safety product.

  11. CatherineLavallee says

    I just love Lenore Skenazy!  She is full of common sense and wisdom.I am one of “those moms” who, out of necessity, does not splurge on pricey items for my kids.  They have 15 dollar booster seats, not the 300 dollar Radian 80 car seats that keep them in a 5 point harness until they are 14 years old.  I also turned them to forward facing when they were 1, rather than waiting until they were 3.

    • @CatherineLavallee Why would you boast of turning children forward facing at age one? This isn’t a matter of letting the child be free range, it’s a matter of car crash statistics and that forward facing one year olds are at a 75% greater risk of significant injury or death than their rear facing counterparts (seriously, google it). By all means let the kids free range but when it comes to hurtling down the highway at 75 mph you’ve got to put safety first. We all agree that it doesn’t have to be a $600 carseat, it has to be a properly used carseat – forward facing before the rear facing weight or height limit has been exceeded is not proper use of any convertible carseat.

    • @CatherineLavallee
      There is actual crash test data that shows car accidents cause internal decapitation, and rear facing is the safest option till the children are three. It isn’t about being hyper paranoid, every day you drive past another car accident and it could be your child….. isn’t a one-in-a-million thing.
      Doesn’t the “Free Range Kid” concept still promote REASONABLE SAFETY?

      • @TaraDaRe  @CatherineLavallee @LoisB  How do children physically remain rear-facing until they are 3? I must admit, I roll my eyes every time my wife mentions this because my 3 year old would have her knees in her chest if she was rear-facing. My 1 year old is shaping up to be in the same predicament. 
        I agree with the concern early in the post that the standards are a ploy to get us to buy more…

  12. Okay got to bring up a few points:
    1) Although I don’t have one, I never thought shopping cart covers were just for germ prevention alone. I thought it was also for comfort. Sitting on a thin piece of plastic which may or not be broken in places which and metal bars doesn’t feel comfortable. So it’s not always about safety.
    2) The Britax car seats may be top of the line and expensive, but what the article fails to mention is that they are also (as far as I can tell) are the only car seat made in the US. Some of us parents buy the seats to support our fellow Americans here at home and to curb the outsourcing of American manufacturing jobs.
    3) The reason for banning drop side cribs was because children would kick the rail so hard that it would come loose off the track. Children were getting their legs caught in the rail or falling out of bed once the rail fell off. This is a manufacturing flaw of the drop side crib.
    Every year 10,000 children are injured enough to need a visit to the ER and roughly 2,000-3,000 die. Usually this is children ages 1-2 climbing out of cribs. It’s safest to baby proof the room and put them on a mattress on the floor and avoid crib-related injuries in the first place.
    I’m all for free-range in the sense that children need to learn independence, but I also think that a parent should protect their young children from hazards that the child doesn’t understand particularly when the parent isn’t in the same room. It’s a cognitive level issue. I don’t expect my 11th month old to understand electricity like a five year old can. And I don’t think it’s helicopter parenting to make an environment safer for a young child to explore because that’s the point isn’t it?

  13. Of course we are.  My sister and I slid all around in the back of a 1974 Impala without any seat belts at all.  However, those cars would shred through a smart car today like a knife going through butter, but we are way, way overspending on too much safety.

    • Philip Taylor says

      @Ted Jenkin I was *this* close to putting a picture in this article showing some kids in the back of a station wagon. That’s what I always think of too.

    • @Ted Jenkin I learned to drive in a 73 Impala! Also, my mom was in an accident once with a brand- new Honda. It was super modern because it had a computer and power everything. Our car did indeed slice through it like a knife through butter. The other car was totaled, but we drove away without a (noticeable) scratch.

    • @Ted Jenkin Yep, standing on the “hump” in the back seat. Not sure how we all made it this far.

    • @Ted Jenkin
      And your parents were sprayed with DDT, but it doesn’t make it safe for your kids. The idea that “it was fine for me” in your argument commits a fallacy and does not support a logical argument.
      Next time you want to take a trip down memory lane leave your kids buckled into their seats.

  14. I agree. We got a $150, top of the line Graco that will last from birth to 65 lbs. for our main car and a $50 Cosco for the second car. Both seem extremely safe but the less expensive model has more annoying latches and the straps are less stiff so  I have to be careful to not twist them.
    The way to keep your kid the most safe in the car is to drive slowly, defensively, with no distractions.