Safety First: The Best Car Seat for Your Child Could Be a Bargain

A baby and a toddler in car seats.
Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

When I learned I was pregnant with my daughter, Rose, in 2014, I was immediately overwhelmed by information and advice on what I needed to do to prepare. The sheer amount of stuff you can buy for a tiny human is almost unimaginable, and as a new parent, you’ll need to determine which items are essential and which are luxuries.

One essential baby item on your registry should be a car seat. But with so many choices available, how can you know you’re getting the best car seat for your money?

To learn more about choosing a car seat on a budget, I spoke with Lani Harrison, a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician (CPST) with Car Seats for the Littles, Inc — a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to educating and helping parents find the right seats for their children.

Are All-in-One Car Seats More Affordable?

A baby and a toddler in car seats.
Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

An all-in-one car seat is designed to last your child from birth (or close to it) to childhood. It acts as an infant seat, rear-facing and forward-facing convertible toddler seat, and a booster seat. You might assume that the best and most affordable car seat is one that will last your child as long as possible, but that’s not necessarily the case, as Harrison explains.

“Often the price of [buying an infant, convertible and booster seat] is less than the price of one of these all-in-one seats,” she says. As an example, Harrison mentions one particular all-in-one seat, the Graco 4ever, which retails for $299. Instead, you could get a rear-facing through forward-facing seat (Graco Contender) for $139 and a booster seat (Graco Turbobooster) for $49 for a total of $188, saving more than $100 over the all-in-one.

Types of Car Seats

  • Rear-facing-only seats are designed for infants younger than 12 months of age.
  • Convertible seats allow you to seat your young toddler rear-facing until they reach the weight and height restrictions, and forward-facing after that.
  • Combination seats allow for forward facing with a five-point harness and can also be used as booster seats.
  • Once your child reaches the correct height for a booster, you can choose from either a high-back or a backless seat.

Car Seats for the Littles has a list of recommended seats in each category.

Harrison explains it’s also better to buy a rear-facing-only infant seat first because you won’t know the size of your baby before they’re born, “Often many convertible seats will say they start from 5 pounds, but in fact the lowest strap height is about the size of the shoulders of a two or three month old! Also, infant seats can generally be more reclined in the car which is better for small infants.”

Infant seats also make it easier to remove a snoozing baby from the car — simply unclick the carrier from its base and take it with you. Most stroller systems also have attachments for infant seats.

And in case you didn’t know, kids can be pretty messy.

“It’s easy to visualize using a new pristine seat for years, but then four years later, the seat is often not looking as good, and something new seems appealing,” says Harrison.

By buying multiple seat types throughout childhood, you’ll be saving money and ensuring you’re able to replace your yucky seat after that fifth vomit incident.

How Safe is an Inexpensive Car Seat?

A baby and a toddler in car seats.
Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

If you had an unlimited budget, chances are you’d go for the most expensive car seat for your child. But is that added premium actually safer? Not necessarily, says Harrison.

“All seats sold in America… have to pass the same safety tests,” she says. “We actually don’t have knowledge as to which seats did better on these tests. At the very least, that means that, even on a tight budget, you can find a safe car seat for your child.

However, as Harrison notes, “You can’t pick your crash. Some seats may do better in certain situations.”

Buying a top-rated car seat isn’t enough — it also needs to be installed correctly to protect your child in case of a crash. A 2015 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that approximately 46% of car seats and booster seats were installed incorrectly.

The best way to ensure the safety of your child while in the car is to enlist the help of a CPST.

These individuals are trained to properly install car seats and ensure children are correctly seated (for example, with the chest strap by the armpits rather than further down the chest). A CPST can put your mind at ease and offer up professional advice.

Even an expensive seat with all the bells and whistles won’t be effective in a crash if improperly installed.

Many CPSTs run their own businesses, and thus charge money for their time. However, you can typically find a certified technician at your local police station or fire department who will install or check your car seat for free. You can find your nearest location using the search function on NHTSA’s website.

Preparing for life with a child doesn’t have to break the bank. Rest easy knowing that the car seat you choose has been deemed safe for use by the U.S. government, and utilize the help of a CPST to ensure your seat is correctly (and safely) installed.

Catherine Hiles deals with an ornery toddler on a daily basis, but luckily they’ve never disagreed over car-seat choices. Never say never, though…