As a parent, there are a lot of baby and child expenses you can’t — or simply don’t want to — skimp on. Especially ones that are safety-related, intended to protect your child.
But safety can come with a big price tag, as some parents in New Jersey are discovering this week.
The state just updated its car seat rules for babies and kids, mandating that infants can’t be flipped from a rear-facing car seat to a forward-facing one around their first birthday, as most parents are accustomed to. Now, children have to stay in those rear-facing seats until age 2, or until they pass 30 pounds.
A new rule like this can lead to a bit of backseat juggling: you’ve got to make sure your kids are in the right car seat for the right amount of time, which could even mean buying another car seat.
What’s a stressed-out parent to do?
Some penny-hoarding parents might turn to secondhand sources to make sure their car seat needs are covered. But is buying a used car seat safe?
We took a look at the rules of the road for car-seat shopping.
Is Buying a Used Car Seat Safe?
Every state has its own rules for child safety seats, and those aren’t exactly rules you want to mess with. Plus, violating safety seat laws comes with hefty fines and sometimes points on your license.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t save money when you’re investing in a car seat or booster for your little loved one. Here’s what you need to know about buying and selling used car seats.
Car seats have expiration dates: It’s different from when milk expires and turns sour within a week or so — safety seat expirations exist as a precaution.
“One of the main reasons seats expire is that they are made of plastic,” Debbi Baer, R.N. and expert at The Car Seat Lady, explains on her site. “Plastic becomes brittle and weak as it ages — two qualities you don’t want in a car seat that has to withstand severe crash forces.”
The expiration dates also help families know they’re using the latest safety technology on the market, though complying can become expensive, especially if you have several children a few years apart.
If an expiration date isn’t listed on your car seat or one you’re considering purchasing, check the owner’s manual or give the company a ring.
It’s not illegal: Despite much online debate, it’s not illegal to sell or buy a used car seat.
But it is illegal to sell a recalled car seat — one that’s been deemed unsafe. Before you try to save on a used car seat or try to make a buck selling yours, double-check the model hasn’t been recalled.
How to Buy a Used Car Seat (Safely)
If you’re thinking of pursuing the secondhand route, or you’re scrambling to find another car seat to accommodate the new laws, here are some guidelines.
Only Buy Used From People You Know
You can use the idea of “knowing” someone loosely: a neighbor, mom you know from a school group, local listserv member, or a friend of a friend are probably OK bets.
But this isn’t a simple transaction you can complete after glancing at some photos on Craigslist. You need to have a frank discussion with the seller before you commit.
Baer, The Car Seat Lady, recommends going over the following:
- The entire history of the car seat, from purchase to the point of resale
- Crash history for every vehicle where the car seat was used
- Parts and add-ons, to ensure good working order of the entire contraption
- And, as noted above, the expiration date for the model
Any seller who isn’t willing to go over these points probably isn’t a trustworthy source of a secondhand item, let alone one designed to keep your kid safe.
What about crashes? Baer says, “When in doubt, throw the car seat out — do not sell, buy or borrow a car seat if you are unsure about its crash history.”
If You’re Using a Secondhand Car Seat, Leave a Cushion on the Expiration Date
Baer recommends only using rear-facing seats with at least one year of use left and front-facing or convertible car seats with two or three years of use left. Any booster seat should be good until your child is at least 10 years old, to accommodate the child until they hit the height mark.
How to Save Money on a New Car Seat
Don’t feel comfortable going used? If you’re hitting the big-box shops in search of a new car seat, here are a few ways you can save.
Don’t Start Looking for Car Seats Until You Decide on a Stroller
If you’re planning to push 10 stroller models around the store before choosing the perfect one for your family, don’t pick up just any car seat because of a good price, new or used. If you’re considering a car seat that clips in and out of the car to be used in a stroller base, you may have compatibility issues.
The Penny Hoarder editor Alexis Grant knows firsthand that sometimes saving money means spending a little. She got a new stroller as a gift, then snagged a loaner infant car seat from a family member. While she saved $100 by borrowing the car seat, she had to purchase a $60 car seat adapter to make the car seat fit the stroller.
If you’re having a baby shower and plan to create a registry, add a car seat you’ve researched and like, even a toddler seat the child won’t use right after birth. Friends and family members are usually willing to pitch in toward baby safety essentials like car seats, which are common group gift items.
Even if you’re not a first-time parent, consider registering for a car seat for an older child who just won’t stop growing. Having your brand and model of choice picked out makes life easier when grandma, aunties or work friends ask how they can help.
Buy Off Your Own Registry
If you register for a car seat but don’t receive one, you can still get a deal through your registry. Most stores have a scheme that allows new parents to save a bit of cash on registry items.
At Babies“R”Us, any purchase from your registry earns cash back: first in a gift card valued at 5% of the first $300 in registry purchases ($15) and then with 10% of anything beyond that initial $300 emailed to you as another e-gift card. You even earn these benefits when you shop from your own registry.
Buy Buy Baby sends you a certificate — it’s really a coupon — to use on any remaining registry items you wish to purchase close to Junior’s arrival date. The value of this coupon is a closely guarded secret rumored to be between 10-15% off. The store also gives out coupon Goody Bags when you start your registry, so keep an eye out for opportunities to save right away.
Target also offers a slew of coupons when you sign up for a registry. Starting eight weeks before your arrival date, take 15% off remaining registry items. That discount is good for any late registry purchase made by family, friends or you.
Amazon offers 15% off baby registry purchases made by Prime members. There’s also a Welcome Box offer, free samples worth up to $50, that’s available for a brief period of time after you sign up.
Your Turn: What other ideas do you have for saving on child car seats?
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Lisa Rowan is a writer, editor, and podcaster living in Baltimore.