This question could be very difficult to answer as it really depends on ones personal financial situation, and the local economy. But, I think it is a topic worth investigating. We as cloth diapering advocates constantly tout the economic benefits of cloth diapering, which is all good and well, but, the truth of the matter is the cost savings benefits of cloth diapers are more long-term (over the course of about 1 yr) rather than an immediate one. In today's world of credit, this isn't necessarily a problem for most, but it could be for some.
If you do the math, (or visit any random website that has already done the math), cloth diapers are truly the most economic choice. Disposables will cost between $2,000 and $3,000 per child from infancy to potty-training toddlers. A sufficient stash of cloth diapers numbers around 2 to 3 dozen. This of course depends on your lifestyle and system preference. But let's say, in general, one could get by with about 36 diapers. On average, the more convenient the diaper the more expensive it cost, so an All-In-One (AIO) or One-Size diapers could run anywhere from $20 to $25 per diaper. So for someone to fathom having to purchase 36 AIO diapers at $20 a pop, that's $720 right off the bat. Not to mention accessories such as wet bags and detergent, could add another $50 to the deal. Now when you do add the utility costs over time of washing the diapers yourself, it is far cheaper than disposables. And the fact that you can extend these savings when you reuse the diapers on subsequent children is phenomenal. But what about the folks that can't afford the $720 we just estimated?
Here are some solutions:
1) Go online or to a local workshop and figure out what cloth diapering systems you want to use, and put them on your registry! This is the best option for moms carrying their first child because you know your family wants to help you out and would be more than happy to buy you the diapers of your dreams.
2) Buy used. There are many diaper swapping websites and forums with people who want to "destash" and are willing to sell their used diapers at a deep discount. There's nothing wrong with this, but, be cautious. Cloth diapers are very sensitive and require a lot of care and maintenance. If the owner didn't care for the diapers well, or the diapers have already done its duty with several children, the construction of the diapers may be compromised or the fabrics may no longer be as absorbent, i.e. as effective, as when they were new. So, be sure to scrutinize every diaper before you make that purchase otherwise you may have to start over. As my Trinidadian friends say, "good things don't cheap, cheap things don't good".
3) Don't feel pressured into buying all 36 diapers at one time. If you are under financial constraints, start off with some inexpensive prefolds. Prefolds are the least flashy diapers out there, but, they are a tried and true staple and they are super cheap. Prefolds are, in my opinion, a great way to begin your cloth diapering journey. Newborns, though they pee frequently, don't pee in as high a volume as an older child and prefolds are very absorbent. They get more absorbent the more you wash them too. Another great thing about prefolds is that when your infant outgrows the infant size prefolds, they can be used as doublers for your future pocket diapers. So, if you can deal with folding the prefolds and using Snappis, I'd buy anywhere from 12-16 prefolds (infants need to be changed 8-10 times/day) and 2 covers. I say 2 covers because, when one is dirty you'll have another to use. I recommend 1 cover to every 4-5 prefolds or fitted diapers, so, this 2 is just a starter for the budget conscious mom. So, 16 prefolds @ $2/prefold, plus 2 covers @ $12/cover (on average) = $56. Add in a package of Rockin' Green @ $14 and we're at $70. These are the BARE necessities for cloth diapering. So if you're willing to go old school and use some prefolds you can theoretically begin your cloth diapering journey with $70 (+tax and shipping).
As the months wear on, you become more confident with your cloth diapers, washing routine, etc. you can use the money you may have budgeted on disposable diapers on adding to your stash, getting a couple more accessories, etc. Let's say you budgeted $60/month for disposables. You could over time use some of your diaper budget every month and add one or two covers, some different types of diapers to accommodate your growing child and busy lifestyle, maybe a wet bag or pail liner, some cloth wipes each month until you have everything you need. If you have this type of budget, you'll have everything you need in far less than a year. And besides the occasional top-up of detergent every 3-4 months, you'll be done.
So, is a $70 initial cost prohibitive for most? I sure hope not if you're planning on raising a child :)