Car Seat Shopping on the Cheap

Getting the right car seat on a budget is not the same for this dad and his wife

Parenthood and home ownership have one striking similarity: you are always one unanticipated cost away from walking outside to unleash a string of expletives under the sonic camouflage of the lawnmower motor—which sounds like it could use a little oil. Goddammit.

Toilets break and kids grow faster than you expect. When you’re on a budget, you try to delay those unexpected costs as long as possible. No big deal when it means not using the half-bath by the living room because you haven’t gotten around to fixing a plumbing issue, but it’s a little tougher to push back the purchase of a new car seat when you look over and see your freakishly tall five-month-old with his ass in the air and feet on the floor.

My son has learned to escape a level one car seat, but gives me a befuddled look whenever I try to get him to hold his own bottle so I can get things done while he feeds. Bullshit, Houdini.

Normally it’s cause for concern when my wife tells me to get in the car and drive to the house of a stranger she met on Craigslist, but these things seem reasonable when following the aforementioned budget, and said stranger claims to have a car seat for $30 under retail.

After a 30-minute drive to a suburb on the other side of Dallas, we pulled up the the house of the woman selling the car seat. The house was in a nice semi-affluent neighborhood in the kind of suburb where everyone has the same shit and looks pretty happy about it. This is also the type of neighborhood where the local news interviews people who can’t believe their quiet, church-going optometrist neighbor had a rape room in his basement and tortured 26 women between 1996 and 2011.

The last bit didn’t occur to me until I looked up and realized I had been checking Facebook on my phone for 25 minutes while my wife was inside the house, a curious amount of time since the woman had originally brought the box containing the car seat to the door with her.

At this point I confronted the reality that I may have to barge into what I had determined was a suburban torture chamber and save my wife from impending doom. Of course that would have meant releasing my son’s car seat from the base and carrying him into the firestorm with me, because in Yuppie Suburb America assault and murder can be swept under the rug, but leaving a child in a car unattended for three minutes—even with the air on—while you save your beloved from a Craigslist serial killer is the second most damning act you can commit. The first, obviously, is striking a dog for any reason whatsoever.

So I resorted to a very direct, yet understated method of rescue…

Text message: problem?
Shortly after, Summer emerged from the house without the car seat.  Son of a bitch, I was right, she’s making a run for it!

Actually the woman had spent most of that time explaining to Summer that the car seat was probably not right for her, laying out an explanation that covered weight, rear-facing vs. front-facing, and neck muscle development of the typical five-month-old.

Knowing that one out of every two Craigslist postings is a front for sexual deviants, we decided not to go back to the well, instead shifting gears and going to Target to pay full price on a car seat like a couple of hip-hop moguls.

The car seat selection at Target is vast and overwhelming if you allow it to be. Because I am above all that, I simply looked for the cheapest model containing the desired features we agreed upon. Summer, predictably, took my liking of the economically sound, reliable-looking $100 car seat as an act of careless parenting.

I’m convinced the only reason the $100 car seat is on display is to make people feel better about getting the more expensive model, despite the fact there is little to no difference in quality. It wouldn’t shock me at all to learn that everyday they just switch the price tags around based on inventory.

But I’m not here to hate the hustle, and it worked like a charm, as my wife pointed out the $180 seat was on sale for $150 and there was only ONE LEFT!!

“Baby, we lucked out!  Do you realize how lucky we are?!?”

So lucky. In fact, in that very moment I felt a tingle in my loins usually encountered after surviving a near-death experience. My wife experienced a similar carnal rush ten minutes later when she stopped, weak-kneed in the coffee creamer section.

“Yes!!!  Holiday flavors already!”

We are different creatures, men and women.

About Blake Friis

Blake is a writer and first-time father living in Dallas, TX. When not pushing a stroller aimlessly around Target or cowering in fear of a baby, he is documenting those misadventures at Pureed Green Beans and Whiskey. You can follow Blake on Twitter at @BlakeFriis.


  1. Aimee, I had to drive with my knees when we had two infant carriers in our Jetta. I’d pay extra for the adaptability, going from infant carrier, to toddler seat, to booster, just so I wouldn’t have to go shopping again.

  2. I love this post…hilarious and oh so true. I found car seat shopping to be incredibly frustrating. Before our son was born, we registered for an infant carrier and a convertible. We tried (and by we, I mean my husband) to install the convertible in his backseat (a smallish sedan), and found that short of removing the passenger seat, there was no way the thing was gonna fit. So I did some research and found a model that would fit rear-facing in both our cars (both of which have small backseats.).

    The plus side was that our son is a tiny little thing and fit in his infant carrier until he was 18 months old.

    And really, all car seats have to pass federal safety standards, so above a certain price point, you’re really just paying for bells and whistles and brand names.

  3. ??? do they require car seats on busses and commuter trains?

    • Not in the states, Tom.
      I’ve learned the hard way the best thing to do as a new parent is shell out the extra dough for an all-in-one that adapts with the child over time. Parenting gear is huge business.

  4. @Blake …. It’s been a loooong time since my own kids needed a car seat. When my grandson was born a few years ago, I thought I’d get a couple of second hand seat for our cars so that when we had the grandson, we didn’t have to switch them out. To my surprise after I purchased these seats that they have an expiration date? Say what? The seats that I bought were about 100 times better and nicer then those that we had available when our kids were small, how can a seat have an expiration date? For gosh sakes, it’s not food!

    There is also something called a Wanda-chair, or something like that … It was a car seat, stroller/buggy, high chair and desk and chair. All in one s0-to-speak. We got one that was in a garage sale but the actual cost was more like $1200. It sucked, glad we only paid a fraction of the price.

    • how can a seat have an expiration date?

      My wife is a certified car seat safety technician, so I asked her this. The answer is that the hard plastic shell eventually loses enough structural integrity that it’s not expected to meet the safety standards anymore. This makes sense if you think of it as plastic being subjected to repeated extreme temperature swings over the years from being parked in hot and cold conditions. The padding and belts probably would still be good, but they don’t sell replacement shells.

      Did you know you should also replace a car seat if it’s been in an accident? Once it has performed as designed in an accident, it may not be as structurally sound as it was before, whether from the effects on the plastic, or even from the belts being stretched. (Regular seatbelts should also be replaced after accidents, since the give in a severe collision stretches them out so they don’t have that give if it happens again.) This and expiration dates are two compelling reasons to avoid buying car seats second hand, even though the price is tempting. You might be able to find an expiration date if you know to look for one, but you usually have no idea whether it was ever subjected to the effects of an accident by the person selling it. Seats of old might not have had expiration dates, but they didn’t’ have as much knowledge or as high standards regarding safety, so it doesn’t mean they were ever more durable.

      Finally (my technician wife is feeding me lines here…), the only way a 5-month old could escape a car seat is if they aren’t properly secured, like if the belts aren’t cinched tight enough, a puffy coat is creating too much slack, or something like that. Belts should be pulled snug, and the chest clip should be at the height of the armpits. For added safety, keep them rear-facing for as long as the seats specs allow it, not just the bare minimum required by law. Our 3.5 yr. olds are *still* in rear-facing seats.

      For anyone with car seat questions or even just wanting guidance on affordable car seat options (you can even get new ones for under $100), there are lots of car seat techs happy to take your questions at . My wife also volunteers at weekly car seat checks, so you might be able to find something like that in your area, for making sure you’ve got your seats installed correctly, esp. if you’re a first-timer or out of practice. The technology changes, so the way you remember how to do it may not be the safest method available anymore.

      Enjoyed the article, though. I felt the same way about strollers. 🙂

      • @ Marcus, thank you for the insight. Ya learn something every day and yeah, it makes sense.

        In so far as the snugness of the seat belts …. I know my daughter and SIL are doing it right. I rather change a tire then to try to unfasten and get my grandson out of the car seat. It would take a lot less time.

        I personally like the rear facing car seat. When I ride with them, it’s easier to play with my grandson.

        • No prob. 🙂 It sounds like you don’t have to be the unfastener very often, but the trick to making it easy is to remember to reverse the last thing you did putting them in. That is, the last step putting them in is pulling on the belt to take the slack out of the shoulder straps, so the first step getting them out is to give yourself a bunch of slack. That’s usually done by pulling up on a release with one hand, and pulling both shoulder straps away from the child with your other. This makes it easier not only to unbuckle everything, but also to get their arms out. If you don’t put slack in until the child is ready to use it again, you’re doing it the hard way. 🙂

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