First of all, I just want to clarify that I myself am not a mother so this is an outside perspective. Also, this applies to the babies who have no complications. In addition to that thought, it also varies by child since each of us is different. So in my no-where-close-to-expert opinion, I dare to say that babies are not that expensive. The first one, yeah, that one is a little more on the costly side, but the ones after that, not so much.
Okay so for the sake of this post, we're going to take a very generic, healthy child who hits some milestones early and others late like normal children. Now let's make a list of baby needs: food, shelter, sleep, hygiene, stimulation, love, comfort, growing/learning experiences. In terms of purchases, that means bottles, formula if you so choose (which that stuff IS expensive, and I hope you can get on WIC if you need/want to go that route, so we'll also say this mom is a pretty good producer of the booby milk), soft spoons, a crib, blankets, diapers, pacifiers maybe, clothes, and a car seat.
Judging by that list, the baby furniture is the most expensive part, and if this was a first baby, that's where you'd be shelling it out. However, if this was a second or third or twelfth baby, I'm sure you already have a lot of that furniture still in working condition which means the price isn't nearly as much as you thought. Or you were a nice person and passed your furniture on to a new mom in need at a discounted price which you are a saint for doing that since it can add up so fast.
Babies do need stimulation, but that doesn't mean you have to go out and buy all the latest and greatest toys when you could easily put sand and a bunch of little toys in a plastic bag for a sensory experience (please don't feed your babies sand and little toys). You probably have articles of clothing made of different types of fabric for your baby to touch. You can play music on whatever electronics you have. Making some brightly colored doodles can help with light and colors or even just going new places to see and hear new things. There's lots of options that don't cost nearly as much as a room full of toys that will be forgotten in no time flat.
I'm hoping love and comfort are freely given from the caretaker(s), and sleep should also be pretty self-explanatory. But then comes food which can get tricky. Obviously you can buy all different kinds of pre-made foods at the store, but you could also just put the food you already buy through a food processor or blender. One is easy and way less time consuming, but I'm not sure how much money you could save grinding up some carrots. If the baby has an allergy or sensitive digestive system, it's a better bet to make your own baby food since you could control all the ingredients that way, but that's as personal as breast or formula feeding or some combination of the two.
Since the baby is eating, it will have to poop which means diapers and wipes, but even there you have options. The disposable diapers are a lot of money spread out over the diapers wearing years as opposed to cloth diapers which are a lot of money up front plus extra laundry through the diaper wearing years. Just like baby furniture, this is one where the value can be different depending on the number of children and the brands you choose.
All in all, babies do need some pricier items that you definitely want to put on your baby shower registry, but clothes and blankets/bedding that will get spit up/throw up/poop/mystery other stains on can be bought at consignment shops or garage sales, and there are ways to cut corners in the toy department as well. But the most important thing that children need is good quality human interaction! Your time, your love, your affection, your attention. And that is not only inexpensive, it's priceless.
But of course they grow up so here's a little blip on that just so we can make sure to go full circle. There will be more clothes, and the food costs will add up, but the extra curriculars can be selected with cost in mind. A lot of them such as band offer scholarships and assistance to help out as well so no matter how you are limited there are ways around it if you ask (you best believe I'll be asking around if a surprise happens anytime soon). Or the kid could want to skip all that and play outside with imagination and friends. This is the part that depends mostly on the child. But again, there are options to help cut costs.
I especially want to hear from the mommies out there. What ways did you find to minimize unnecessary spending on the baby goodies? Was it all more or less than you thought it would be? What advice do you have for the expectant or childless? Has your time or material investments been more influential in your child's life?