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Cheap Booster Seats Buying Guide

According to a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), parents are not using booster seats as much as they should. Experts strongly recommend that all children through eight years of age, or measuring 57 inches (4'9") in height, should be secured in a booster seat when riding in a vehicle.

You can buy a good cheap booster seat for as little as $14, so budget constraints are no excuse. Just remember, children are safer and more comfortable in a booster seat that relies on the adult seat belt to secure them properly than they are bouncing around unrestrained in the back.

Any child car seat rated by NHTSA meets federal safety standards. NHTSA evaluates car seats using a five-star rating system that assesses overall ease of use, with particular emphasis on the clarity of the instructions, installation features, labeling information, and how well the seat secures the child. As you consider whether to buy a cheap high back or cheap backless booster seat, note that NHTSA says backless boosters should be used only when the vehicle seat has a built-in headrest.

Our two "good" cheap booster car seats -- the Evenflo AMP No Back Booster (starting at $22) and the First Years Compass Ultra Folding Booster Seat B530 (starting at $64) -- earn an overall five stars from NHTSA and strongly favorable reviews from parents. The two best cheap booster seats on our list -- the Harmony Juvenile LiteRider Backless Booster Seat (starting at $14) and the Graco High Back TurboBooster (starting at $50) -- receive an overall three stars from NHTSA, which might have been enough to lower our ranking of these models but for overwhelmingly positive feedback from parents and the lower price tags. The two cheap backless boosters on our list, the Harmony Juvenile LiteRider and Evenflo AMP, also show up as "best bets" on the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety list. One cheap booster seat we're not enthused about is the Cosco High Back Booster Car Seat 22-209WAL (starting at $60). This cheap convertible booster seat garners an overall two stars from NHTSA and parental complaints about design and build quality.

Although safety standards are similar across the price board, we did find some differences between cheap booster seats and expensive booster seats. With high-priced models like the Britax Frontier 85 and Clek Oobr, which both cost nearly $300, you get a modern, efficient, and highly engineered design that includes advanced safety features and top quality comfort materials. Most upscale booster seats are also combination car seats that start out with a five-point harness for use by children at least two years old and weighing about 25 pounds (depending on the model) and then morph into a high back booster when the child hits 40 pounds and/or outgrows the harness; some also convert to a backless booster for older, heavier, and taller children. Expensive combo car seats often feature the LATCH system, which attaches the booster seat to the vehicle seat via an anchor at the top and tethers on the side that are built into the back seats of vehicles manufactured since September 1, 2002.

Cheap booster seats offer a smaller window for usage, a shorter warranty, thinner comfort foam, and less durable components. Most cheap booster seats feature some sort of cup holder and removable seat cushioning for easy washing. Parents' and caregivers' complaints about the car booster seats we researched are unrelated to the extensive safety testing done by government agencies and industry groups, and concern poorly engineered seat belt guides, dimensions that are too wide for a given vehicle, and poor construction.

The lower end of the booster seat market is dominated by Cosco (which makes Cosco, Safety 1st, and Eddie Bauer), Graco, Evenflo, and First Years. Each company offers a range of cheap booster seats, some of which find favor with consumer and expert reviewers and some that get dinged. Because cheap booster seats are all stripped-down and utilitarian, our picks reflect the comments we found in booster seat reviews concerning ease of use, comfort, and build quality.

Booster Seats Features

If your child has outgrown a forward-facing car seat with a five-point harness -- that is, he or she is at least three years old, weighs at least 30 pounds, and stands at least 34 inches tall -- you're probably in the market for a cheap booster seat. You've got several options: a seat without a back, a seat with a high back, or a seat that converts between the two. Whichever way you go, car booster seats position your child so you can safely adjust the adult seatbelt over the child's shoulder and lap.

Backless Booster Seats.

Cheap backless booster seats are appropriate for children who weigh at least 40 pounds, although there are exceptions to the rule. Models like the Harmony Juvenile LiteRider Backless Booster Seat (starting at $14 and one of the few backless boosters rated for children weighing 30 pounds) or Evenflo AMP No Back Booster (starting at $22) satisfy the basic purpose of a booster seat. For children who still require slight adjustments to the upper portion of the seatbelt for fit and comfort, these two cheap backless car booster seats also include a belt positioning clip. The advantage of a backless model is the light weight, compact size, and easy transferability from one vehicle to another; children can carry the cheap backless booster seat themselves. The disadvantages include lack of head support (NHTSA says backless models should be reserved for cars with headrests) and more freedom of movement than some children are ready for. The Graco Backless TurboBooster (starting at $23) is another cheap backless car booster seat that wins strong reviews for comfort and style.

High Back Booster Seats.

Cheap high back models, like the Graco High Back TurboBooster (starting at $50) and the First Years Compass Ultra Folding Booster Seat B530 (starting at $64), are double the price of cheap backless car booster seats but feature several design elements that justify the higher cost. Cheap high back booster seats offer side-impact support, head cushioning, and clearly marked belt positioning guides at the shoulder level that take the mystery out of knowing exactly where the seatbelt needs to be. Cheap high back boosters accommodate children weighing at least 30 pounds, and can be used until a child is big enough for a cheap backless car booster seat or no booster at all. The First Years Compass B530 also provides some welcome flexibility with its fold-down seatback, which makes moving this cheap high back booster between vehicles relatively easy and also distinguishes it from other cheap high back car booster seats. The Graco High Back reclines, a welcome feature that suits rear seats that are angled or actively tilt back. The Cosco High Back Car Seat 22-209WAL (starting at $60) is an unusually cheap combination model that includes a five-point harness system with a LATCH attachment for younger, shorter riders and becomes a cheap high back booster seat when the harness is removed.

Convertible Booster Seats.

The virtue of cheap convertible booster seats is their dual functionality: Start using the booster seat with its high back when the child is about 30 pounds and remove the back when the child reaches at least 40 pounds (but only if the car seat has a headrest). The Graco High Back and Evenflo Big Kid DLX Booster Seat (starting at $45) are two models that easily shed their backs when the child is heavy enough or mature enough for a backless booster car seat.

Booster Seats Weight and Height Specifications.

Regarding child size requirements, the cheap booster seats we researched meet the needs of children with a range of weights and heights. The backless Harmony LiteRider and high back First Years Compass B530, for example, fit children weighing between 30 and 100 pounds and measuring from 34 to 57 inches in height. The Graco High Back covers the same weight range but ups the starting height to 38 inches. The backless EvenFlow AMP is targeted to children weighing between 40 and 100 pounds and standing at least 40 inches but less than 57 inches tall. The Cosco High Back Booster 22-209WAL accommodates children weighing 22 to 40 pounds with the five-point harness and 40 to 80 pounds as a cheap high back booster seat.

Booster Seat Size.

Before finalizing your purchase, make sure the width of the seat fits the shape of the rear seat in your car and/or between the seats that other children ride in. Some models are too wide for some cars or don't suit rear bucket or contoured seats. Most of the cheapest booster seats on our list measure between 15 and 17 inches across, although the First Years Compass B530 extends to about 19 inches.

If you'll be transferring the booster seat between cars on a regular basis, weight matters. Finding this detail can be a challenge for online shoppers, however, because many websites list a shipping weight that may or may not include the shipping box and all the packing materials. Regardless, cheap backless booster seats are less bulky and far lighter than cheap high back booster seats. Based on the specifications we found, the backless Harmony LiteRider weighs 2.5 pounds and the Evenflo AMP is listed at 5.5 pounds (undoubtedly the shipping weight). By contrast, the Graco High Back runs 8.5 pounds and the First Years Compass B530 is a hefty 14 pounds. The Cosco High Back 22-209WAL weighs 12 pounds and the high-priced Clek Oobr shows up in the manufacturer's specs at a brawny 20 pounds and measuring 20 inches wide with the cup holder attached.

Review continues below

Booster Seat Cup Holder.

Speaking of cup holders, older models often featured molded-in plastic cup holders on one side or the other, and sometimes on both, that significantly added to the overall width of the seat. Newer models solve this problem in a variety of ways: the Harmony LiteRider foregoes the cup holder altogether; the Evenflow AMP has an indent with elastic straps to hold drinks in place; the Graco High Back features two cup holders that retract under the seat; and the First Years Compass B530 and Cosco High Back 22-209WAL include removable cup holders. Cup holders also double as convenient storage for small toys and snacks.

Booster Seat Comfort.

The child's comfort, of course, is critical (who wants to listen to whining all the way to grandma's?). The First Years Compass B530 cushions the head rest with EPP (expanded polypropylene) foam that's used in bicycle helmets, six height positions for the head rest, and rotating arm rests. The Graco High Back Turbobooster uses EPS (expanded polystyrene) energy absorbing foam, and features padded and height-adjustable arm rests and head support. The cheap backless booster seats on our list tout comfy padding for the child's bottom but don't specify the type of foam used. Extra comfort features come with the Evenflo Big Kid DLX High Back, which sports battery-powered nightlights in the headrest and double cupholders/snackholders in addition to EPS foam lining and cushy padding.

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