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Bloody Hell: Part 2

How Much Does a Period Cost, Anyway?

Oh, did you want to buy a house? Sorry, you spent the down payment on tampons.

There is a graveyard of menstrual cups in the bottom drawer of my bathroom cabinet. Every time I look at them — there are three, I think — I scowl and imagine what I could have purchased with the money I wasted. Maybe it’s my tilted uterus, maybe I just can’t get the placement right, but for whatever reason, menstrual cups do not seem to jive with me.

The leaks. Oh, the leaks.

Unfortunately, each of those cups — which, um, you can’t exactly return — cost between $15 and $30, plus shipping. I tried several because all my friends assured me that this is the one that really works. No, this one!

None of them worked. It was a pricey experiment in trying to cut down my waste footprint.

Not to mention, of course, the cost of the liners I still had to use in case of emergency and the emotional cost of never being sure what was going on in my jeans.

Which is to say: My foray into menstrual cups was an interesting reminder that having a period is very, very expensive. Which I knew already — I relied on stolen tampons throughout my entire collegiate life — but it’s really driven home by the fact that each new period-product breakthrough is another way to get us to spend our money.

It got me thinking about the economics of menstruation and how much people with periods can expect to spend over a lifetime. Because in addition to the products, there are the care and the services and the missed workdays and the lost productivity.

For something that so many people live with, it sure is expensive to menstruate. But how expensive, exactly? Here’s a breakdown of the lifetime cost of having a period, based on some rough numbers and behavioral patterns.

A few notes: These estimates are based on U.S. costs, which may vary depending on accessibility, health care providers, and a great number of other variables. They’re not true for every menstruating person — instead, it’s meant to be a ballpark estimate for the sake of comparison.

Period Products: $400 to $2,000+

Let’s begin with the obvious: Something to sop it all up. Aside from the occasional free-bleeder, most menstruating people in the United States will use some sort of hygiene product to contain the flow.

These products range in price, size, and function — but all cost at least a little bit of money. For this reason, hygiene products like tampons and sanitary napkins are some of the most-requested items at food banks and homeless shelters. Because, in addition to being somewhat costly — more than toilet paper and other daily needs — they’re also subject to taxes in most states. And in the case of the lowest-cost options, they can’t be safely reused.

To determine the cost of period products, we have to determine how many pads or tampons will someone go through in their life.

It could be worse; this menstrual belt was made from leather and out of the price range for many women of an earlier era. Illustration via Wikimedia Commons

The Association of Reproductive Health estimates that a menstruating person will “have an estimated 450 periods during their lifetime.” The average cycle length, according to the Mayo Clinic, is “two to seven days,” or 4.5 days on average. Kotex advises changing a tampon every four hours but states that one can be left in as long as eight. To assume people sleep at some point in the day, we’ll say they go through five to six tampons per day, for a grand total of 22.5 (ok, 23) tampons per cycle.

That’s 10,350 tampons in a lifetime. Thinx, the cheeky startup that popularized absorbent period-proof underwear, estimates that number a bit higher — 17,000 — but then, they’re the competition. Let’s split the difference and say a person uses between 10,000 and 14,000.

At Target, you can buy off-brand tampons at about 10 cents apiece (though the fancier, arguably more functional brands can cost twice as much).

Which means, all things told, a lifetime supply of cheap tampons will cost a person around $1,035, but they could cost much more if you have a longer, heavier flow or if you want to buy the organic kind that are better for the earth.

Now, assuming you’d rather try the available reusable options — Thinx, the Diva Cup, etc. — you could potentially save hundreds of dollars, as long as you have the cash up-front to invest and aren’t concerned about occasional leakage.

Menstrual cups are estimated to need replacing every two to four years, but they can be reused again and again. A person is of menstruating age for around 37.5 years (450 in a lifetime, one every month), which means, during a lifetime, a person would need to purchase a total of 12 to 13 cups. Assuming you buy one every three years, you’re spending just $10 on period products each year — the cup will run you around $30 — which is pretty good. However, it’ll add up over time: A lifetime of Diva Cups costs about $360 total, not including the cost of shipping, taxes, or waddling.

The EZ Sanitary Belt, at 23 cents plus a nickel for shipping, cost about the same as an hour of labor in 1908. Additional napkins cost extra.

Period panties are similar in cost — around $30 for a pair — but they can’t be used consecutively the way cups can, which means most people will need to buy three or four pairs to get through a week. And they need to be replaced every two years or so. Additionally, many period panties, including those from Dear Kate and Thinx, aren’t meant to fully replace pads and tampons.

So instead of calculating a lifetime of period panties, suffice it to say that the cost of staunching the flow probably involves some combination of liners, tampons, pads, cups, and panties — and that doing so will cost you anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars over the course of your life.

Period Care: $300 to $800+

Of course, people with periods have other needs beyond just the tools to control the flow. Menstruation brings with it all kinds of unpleasant side effects, with severity and disruption levels ranging from mild to “I’m never getting out of bed again.”

According to Planned Parenthood, “some of the most common PMS symptoms are:

  • Cramps (pain in your lower belly or lower back)
  • Bloating (when your belly feels puffy)
  • Breakouts (getting pimples)
  • Sore breasts
  • Feeling tired
  • Mood swings (when your emotions change quickly or you feel sad, angry, or anxious)”

And those are just a few. Many folks also experience digestive issues, changes to their sex drive, joint or muscle pain, headaches, and difficulty concentrating. Some symptoms occur just a few times in a year, while others may be a staple.

A few of the treatments for these symptoms aren’t easy to calculate because a) a lot of non-period-havers use them, and b) the range in costs is very broad. But here are just a handful of products that could begin to add up:

  • Acne medication and/or treatments
  • Cosmetics to cover the acne when the acne medication doesn’t work
  • Pants in four different sizes depending on the cycle
  • Heating pads
  • More supportive undergarments
  • Comforting objects, like snacks and comfy pajamas

Every. Single. Month.

Fortunately, over-the-counter painkillers are pretty cheap. A 300-pack of Advil will last you about two years of period pain if you take three per day for three days each month. Assuming you buy a bottle every other year during the time of menstruation, you’ll probably need around 18 bottles over a lifetime. At $12 per bottle, that’s $216, which isn’t terrible.

“The Philotoken” was a tincture made of various kinds of bark that was described as an “antispasmodic” and prescribed to prevent abortions and also help cramps. Image via the Library of Congress

Many people also choose to take birth control to help regulate their periods. The Guttmacher Institute estimates that about a third of teens take oral contraceptives to help with acne, cramping, mood swings, and other period symptoms. The pill can also come pretty cheaply: Planned Parenthood estimates the cost to be between $15 and $50 per month, putting the annual cost of birth control at “between $160 and $600.” Add in an annual visit to the OB-GYN (because you can’t get the pill over the counter), and it could run up to $800 per year, depending on your level of coverage.

Additional Costs: $7,000 to Infinity

But’s not just about feeling yucky. About 10 percent of women report that “the pain is so bad that they are unable to carry out their usual daily activities on one to three days every month,” according to the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care.

The Association for Reproductive Health Professionals reports that most women (the survey only included women) — around 80 percent across the board — say they feel bloated, angry, fatigued, crampy, and irritable during their period. Sixty-four percent cite very heavy bleeding — you know, the kind that ruins your clothes and your day — while 43 percent say they have to make adjustments to their life during their period.

This Tampax ad from 1944 advertised the use of tampons as a necessary decision to increase productivity during the war effort. Image via Duke University

Meanwhile, a YouGov poll found that one-third of people who menstruate had taken a day off of work for period pain. Oh, and a reminder: 39 percent of U.S. workers get no sick leave at all.

That is a whole lot of working around, and it definitely has a cost — though it may be hard to tally precisely.

Which means even just taking one unpaid sick day every year for the duration of a person’s menstruating life — we’ll say 37 days total — can be extremely costly. Nationally, women average an income of about $50,000 per year (women of color and members of the LGBTQ community earn less), which means taking time off for a period, even just one day each year, costs a total of about $7,222.

This is, again, a broad estimate — most people aren’t pulling down wages in the first or last years of their menstruating lives, and plenty of people do get at least some paid sick leave — but the fact that, every month, a large portion of the workforce needs to take time away from work for extreme pain is significant. Consider this infographic about the effects of chronic pain on workplace productivity — and the fact that period pain, which 90 percent of people who menstruate have at some point, isn’t listed at all.

If time is money, then periods are an economic chasm.

In 1920, Kotex advertised that its napkins were “cheap enough to throw away.” A dozen pads for 60 cents was pretty good—it could probably get you through the week—but with a minimum wage of 25 cents, that was still an expense.

Even people who have never had a period in their life pay for the fact that many workplaces, businesses, and other establishments don’t have adequate amenities for menstruation. As America’s sewage pipes age and the population continues to grow, flushing tampons and wipes has become an expensive and dangerous practice — but often restrooms don’t have receptacles for hygiene products, leaving little choice but to send it down the drain. That decision ultimately costs taxpayers millions each year — all because businesses didn’t think to put a little box on the wall or a trash can within reach.

These costs may seem outrageous on their face — $10,000 in a lifetime just to have a period? But the truth is that people who menstruate tend to minimize or compartmentalize the amount they spend, either because it slowly adds up over time or because we just accept it as reality. Or both.

The average age of first menstruation is pretty young — about 13, three years younger than a century ago — which means that most people who have periods have gotten so used to what it takes to deal with them that the cost barely registers. Fifteen bucks every month for birth control, $7 for tampons, another new clean pair of black underpants, another missed meeting, another trip to the OB to try to figure out why the cramps are so, so bad — it’s not calculated as extra costs, it’s just the cost of living in a body with a uterus.

This advertisement ran in trade papers in 1943 and encouraged drugstore owners to carry Modess products—not because they were especially great for women, but because they were highly profitable. Image via Duke University

There’s one silver lining to the way capitalism and the monthly cycle intersect: All that spending has created an entire industry of innovation that is largely headed up by women and nonbinary folks. But because there’s still so much stigma and shame around periods and talking about them, it’s unlikely that many people are forthcoming about what they cost. A financial adviser will tell you to stop eating out or to cut back on other luxury expenses — but they’ll never tell you to switch to a menstrual cup to save hundreds of dollars over the next 20 years.

And even with all the expenses associated with Aunt Flo, being able to drop an extra $3 on the nice tampons or an extra pair of Thinx so you can get away with doing less laundry is a true privilege. While periods may be expensive in the United States and the Western world, they’re even costlier in other regions, where periods are cause for dropping out of school or worse.

Still, there is a feeling that in a country like the United States, which has found a way to democratize any number of markets and ideas, there could be some way to alleviate the burden. Unlike other nonoptional products, like food (corn, dairy, wheat, meat) and even prescription drugs, which we collectively subsidize to share the responsibility, menstrual products are not only taxed, but also viewed as consumer goods — even though people who have periods largely have no choice in the matter.

Despite the obvious benefit of helping people have a more comfortable, hygienic period, the cost of remaining clean, healthy, sane, and out of pain lands almost entirely on the shoulders of people who just happen to be born with a uterus.

I wrote that one thing you didn’t really agree with. Interests include progressive policy, minor league baseball, and avoiding Zoom calls. Curious to a fault.

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