Toy Story

This is a guest post by Jennifer Duenes. Jennifer is a writer, wife to husband Michael, and mother to son Elijah in the San Francisco Bay Area. She blogs regularly on frugal but meaningful living at If you enjoyed this post consider subscribing to her blog.

As I pushed my son’s stroller through Target this morning, it was hard not to be drawn to the toy section. Toy coupon books beckoned me from the aisles. Christmas trees and every other holiday decoration were already set up, sparkling and infusing a sense of joy and lightheartedness into the store.

And yet, as a new mother entering the first Christmas where her child will actually be able to play with the toys instead of just chewing on them, thinking of what to buy my son can feel overwhelming at times. Relatives write us as well, asking what we need. After having lived overseas for five years in a much poorer country, it’s hard to ever say that we “need” anything more than the basics.

But I don’t want to be a Grinch either. I grew up with toys, and I want my son to have the fun times and educational opportunities that I had. I just don’t want a pile of things collecting dust in a corner because he ended up not being interested in them for too long.

I’m still new at this, but as we enter this coming season, I have several principles in mind to guide my purchases:


There are two aspects to this principle. The first is, “How long will it last?” Is it a high quality toy that won’t break apart two days after he gets it? I purchased a toy set once from an unnamed discount store, and spent very little money, but now spend a lot of time gathering together the pieces and reassembling the toy for my son because it keeps on falling apart.

The second part of longevity is “How long will he be interested in it?” Will the toy grow with him, or will he move beyond the developmental level it’s designed for in three months? We are very limited on space where we live. We have no garage or attic or storage room to put unused toys, so they really have to earn a place in our home.


How many different ways could he use this toy? One thing I’ve enjoyed asking for is a line of stuffed Audobon birds that give the real-life bird call of that bird when you squeeze them. Right now he just likes to hand them to me to make them sing, but in the future, I hope to do things like hide different ones under something and make him guess the bird by it’s call.


In The Ultimate Cheapskate’s Road Map to True Riches, author Jeff Yeager observed that in his experience, memories appreciated over time, while objects generally depreciated over time, which was why he chose to use his money more on traveling to different countries than on consuming goods. With our kids, we too can create more memories and less clutter by giving them experiences. This past year, I and several friends received a zoo membership from families to our local zoo. Not only does it get us outdoors, but it’s also a great experience for my son to see real-live giraffes and tigers on a regular basis!


At times I’ve seen kids’ kits for sale that mimic an adult set of something, only the quality is so much more inferior and the options are limited as to what you can do with that set. Now, I’ll be the first one to say how much I loved my Easy Bake oven growing up, or my little sewing machine, but why not invest in a higher-quality set of items that you could build on over the years that they could even use into adulthood?

< b>Engagement

One mark of a good toy is how well it engages my son, especially when I have dinner to prepare or dishes to finish! But I don’t want him to have only activities that he does alone. As he grows, I want to buy things for him that creates a more engaging relationship between the two of us. One excellent book I used as a homeschool teacher overseas was Drawing with Children by Mona Brookes, who teaches children as young as three or four years old to draw impressively. The drawing lessons were clear and easy to execute, and as I did the lessons with my students, I found myself becoming a better artist as well! A great accompaniment to a book like this would be a set of high-quality paper or markers.


It’s so easy to feel compelled to buy a toy in the store because of how cute or fun it looks, but I’ve learned quickly that it pays to look up reviews on toys online first before buying. We had a gift card which we used to buy a bath-toy holder that looked like a giant frog, and even despite the warnings online by some parents that it wouldn’t stay on the wall, I purchased it anyway because it was so cute. Well, you can guess what happened. We eventually returned the toy holder because we didn’t want our son to have nightmares of a giant frog attacking him as he took a bath!