living with less to afford more
Motherhood Tips & Tricks

Living with Less: Fewer Toys, More Experiences

My husband is a grad student and our budget is tight. While I try to spend and live very frugally all year to save a little money for things like travel and gifts, over the last year I’ve been changing my focus on buying our kids this toy or that (since they just fill up my house with clutter) and focusing more on saving our money to give our kids experiences over clutter. Taking them to the zoo, museum, concerts, and trips over buying them something that will be forgotten.

We have three young kids, but they are getting older and enjoy going out to see and do more. Going to the movie theater, zoo, concert, museum, and even pumpkin patches and fairs is really expensive as a family of five. Taking our family to the movies would be $42+, the zoo $67+, the aquarium $94+, etc. These things don’t include the price for food, parking, etc.

I’m not a total scrooge and can’t just have my kids wake up on their birthday or Christmas and say, “I didn’t buy you toys so I can buy you experiences!” They wouldn’t be into that, however, my kids are young enough that any “new” toy is exciting, and they really don’t know or care if it’s actually brand new. Many of their toys they love even more because they know it was Cousin Owen’s toy and that makes it special (I don’t always tell them if a toy is second-hand or not, just some toys).

When it comes to Christmas specifically, my husband and I decided early on that we wouldn’t go overboard with presents. Our kids get so many gifts from generous grandparents, aunts and uncles, neighbors, etc, that when it comes to “Santa” and our parent gifts, they really don’t need more. We try to focus the season on giving rather than getting. As a mother who loves to make her kids happy and it’s so fun to buy them things, it can be hard to keep this goal. I gave myself some ground rules to keep myself in check. Every year we get them three things, and pick out a special thing from “Santa.” The three things range from toys we think they’d really love for a long time (read: LEGO, books, etc), some kind of activity they can do together (art, games, dress ups), and things that they need (new shoes, bedding, etc).

Getting Rid of Toys
Before you bring in new toys, get the old toys out! Spring “cleaning” is apparently a thing, but I’m more of a “fall cleaning” gal. As we gear up for the end-of-the-year holidays and birthdays, I tend to scratch my purge itch. With my kids back in school (so they aren’t home to protest a toy they haven’t seen or cared about in months), I can easily sort through a closet a day (sorting clothes, shoes and toys). Some toys, I just pack up and save for a few months and then reintroduce them; the nicer toys and things I know they aren’t done with, just bored of for now.

The end of the year is a great time to have your kids help pick toys that they would like to donate. I like to use this opportunity to talk to my kids about other kids who won’t get a lot for Christmas. I feel like this helps to teach them look beyond themselves, and it helps us get rid of toys before we get a new batch for Christmas. I have my kids help me sort the bulk of our toys, and they each choose a few that they would like to donate to another boy or girl.

Toys that are more expensive and gently used, I list on local sale sites for cheap. A few bucks adds up over time, and hey, these toys weren’t making any money shoved in a closet. With the money I make here and there, I save it up and put it toward something else for the kids. Whether it be a Christmas fund, a trip out, new shoes, etc. In the last week I’ve listed several nicer toys, gently used baby items, and a few books on a local sale page. I sold about 10 things and made $72. Not bad for old junk we weren’t using! I still have more closets and toy bins to go through, so I’m hoping to make a bit more before the end of the year. I list items for cheap: $10 and less seems to be the sweet spot for getting items to sell fast.

Any sentimental things I have a hard time parting with, I try to pass on to other members of our extended family. Part of me would love to keep everything, but it’s just not possible to hold on to every little thing. Imagine the clutter! We rent a small house, and just don’t have the space to hold on to all of these treasures. We have younger cousins and nieces and nephews that love our gently used items as much as we did.

Getting GOOD Second-Hand Toys & Activities
Start early. Finding good-quality items does take more time that pulling up my Amazon app and buying new, so I need to think ahead a few months and just casually look for things.

Looking at local Facebook garage sale posts is a great way to find a lot of good-condition toys (puzzles, bikes, clothes) for much cheaper than buying new, and you have the luxury of staying home and browsing. Anything that I do buy, I hide in a box until Christmas or an upcoming birthday.

Hit up local garage sales and thrift stores. While it’s true that most of the time I don’t find something worthwhile, occasionally I can find a really good toy, puzzle, book, etc. for really cheap. Again, I hide all these finds until I’m ready to give them.

Host a toy-swap with your friends; everyone brings gently used toys their kids are done with, and swap for “new to you” toys for Christmas. This is a great way for all of your friends to get rid of toys and get new ones while saving A LOT of money.

Ask older cousins for hand-me-downs, then pass them on when you’re done too. We’ve been lucky to have older cousins that are generous with their toys (and clothes and shoes…). When they are done with their toys, some get passed on to us. I save the toys and clothes I know my kids will love, and voila Christmas and birthday presents I didn’t have to pay a dime for. When we’re done with it, we pass it on too. Circle of life, folks.

Disclaimer: I try to be incredibly intentional with the toys, even second-hand ones, that I buy and give to my kids. Not necessarily that they’re uber educational or anything, just that they are a right fit for my child at the stage he/she is in. I do not buy every single thing I like just because it’s a “good deal.” I’m trying to not only save money by buying second-hand toys, but I’m also trying to minimize the clutter in our home. Buying every cheap toy I find doesn’t accomplish that.

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