Updated on 10.14.07

Children’s Gifts: Don’t Spend A Lot On What They Don’t Want

Trent Hamm

Over my son’s life, he’s received numerous gifts from his parents (my wife and I), his grandparents, and his aunts and uncles. We actually have many more toys now than he regularly plays with, so we’ve given a few away and have some others in storage so we can rotate them monthly, giving him the enjoyment of having “new” toys to play with.

As his second birthday is approaching, we’ve been thinking about what sorts of gifts might be appropriate for him. What would he enjoy at this age? The surprising answer is that almost everything he indicates an interest in is very inexpensive. This would likely be his gift list if he were writing his own.

Hot Wheels cars This is his favorite item at the moment. It’s very easy to get a ten pack of these cars at a department store for $6 or $7, and it will likely wind up being one of his favorite gifts.

Paper to draw on He absolutely loves busting out the washable markers and drawing on any paper we allow him to, and sometimes drawing on himself. I am currently actively looking for a blank roll of newspaper for him to draw on, providing him a ton of paper to use to express his creative nature on, giving him some huge sheets to color on and also a lot of paper to get through. A new set of washable markers may also be part of a potential present.

Used children’s books He loves books. He sits on the floor and goes through them himself and insists that we read to him a lot. To sate his appetite, books are a great gift, but I’ve been able to find a lot of used ones. Why not get him five or ten used children’s books (many of which look barely used) instead of one new one, especially considering that he definitely adds wear and tear to them quickly?

A large rubber ball Whenever we see one of these at a department store, he looks, points, says, “Ball,” and then goes into almost a trancelike state of staring at them. I retrieved one for him a while back so he could look more carefully and he would have easily taken it home with him had I not asked for it back.

“Apple juice” Every time I’ve asked him what he wants for his birthday, this has been his response. Guess what beverage will be served at his birthday party?

My philosophy is this: just get him these inexpensive gifts now, things that he actually wants. If someone wants to give him more, then couple it with a donation to his college savings plan. Later on, when his tastes become more expensive (“I want an XBox 720!”), then gifts might change, but for now, if the child’s tastes are frugal, support that frugality.

I know that both sets of his grandparents are giving him larger gifts that are sensible and that’s fine, but for Christmas I’m going to encourage everyone to get him simple things – and if they insist on giving him more gifts, just contribute to his college fund. That way, he’ll enjoy these gifts now, and their contributions will have about seventeen years to grow and will really help him in college. Even better, it will prevent him (somewhat) from seeing Christmas as a giant materialistic gift-grabbing occasion.

What’s the take-home message here? When a child is young (or even when the child is older, if they have the right attitude) and you have the opportunity to give the child a gift, make it a frugal one that they’ll actually enjoy. If you feel obligated to spend more, put some money along with it but earmark it for their college fund. That way, they have something they’ll enjoy now and something that will really benefit them later on.

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  1. Amanda says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. Most kids, given the chance, would rather play with something that allows them to be creative. For older kids, try to give them somehting that gets them out of the house. I got a baseball and mitt when I was 9, and spent the whole summer playing outdoors with my friend who got a basketball and hoop. The presents kept us outside getting exercise and not mouldering in front of the tv with MTV blaring.

  2. I don’t have kids yet, but something I’ve thought about is how can you shape the expectations of your children when birthdays and Christmas come around. For example, I was an only child, probably very spoiled, and I received LOTS of gifts growing up. A good friend of mine would get what seemed like next to nothing compared to my haul, but he seemed perfectly happy. I wonder if it’s possible to get your children to expect only a gift or two and be satisfied with it. Like I said, I don’t have my own kids yet, and I’m sure this is easier said than done. Just something I’ve thought about a little as I contemplate the right time to start a family.

  3. guinness416 says:

    Look for “butter paper” at art or architect supply stores. We use it at work, and it’s quite cheap in my experience.

  4. Oswegan says:

    Totally agree. We are on our third and he is now five and we have so many toys left from our first and second – it’s crazy – we have containers full of toys – and some days they would rather play with a cardboard box.

    Best investment – still played with today by all – wooden blocks!


  5. Mrs. Micah says:

    Another thing you can look into is friends whose companies make them print cover sheets. My dad’s company did that and we got a lot of fun doodling paper that way. They often have little writing on the one side and of course none on the other.

    We had a baby staying with us this weekend, 10 months old. His tastes were quite simple. Sometimes he played with his “fluffy [stuffed] puppy” and other times with his little blocks or even their carrying box. That plus human interaction and learning to walk kept him pretty well occupied.

  6. Kevin Baker says:

    I just had my daughters second birthday and this is the same approach we took. She likes care bears so we got her a care bear dining set, care bear coloring books and some books. We then encouraged everyone to give donations to her college fund in lieu of gifts. Overall we got around $400 and also a very nice used rocking horse, chair and some other second hand items.

  7. guinness416 says:

    I swear that almost every photo that exists of my brother and I at home as toddlers has us playing with pots and pans. I haven’t clarified if my parents just didn’t buy us any toys (this was deep-in-recession 70s and 80s Ireland), or if they really hoped one or other of us would own a restaurant some day.

  8. Angel says:

    I totally agree. For the last 4 christmases my children were the only grandchildren and neices. They had so many toys they were actually overwhelmed. My husband and I usually pick one larger gift for both kids and a few other gifts. We also buy toys second hand. I just bought a lincoln log set for $4.00 that had never been opened at a second hand store. My kids don’t know the difference anyways. Right before christmas we also go through all the toys they currently have and weed through them getting rid of toys that no longer work, or things they just don’t play with anymore. That leaves a little more room for new things. We also are now writing a letter to Santa with some of the toys we really want. A copy of the letter will be given to the grandparent and aunts and uncles.

  9. Mike says:

    Great post. I agree completely. I bring home huge amounts of the copier paper (some of which is completely blank) from the recycling bin at work for my son. He draws on the backsides, and we recycle the paper again later.

    One concern about the post: I think it might be okay to very gently mention to your son’s grandparents, “Just imagine if all of these toys from last year he doesn’t play with were money accumulating interest in his college fund,” but it seems rude to me to come right out and ask for cash in place of an expensive gift. I know that my mother gets a lot of joy out of shopping for toys, buying things for her grandchildren that she couldn’t afford as a young mother. A waste of her money? Perhaps, but not entirely.

  10. Cory says:

    Do not overlook the large cardboard box, either as awesome kid’s toy. Our play group made a “toddler town” with all sort of cardboard box ‘buildings’, and that’s all our 2 y/o wants to play with/in.

    Also, we are using the large sheets of newsprint packing paper for coloring from when we moved recently.

  11. Barb says:

    Trent, if you have a local newspaper, find out if they have end rolls of newsprint. The paper rolls are removed from the presses before the paper runs out. Rolls with several yards of paper still on them are usually available for a small fee. I’m still working on one I got a few years ago.

  12. Erin says:

    All great ideas, Trent. I also pick up second-hand and brand new toys at thrift stores throughout the year to save for Christmas, birthdays and sometimes for long road-trips. Even with these techniques, I keep feeling we should just cut back on the quantity of gifts and be putting cash into college accounts instead.

    Call your local newspaper and ask them if they sell or give away end rolls. It’s the last portion used from printing a newspaper. The papers I’ve worked for have either given them away or charged $2 to $3 for one. They’ve got TONS of paper left on them (likely a couple hundred feet at least).

    Hours and hours of entertainment — and room for REALLY big artwork for very little cash.

  13. debtdieter says:

    Great post Trent. My 4 year old nephew has been introduced to our families ‘wish list’ concept. My sister helps him make a list of all the things he’d like around his birthday and Christmas, so the rest of the family can get him what he wants, rather than wasting money on things he may not even care about.

    He loves that my parents (his grandparents) and I who all live interstate seem to ‘magically’ know what he was wishing for. His look of amazement is priceless.

  14. Avlor says:

    Yeah, verily! (I’m working on my parents on this topic.) I like the suggestion of $ for college fund, if they feel the need for more.

  15. dawn f says:

    Might I suggest either the local newspaper and get their “end rolls” they usually sell them buy the inch or we used to go to a butchers shop or printers shop & ask them for their end rolls. Also Ikea sells rolls of paper for a small fee or even going to a teaching supply store and getting a roll from there but they are a bit expensive. My son just turned two & he was happier with the big box the toys came in and the bath toys. He’s the youngest and is into more active things like the little tykes hockey set & hot wheels cars and of course the wonder pets & blues clues.Grin.

  16. Susy says:

    My parents only would buy us one present for Christmas and for birthdays we got a cake and my mom made whatever we wanted for dinner. I never knew I didn’t have much. We played with sticks, flowers & rocks.

    I appreciate that they did that now, because even now I prefer a nice dinner with friends or family instead of a gift I will eventually give away or have to store somewhere.

    Gifts for college funds are fantastic. We do this for our nieces & nephew.

  17. Jasmine says:

    I agree with you Trent. My friends with kids have so much stuff/junk there kids rooms are cluttered with clothes, stuffed animals, dolls and toys they don’t have time to play with because they are fascinated with something else. It’s more to clean also.

    Although I don’t have children, when my sister and I were growing up our favorite things to do were to build a lean to which we called a fort using the sofa and blankets from our bed. We’d hang out in there all day! The most fun things were boxes we’d find that were going to be tossed out, ‘potions’ we made from mashed up plants in the garden, basically, things that were already on hand or basics. Later on, I’d recommend one of those plastic three wheeler bikes that are low to the ground, that was awesome too, and safe for young kids!

  18. Carisa says:

    I agree, our kids get WAY too many toys that they won’t play with. I do a few things that help us to get what we want out of all the gifts. Ok, I re-gift. I only use stuff from relatives that live out of town to give to my daughter’s friends for their birthdays. I keep the toys/clothes in their original packaging/with tags. Both sets of grandparents pay for classes for my daughter (music and gymnastics). When a holiday comes up, I tell them that the classes are the best gift and urge them to stick to very modest gifts b/c those classes are expensive! The last thing I do is keep toys for my daughter to open when we are having a particularly rough day and they just brighten her up with their novelty. I also keep a list of stuff that is needed- that helps when people ask about gifts.

  19. Kim says:

    We have the only children on both sides of the family. I wish I could get my fam to read your column! When I ask for a reduction of stuff or books or college fund or disposable items like paper they laugh at me. We constantly remove and regift, but we have this prob with every holiday; everyone buys them an Easter basket, halloween candy, valentines etc. We end up throwing away buckets of crappy little toys and candy, as candy in our home is an occasional treat. My mom is just starting to get it. Now I have to work on the rest of the family. Any advice? we are getting ready to add baby #4 to the mix and the amount of stuff coming at me is giving me a stomach ache!

  20. SJ says:

    The grandparents really get a kick out of spoiling their grandkids – so we have taken two approaches – one, is that most toys they buy for our son stay at their house – this makes sense since it gives him something to play with at their house, whether they live near (my in-laws) or farther away (my parents) – this will also come in handy for future grandkids and has also been convenient with neighbors visiting, etc.

    The other thing we ask for for birthdays/Chanukah in lieu of more toys (without asking directly for cash) is a membership to a musuem or zoo – my parents have paid for our museum of science membership for the past two years and since it is a fabulous place to take our son (even at 2.5), we get a ton of use out of it, especially in the winter. My in-laws usually get him a small toy but also a savings bond.

    There was also a great Parenthacks post about no clutter gifts:

  21. vh says:

    thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you!

    if the tons of superfluous toys we donated or threw out while our son was growing up were still on the earth, their vast weight would knock the planet out of its orbit.

  22. tlange says:

    My son is almost 18 months old and does some of the same things you described in your post. However, my son does not have any inclination to drawing, coloring, etc. How did you get your son interested in drawing, coloring with markers??

  23. speedy says:

    You might suggest to the grandparents to give things that have more meaning than just toys.

    How about a scrapbook, and the grandparents start the first several pages with memories about them, photos, momentos, etc., then perhaps some photos of you or your wife when you were younger. Then you can take photos of the grandparents with your kids and add them to the book.

    How about a toy that grandma or grandpa used to play with, along with a note about why they enjoyed it so much. Put the note and a photo of the child with the toy in the scrapbook.

    How about a keepsake to put away for later that relates to the grandparents’ hobbies, like a small gardening set or a nice piece of pottery or something like that. If it is something not appropriate for play, it can be displayed on a high shelf for all to enjoy.

    But I agree that a small gift, plus a contribution to the college fund, is a great gift, and you should try to encourage people to do that.

    I loved SJ’s idea of the museum/zoo membership. I hope I will remember that one once my friends have children.

  24. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    We gave him washable markers and a lot of paper, then drew alongside him. That really made a lot of difference. Get WASHABLES, though, because at first your kid will get a lot on his/her skin.

  25. Dave says:

    My nephew turned 2 a few months ago. He loves to play with any sort of ball that he can put in his hands. I bought a can Racquetballs and gave him 2. I gave the 3rd one to my sister so she has a spare in case he loses one. They are the same size and color and he loves them! He gets this big smile when he bangs them together. It was a big hit for just a few dollars. My sister said he still loves to play with them and it has been over 3 months.

  26. julie says:

    Dear Trent,
    Many years ago I started buying autographed children’s book for my children and nieces and nephews. I either get the author or illustrator to sign them. They all have a nice set of book including an autographed copy of Harry Potter by JK Rowlings, before she took off. These book were read to them and keep nice and only cost a 10 to 20 dollars less than a new video game and have increased in value and some day will hopefully read to my grandchildren.One of the art galleries has a show just before christmas/ Hanunaka and the money goes to a children’s charity so not only to I get great books but great charieties get supported. Julie

  27. Spells says:

    Trent, I agree with you and the other commenters on this. Great points, all around.

    When our child turned 2, we bought her finger paints, a pad of paper, a pianter’s apron, and a ball. She had 4 presents to unwrap, and she was delighted.

    We also don’t do big birthday parties. When our daughter turned 2, we baked a cake and had the cake and presents at her great-grandfather’s house. She had a terrific time blowing out the candles and sitting on her great-grandfather’s lap, opening her 4 presents. There were only 4 of us there; but it was all the audience she needed at age 2.

    Even now that our daughter is in grade school, we still have small birthday parties (she gets to invite one guest per year of her age, and parties are at our home), and we still give fewer, smaller gifts to her. And she’s still very happy.

    Another, similar thought: We didn’t take her to expensive events and activities until she was old enough to remember them. My theory was, why waste money on an amusement park when she’s thrilled to play at the local park? Why take her to see the Wiggles when the Wiggles on video make her completely happy?

    We spend much more on activities now, though, bnow that our daughter is older, has developed interests in history and ballet, and remembers the fun stuff we do. We gladly spend the money to buy tickets to performances, to visit historical sites, and even to buy a season pass at a local amusement park.

  28. Kim says:

    We buy a small gift for each child to open on their birthday. The main gift however, is an experience. My oldest daughter loves gorillas. For her birthday we went to the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston (about 3 hours away). We purchased a family membership to the zoo for $60. (about 25 more than regular gate price for my family) Now we can visit zoos across the country for free all year! We used Hotwire to book hotel room outside Boston for $50 – it turned out to be a Hilton! The next day we visited the Museum of Science in Boston (my son’s half of the birthday trip – they’re twins) That was free because we are members of another science museum. Since I did some research about free things to do in the Boston area, I took the kids to a Liquid Fireworks presentation for our evening entertainment. With careful menu planning, the trip was very inexpensive and the memories will last far longer than a toy!

  29. Eric says:

    Another suggestion on how to acquire paper is this:
    If you know someone in the construction industry, they or their company likely has rolls and rolls of old architectural plans and blue prints that they would (hopefully) recycle anyway. One of my neighbors across the street just gave my daughters a 10 pound roll of used architectural paper with plans on one side, but blank on the other. Let the fun begin!!

  30. Ann Bartleson says:


    Just an idea from when my kids were little. They always had tons of extra toys for many reasons. I would tell my kids that when Santa came to bring new toys he would also take old toys they no longer played with. I explained that he “recycled” them and used them for other kids next year. The were very concerned that he would take their favorite toys. I assured them that Santa knew exactly which ones they didn’t play with anymore! :-) It worked out well for our family.


  31. Tall Bill says:

    Great website Trent! This one reminds me of the story about the kids playing with the box the new color tv came it that their dad wanted.

    Years ago, I was in the Air Conditioning business & had a very large box that either needed to be broken down or delivered to my brothers 4 blocks away. They said bring it on over & my young niece had most of the neighborhood there as I pulled up & unloaded it onto their covered porch. The kids drew the windows and doors & I made the cutouts & that became the focal point for the neighborhood for the summer. Cost? Nothing! Benefit: Spending time with family providing something truely appreciated & never forgotton. That summer was back in 1985 & is still talked about.

  32. Rhonda says:

    when my kids were little I used to save the packaging from everything i bought and put it in a little spare cupboard at floor level in the kitchen. My kids would come in and discover the boxes and play with them for hours – and it didn’t matter if they were damaged because they would have been discarded anyway.
    We moved house when the children were little and prior to the move we packed up half of their toys to reduce clutter during exhibitions. About six months later when we were settled in our new home we unpacked those toys – it was like Christmas!

  33. Gaida says:

    I myself love craft & I made up these lovely sets which make a great
    craft set gift ideas giving hours and hours of enjoyment. Hope you enjoy!

  34. Gaida says:

    I made these craft set gift ideas up for xmas gifts…. http://scrapbooking-creations.blogspot.com/2006/01/craft-set-gift-ideas.html and I’m sure they provided many hours of enjoyment.

  35. allie says:

    Great post! I’ve been thinking about this for quite some time with my niece and nephew. They live in a very tiny house which is constantly overfilled with toys and their bedrooms have toys up to the ceiling that they don’t play with anymore. I am afraid they will begin to expect large birthdays and Christmas and miss the real meaning (enjoying family and friends). For the past several years I have purchased one toy for each child then given the parents money for things the kids may need. This satisfies the needs of the parents by not cluttering up their house any more and also allowing them to purchase clothes or a larger gift for the kids.

    When I have children, I will ask that the grandparents and other relatives do the same thing-1 or 2 toys and then contribute the rest of the money to their college fund. I would have been so happy when I started college to know that I could pay for it instead of worrying about paying off student loans for the next 10 years.

  36. Bridgette says:

    In response to Kim (Comment #19) small toys and candy are great to re-use in pinatas or as Halloween treats to give out. I’ve also reused them in treat bags at birthday parties. Also, if I am in doubt about what my children would want I generally ask those who want gift ideas for giftcards. They work best if you ask that they be from one store and then the kids can save them for a higher-priced item that just one person wouldn’t be expected to get them anyway.

  37. Mule Skinner says:

    When my two daughters were toddlers I became concerned that thry would mark on the walls and furniture. My solution was to bring home paper from the office recycle bins. Now they are 13 and 15, and are quite good at drawing — having had plenty of materials to practice on.

    In my town the public library sells worn-out books for 50 cents or so. I bought lots of ragged children’s books, and the girls never seemed to mind. The ones they have been willing to part with have since been passed along to other families.

  38. Rayne says:

    Our daughter’s 2nd birthday is this weekend and she isn’t getting much. She loves Mickey Mouse, so we got MM bedding for her new toddler bed, but that’s not toys. We also got her a cleaning set so she can help mommy clean the house. But she’d be perfectly content with a box of tissues or baby wipes. She too loves to color, so I got her a few $1 coloring books at a store that is going out of business. We are having a small family party for her and I’m making/decorating the cake myself.

  39. Rose says:

    A few weeks ago I was talking to my nephew about the many, MANY, toys that he has. He’s got boxes and boxes of toys! Many are still in the original packaging.

    I told him that it’s often hard to figure out what to get him for gifts because he has everything. His response: “You can always get me Legos. I always love Legos.”

    All the toys that he has – both expensive and inexpensive – and all he wants are Legos. Kids really don’t need or want as much as we think think they do.

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