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How to have a very merry Christmas with kids for $200 or less—seriously

For as long as I can remember I’ve started to get excited about Christmas as soon as the weather began to cool and the leaves began to turn. I’ve always loved the sparkly lights and the at-home coziness of the holiday season, but the day itself has taken on a new significance now that I have children.


Over the past few years I’ve loved seeing my son’s eyes light up as he opened his presents and, each year, wooed by holiday ads and the thought of my child’s smile, I’ve ended up spending a lot more than I intended.

This year, out of necessity, I’ve decided I’m doing things differently.

Since last Christmas, my husband and I have had a baby, taken a partially-paid maternity leave and an unpaid paternity leave, bought a new home and started our older son at a full time preschool. We’ve also made some intentional decisions about how we want our children relate to money.

The average American family is planning to spend an average of $983 for gifts this holiday season. But they don’t have to.

This Christmas, we’ve decided to opt out of going above and beyond and, instead, stick to a strict $200 budget for our little family. If you’re considering (or being pushed by circumstances) towards a budget Christmas, here’s how we have an amazing holiday together—without spending much.

The Baby

The baby will receive gifts this year mainly because it would seem suspicious for Santa not to bring him anything. As a 13-month-old, his interests are limited: he enjoys napping, nursing and getting into the kitchen cabinets. Under the tree he’ll find:

A television remote: $7

Again, not a very Instagrammable gift, but something that I know my child will love. As of now my tot totes around our real TV remote, come Christmas time he’ll have one of his very own.

A soft duck: $25

My baby is the classic second child, born in the same season as my first, he has hand-me-down everything. Almost all of my baby’s possessions, from books to clothes to toys were once used by my first. As my babe enters the phase of his life when he might become attached to a comfort object, I plan to get him a brand new and very soft stuffed duck.

A large ball: $4

A big fan of chasing and rolling, my baby will be unwrapping a brand new ball on Christmas morning.

Baby total: $36

The Preschooler

A personally curated art kit: $20.00

My preschooler loves art and, while the quality of the supplies might matter to a more seasoned artist, I’ve found that my boy simply loves the feel of paint on his fingers and the sensation of cutting paper with “real scissors.”

For less than $20, I’ve created an on-the-go art box that my boy can haul around the house and explore over the next few months. The art kit includes the box itself ($5.99) a pack of construction paper ($3.99), 3 mini-sets of paint ($2.99) a pack of paintbrushes ($1.99), markers ($2.99) and 2 pairs of silly scissors ($1.99).

A pair of character pajamas: $19.99

Pajamas are a practical gift that are also incredibly fun. My son is a big Daniel Tiger fan so he’ll be getting a trolley adorned set under the tree this year.

An E.T. Poster: $7.99

This past summer my son stayed a weekend with his grandparents and, despite our Daniel Tiger only decelerations, my parents gave in to nostalgia and let my son watch E.T. Ever since, he’s been obsessed. This Christmas he’ll be getting an E.T. poster to hang next to his bed.

A kids wheelbarrow from the neighborhood list serve: $10

While we buy a lot of our children’s clothes and supplies second-hand we typically shop new for toys simply because it can be really hard to find what you want. This year we started looking early and scored an almost-new wheelbarrow that my boy will love.

A set of pre-cut 2x4’s: $8

My son loves to build in the backyard and, as un-instagrammable as plain old 2x4s are, I know my boy will be thrilled to have something he can use to construct.

Two books: $12

As an avid reader, my son will be more than happy to receive a couple of new books he can read with me or my husband and that he can flip through as he drifts off to sleep.

A “movie night” bundle: $2

At our house, movie nights are a real treat. This Christmas we’ll be gifting my son a movie night by wrapping up a bag of microwave popcorn, a hand drawn movie ticket and a pack of Sweedish Fish.

A flashlight: $2

While a flashlight might not seem exciting to a grown up, to a preschooler it’s the key to after-dark adventure. I know my son will be thrilled opening up this gift and look forward to hours spent reading under the covers and creating shadow-puppet shows on his bedroom wall.

Preschooler total: $82

The mom and dad:

While it’s always nice to receive a little something, my husband and I typically buy what we need for ourselves and aren’t big spenders. This year, because we had a few major expenses, we’re opting out of getting each other anything big and, instead opting for a few small gifts.

A Handprint ornament for each child: $6

We love honoring our kids and plan to make handprint ornaments as gifts to each other. In the future I’m sure we’ll look back at their tiny hands and wonder how our sons ever used to be so small.

Two $10 Chipotle gift cards: $20

Throughout the week my husband and I each pack our lunch for work. Giving each other gift cards is really giving the gift of being lazy one evening and skipping the chore of packing lunch.

A gift card to the movie theater $26

Date nights are hard to come by in our house but, because we have full time childcare for both of our kids, afternoon dates are a little more possible. A gift card to the movie theater will give us the chance to sneak out of work a couple of hours early and head to a matinee showing.

Assorted teas: $15

My husband enjoys hot tea each evening and, this year, I’ll shop for an assortment of teas he may not yet have tried yet.

Assorted chocolates: $15

As the chocolate lover of the family, I’m counting on my husband to pick up a few nice truffles from the local chocolate shop.

The mom and dad Total: $82 (split)


Holiday Cheer (free)

While presents are fun, we all know that the holidays are really about spending time with the people we love the most.

This winter, we’ll work hard to create holiday magic without breaking the bank by planning ahead and engaging the resources we already have. As the holiday’s approach we’ll:

Listen to holiday music

Nothing says “Christmas” like the jingle of familiar music. This year we’ll sing along to the classics on our favorite Pandora station as we wrap gifts, bake cookies and decorate our tree.

Check out the local lights

Some of my favorite childhood memories involved peering at Christmas lights from the back of my parent’s car as we cruised around town and sipped on vanilla milkshakes. This year, I’ll map out the best displays in town, suit my sons up in their pajamas and take a long cozy ride.

Create homemade holiday cards

While professionally printed holiday cards can be pricy, my family has enough art supplies lying around to create beautiful, homemade cards I’ll be proud to send out. This year I’ll let my preschooler get in on the fun by helping me paint, draw and craft our holiday notes.

Cook our holiday favorites

As the holidays approach I’ll be pulling out my grandmothers recipe cards and baking my way though her favorites. Engaging seasonal recipes won’t cost us any more than our regular groceries and will ensure our boys have cozy memories of their favorite holiday foods.

Watch the classics

This year, most popular cable channels will be showing a variety of classic holiday movies. While I’ve seen most of the classics at least a few times, I’m looking forward to watching the joy spread across my child’s face as he watches one of my old favorites.

If your family is interested in opting out of going overboard, consider setting a limit that seems reasonable and sticking to it.

In our family, the keys to our shopping success have been focusing our spending on our kids, selecting gifts that will make our kids happy (even if they don’t appear on any top-toys list) and choosing not to compare our gift piles with those of other families.

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One of the hardest areas to declutter can be your children's toy closet. Does that beeping, singing firetruck spark joy for you? Well no, in fact, it might be the most frustrating toy, but then again, having an occupied, entertained child sparks more joy than all of your household items combined.

So do more toys really mean a more engaged child? Studies say no. Having fewer toys leads to a more ordered home and encourages your child to develop creativity, concentration and a sense of responsibility for taking care of their belongings. But how do you go about reducing the number of toys your child has when there are so many "must haves" on the market? Perhaps more importantly, how do you ensure you don't bring any more toys that will be quickly forgotten into your home?

The secret: Look for toys that are open-ended, toys that will last for years, toys that encourage creativity, and toys that benefit development.

Here are some of our favorite Montessori-inspired toys.

Open-ended construction


Toys that are open-ended, rather than have just one use, empower your child to be an active participant in their own play. An example of an open-ended toy is a set of blocks, while a more limited use toy might be a talking toy robot. Blocks are only fun if your child applies their own creative thinking skills to make them fun, while the robot is a much more passive type of entertainment.

Open-ended toys also tend to keep children's interest for much longer, as they grow with your child—as their skills develop, they can build increasingly complex structures and scenarios.

There are so many beautiful sets of blocks available, but here are a few good choices.

1. Wooden Blocks

2. Duplo Lego

3. Magnatiles

Pretend play


Beginning in early toddlerhood, many children begin to incorporate pretend play into their repertoire. They do this all on their own, without the aid of toys, turning mud into pies and sticks into hammers.

Still, these toys will encourage their budding imaginations and also allow them to process things they experience in their own lives through role-playing and pretend play.

4. Doll

5. Farm

6. People figures

7. Train set

Music


Music provides a great deal of joy to most children, and can also aid in brain development.

Providing regular opportunities for your young child to both create and listen to music will encourage him to develop an appreciation for music, an understanding of rhythm, and an outlet for creative expression.

8. Musical instrument set

9. Simple music player with headphones

Movement


Giving young children opportunities for movement is so important, both for their gross motor development and for giving them a daily outlet for their boundless energy. Children who spend plenty of time running around generally sleep better and are often better able to concentrate on quieter activities like reading.

Encouraging plenty of unstructured time outside is the best way to ensure your child gets enough daily movement. These toys though can help your child develop muscle coordination and strength, while also providing plenty of fun.

10. Balance bike

11. Pedal bike

12. Climbing structure

13. Wagon

14. Balls

Puzzles


Puzzles are wonderful toys for helping children develop spatial understanding, problem-solving skills, resilience and new vocabulary. Bonus, they also provide a quiet activity that can engage even young children for an extended period of time!

15. Peg puzzles

16. Jigsawpuzzles

17. Layered puzzles

Games



Games encourage your child to develop social skills such as taking turns and winning and losing gracefully.

Many games for young children also have educational benefits such as building memory or practicing counting.

18. Memory game

19. Bingo

20. Simple board game

Taking the plunge and reducing your children's toy collection can be scary. If you're uncertain whether your child will miss a certain toy, try putting it away in a closet for a month to see if they notice. Take some time to observe your child with their reduced toy collection and notice how their play changes.

Once you commit to fewer toys, you'll find you can truly be intentional with what you provide your child and can also choose higher quality toys when you're only purchasing a few. There will also be far fewer little objects strewn around the house to trip over, which is a huge bonus!

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For so many parents, finding and funding childcare is a constant struggle. How would your life change if you didn't have to worry about finding and paying for quality childcare? Would you go back to work? Work more hours? Or just take the four figures you'd save each month and pay off your student loans faster?

These hypothetical scenarios have been playing in the minds of many American parents this week as presidential hopeful Senator Elizabeth Warren unveiled her plan for free or affordable "high-quality child care and early education for every child in America."

Universal childcare will be a cornerstone of Warren's campaign for 2020. It's a lofty goal, and one many parents can get behind, but is it doable?

Supporters note it's been done in other countries for decades. In Finland, for example, every child has had access to free universal day care since the early 1990s. Sweden, too, has been building its universal childcare system for decades.

Critics of Warren's plan worry about the price tag and potential for ballooning bureaucracy, and some are concerned that subsidizing childcare could actually make it more expensive for those who have a government-funded spot, as it could result in fewer private childcare providers.

But subsidized childcare had lowered prices in other places. In Sweden, parents pay less than $140 USD to send children to preschool. In Finland, the cost per child varies by municipality, household income and family size. A parent on the lower end of the income spectrum might pay as little as the equivalent of $30 USD, and the maximum fee is about $330 a month.

But Finland's population is on par with Minnesota's. Sweden is comparable to Michigan.

So could the Nordic model scale to serve the hundreds of millions of families in America?

As Eeva Penttila, speaking as the head of international relations for Helsinki, Finland's education department once told The Globe and Mail, "you can't take one element out and transfer it to your own country. Education is the result of culture, history and the society of a nation."

Right now America spends less on early childhood education than most other developed countries (only Turkey, Latvia, and Croatia spend less), but that wasn't always the case. This nation does have a history of investing in childcare, if we look back far enough.

Back in World War II, when women needed to step into the workforce as men fought overseas, America invested in a network of childcare to the tune of $1 billion (adjusted to today's money) and served hundreds of thousands of families in almost every state through center-based care. Parents paid between $0.50 and $0.75 per child per day (the equivalent of about $10 in today's money).

So America does have a historical and cultural precedent, not to mention a current model of universal preschool that is working, right now, in the nation's capital. In D.C. In Washington, D.C., 90% of 4-year-olds attend a full-day preschool program for free, according to the Center for American Progress. Seventy percent of 3-year-old are going too, and the program has increased the city's maternal workforce participation rate by more than 10%.

It won't happen overnight

While some American parents might be daydreaming of a life without a four-figure day care bill in 2020, the road to true universal childcare for all children in America would be a long one. Peter Moss, a researcher at the University of London's Institute of Education, previously told The Globe and Mail it took Sweden "many years to get it right."

Indeed, the 1990s saw long wait lists at Swedish day cares, but the growing pains of the '90s paved the way for the enviable system Swedes enjoy today.

According to Moss, governments in other countries look at the Nordic model and "tend to say, 'We can't do that.' But what they really mean is 'We can't suddenly do that.' In other countries, they just don't get to grips with what needs doing and actually plot a course."

Maybe America's starting point is found in its history books, or in the modern day preschools of the nation's capital, or in the conversations happening between now and 2020. It doesn't have to be Warren's plan, but America does need a plan for safer, more affordable childcare.

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It's so unfortunate that in the working world there are still those who believe mothers are more distracted and less productive than people without children.

Research proves that just isn't true—working moms are actually more engaged than working dads and fathers and equally committed—and plenty of working mothers will say that parenthood has actually made them more productive.

Ayesha Curry counts herself among those moms who become more efficient at work after becoming parents. The entrepreneurial mom of three seems unstoppable when it comes to expanding her career, which she launched as a lifestyle blog back when the oldest of her three children was still a baby.

"You don't realize how much you can get done in a day until you become a parent and you're like, 'what was I doing with my time before'?" she recently old Cheddar's Nora Ali.

Now less than seven years later she's built her own empire as a mom, not in spite of being one.


Now a New York Times best-selling cookbook author and restaurateur, Curry has also got her own brand, Homemade, and you can find her products bearing her name in places like Target and JC Penny. She's been promoting a partnership with GoDaddy and she's an ambassador for the Honest Company, too.

Curry says motherhood taught her how to multitask and manage her time.

"I have three children, so I've had to grow four invisible arms," she explains. "I've definitely learned efficiency through being a parent. It's helped me in my business tenfold."

As a celebrity, Curry's life experience is kind of unique, but her experience of becoming better at work because of motherhood isn't, according to experts.

Career coach Eileen Chadnick previously told Motherly that motherhood is an asset in the workplace, in part because it trains women to be both empathetic and assertive at the same time, a combo that makes for great leaders. "There are incredibly nice, compassionate women who are very strong and know how to take a stand," Chadmick said. "And they're trusted and admired by others even if they need to say 'no' to their employees."

That's something Curry agrees with. Because it's her name on that frying pan, cookbook or bedspread, she doesn't shy away from saying 'no' when she doesn't like something. "I'm really good about being forceful and putting my foot down," she explains.

It's easier to put your foot down when you've already grown four invisible arms. That's the balancing act of motherhood, and it's what makes this mama so good at business.

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It may seem like there are more recalls than ever these days, but that's actually a good thing for parents. It means fewer potentially dangerous products are making it to our dinner tables and medicine cabinets.

According to food safety experts, the spike in recall notices for everything from broccoli to baby toys in recent years suggests companies are doing a better job of self-reporting, and we're actually safer than we were in the days when recalls were rare.

"It reflects a food industry that takes contamination and foodborne illnesses seriously. Increasingly companies are willing to recall their products rather than expose customers to potential harm," Dr. William Hallman, professor and chair of Rutgers Department of Human Ecology, said in an interview with Food Drive."So more companies are taking a cautionary approach."

Here are the recalls parents need to know about this month:

Dollar General Baby Gripe Water

The FDA issued a recall notice for "DC Baby Gripe Water herbal supplement with organic ginger and fennel extracts" after the company received one report of a one-week old baby who had difficulty swallowing the product, and there were three other complaints "attributed to the undissolved citrus flavonoid."

The FDA says "the product should not be considered hazardous but could result in difficulty when swallowing the product for sensitive individuals."

Basically, it's not harmful if swallowed but the undissolved flavonoid makes it a choking hazard.

The gripe water was sold at Dollar General stores in four ounce bottles with the UPC code 8 5495400246 3.

Nature's Path Envirokidz gluten free cereals

If you've got a kiddo with celiac disease you're probably familiar with the EnviroKidz kine of gluten free cereals sold at Trader Joe's and other grocery stores. Unfortunately, Nature's Path, the maker of the cereals, is recalling more than 400,000 boxes of Envirokidz cereals in the U.S. and Canada due to potential gluten contamination.

Choco Chimp, Gorilla Munch and Jungle Munch are all impacted. The best before dates are: 08/01/2019, 08/24/2019, 08/27/2019, and 09/21/2019. The UPC codes are: 0 58449 86002 0, 0 5844987023 4, 0 5844987027 2, 0 5844987024 1 and 0 5844987028 9.

If you can handle gluten they are safe, but Nature's Path says "people who have a wheat allergy, celiac disease or sensitivity to gluten and wheat should not consume the cereals."

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