Want to know how to save hundreds of dollars on Christmas gifts?
I know, stupid question. In this bah-humbug economy, every dollar — make that every penny — counts. So how can parents make this year's visit from Santa as bountiful as ever for their kids?
Here's the scoop: I spent about $40 in one day at my communitywide yard sale this fall. I came home with an embarrassment of riches. My 2-year-old son, Dylan, should be thrilled.
Here's what I got: a Fisher-Price "Grow to Pro Basketball" set with two balls and instructions attached; a Fisher-Price "Shake 'N Go Speedway" racetrack with two cars, gently used and in the original box. That's just the first $25 of my bounty. The remaining $15 or so yielded another 12 items, several unused and all like new.
Another pile of Santa items came from a Friends of the Library sale at the Land O'Lakes Branch Library. The deal was enticing: all the books you can fit into a standard plastic grocery bag for $5. I got 34 books, and 20 were for my son. I paid 14.7 cents per book, a mere $2.94 for the children's books alone.
In all, I've spent $53.94 on Santa gifts that retail for $388.71, an 86 percent discount. (The books alone, retailing at an estimated $128.99, yielded almost a 98 percent discount.)
Be advised, though: This kind of holiday chicanery won't work with every kid. Older children will notice when toys have nicks or scratches, or that you don't have the instructions. Complex toys and games, such as new video game systems, are less likely to turn up at garage sales.
But for children up to age 4 or so, neighborhood scavenging, trading with parents or searching consignment shops can yield a bonanza. Here are some tips:
Know your child. Is he a Wiggles fan? Does she like Dora the Explorer? Matching toys to taste makes the process more rewarding for everyone.
Scout public libraries. Many branches have Friends of the Library book rooms or sales. This treasure trove can yield bargains throughout the year.
Visit community yard sales. They are common in spring and fall, and the volume improves the likelihood of success.
Be picky about condition. Some yard sale items are junk. Don't settle for broken toys or games with missing pieces. Check items to be sure everything is there. Ask sellers whether they have original boxes and instructions.
Check child consignment shops regularly. Prices will be higher than at garage sales, but sometimes toy conditions are better.
Check for recalls. Make sure the toys have not been recalled for lead or other hazards. Go to the Consumer Product Safety Commission Web site at www.cpsc.gov to check the recall list.
Pass it on. When your child outgrows or loses interest in a toy or game, send it to a consignment shop or hold your own sale and keep the cycle going.
Mark Wood is a senior copy editor at the Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.