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Monday, December 31, 2007

PSA: Recycle Your Christmas Tree

This post is dedicated to a specific set of neighbors.

I interrupt my mini-blogging vacation to bring you this special announcement.

I hate seeing Christmas trees left out at the curb (it's illegal here, too). And there's absolutely no excuse for it when Los Angeles County makes it really easy to recycle your tree. To find a location, click here or call 1(888)CLEAN LA.

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Happy New Year!

Well, I didn't plan on taking an extended blogging break, but I've really been enjoying some time with my family the last few days. I'll be back on Wednesday with some fresh posts.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

I wish you all happiness, health and success in 2008!

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Thursday, December 27, 2007

2008 Financial Resolution #2: Stop buying great deals

Money Crashers asked an excellent question today:
What one spending habit would you like to change in 2008?
I came up with a quick answer: Stop buying things just because they're a great deal.

A good example of my spending weakness is from yesterday. One of Amazon's Lightning Dealsyesterday was this Sanyo rice cookerfor a mere $59.99 with free shipping. I have a perfectly good basic rice cooker but because it's basic, there's no timer. And I've thought several times recently that it would be really nice to have a timer so that I don't have to rush to cook the rice when we get home from work so that it's ready in time for dinner.

Needless to say, the Sanyo's features included a timer. And I thought about it. HARD. But in the end, I couldn't get around this thought: I have a perfectly good rice cooker. I don't cook rice that often. And that's $60 that we could put toward savings instead. So, I let the deal expire.

I want to have more experiences like that in 2008. Many more, though not so involved. I want them to go more like this: That would be nice, but I don't really need it. And then I'll move on to something else.

So that's my second Financial Resolution for 2008 (you can read about #1 (paying cash for a new car) here).

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Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas!

This Christmas will be extra special for me because it's the first year that Alex is old enough to really understand that there's something special about Christmas Day. I hope you have a wonderful time with your family as well.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you for reading CFO. I really enjoy and appreciate all of the comments - I know it's corny, but the relationships that I've formed via blogging are very special to me.

If you have a chance to go shopping in the days after Christmas, I highly recommend it. You'll find lots of great sales. Pick up wrapping and tissue paper for next year, plus plain wrapping and tissue paper that you can use year-round. Pick up next year's holiday cards, and stocking stuffers that will make great party favors throughout the year (for example, Target has little tubs of Playdoh in a plastic candy cane that could be broken up for party favors). Happy shopping!

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How I will do my holiday shopping next year

Christmas is tomorrow, and I'm pretty much done with all of the shopping. And Hanukkah was so early this year that it's already a distant memory. So it's really no surprise that I've turned my thoughts to December 2008, and how I will save even more money.

My primary strategy remains the same: buy bargains throughout the year. But this strategy really works best for kids' birthday gifts and for non-immediate family members (they give us a list each year, so I can't really buy months in advance). I'll use the following strategies year-round, refining my technique as I go, and no doubt by next November, I'll be saving hundreds, if not thousands:

1. Find lots of deals. Admittedly, this takes time. I subscribe to several boards at SlickDeals. The Bargainist posts about sales at many online stores. And sites like Baby Cheapskate and Bargain Hunting Moms post great deals on baby and child-related products. Subscribing to all of these sites results in several hundred posts a day in my Google Reader - but, using the "j" key, I can scroll through them in less than five minutes, pausing only when a deal catches my eye.

2. Shop through portals. After years of hearing about them, I finally signed up for Ebates, a site that gives you cash back when you shop at a number of stores through their portal. I also joined MyPoints.com, after reading about it on The Frugal Duchess and Mighty Bargain Hunter. With MyPoints, you earn (of course) points, either by making purchases or clicking through links in emails (I highly recommend MBH's post for details). I've been a member for about four months now and have enough points to redeem for a gift card, all without making a single purchase. Additionally, AAA and my frequent flyer miles program have their own shopping portals. The difficult thing about portals is remembering to use them! I'm getting in the habit, though, and I'm sure it'll come naturally by this time next year.

3. Use PriceProtectr and PriceDrop to let me know when I can get some money back via a price adjustment. With PriceProtectr, you simply enter the url of the item you purchased. With PriceDrop, you'll have the option of tracking the price of an item on Amazon (if it's sold directly by Amazon). I've already mentioned how PriceDrop saved me $2.49 earlier this month. I'm now making it a habit to track everything I buy online.

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

What do you do with old toys?

I usually donate things that the kids have outgrown to Goodwill, but they're not taking toys anymore due to all of the recalls. So now I'm not sure what to do with the five bags that are currently sitting in my upstairs hallway. Here are the ideas I've come up with so far, none of which are as effortless as simply loading up the car and heading to Goodwill:
  1. Find a different charity to take the toys. While this seems rather obvious, I'm not sure where to start. I'm going to ask around, though.
  2. Have a garage sale. Unfortunately, this isn't easy because we don't have a front yard (we live in a townhouse). Some friends have mentioned doing a group yard sale at one person's house, which may or may not happen.
  3. Give them to or swap toys with a friend. I've tried this but can't find any willing takers. I suppose some friends might want one or two pieces, but it would take way more time and energy than I have to dole the toys out a few at a time. One alternative I'll consider is hosting a swap party, though again, I'm not sure where I'll find the time and energy for that.
  4. Sell them on eBay. I just don't think the return will be worth it.
  5. Take them to a consignment store. Unfortunately, I'm pretty confident only a few of the toys in the bag would be consignment-worthy. There are a lot of small toys in there, like rattles, links, and such.
  6. List them on a site like Freecycle or Craigslist. I've never used these sites, and I've heard both good and bad things, so I'm hesitant.
I'd love to hear more suggestions, so if you have any, please leave a comment or send me an email at cfoblog [at] gmail [dot] com.

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Bizarre telemarketing call

I'm working on a brief for work, but was just interrupted by the phone ringing. An automated female voice says:
We're sorry to disturb you. This call was intended for an answering machine only.
That was the entire call. What the heck is that about?!

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Three recalls today (none for lead)

If you think you might have any of the following items, click through to the CPSC press release for more info:As always, I highly recommend signing up for recall notifications by email at the CPSC web site.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Today's Recall: "Soldier Bear" Toys

If any of the following look familiar, click through to the CPSC press release for more info:

AAFES Recalls “Soldier Bear” Toys Due to Violation of Lead Paint Standard






As always, I highly recommend signing up for recall notifications by email at the CPSC web site.

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Tips for Buying a Condo

This post over at The Baglady about unexpected and extremely large condo fee assessments got me thinking back to when we bought our townhouse. At the time, the San Fernando Valley was in its final recovery phase from the 1994 Northridge earthquake. After our offer on the townhouse was accepted, we wanted every document we could get our hands on to show the property was sound and the homeowner's association had its act together. We received hundreds of pages of board minutes, financial statements, and other documents, which we pored over. It was boring as heck, but we knew how important it was to find out as much as we could while we could still legally back out. And we knew that the seller was required to make full disclosure.

We discovered that there was some kind of fee assessment made by the homeowner's association after the Northridge quake that the seller had been paying on a monthly basis, and we confirmed that the seller would pay off the assessment in full when we bought the property. I don't recall getting any major details, but the assessment must have been for the overall property and not for damage to the unit itself, since we learned that only very minor repairs were required to our townhouse after the earthquake.

Since buying our place, we've watched friends buy their own, and we've concluded that we bought very wisely - some of that was due to our care, but a lot of it was luck, too, since we were novice homebuyers. Here are my first-hand experience tips on buying a condo (keeping in mind that I'm no real estate expert):

1. Take a good look at the outer property. Are the building and grounds well-maintained? When we went to check out our townhouse, we saw gardeners cleaning up the grounds and caring for the trees and plants. The pool looked clean. And the neighbors' front doors looked neat as well. Contrast that to a friend's condo, where getting repairs done was like pulling teeth and the pool was practically unusable.

2. Ask for all of the homeowner's association (HOA) documents available. Are the fees accounted for? Is there a budget? Are the minutes detailed or sketchy, and do they involve legitimate issues or the meowing of a neighbor's cat at noon? It was reassuring to us to see that there were projected and actual budgets for the current and previous years. The amounts seemed reasonable, and there were funds set aside for future maintenance and repairs. Everything about the minutes indicated that the HOA was run by competent people who weren't wasting everyone's time and money.

3. Have a competent real estate agent and/or mortgage broker. I loved our real estate agent and have recommended him without reservation to friends. He knew the business well, was straightforward with us, and never once got pushy. When he told us the list price of a condo, he also always told us the HOA fee. If there had been anything fishy going on, I'm confident he would have caught on and alerted us to it.

4. Ask lots of questions. Our real estate agent and mortgage broker got used to hearing my voice a lot during the 30-day escrow period. I was always nice, of course, but I was persistent. I insisted on all of the HOA documents, and I remember there was some trouble getting all of them. Ask anything you can think of: what your exact monthly payment will be, the amount of the HOA fee, whether there will be a prepayment penalty, etc.

5. Read everything you sign. It's tempting to skip over all those paragraphs pages of boilerplate, but it's important to read all of it. At least skim it for something out of the ordinary. And you should scrutinize anything that's not boilerplate, i.e., anything that needed to be filled in. Yes, the escrow office's document preparer will impatiently tap her nails on the table. Ignore her. In our case, I had run all of the mortgage numbers and talked extensively with our mortgage broker, so I knew what all of the numbers in the escrow documents should be. With the escrow worker sighing heavily as Marc and I diligently plowed through the paperwork, I noticed that one of the numbers was wrong. It was years ago so I don't remember exactly, but I'm pretty sure she had put down an incorrect loan amount. She seemed so surprised to be told that there was an error, but she checked and sure enough, it was wrong. At least it took her less than a minute to print out a new copy of the page.

6. Get good insurance. As soon as we closed on our townhouse, we got an insurance policy that covers up to $50,000 in HOA assessment. As the post over at The Baglady notes, HOAs can levy substantial assessments to cover repairs, so we pay less than $500 a year for a policy we hope we'll never need but will be very glad to have if we do.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

We are (probably) going to buy a new washer soon (very soon)

So for the last few months, our very old washer (which came with the house and is probably close to 30 years old) has been getting unbalanced. By "unbalanced," I mean the legs become uneven, causing the washer to rumble very loudly and travel back and forth in its corner between the wall and the dryer. We have had it repaired several times, including the installation of a new set of legs and a new set of pads, which did extend the time between unbalancing incidents long enough for me to think that perhaps the problem had been solved. But alas, the washer unbalanced again this past week so I think we've had the repairman out for the last time. The next time this happens - and if history holds true, it'll probably happen again within a couple of months - we'll be buying a new washer.

Which leads me to research. Only I'm not sure where to begin. Marc tells me that he keeps reading HE washers don't really clean clothes, which is obviously a problem. My priorities are effectiveness, energy efficiency, and cost. And a large capacity would be wonderful too, but isn't a necessity.

I'm also debating whether to buy a new dryer. It's not that we really need one but our current one is as old as the washer, which leads me to believe it's not very energy efficient. And, as silly as this may sound, I'd prefer it if our washer and dryer matched.

Any suggestions or ideas to get me started? Thanks!

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Friday, December 14, 2007

Four recalls yesterday

If you think you might have any of the following, click through to the CPSC press release for more pictures and info on what you should do:As always, I highly recommend signing up for recall notifications by email at the CPSC web site.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Bento lunches - Resources and practice

Bento: According to Wikipedia, it's an "aesthetically pleasing" and "appealing boxed lunch."

Making things look beautiful is not my forte. As you might have guessed from my writing style, I tend to be rather straightforward, practical, and utilitarian. It's not that I don't appreciate beautiful things, but that my mind rarely focuses on how to create them. But I can do it if someone tells me how.

And that's why two of my favorite blogs are Lunch in a Box and Just Bento. I've gotten wonderful ideas for packing our family's lunches on the rare occasion that I do make bentos. I usually just pack our lunches in single-serving plastic containers, but every once in a while, I'll have both the time and inclination to dress them up. Most of the time, though, I feel like I'm absorbing information to be able to pack appealing lunches for my boys when they're older and the way their lunch is packed is the difference in whether it gets eaten or tossed.

Then last week, I came across this article at The Dollar Stretcher that's full of good ideas on making food fun for the kids like "dinosaur eggs," "caterpillars," and "kiwi butterflies." I think it's time to start putting some of that stored-away knowledge into practice now - I want those things in my lunch!

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Our Saturday night at Urgent Care - and what I learned

Tyler is getting close to walking, so he's quite proud of himself when he stands. Unfortunately, on Saturday evening, he was so proud of himself that he stuck his tongue out in glee - and promptly fell into a stool and bit his tongue rather hard. It was bloody, and between the blood, the tears, and the crying, I couldn't even see his tongue. I figured we'd better be safe than sorry and have him seen by a doctor just to make sure he didn't need stitches. Fortunately, about six months ago, I'd asked the pediatrician where we should go in an emergency if their office wasn't open. He'd written down the hours for the after hours Urgent Care facility in the same building, and also the hospital we should go to if the Urgent Care wasn't open. I'd left the list on the fridge, so all I had to do was consult it to make sure the Urgent Care was open and off we went.

That was when we made our first mistake: we took Alex with us. In fairness, I wasn't expecting a packed waiting room. I foolishly and naively thought we'd walk in, wait a few minutes, see the doctor, and leave. The moment we walked into the waiting room and I saw all the kids with gastro-intestinal viruses, my heart sank. I busted out the baby wipes, cursing myself for not stashing a new pack of antibacterial wipes in my diaper bag after I used up the old one. It was impossible to make sure Alex didn't touch anything, although I tried to wipe his hands every few seconds. At least Tyler's tongue stopped bleeding on the car ride over. Lesson #1: Unless absolutely necessary, only the kid who needs medical attention goes to Urgent Care.

We checked in at 5:40, and of course we hadn't eaten dinner. After half an hour, no one had left, and no one who had been waiting had been called back into an exam room. We tried playing in the hall for a few minutes, but Marc and I both agreed it would be good for him to take Alex and pick up some food. Since it was a Saturday evening, all of the facilities in the building were closed, and the building isn't attached to a hospital, so getting food meant getting into the car and driving to McDonald's. Lesson #2: Grab some food on the way out of the house - even granola bars and a bottle of water would have tided us over. Which brings us to Lesson #3: Keep the diaper bag stocked. I've gotten lax about it; a few months ago, I would have had three granola bars in there for emergencies.

Eventually, we got in to see the doctor and the news was as good as we could have hoped for. Tyler didn't need any stitches and his tongue appears to have healed quite nicely. As for Alex, he may have picked up a stomach virus there - I'm certainly kicking myself for taking him with us. But he too seems to be on the mend.

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Three recalls: one yesterday, two today

If you think you might have any of the following items, click through to the CPSC press release for details:As always, I highly recommend signing up for recall notifications by email at the CPSC web site.

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Friday, December 07, 2007

My best financial move this year: The Infrequent Bills Account

A few months ago, I wrote about moving our emergency fund into a liquid CD account at our brick and mortar bank. When we made the switch, I decided to keep our money market account, which is much of the funds had been, and use it as a holding place for money that would eventually be needed to pay infrequent bills, like insurance bills and property taxes. It's proven to be my best financial move this year.

The Past: Dipping into the emergency fund

In the past, I transferred a set amount into savings each month, and figured what was left in the account would cover the infrequent bills. But somehow we always seemed to spend that money, even when our spending stayed within budget - which, admittedly, it often didn't. So when the big bills hit, I would have to dip into our emergency fund to pay them. And it didn't help that several of the big bills hit at this time of year, just in time to add to the bills for holiday gifts.

The Present: An intact emergency fund

I was thrilled last week when I paid a couple of the big bills and discovered that we won't have to touch the emergency fund this year. I simply made a transfer from the money market account to our checking account, and now there's enough to cover the bills that will hit at the end of the month. Our emergency fund is intact and actually growing, since I was able to make the usual monthly deposit.


The Future: A bigger monthly deposit to the MMA

Starting in January, I will be increasing the amount we transfer into our money market account each month (and I plan to increase the amount each year). The property taxes and some of the insurance bills go up each year, so the increased transfer amount is intended to cover that difference. It will also cover the increased car insurance when we buy a new car, although I don't expect that to happen until close to the end of the year.

The bottom line: I wish I had created an infrequent bills account several years ago when I first learned of the idea. We would probably be $5,000 to $10,000 richer, just from not dipping into our emergency fund.

Note: When we made the switch to the liquid CD, I left some money in the money market to meet the minimum balance to avoid a monthly fee plus a little extra as "seed money," since I knew the big bills were coming at the end of the year and we probably wouldn't save quite enough by year's end to cover them. I am using of that seed money this month to pay for the big bills, and now feel as though I'm starting from scratch, as it were. In 2008, the net balance on the money market account should be slightly on the plus side, since I am trying to be conservative in my estimated expenses.

What was your best financial move this year?

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Six recalls today

If you think you might have any of the following, click through to the CPSC press release for more information:As always, I recommend that you sign up for email notification of recalls at the CPSC web site.

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No "Today's Reading" Today + 2 Recalls Yesterday

Things are incredibly hectic around here so I'm behind on my daily reading. I don't have a reading list for you today, but you can always check out the shared items from my Google Reader over in the sidebar. I'll have a reading list tomorrow, but in the meantime, there were two recalls yesterday that I wanted to pass on. If you think you might have either of these items, click through to the CPSC press release for more info (and as always, sign up at the CPSC web site for email notification of recalls):

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Congratulations to the winners of the Whomi giveaway!

I used Random.org to pick the winners of the Whomi giveaway: Jenavidez, ashleyalexis, and Naomi. These lucky folks will each receive Whomi's fabulous Clarity Agenda. If you haven't received an email from me, please contact me at cfoblog [at] gmail [dot] com by 11:59 p.m. on Friday, December 7, or your prize will be forfeited.

Thank you to everyone who entered!

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Old Navy jacket recalled on Monday

If you think you might have this jacket, you can take it back to Old Navy for a $5 "appreciation card," or keep the jacket and remove the offending string. Click through to the CPSC press release for details on the recall:

Old Navy Recalls Boys’ Jackets; Drawstring at Waist Poses Entrapment Hazard



I apologize for not posting this sooner. As always, I encourage you to sign up for email notification of recalls at the CPSC web site.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Happy Hanukkah!

Last week, we discovered the best Hanukkah book ever: The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming: A Christmas Storyby Lemony Snicket (author of the A Series of Unfortunate Eventsbooks). The illustrations are adorable and the story is hysterical.

Unfortunately, Alex doesn't seem to be ready for the book just yet. Instead, he prefers the board book we got a couple of years ago at my friend Jessica's recommendation: The Story of Chanukahby Francis Barry Silberg and Pamela R. Levy. As Marc reminds me every year, Hanukkah would be a very popular holiday - especially with boys - if the Jews winning the war aspect were emphasized instead of the kad shemen (the one-day's supply of oil that miraculously lasted for eight). This board book does a good job summarizing the war and explaining how it's connected to the lighting of the menorah.

Each year, I make these Sweet Potato Latkes (leaving out the scallions, since neither of us cares for them). When time is an issue, I grate the sweet potatoes ahead of time and store them in a covered colander set in a bowl. This has the added advantage of eliminating excess moisture. I highly recommend these, particularly if, like us, you're not especially fond of regular latkes.

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Monday, December 03, 2007

Homemade Hot Chocolate Mix

I realized a while back that all of the hot chocolate we had in the house contained trans fats, so I tossed it all in the trash. Now that the weather's gotten cold, I set out to make my own cocoa mix but the vast majority of recipes contain powdered milk, which I don't have on hand at the moment and don't feel like buying. And I always have milk in the fridge so I didn't need an instant mix that only required hot water. I managed to find this Martha Stewart mix which has turned out to be quite good - especially with half of a Trader Joe's peppermint marshmallow (a whole one makes the drink too sweet). I used cocoa powder that I already had on hand, but I will be keeping an eye out for fair trade cocoa powder. (I'm not buying non-fair trade chocolate, but I am using up what I already had.)

Homemade Hot Chocolate
Makes 5 3/4 cups dry mix or 92 eight-ounce servings

3 1/2 cups sugar
2 1/4 cups cocoa
1 tablespoon table salt
Whole milk for serving

1. In a large bowl, combine sugar, cocoa, and salt, and whisk to combine well. Store the mixture in an airtight container.

2. For individual servings, pour 1 cup whole milk into a microwave-safe mug, and microwave on high just until hot. Add 2 tablespoons of cocoa mix, and stir to dissolve. For a larger batch of cocoa, warm the milk in a saucepan set over medium-low heat, taking care not to let the milk boil; as it warms, stir in 2 tablespoons of mix for each cup of milk.

Notes:
1. I figured superfine sugar would dissolve better, but I didn't have any, so I pureed regular sugar in my electric food mill, then added the cocoa and salt. (Pureeing the cocoa broke up those little clumps.)

2. To make the cocoa, I fill a mug 3/4 of the way with 1% or nonfat milk (about 6 oz.), and microwave on high for one minute. Then I stir in two tablespoons of cocoa mix, top with half a Trader Joe's peppermint marshmallow, and microwave for another 30 seconds. This makes the hot chocolate frothy and helps make the marshmallow melty.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Guest Post: 5 ways to avoid dangerous toys

The following is a guest post from Brip Blap, a blog about many things, including a lot of personal finance. I'm a regular reader and encourage you to subscribe to the RSS feed.

5 ways to avoid dangerous toys

Are you killing your kids? If you read the news or this blog, apparently most of us are one bad purchase away from doing just that without knowing it. Whether it's lead-contaminated paint or date-rape dots or collapsing toy shelves, toys - of all things - have become a source of serious concern for parents.

So what can a parent do? Try running through this simple checklist before buying a toy:
  • Does the toy have batteries or moving parts? Batteries are toxic. Noise-producing toys stifle the imagination and annoy parents and other adults who have to listen to repetitive beeps and shrieks. Steer clear of electronic toys.
  • Skip the plastics. As a general rule, plastic toys are made from plastic for one reason: cost containment. Plastic is a cheap material, and toy companies are already squeezed by licensing and manufacturing costs. Seeking out toys made from non-plastic materials (wood, in particular) is difficult. I have spent a long time in Toys R Us looking for non-plastic toys for our son. They are out there, though. Melissa & Doug toys are (for the most part) non-plastic toys that can be found at major retail stores.
  • Think twice before buying a brand instead of a toy. Branding is the primary selling point for toys. If you don't believe me, go to a toystore and tell me how many toys you can find which are NOT associated with a television show, a movie or a musical group. These toys are often created with the intention of reinforcing the child's desire to buy more toys branded in the same way rather than creating an educational experience. Many of the branded toys are built cheap and fast in countries with questionable safety standards. Buying non-branded toys does not guarantee safety, but many of them are made with more care to compete with the Dora and Buzz Lightyear and Finding Nemo toys.
  • Do your homework! Most of the recent recalls were from, frankly, cheap toys or toys of questionable quality. You can consult the Consumer Product Safety Commission or the U.S. PIRG, the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) who maintain a website on toy safety.
  • Keep it simple! You will often hear parents laughingly talk about how their children pass by all of the fancy beeping whirling toys to bang on a pot with a wooden spoon or throw a tennis ball endlessly. This is simple, straightforward advice: despite what you may think, your children don't need a lot of fancy toys. Simple toys like building blocks and simple dolls and wooden cars are going to be the best for your child, both educationally and in terms of safety. They inspire imagination and creativity and at the same time are not usually made from toxic materials and do not contain poisonous batteries or small moving parts.
Just use common sense and avoid buying anything that your instincts tell you that you shouldn't. Run through the list above, and remember: children can play with anything and have fun, but only YOU can determine what's safe!

I don't agree with everything Brip Blap says, but he makes some very good points. For example, we've found that most wooden toys (including Melissa & Doug, which he mentioned) just aren't interesting enough for Alex. But I avoid all toys in the dollar section at Target, since the risk that something so cheap is contaminated seems so great. And, in fact, for the holidays, we've asked for Lego Duplo sets to encourage the imagination and creativity that come naturally to Alex already. - Cathy

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