High-value, low-cost toys for toddlers and small children

I wrote a brief guide to baby stuff a while back in honor of Matt’s young ‘un. It’s been several months, so it’s probably a good time to write a guide to toys for small children, especially with Christmas on the way. This is coming from the perspective of someone with four children, currently ages 1 through 7.

Taking your kids to the toy store to see what they like can be helpful at times but can also be misleading since they will often be attracted to flashing lights and things that beep. They usually get bored of these five minutes later and NEVER EVER PICK UP THE TOY AGAIN EVEN THOUGH YOU JUST SPENT $30 ON IT, not that I’m bitter.

This guide is written with an eye toward avoiding that phenomenon. I also prefer toys that are durable, well-designed, not too expensive, and possibly even fun for adults. Different kids go for different things, so of course YMMV. Any Amazon links are affiliate links, and your support via said links is always appreciated. Here we go….

Geomag GBaby: These are magnetic toys. They are sort of pricey, but they are well designed, tough, easy to hold, and safe. You can stick them on the fridge, take them into the bathtub, and they’re even somewhat fun for parents on account of the fact that they have magnets, and anything with a magnet is fun.

Physical Therapy / Exercise Ball: I got one of these for physical therapy a few years ago when I hurt my back, but it turned out to be a big hit with the kids. Depending on how big a ball you get and how big your kids are, this ball may be about as big as they are, which makes it a lot more fun that those boring ol’ regular-sized balls. Not recommended for cramped apartments.

Stackable doughnut toy: Cheap, durable, chewable, and good for babies through toddlers.

Ball popper: This has been a favorite for all our kids. Our first one broke after a lot of use, but we’re getting another one for our baby’s birthday in a couple of weeks. This toy has a fan that shoots balls up into the air, after which they fall into the tray (well, sometimes they fall in the tray) and roll down the ramp to be shot up again. It’s a loud, chaotic toy. I also confess to enjoying this one as well.

The Going to Bed Book: Every one of our kids has loved this book, and all the ones who can speak probably know it by heart now. We’re currently on our second copy as the first one was loved to death. Second favorite book in the PFD household: Hug. And Peek-a-Zoo is good for the very young.

Peek-a-blocks shape sorter: We have several shape sorters, but this one has proved to be the most popular.

B Meowsic Keyboard: A great starter keyboard. They sell these at Target, though they’re also available on Amazon (for a few dollars more, alas) if you have some gift cards–possibly obtained working lucrative credit card promotions at Best Buy–to burn. The strongest point of this toy is that it attracts a wide range of ages. I can’t think of any other toys regularly played with by both our 1-year-old and our 7-year-old. It’s pretty durable, as this one has survived heavy use for many years. It’s not as good as a regular keyboard (for example, you can only play a maximum of two notes simultaneously) but then we also have a regular keyboard and the kids don’t play with that one anywhere near as much.

Turtle night light: They’ve been sleeping with this in their room for years. It’s probably the most fought-over toy in the house.

A cardboard box: Whatever you buy, make sure it’s sent to you in a big cardboard box–the bigger, the better. Great for fort-building!

And finally: this isn’t a toy, but I’d recommend a battery organizer if you have kids.


Banana Republic / Old Navy / Gap credit card has a nice promotion

After reading about the Banana Republic credit card’s generous marketing promotions over at MilesAbound, I was inspired to get my own to see what would happen. I can’t complain–I’ve received maybe $50 worth of clothing with minimal effort–but it hasn’t been amazing either.

I was therefore delighted to see the following promotion show up in my mailbox yesterday:banana republic nov 14 promotion 2

Wow! 200 bonus points for every credit card purchase. 1,000 points gets you a $10 gift card, so that’s $2 for every purchase.

I was considerably less delighted to see the following condition for this promotion:

banana republic nov 14 promotion 3

Well, nuts. But still: 25 purchases get me $50 of free clothing. Plus Old Navy / Gap / Banana Republic are always doing promotions with coupons, cardholder discounts, and the like so you can increase your yield.

Here’s a question: how much annual benefit does a card need to make it worth getting? If this card gave away $5 worth of clothing every year, nobody would care. If it gave away $500, there would probably be a lot more interest. Is $50 worth it? $100? What’s your cut-off point for getting a card with no sign-up bonus?

Toys R Us increases credit card rewards to 10%

I wrote a few weeks ago about Toys R Us making 8% its new normal for credit card rewards. Now, it’s possible to do even better: on Saturdays in November and Thursdays now through January 2015, you can get 10% back on your purchases made with your store-brand credit card at Toys R Us and Babies R Us.

toys r us 10 percent 1

toys r us 10 percent 2

Obviously, when you see phrases like “10%” and “credit card” in close proximity, you’ll start wondering if the gift card game is on. The terms and conditions exclude gift cards, though I’m not sure if they’re talking about Toys R Us gift cards specifically or other retailers’ cards as well. I did take a picture of the gift card rack the last time I was there and it was disappointing:

toyrs r us gc rack

Commenter TJ left a comment on my last post:

*Some* Toy R Us sell Kindle gift cards, but many don’t. Even when they do they don’t carry a large number or restock fast (as discovered by slickdealers during Amex sync deals). My local Toys R Us has another gift card rack you missed with “gaming” and cell phone gift cards – stuff like karma coin, facebook, zynga, and various prepaid cell phone providers.

Incidentally, this is not the first time Toys R Us has run a 10% promotion–they did one over the summer as well. I don’t know whether or not you can count on them happening regularly, but the powers that be are apparently happy with the results thus far. Note that this card is issued by Synchrony Bank (aka The Artist Formerly Known As GE Capital), so your credit line will probably be low.

Who owns the credit card blogs?

“A company that helps you find the perfect credit card is now worth $1 billion,” said a recent headline in Business Insider:

Credit Karma, a credit-tracking personal finance site, raised $75 million on Monday in a new round of funding that values the company at more than $1 billion, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The new funding, coming just six months after its $85 million Series C, was led by Google Capital, Tiger Global Management, and Susquehanna Growth Equity. The 7-year-old company now has raised over $193 million.

Credit Karma is one of the big players in credit card affiliate marketing. Another big one is a company called Bankrate.com. BankRate owns CreditCards.com, a credit card marketing site disguised as a credit card advice site. [click to continue…]

Why falling gas prices are good news for Marathon Visa cardholders

marathon card

I wrote about the Marathon Visa earlier in the year. Unlike a lot of gas station cards and rewards programs which give you rebates based on the amount of gas you purchase, this card rewards you based on your total Marathon (and Kangaroo) purchases. I’ll quote my earlier explanation here:

Take all your Marathon purchases–not just the gasoline, but the cigarettes, coffee, and ice cream as well–and divide that by the average price of a gallon of gas to come up with your calculated gasoline purchase amount. You then multiply that by the appropriate rebate amount, which is determined by the tiers we discussed above.

Let’s do a simple example. If you spent $1,000 on cigarettes, coffee, and ice cream with your card, and the average price of a gallon of gas is $3.50, your calculated gas purchase is a little under 286 gallons of gas. A $0.25 per gallon rebate on that amount works out to be $71.43, just a bit over 7%.

I’m writing about this card for two reasons. The first is that I decided to get this card after I wrote about it, and it does indeed work as I described. I got it when there was a promotion for 50 cents per gallon instead of 25 cents, meaning the rewards were actually 13-14% assuming you spent enough to get into the highest tier. I know that there are some folks out there who like to buy gift cards with a credit card to get points, and all I can say about that is that in my area, they’re pretty good about enforcing that policy. Your mileage may vary.

The second reason is that gas prices are falling. And because of the way in which rewards are calculated for this card, that means the rewards actually will increase. You can look here to see the gas price used in Marathon’s calculations, but in September the average price per gallon had fallen to $3.48 per gallon, and it will certainly be lower in October. An average price of $3.00 per gallon would equate to 8.3% rewards, while an average price of $2.50 per gallon means rewards go to 10%. So hopefully the Saudis will keep sticking it to the Russians (or whatever the heck is going on over there).