The Nightmare Before Christmas

What to do when the gift list is more expensive than the car payment

by jennifer molk

Remember the days of G.I. Joe and Barbie, when all they did was swivel and pose? They came with cool accessories, and in Joe’s case, a whole accessory pack fit for the 1960s action soldier that he revolutionized. At most, Joe commanded the optional remote-controlled tank and Barbie drove her own motor home. It was a simpler, and cheaper, time, when kids were satisfied with very little at Christmastime.

      Back in the day, holiday shopping for kids could amount to less than the monthly car payment. These days, they want the actual car. Not a toy one and not even a battery-operated one so much anymore. Nowadays, for teens at least, it’s all about the ATV, BMX and PS3, acronyms that spell trouble for parents of children who have moved beyond Joe and Barb. It is a time when pleasing our kids has become an extreme sport in itself.

      In the new millennium, toy sales in the United States have climbed into the hundreds of billions of dollars each year. Most of that share is spent on kids between eight and 12 years old, but whatever the age, each year toy makers are under intense pressure to top last year’s hottest toy, which means designing items that are bigger, brighter, louder and more technologically advanced than ever before, thereby more expensive.

      At Toys R Us, descriptions for most of the top sellers for ages 12-14 are likely to sound like the make and model of a car.

      “The Nintendo DS Lite is a high-powered handheld video game system in a sleek folding design - loaded with features for a unique gaming experience. The color screens are now even brighter - and the lower touch screen provides a totally new way...”

      Or how about Sony’s PS3: 80GB Console:

      “Includes PLAYSTATION 3 80GB system, DUALSHOCK 3 wireless controller…”

      For the so-called “big kids,” top sellers at Toys R Us range in prices of $199 to $399.

      There is good news for parents of teens, who may wish, at least for a moment, to be able to go back to the toddler aisle. Those toys aren’t much cheaper these days. Even Elmo is exempt. The beloved original “Baby Monster,” who was born in the early 1970s but didn’t begin his incredible rise to fame until 1985, is all grown up. In 2008, the furry phenomenon tops most internet popular toys lists this year. Fisher-Price promises the most life-like Elmo yet with “Elmo Live.” It will set you back about $60.

      Baby Alive is growing up also. She’s eating, drinking and potty training. And talking; she will actually tell you if she’s had an accident. Her growth spurt too will cost you about $60.

      But that’s peanuts, compared to Fur Real Friends Biscuit, My Lovin Pup, coming in at $179. It’s hard to pay that for a ‘real’ dog, but then the clean up and maintenance on a fake furry friend is a bit easier to handle.

      Still, there is something out there in toy stores this year that’s even more expensive. Playskool’s Kota My Triceratops Dinosaur is around $299. It stands over three-feet tall and is designed for the toddler to ride on, but does not actually walk around. Kota makes sounds and movements, and has realistic fabric that the makers say feels like the real skin of a dinosaur.

      There are of course less expensive items on toy store shelves, for those kids who watch a minimal amount of television and who aren’t too tempted in the first place for the flashiest toy. You’ll be doing well if you can talk your teen into an educational and fun game of Operation, for only around $15.

      Perhaps the best and most age-appropriate gift for a teenager these days is The Game of Life. It’s only $18.99 and promises valuable life lessons, like how much to spend at Christmastime, something that teens will face one day with their own kids:

      “Where will your choices take you? Spin the wheel of fate… You made it through high school, so now what’s next? Go to college or start a career - it’s your choice. Think the family life is for you? Take that path and see how many kids you’ll have! Will you venture down the risky road where fortunes can be won...and lost? Do good deeds as you go through the game to earn Life Tiles and more money so you can retire in style.”

      It is designed for ages nine through 16, so it covers the gamut.

      One thing that might make you forget the cost, at least temporarily, is that larger purchases usually don’t come in those smaller boxes that are so tightly wound with security tape, rubber bands and twist ties that shred your fingers raw before you get to your own gifts.

      With a larger purchase, instead of spending your holiday morning trying to get the toys out of their boxes, your fingers will be free to count what money you have left over, if any. SFM

Jennifer Molk is a freelance writer in Billings.  She enjoys writing about topics and issues she herself seeks the answers to.  She is a mother of two.