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The catalogs are in the mail, the commercials are on TV and your kids are already making their holiday wish lists. But how can you keep the holiday spending for the little ones under control?

MainStreet consulted family budget expert and thrift maven Jess Stewartmaize, editor of, for budget tips that will help keep your holiday spending in check.

Budget, Budget, Budget

Set a budget. Stewartmaize recommends opening a special savings account just for kids’ gifts for the year, including birthdays and holidays. Otherwise, start keeping track of how much you spend annually on presents and then set it aside in weekly or monthly increments. That way you have the whole year to save and can avoid paying interest on credit cards.

“Budgeting is a personal thing,” says Stewartmaize. “Seventy-five dollars per child, $100 per child, you want to have the number in your head.” Holiday shopping can be addictive – just like eating that fifth or sixth Christmas cookie – and it’s easy to keep buying gifts even after you’ve taken care of everyone on your list. “Set a budget, and when you’re done, you’re done.”

Consult the Kids
Once you’ve got your budget set, it’s time to figure out what you’re going to spend it on. So why not go straight to the source. “Have your kids make a wish list of the top five gifts they really want,” Stewartmaize counsels. “They’re being bombarded by commercials right now, they’re thinking about it.” She also recommends giving kids a window and talking about their wish list over a period of several weeks. Not only does that encourage kids to prioritize and make choices about what they want, but it provides an opening to discuss advertising and commercials.

“When my kids ask for things they saw on TV, I ask them, ‘How did they make it look cool? What do they want you to buy?’” says Stewartmaize. “Then we talk about how they get to decide for themselves, and use their brains to figure out whether the toy will really be fun.”

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Go for Quality
The holidays aren’t only about the instant gratification of ripping off wrapping paper. It’s also an opportunity to stock the toy box, and stimulate creativity all year long. “High quality toys like Playmobil or Lego that stimulate the imagination are a better value,” says Stewartmaize. “They may not have all the bells and whistles, but they also don’t require batteries. And if a piece or two gets lost, kids will improvise and still have fun.”

Patience Pays

“After the Christmas season those toys are often very inexpensive because the stores often over-order,” says Stewartmaize. If the new Tickle Me Elmo is the top item on your child’s list, you may still want to consider it once the post-holiday sales hit stores.

Have Family Pitch In
When grandparents, aunts, uncles and other relatives buy gifts for kid, they may not be familiar with what your children will actually like and use. Give family members a couple choices of toys you know your kids will enjoy. This approach can also help sidestep the Barbie dilemma. Some parents may not find all toys desirable for their children - Barbie, Bratz dolls, and toy guns all frequently fall into this category. If you make good suggestions you’re less likely to discover a landmine under the Christmas tree.

And when it comes to pre-teens and teens, Stewartmaize advocates for gift cards. “You just never know,” she says. “You can buy gifts for them again when they’re adults.”