When I was growing up, our house was always pretty neat because I hardly had any toys. For example, I had no lego blocks for my parents to accidentally step on. My parents would only get me a present once a year. And that something was usually an action figure, not something expensive like a Gameboy. Going over to a friend's house to play Nintendo was a treat.
Being frugal is in my blood. Until this day, I still wear track pants and shirts with obvious holes. Even when my tennis and softball buddies make fun of me for looking so raggedy, I relish their ridicule before I crush them. Being reminded about my upbringing makes me better appreciate what I have today.
With many parents looking to save money during this difficult period, I want to share some fun frugal toys my wife came up with for toddlers and kids with imagination. Take it away Sydney!
Frugal Toys You Can Make At Home
Keeping kids entertained for long stretches at home during a pandemic is challenging. Buying new toys every other week is one way to go. However, the costs and clutter can quickly spiral out of control. Instead, consider making fun frugal toys at home.
I'm also a frugal person by nature. It helped that my parents didn't have much disposable income and worked a lot of hours. I had to find inexpensive ways to entertain myself at home. So, I made a bunch of different homemade toys.
For example, I made a doll house for my barbies using an unused old metal bookcase. I also made hand sewed doll clothes from old scraps of fabric. One of my favorite ideas was making my own board game using poster board and pieces from other games.
Even though these toys were simple, I enjoyed them immensely. There was something magical about creating something from nothing.
Teaching Frugality To Children
One of our biggest parental fears is our children grow up spoiled and unable to launch. Sam is afraid our son will turn into our neighbor's son.
He is 31 years old and still living at home with his parents after seven years. He's got two sports cars and two motorbikes because he doesn't have to pay rent. Due to his parents providing for everything, he has little motivation.
We are fortunate to be financially stable, partially because we had kids late. And while we could buy them an endless amount of toys, we're cautious about our purchases.
My biggest weakness is buying them educational toys and books, especially since we are homeschooling our son.
There are some really great products out there. Amazon makes it so easy to buy anything immediately. And it's just as fun for me having something new to play with them as it is for them.
Alas, I don't want our children to expect an endless stream of toys. Instead, I want them to develop a natural frugality. To appreciate what they have and be resourceful is our goal.
So, when our son got hooked on the educational math show NumberBlocks (available on Netflix), I wanted to figure out a way to frugally make toys of the characters. The NumberBlocks show is a fun way to learn about numbers and basic math.
Frugal Toys Are Actually A Lot Of Fun
It helped that there really aren't many NumberBlocks toys on the market. There are some croqueted plush toys on Etsy, but the cutest ones sell for like $80+ a pop. No thanks! I love our son, but that's way too much to fork over for a single plush toy. Sam agreed.
Therefore, I came up with a better idea. Making the toys out of paper! You can't get much more frugal than that.
To get started, I downloaded some images of the main NumberBlocks characters. Then, I resized, printed, cut-out, and laminated a couple of them.
I eagerly showed them to Sam who replied, “Genius! And practically free. Sweet! Just don't give all of them to him at once. How about start with just one?”
The giddiness in me wanted to make more and just hand them all to my son at once. I would relish in his excitement. Alas, I heeded Sam's advice about starting with just one.
Sam is very diligent that way. The marshmellow test demonstrates the importance of self-control.
Besides, would our son actually be excited about them? They were just paper after all. Better to see if he liked them before taking the time to make more.
To my delight, our son was ecstatic when I handed him NumberBlock 1 in 2-D paper form. I guess it really is pretty easy to get a 3-year-old excited about anything new.
The only thing that made me chuckle was his instant response, “Can I have NumberBlock 2, and 3 too mommy?!” Thank goodness I went with paper instead of an $80 plush toy!
Positives Of Homemade Frugal Toys
There are lots of positives from making homemade frugal toys. Here are some things I've enjoyed from the homemade NumberBlocks initiative I started with our son.
- Practically free
- You make it, it's yours
- No trips to the store or waiting for a package
- Sparks creativity
- Improves drawing skills
- Helps a child focus and play screen-free
- Encourages imaginative play
- Fosters the joy of making something with your own hands
- Develops the excitement of starting a collection
- Spending quality time together
Over the last three months, we've built a great collection of NumberBlocks. Our son has also had fun using his imagination to make pretend versions of NumberLand using Duplo lego bricks and Picasso tiles.
Just think, if each figure cost $10 – $80 each, we would have spent $500 – $4,000 for our collection of 50 paper Numberblocks!
After we finished making printed toys of the show's main characters, we started drawing new ones of our own. Our son was inspired by some fun videos of unique NumberBlocks drawn by independent digital artists.
Now, one of our morning rituals is creating a new NumberBlock together. We take turns coloring them. Then I help cut them out and laminate them.
Laminating is key to making frugal toys made from paper last a long time with a preschooler and our sweet drooly daughter always nearby. She loves to eat paper, but laminated paper not so much.
Downsides Of Frugal Toys Made At Home
Of course there are some downsides of homemade frugal toys. Here are some of the issues we've run into with ours.
- Paper toys are easily lost, especially with a 3 year old
- Even if laminated, they aren't 100% durable
- They can't stand up on their own (we plan on making paper stands)
- Making too many dilutes the enjoyment of each one over time
- Takes time and patience to make each one
- Once laminated, they can't be recycled
The biggest downside of the frugal toys we've made from paper is they are pretty easy to get lost with a preschooler. For example, one of our hand-drawn NumberBlocks slipped under our hallway runner one day.
Of course our son immediately asked for it the next morning when he couldn't find it. It was nowhere to be found. I searched high and low for that thing for 30 minutes.
One Piece Of Paper Can Be A Very Big Deal
I got close to loosing my cool towards the end. Our son started having a meltdown because we couldn't find it. And I really had no idea where else to look.
Fortunately, my foot slipped on the hallway rug in my frustrated haste and part of the NumberBlock slid out and caught my eye.
I had one big hallelujah moment when I found it. Soon after, my son let out a huge sigh of relief when I handed it over.
Organization And Taking Things For Granted
After that fiasco, we picked a designated box for all of the NumberBlocks toys to go into each time we're done with play. That doesn't always happen, but we do our best.
The other downside to the frugal toys we've made from paper is that because they are so easy to make, we've made a ton of them. This seems to dilute the enjoyment and value of each one.
It's like not appreciating your 5th pair of jeans compared to when you only had one. But, at least, we have a lot of fun making them.
In addition, it takes time and patience to make these paper toys. I love arts and crafts, but not everyone does.
Other Fun Frugal Toys You Can Make
If your kiddo doesn't like NumberBlocks, use their favorite characters instead. Even though there are a ton of Pokemon, Paw Patrol, and Thomas the Train toys out there, you can make homemade frugal toys just the same.
Here are some other fun ideas for frugal toys you can make at home.
- Big block towers from tissue boxes
- Pretend grocery store toys using clean, empty food containers
- Memory card game from drawn matching shapes on blank flashcards
- Homemade play dough / salt dough
- Multilevel doll house from cardboard or an unused bookshelf
- Indoor hopscotch game using cardboard squares or felt
- Tic tac toe game using chopsticks for the # and painted rocks
- Fortresses from cardboard boxes
Supplies For Making Your Own Frugal Toys
If you want to make your own homemade frugal toys of characters using paper like me, here's what you'll need. You may already have a lot of these items at your house. I've linked each item to the specific products we use for quick and easy ordering.
- Card stock (250 sheets for less than $10)
- Drawing pens (we love Sakura pens, a pack of 6 costs about $10)
- Dual-tip washable markers (less than $11 for 18 colors)
- Blunt tip scissors (less than $4 for a six-pack)
- Laminating machine (about $22)
- Laminating sheets (~$15 for 100 sheets)
And here are some other great supplies for making even more fun frugal toys. The possibilities are endless.
- Self adhesive felt (less than $20 for 40 large sheets)
- 1450+ piece crafts kit with pom poms, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, googly eyes, feathers, shapes, etc. ($13 for a great variety)
- Foam shape stickers (1000 pieces for less than $12)
- Self adhesive rhinestone gem stickers (over 1300 for less than $10
- Crayola Air dry clay (~$10 for 5 pounds)
- Twistable Crayola crayons (50 colors for less than $9)
- Clean cardboard boxes
- Toilet paper or paper towel rolls
- Elmers glue
- Glue sticks
Pass Down Frugality With Frugal Toys
Overall, I'm delighted with our son's joy in making homemade NumberBlocks toys with me. His imagination has really blossomed. And his pretend play has developed a lot in the last few months.
Watching him hold a NumberBlock in each hand and make funny voices as they “talk” to each other makes me grin from ear to ear. I'm also impressed with how much his drawing skills have improved.
One thing we learned on our many preschool tours when he was 1-2 years old was that students start drawing self-portraits at 3 years old. They draw a self-portrait every month until they graduate two years later. Evidently, the self-portrait portfolio is part of the grade school application process.
At the time, we looked at each other incredulously, thinking there was no way our son would be able to draw like the kids we saw. Now, we have no worries about him keeping up. It's funny how first-time parents tend to over-worry about so many developmental things. We simply have no point of reference.
It's also such a joy to see him get excited every time I ask if he wants to do an art project. He wasn't into arts and crafts before we started making our own frugal toys.
Back when he was in preschool for five short months, he would frequently lose focus during arts and crafts. Or he'd dismantle his creations unlike his classmates, who kept them pristine to show their parents. Now he wants to keep everything he makes.
Last Benefit Of Making Frugal Toys
We won't know for sure if making frugal toys with me will sprout seeds of frugality and resourcefulness in him. However, I'm sure hoping it will.
What we do know for sure is that we no longer feel bad about not sending our son to preschool during the pandemic. After about the third month of homeschooling, we started feeling a little guilty he wasn't getting the preschool enrichment and social activities his old classmates were receiving.
However, Sam and I have been able to recreate many of the experiences he would have had attending preschool. We've also set up several one-on-one playdates at playgrounds. Further, saving money on buying toys is also saving us $2,000 a month in preschool tuition.
By the time April 2021 roles around, we will have saved about $24,000 in tuition. Perhaps being frugal really does have compound benefits over time!
Readers, did you make your own homemade frugal toys growing up? Have you made frugal toys with your own kids? How are you teaching your children to be frugal and resourceful?