- If there's a shoe size, do the shoes first. I've only ever found one pair of secondhand shoes that fit Ray. It takes dedication to consistently find useable secondhand kids' shoes.
- Hats and mittens are expensive. It's easy to find cute shirts (and dresses) at second-hand stores; it's harder to find hats and especially mittens. (And they're always losing them the day before the big storm. Plus, second-hand mittens are usually very dirty and gross.)
- Polly Pocket dolls are great for 3-5 year olds (cheap, replaceable, lots of outfits for the budget), but get the kind with the magnetized (snap-on) clothes, as the other kind are hard for little fingers.
- Don't buy shirts or dresses, no matter how cute. Buy pants. For younger kids, especially under school age, go to a discount store and buy cheap, unmarked sweatpants in the appropriate size. Buy 3-4 sets.
- Socks and underwear. Thick, unmarked white socks (easier to match up if one of the pair is lost, cheap to replace) and fancy, character-themed underwear. Underwear is very important for some reason. Throw this in on the side if you get a clothing size--but don't make this the only gift, even if it's all that's listed on the card! Bleah!
- If you have the slightest inclination, try to look for the oldest kids you can find. Everybody likes to buy gifts for little kids--but teens and preteens are harder, so they get picked last, if at all.
- Don't buy Christmas-themed clothes or toys. Not only will they be pretty much unusable the rest of the year, but they'll go massively on sale after Christmas--making them much more affordable, if that's what the family really wants.
- If you can, buy something nice. (Other than as noted above.) Brand names really don't matter, but they can be the one "status" item the kid has, can brag about, and can pretend their parents got them. This goes for all kids 4 and up. If the card says Cabbage Patch Doll, don't get an off-brand doll, even if it means you can get a stroller and a pony with it. Get the Cabbage Patch Doll.
- Backpacks rock. School supplies make the angels sing. Craft supplies and kits will make the dead get up and dance.
- It can't hurt to add a book.
I encourage everyone to pick your favorite children's cause and make a donation this year. (I was both annoyed and grateful to be able to get toys for two kids for the price of one of Ray's presents...and they weren't cheap toys, either.) Tips from having been a broke mom (and a broke kid):