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Lessons in how to save on back-to-school shopping

We all know that money doesn’t grow on trees. But as true as that is, it’s also true that every year parents face the daunting task of getting their kids ready to go back to school. As the summer winds down, back-to-school expenses ramp up. Here are a few tips that can help you stretch your budget and make getting back to school a little less financially stressful.

Back to school supplies

1Do your homework

  • Before you head to the store, take an inventory of your kid’s clothing. Taking some time to inventory your child’s current wardrobe will help you know what they need – and what they don’t. And as you go through the closets, do it not only with an eye toward what can still be worn by the current owner, but also pay attention to what can be passed on to a sibling or friend. Also find out ahead of time if your school has a dress code or requires uniforms, so that whatever you buy will comply with the school’s particular guidelines.
  • Most schools provide a list of supplies that kids will need to start school and throughout the school year. If you don’t already have a copy, call your school, check the school’s website or go by your local discount or office supply store. They typically have kiosks loaded with checklists for all the schools in your area.

2Reduce, recycle, reuse

  • One way to save money is to avoid buying what you already have. To help with this, create a centralized place in your house to store school supplies – a drawer, cabinet, or plastic container will do the trick.
  • Search your house for “extras” – office supplies that you have on hand but aren’t using. And don’t overlook last year’s supplies – if you have a collection of school supplies in good repair, there’s no need to spend money to replace them.
  • Avoid shopping for trendy supplies that tend to be overpriced. Instead, stick with the basics and let your kids jazz things up with stickers, paints, pictures and colorful markers.
  • Consider refashioning current wardrobes and hand-me-downs. With a pair of scissors, fabric paints, rhinestones and tie-dye, you can easily transform hand-me-downs and bargains that you find at thrift stores or garage sales into fashion statements.

3Stick to the list and the budget

  • Once you know what you’re shopping for and how much you have to spend, don’t buy things you don’t need. Impulse purchases like that cool locker gadget or celebrity clothing, backpacks and lunchboxes can bust your budget.
  • Plan ahead for the inevitable “off-list” requests from your student. Before you go shopping, set clear spending limits, agree to split the costs of non-essentials or allow your child to choose and pay for one or two things they want – no questions asked. Not only will you avoid conflict, you may also create opportunities for lessons in good money management

4Be a smart shopper

  • Back-to-school deals and inventories start increasing in mid-July, so the earlier you start shopping, the more opportunities you’ll have to find the things you’re looking for at the best prices. Shopping sales during the entire back-to-school shopping season are likely to save you more than waiting to buy everything you need at the last minute. Watch the weekly sales circulars and comparison shop. When you see a deal, buy it. And learn to recognize “loss leaders” – those items that a merchant marks down substantially to encourage you to shop in their store.
  • Finding stores that price-match is also a good way to save money and time. While a store may not have everything you need on sale, if it matches advertised prices from other stores, there’s a good chance that you can still get much of your shopping done in one stop.
  • Stock up on expendable items that will be needed throughout the school year if you can afford it and have storage room. Stocking up on things like paper, pens, pencils, markers, crayons and folders will allow you to “shop from yourself” later in the school year when these items may not be on sale.
  • Shopping online is another way to save on back-to-school expenses. Not only is the Internet great for comparison shopping, but many online merchants offer deals and discounts on office supplies, clothing, shoes, school uniforms and more. In many cases you get extra savings by not having to pay sales tax or shipping costs.
  • These days there are a number of ways to “share” slightly used clothes. A clothing swap with friends, neighborhoods, church communities or other groups is a great way to save money. Selling clothes at stores like Plato’s Closet gives you the opportunity to trade in your slightly used clothing for cash or store credit. Thrift stores, consignment shops, yard sales and eBay are other great options, but you need to be prepared to shop early and often, since inventory is limited.

5Tax-free holidays

  • One of the easiest ways to save 5 to 10 percent on your back-to-school expenses is simply to shop on the right day. Find out if your state sponsors “tax-free” shopping holidays when merchants are not required to collect sales tax for school-related purchases. It’s like getting an automatic discount on top of regular sales and discounts!

School comes every year, and so do back-to-school expenses. But taking a few minutes to prepare and using a few simple shopping strategies can make the process a little less financially painful.

More back to school shopping tips

Back-to-school grocery shopping list
School shopping for supplies and clothes on a budget
Back to school fashion for kids

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