9 Ways to Save on Back-to-School

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It's the time of year when kids return to school and you return to the mall. Minimize the damage by harnessing these 9 tips to save on back-to-school shopping.

It’s back-to-school season again, and that means two unfortunate things: factoring in extra commute time for school-zone traffic, and spending a ton of money on supplies and kids’ clothes.

The National Retail Federation says parents will spend an average of just more than $600 this year on back-to-school shopping. They call that “practicing restraint,” even though it’s on par with the highest spending since at least 2003. (Last year’s spending averaged about $3 higher.)

If you’re aiming for an A-plus on savings, Money Talks News reporter Jim Robinson is ready to educate you in the video below. Check it out, and then read on for some “extra credit.”

As Jim and our reader suggestions make clear, there are lots of ways to save on back-to-school stuff, and most are easy to follow. (Although some parents might struggle with the suggestion from one of our Facebook readers to “have less children.”) You just need to do a little homework. Here are the CliffsNotes:

  1. Take inventory. Go through drawers and cabinets to scrounge up the supplies you already have. There’s no sense paying for more pencils, crayons, and paper because you forgot to check.  Look for wear and tear on lunchboxes and backpacks to see if they’re reusable, and get your kids to try on all their clothes so you don’t need to buy a whole new wardrobe.
  2. Get the school’s list. Many schools put out a list of required supplies and sometimes these mention what the school provides (less and less these days) so you don’t duplicate spending. It’s useful for planning a budget, but check with your students’ teachers too to make sure the list matches up and doesn’t include “recommended” (i.e., not really necessary) items, or items specific to classes your kid isn’t taking.
  3. Go through the ads. Look for deals at department and big-box stores and figure out your shopping strategy. You may be able to save some time and gas by bringing the ads to stores that price-match their competitors.
  4. Check prices online. Depending on what you need (and especially if used products are OK), your best bet may be buying online. Try price comparisons at PriceGrabber, Google Product Search, and Amazon as well as retailer sites. Don’t forget to look for student discounts and coupon codes, and check out our deals page.
  5. Buy in bulk and bundles. Look for values in combo deals and larger packages. Sometimes spending more up front is the best way to save in the long run. And while we know you’re not the one going back to school, don’t shy away from doing a little math to figure out the unit price – make sure you’re actually getting a bargain.
  6. Take advantage of tax holidays. Several states offer sales tax-free weekends on certain goods in July or August. Check our list of 2011 Back-to-School Tax Holidays to find out details; what you can buy and when vary by state.
  7. Look off the beaten path. If buying used is OK, there are more options than you might think.  Don’t overlook yard sales, and nonprofits like The Salvation Army and Goodwill. Pay it forward to those groups (or other church and community drives) by donating what your kids can’t use anymore.
  8. Make the kids work for extras. If your children are complaining about reusing last year’s lunchbox or want brand-name clothes, find out just how desperate they are: Ask them to do extra chores and help out however they can in exchange for a few bucks toward nicer school wares.
  9. Shop throughout the year. If you want the best prices, never stop paying attention. While the National Retail Federation says back-to-school shopping is the second biggest consumer spending event after the holidays, the best sales are rarely the most publicized or popular ones. Like Black Friday, there are some good buys – but there are also lots of marked-up prices.

We’ve got money-saving advice for college kids, too: check out Places to Get Free or Cheap Textbooks and 5 Saving Tips from a Starving Student.

Stacy Johnson

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