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Six steps to back to school savings

This time of year, if you’re a parent of school-age kids, you might relate to that old commercial with the dad skipping merrily down the aisles of the office supply store as he tosses school supplies in his cart to a celebratory chorus of “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” Or, perhaps, you dread the imminent return to harried mornings packing lunches and shuttling kids off to school followed by evenings fraught with homework battles. No matter how you feel about it, summer, the season that seems every year to simultaneously drag on and fly by, will soon come to an end. Inevitably, that means parting with some hard earned cash to get the upcoming school year off to a proper start.

According to the latest National Retail Federation survey, the average American family with children in grades K-12 will spend $669.28 getting their young scholars equipped for the 2014-15 school year. Parents of college students are likely to spend significantly more, around $916.48. For many of us, that’s not just a drop in the bucket. Spending on school supplies is one occasion when falling below average is a good thing. The following six steps can help you get a ‘D’ in overspending and an ‘A’ in savings.

1. Take inventory. Of course, it’s nice to start a brand new school year with brand new stuff, but is it all really necessary? Look around your house. Maybe you already have much of what your kids need. Dig around the junk drawer. You might find unopened or nearly full packages of pencils. Check your kids’ closets. It’s quite common to stumble upon forgotten shirts or other clothing items, some with tags still on them, buried under piles of toys.

Even if you’re not lucky enough to find new clothes at home, don’t feel obligated to spend a fortune replacing what you do have. With some creativity and a little money, you can make old items seem new again. You may only need a few inexpensive accessories to give last year’s duds an updated look. If they still fit, don’t toss those old blue jeans with the slightly torn knees. Transform them into a fun one-of-a-kind fashion statement with patches from the fabric store. Or, grab a pair of scissors--and snip, snip--you have a “new” pair of shorts. With the summer heat still dominating the first few weeks or months of the school year, your kids will be more comfortable in shorts anyway.

2. Work with your children to set a realistic budget and stick to it. Once you know what you have on hand, determine what else you’ll need and when. Assess whether some items can wait. For instance, you can hold off on buying sweaters and corduroys for a while. It’ll probably be a couple of months before your child can wear them anyway.

Now might be the time to have a conversation with your kids about wants versus needs. As in, notebooks are a need; notebooks screen printed with the smiling prepubescent faces of this month’s trendiest boy band are a want. Find ways to meet in the middle. For the price of one preprinted notebook you could buy a pack of 5 plain ones and an assortment of stickers that will allow your fangirl to have fun creating her own unique tribute to her favorite band.

If there’s enough money left after taking care of the must-haves, allow for a limited number of splurge items. Or, if your budget is very tight and your child seems unable to distinguish a splurge item from a must-have, work with them to figure out ways they can earn their own money to pay for it. Regardless of your budget, giving your child the opportunity to earn and spend their own money is a valuable exercise. They might even change their mind about their definition of “must have.”

3. Practice the three “R”s. “Reduce, reuse, recycle” is more than just a catchy alliterative bumper sticker phrase. It’s a great way to save money on back-to-school shopping. Forward thinking folks all around the country are putting all three “R”s into practice and getting great clothes virtually for free by attending or organizing community kids’ clothing swaps. Following their example will help you reduce your spending and your clutter by clearing your closets of all those barely worn clothes your kids have outgrown, allowing someone else to reuse them. In return, your kids will get to rock some great “new” clothes this fall--recycling at its finest!

If you can’t find an established swap in your area and you’re feeling ambitious, gather a handful of friends and neighbors to get one started. Here are some great tips for how to organize a successful swap: . And here is an example of how it’s been done successfully on a larger scale: .

If a swap is not logistically possible the next best thing is to shop consignment or thrift stores.

4. Share the burden. As school budgets get tighter, teachers often have no choice but to require parents to chip in for classroom supplies. For those non-negotiable consumable items, such as crayons and paper towels, you’ll save big bucks if you buy in bulk at your local warehouse club and split the cost with friends or family.

5. Use modern technology to your advantage. Of course, bartering, thrifting, and cost sharing can only take you so far. At some point you’ll have to buy some new stuff of your own from retail establishments, but you don’t have to spend a fortune doing so. Use your mobile phone and your computer to help you avoid paying full price on most, if not all, of your remaining back-to-school needs. Many major retailers offer special discounts to anyone who “likes” their page on Facebook, downloads their app, or signs up for text messages. You'll find even more great deals by comparison shopping with search engines like,, and

A little tech savvy can help mitigate expenses for your college student too. Encourage him or her to download electronic versions of textbooks. E-books are nearly always cheaper than hard copies.

6. Find out if and when your state has a sales tax holiday. A handful of states have enacted annual sales tax holidays, a short window of opportunity (usually 2-3 days) in which to buy certain items tax free. In many cases, these holidays are specifically intended to help families save money on school supplies and/or clothes. Thus, they are scheduled during the peak of the back-to-school shopping season. Check the Federation of Tax Administrators website for a listing of participating states, qualifying items and other important details.

Whether you like to think of this as the most or the least wonderful time of the year, following the preceding six steps will help you avoid singing the Back-to-School Broken Budget Blues.

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Tuesday, 14 July 2020

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