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$688.62 On Highlighters, Crayons And Binders? Really?

The National Retail Federation says that the average back-to-school costs for American families will be $688.62 this year. At first, I thought that was way too high and hyped up. My daughters, eight and 10, do have a long list. My third grader -- I'm looking at her list right now -- has 23 items on her list, which includes glue sticks, Post-It notes, crayons and then more unusual items like Ziploc Bags and personal headphones to wear when she works on a computer. Still, $688? But then I realized that the NRF is including all families, from those who have one child to families like the Duggars (you know, 19 Kids and Counting) who surely raise the average considerably.

However, back to school shopping, with this survey, also includes electronics and clothes, and suddenly it becomes pretty easy to imagine racking up $688.62 on a credit or debit card. That's a lot of money. And if you're a rookie, you could probably use some tips. Maybe these tips won't save you a ton of money, but they will help keep you on track.

So, here's the syllabus for School Supplies 101:

  • Create a budget. If you don't have $688 to spend on school supplies, then decide on a realistic budget by reviewing how much was spent on last year's credit card statement. You may even catch some places you overspent last year, helping you make some budget cuts.
  • Make a list. Or use the list provided by the teacher. Many supplies differ between schools, grades and teachers. Best wait until you know exactly what they'll need, and save yourself the return trip or shipping.
  • Consider a mobile wallet. As mobile wallets gain in popularity, some retailers may have coupons, mobile promotions, or loyalty cards. A mobile wallet is an easy way to keep all those savings organized by retailer all in one place. Many stores now accept coupons on a smartphone screen, rather than having to print out and sort through a purse stuffed with papers.
  • Avoid the stores all together. Check websites like, and and tackle those list items. You're less likely to get distracted by "huge" discounts on store end caps on an item that wasn't on your list anyway. Kids can still customize their selections by sitting with you and choosing highlighter colors and folder designs. Find an retailer with a no-hassle or free return policy and you could get the kids' clothes shopping done pretty easily, as well.
  • Get some points, cash back, miles… something! It's a big shopping weekend, make the most of it. Check to see if any of your current credit cards are running a points promotion. If you need a card that will help you float the cost of the back-to-school bill, Slate from Chase is offering, at the time of writing, 15 months of 0% interest on purchases and balance transfers with no fee. Does the family travel during the holidays? Put the shopping charges on a new account in the first three months with Gold Delta SkyMiles from American Express and you'll get 30,000 bonus miles. If cash back is what you want, Chase Freedom Visa is offering a pretty great deal of $100 cash back after $500 in purchases in the first three months, 0% APR for 15 months, and 1%-5% cash back in various categories. Always check for the most current information on credit card deals here.

But in the end, unless anyone can explain to me how to successfully grow a money tree in my back yard, I don't think anyone can really help us shop for any better than we already do. Shopping for school can be a hoot, or it can be a drag, and it's certainly expensive, but the one thing it isn't, is rocket science. We can only hope that in supporting our kids by buying them glue sticks and helping them with their homework that one day they may grow up to be a rocket scientist.


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