NEW YORK (MainStreet)While kids may dread the return of homework and quizzes, back-to-school time can also send cash-strapped parents into a tizzy. From notebooks to binders to jeans and backpacks, your children may be asking you for more new stuff than you can afford this season. The good news: smart shopping strategies can help you save big on everything your child needs for the start of the school year. Read on for our favorite tips.
To avoid making unnecessary purchases, wait to take your kids shopping for school supplies until they receive a list from their teachers detailing the items they'll need for the school year. Some teachers will send the list before the school year starts while others will issue it during the first week of school. Whenever you receive the list, try to stick to it as much as possible to keep costs under control. "Teacher knows best, so if it's not on the list, you don't need it," says Jeanette Pavini, consumer savings expert for Coupons.com. "Have a very clear policy with your child: allow them one extra purchase of their choice like a pack of rainbow pens, or stand firm and insist they pay for any extras."
Before you even head out to the school supply store, it's best to scour your home to see if there are any items you already own that your child can use during the school year. "Many of the supplies that you bought last yearbackpacks, lunch boxes, pencil casesare probably still in good shape and do not need to be replaced," says Erin Huffstetler, who writes the Frugal Living Guide for About.com. "And things like pens and pencils can be dug out of your junk drawer. Why buy more when you already have a bunch on hand?"
Another way to experience some financial relief is to purchase items for your kids on tax-free shopping days, which are offered by several states on different dates throughout the year. Just keep in mind that only certain items are eligible during these tax-free days. For instance, Connecticut is exempting sales and use taxes on clothing and footwear costing less than $300 on August 18 through 24, while Texas is exempting most clothing, backpacks and school supplies priced under $100 from sales and use taxes on August 9 through 11.
Coupons can be a surefire way to experience significant savings on clothing and school supplies for your kids. "During back-to-school time, there will be plenty of offers availableit's just a matter of knowing where to find them," says consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch. Check out your local newspaper for coupons for stores in your area or find offers through sites such as coupons.com, BeFrugal.com, Offers.com and RetailMeNot.com. "Mobile coupon apps are especially convenient and widely accepted by retailers," says Woroch, such as Coupon Sherpa.
Another great way to cut down on the amount of school supplies you have to purchase is by organizing a neighborhood swap. "Before you start buying, see what other parents have in their inventory," says Woroch. "There always seems to be one supply you've accumulated a massive stockpile of. Maybe you have notebooks stacked to the ceiling, but there's nary a pen or pencil to be found. A neighborhood swap is simple to organize and saves everyone money." But school supplies aren't the only things you can swapyou can also consider trading clothes and accessories such as backpacks and lunch boxes with neighbors and friends in your community.
Kids' clothes can surely add up in cost, especially because your little ones often grow out of them quickly. One way to ease the burden on your wallet is to buy some clothing items secondhand. "Instead of buying everything brand new, see what kind of secondhand options are available," says Woroch. "Sites such as thredUP.com specialize in consignment of like-new clothing for kids." Adds John Lal of BeFrugal.com: "Some consignment stores, including chains like Plato's Closet and Second Time Around, specialize in clothing for younger people."
If your kids flash their student ID card they could get some pretty stellar discounts on items such as clothing and electronics at many well-known stores. "The typical rate offered with a student discount is 15% and it usually applies only to full-priced merchandise," Lal explains. "Often one only needs to reference the student discount and display a valid student ID to receive the savings." Stores that offer student discounts include Banana Republic (15% off), Ann Taylor (20% off) and H&M (15% off through Aug. 30).
Although it may be tempting to purchase fall clothing for your kids as soon as they head back to school, it's often best to hold off a bit and wait for prices to drop. "Clothes will go on clearance within a few weeks of school starting, and that's still well ahead of when it'll be cool enough to wear them," says Huffstetler. You might also want to consider holding off on purchasing certain school supplies, too. "Some of the best sales for backpacks, binders and other school supplies happen after the rush," says Pavini.
While we encourage you to look for the best prices you can find when shopping for clothes and school supplies, sometimes it's worth paying a little more for a quality item. "Don't always go for the cheapest merchandisea backpack or lunch box with a lifetime warranty could be a good investment," says Pavini. Adds Huffsteler: "My kids have been able to use the same backpacks, binders and pencil cases for the past several years because I invested in quality supplies the first time around."
You can save money throughout the entire school year by packing your child a good old-fashioned brown bag lunch. If the idea sounds prosaic, consider finding creative ways to make homemade lunches both affordable and fun. "Use cookie cutters to create fun sandwich shapesit's a quick way to get rid of that crust, too," suggest Pavini. "You can also use small metal cookie cutters to transform vegetables like bell peppers and cucumbers into appetizing little heart and star shapes your child will love to eat." Pavini also suggests assembling "a sandwich kebab" by sticking chunks of lunchmeat, bread, cheese and vegetables on a skewer and making your own trail mix with pantry leftovers such as cereal, raisins, pretzels and fruit snacks. "The more food prep you do yourself, the more you save," Pavini adds. --Written by Kristin Colella for MainStreet