Back-to-School Bargain Hunting

by Melissa Jaramillo child with backpack School bells will be ringing soon, beckoning students back to class. They'll be catching up with old friends and making new ones. Sending your "baby" off for the first time can leave you joyful, a little bittersweet and with a lump in your throat.

We know why you have that lump and it isn't from being sad! The cost to go back to school can be painful to swallow! Adding up the list of supplies, clothes or uniforms, and requested fees hurts! Home-schooling mamas, we're not leaving you out! Those curriculum and materials can gouge your bank account.

We've talked it up with our moms and various organizations to share their best tips. The result is one awesome money-saving, budget-stretching list to extend your family dollars.

1. Take advantage of tax free events. Many states offer a "tax holiday." You'll get a break from state sales tax on school supplies from bookbags to clothing. The deals vary and come with lots of fine print so check your state's listing. To maximize your savings:

  • Make a list of what you need to buy
  • Go ahead and purchase what your child will need over the next several months
  • Compare prices. You thought Black Friday was big. Check those circulars and websites for the best deal on back-to-school clothes, supplies, even shoes and jackets
  • Avoid check-out surprise. Check that your states allow coupons on tax-free holidays
  • Plan for the event. Bring along water and a picnic or snacks

2. Reduce, reuse, recycle: Take advantage of trend-savvy kids with "environmentally-friendly" gear. Add pizzazz to last year's plain notebook with a stickers or photos. Watch yard sales, thrift stores and consignment shops for low cost, high quality school supplies and clothing. 3. Patience saves you a bunch! One mom says she waits a month or two before shopping for clothes. Weather allows her boy to wear shorts the first few weeks and by then she's able to take advantage of the pre-holiday clearance sales.

I usually buy them a new "back to school" outfit but I don't buy whole new wardrobes to start off the year. I hit up the sales and one of our really good second-hand stores (where I often find stuff brand new/almost-brand new). ~Marla, member

4. Use wise shopper tactics. Don't fall into buying just because it's "the lowest price." If your child doesn't need it, you've wasted that money good sale or not. More tips:

  • Start early
  • Don't buy stuff you already have
  • Comparison-shop
  • Use online coupon sites and check for free shipping codes
  • Track bargains with the help of a price-comparison site
  • Shop for discounted gift cards and use those for school purchases
  • Purchase a "savings pass" if it will save you money
  • Buy the maximum amount from impossibly cheap school-supply sales and dole out all year
  • Consider clothes swaps or the "Freecycle Network"

5. The Dollar Store can save you money. Check other outlets and consider team shopping with another family. Each of you buy the maximum rock-bottom-priced supplies and then share.

As a single mom...The Dollar Store! I got everything Peter needed last year at one and spent less than $15. ~mujul79, member

6. Which backpack is most economical? Some moms prefer a cute, cheap one and change with their child's interests for the first few years. Others would rather buy a nice one that will last several seasons or passed down to a sibling.

child's backpackL.L. Bean's Backpacks are the best...worth the extra investment. I bought one during my sophomore year in college after destroying 5 backpacks in a year and half. I STILL have it and other than a little fading, there's hardly a mark on it! (Should mention, I was a sophomore in 1990!) Definitely a good return on investment!" ~celticbandgeek, member

7. Be creative. Does the list ask for a 16-pack of crayons but the 24-pack is a great sale. Take eight crayons out to meet guidelines and still save. 8. Still struggling to make ends meet? Call or e-mail your child's teacher. Ask which supplies your child will need right away and make those your priority. Budget other items over the next several weeks.

Most of the school supply lists are generic. Wait until registration day to ask your child's teacher what they really need. ~Elementary teacher

Truly desperate? Talk with the principal about "shopping" in the lost-and-found. Our school gives last year's unclaimed goods to kids whose parents can't afford certain items. 9. Homework station: Back-to-school also means back to homework. If your house is like ours, pencils, pens, notebooks and crayons seem to fall into a black hole, never to be seen again. Keep saving all year by organizing your child's supplies at home.

I'm setting up a "homework box" full of pencils, erasers, pens, crayons, etc. this year. All in one place, STAYS in one place! This way I am not tempted to just buy more when I have plenty at home that I cannot find. ~Joee, member

As you're out gathering school supplies, please pick up a few extra and donate locally to organizations filling backpacks for kids whose parents can't. Happy journeys!

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