Back to School Savings

August 15, 2012

by Jennifer Armstrong
National Guard Bureau
Family Programs Financial Readiness Program Manager Joint Staff J-1

It’s the most wonderful time of the year….
I love summer. I love to water ski, go to the lake and bask in the heat. I simply love it. But when my daughter was in elementary and high school do you know what my favorite time of year was? BACK TO SCHOOL! I am doing the happy dance as I type this! No more whining about how there’s nothing to do. No more whining allowed! No more television at 2300! You have got to go to bed! School is in session.  However, the reality was I was not fond of the many expenses that I had to incur. I wondered how often would she really use that compass and why did she need it the first day of school? Were they going to draw concentric circles their first day of school? Then there were the uniforms. She went to elementary school in Oceanside California. They wore uniforms. I thought I loved that idea. But can you tell me what 7 year old can keep a white polo shirt white?

If any of this sounds like you, you’re faced with the purchasing of various school supplies, maybe not just for one, but for multiple children. Or maybe you’re a teacher who doesn’t get reimbursed for supplies.  How do we cut costs for this most wonderful time of the year? Read on…

Shop at Home First
Before you head to the store, take a walk around your house to see if there are any items on your child's school supply list that you might already have. Things like rulers, pencil boxes, calculators and backpacks do not need to be replaced each year, so don't be afraid to reuse last year's if it's still in good shape. 
Tip: Instead of buying pencils and pens, send your child back to school with the free ones that businesses hand out (you know the ones that are currently taking up space in your junk drawer. This does not suggest you take them from your office at work).

Shop Around
10-cent crayons, 5-cent folders, 50-cent binders – stores fight hard for your back to school dollars, and that's great news for you. Watch the weekly sales circulars closely; then cherry pick the best buys from each store. Remember: Just because store X wants you to spend all of your back to school dollars at their store, doesn't mean you have to; so get those 10-cent crayons, and get out. 
Tip: Shop at a store that offers price matching, and you won't have to burn up extra gas to get the good deals at other stores.

Take Advantage of Tax-Free Holidays
Many states offer tax-free holidays around the start of the school year. Find out if your state has one planned; and if it does, be sure to take advantage of it.

Wait out the rush
If you can wait until after Labor Day, most stores are eager to unload their leftover inventory at a decent discount.

Reuse, with flair
Some supplies have to be replenished, but many are still perfectly usable. There's no reason that three-ring binder has to go in the trash if it still works. Even if it's covered with an assortment of last year's stickers, it's amazing what a bit of adhesive paper and scrapbooking paper can do — particularly when you put your kids in charge of the refurbishing.

Get the kids on board
If your children aren't into recycling and want everything brand new, try this: Appeal to their mercenary side. Promise them a percentage of the money you've saved. You can promise this bonus to younger siblings who agree to hand-me-downs they might otherwise shun — or even to older kids who find great deals in the weekend flyers

Teamwork works in bulk
The downside to shopping in bulk is that, well, you get supplies in bulk. For most families, 10 reams of loose-leaf paper is overkill . . . unless you team up with friends. If you can find a few families to join in, bulk-shopping for school supplies can make sense — and save dollars.

Think outside the big-box-store box:
There's no reason that you have to go to an office supply store for school supplies. Dollar stores often have great deals on what you need.

Make them work for it
What do you do if you’ve set limits for buying specialty or high-end items, and your kids still clamor for expensive back-to-school items? Make them go to work. Assign them chores, or send them out into the neighborhood, and make them earn the money for these items. My parents did this to me, and I lived through the experience. It also made me examine, in a very real way, how badly I wanted to buy some must-have items. Most of the time, when I had to spend my own money on something, or put my own hours into making enough money for a purchase, I discovered that I didn’t really want the item as badly as I thought I did.

Final thought 
Many people don’t want to think about back to school, especially in the midst of high summer. However, back to school shopping can creep up on you and your family quickly, so it pays to be prepared. The best way to save money is to start planning ahead of time, so you can take advantage of every deal and coupon that comes your way.

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